Letting agents are showing potential tenants around mouldy properties and not informing them about important safety details during viewings, an investigation by Which? has found.
The consumer champion sent undercover researchers on 30 property viewings across England and Scotland to assess the conditions of properties and also provided them with a list of questions to ask the letting agent, designed to uncover whether they were giving vital information and following health and safety rules.
20% of the properties visited had problems with damp. None of the agents showing the properties were able to commit to fixing the problem, with little knowledge about what would be done about it.
One letting agent told a researcher who pointed out mould in the bathroom that it “could happen in any flat” but that the landlord might not do anything about it unless they asked for it to be fixed in their contract. Another, when asking about a damp stain on the carpet, was told that the agent couldn’t comment, because they didn’t have the “technical expertise” to work out whether it was a damp problem.
Eight out of 30 viewings were rated ‘poor’ for answers to questions on property maintenance and repairs. On several occasions letting agents brushed off questions about maintenance, with many stating that work would be carried out before the tenant moved in, or would need to be dealt with by the landlord. But property expert Kate Faulkner told Which? that tenants should avoid this type of verbal agreement. Instead, required repairs should be made conditional as a special clause in the tenancy agreement.
On eight of our 30 undercover visits, agents received a ‘poor’ rating for their explanation of holding deposits. These are payments made in return for taking the property off the market while the finer details of the contract are worked out. But the agents struggled to explain how much these payments would be and how they would be refunded. This is particularly concerning given that there is no requirement for these types of payments to be protected in a deposit scheme.
Letting agents were better at explaining other fees, including security deposits and administration fees. Administration fees are banned in Scotland and all agents there identified that these weren’t applicable to tenants. But in England, where the Government is set to introduce a ban on administration costs, investigators were quoted anywhere from £20 to over £400 in fees.
Researchers also reported being pressured or rushed into making a decision by agents. Two prospective tenants were even asked by agents to hand over upwards of £1000 and commit to living in a property despite not being able to view all the rooms inside the property.
The results also highlighted concerns over the standard of safety information that agents are able to provide.
Half of agents were unable to provide any information at all on the property’s boiler, with just 13% able to supply the correct details about annual servicing rules.
Meanwhile, just one in three agents were rated ‘good’ for their knowledge of carbon monoxide alarms, meaning they were able to explain they were required, where they were in the property and if they had been tested.
Letting agents performed better on smoke alarms, where – unlike carbon monoxide alarms – legislation is clearer. 21 out of the 30 were rated ‘good’ on this measure, with two rated ‘bad’.
Alex Neill, Managing Director of Home Products and Services, said:
“There are clearly real issues with letting agents showing prospective tenants properties that aren’t up to scratch. It’s unacceptable that all too often agents can’t answer basic questions about important issues like boiler safety and carbon monoxide alarms.
”Tenants need to be given clear and accurate information before moving in to a new place and agents must do more to deliver an acceptable level of service.”
- One of our researchers said that she “felt nervous from asking questions because [the agent] didn’t seem very open to answering them and he didn’t really know anything about anything.”
- Another noted that the viewing was “quite rushed and [the agent] wanted me to stop asking questions.”
- Another said the agent “wanted the viewing over as soon as possible and was very non-committal on maintenance issues.”
- One researcher told us: “To be honest, the agent spent more time talking to the builder than he did to me; he didn’t really seem to care much that I was there! He didn’t really volunteer information until I asked him.”