So, as we've said, every week we're going to be bringing stories about some of the dodgy practices letting agents in Reading are getting up to. Last week we brought you the sorry tale about Haart, who, through a combination of incompetence and lying made life for one group of people difficult both throughout and after the tenancy leaving a couple of people homeless. This weeks tale of woe comes from John* living in East Reading. If his story sounds familiar, or you want people to hear your housing horror story get in contact with us through email, facebook or twitter, or fill in our survey.
John* is renting his house through Ashley Charles. Well, that's who he dealt with when they were doing the reference and credit checks at the start of the tenancy. And who charges him every year to extend the tenancy. For everything else he deals direct with the landlord.
As he explains, "when looking for a house, me and my then partner turned up to be shown around the house. The letting agent was late, so were actually let in and shown around by the current tenant. We agreed to take the house straight away, and paid more than £230 in fees. We then didn't see or hear anything from the letting agents until the end of the year. At which point we were charged £50 + VAT to extend. When me and my partner split up I informed the landlord and letting agent at the time to renew the contract, and was charged £95 + VAT, just to delete her name off the tenancy. In 2015, the fees charged each year increased to £70 + VAT."
He continues, "Ashley Charles does literally nothing throughout the tenancy, yet at the end of each year they charge me over £70. All they do is amend (increase) the amount of rent stated in the tenancy agreement. They then email this to me, I have to print off two copies of the agreement, sign them, then give them to the letting agents so they can then post the agreements to the landlord."
This is all for a house that suffers from damp. And the back door doesn't have a proper lock (it's held together with gaffer tape). And the back door's not the greatest (there's a gap at the bottom of it). And the house is draughty (that'll be the gaps around the back door and a similar one under the front door). There're slugs all over the kitchen and the bathroom. And the tap in the bathroom leaks, as does the toilet sometimes.
Mouldy door to the bathroom Lock to the back door with gaffer tape holding it together
Tiles next to the bath which are falling off Back door - yellow felt has been attached to try and reduce the draught
Finally, to cap all this off, he's kind of trapped. He explains, "my house is reasonably priced but because I'm on minimum wage I can't afford the rent anywhere similar, especially when you factor in all the fees and deposits and rent in advance. Because I can't afford the rent anywhere else, I have to break my own tenancy agreement by renting the spare room and the old dining room to a couple of lodgers. My impression of the landlord is that he's pretty inexperienced, and will take the advice of the letting agent, so I'm worried that if the landlord finds out they're living with me, the letting agent will evict me or demand that we all go through all the credit checks again (and have to pay the fees, whilst very likely failing the credit checks because we're all low waged)." Hence, he's stuck in a cold, damp house, that he's to scared to raise things with the landlord. "I don't want to stick my head above the parapet and remind the landlord that I'm still living there" he says.
In our survey, we ask everyone to rate their letting agents from 0 (really bad) to 5 (really good). John rates Ashley Charles 0. We also ask people to suggest ways things could be improved for renters; John recommends "remove tenancy fees, longer tenancies if tenants want them, an end to revenge evictions and a rent cap."
This story kind of goes beyond just the role of the letting agent, but highlights an all too common scenario encountered by people nowadays. Poor housing, but things like rent and the fees being charged trap people into accepting situations that just shouldn't be acceptable. And the fear (especially the fear of eviction) that means that people never feel comfortable and settled in their houses. The thing that really gets John, though, is the role of the letting agent in all this. As he says, "they're a parasite. I haven't asked them to get involved; they're contracted by the landlord and are solely there for his convenience. And they charge him for the service they provide. Yet they also charge me?!? I haven't asked them to get involved, I don't ever deal with them, so why are they allowed to charge me?"
These are exactly the kind of things that ACORN are tackling in Bristol, London and Newcastle, and things that we're looking at tackling in Reading. But we can't do this alone. If things like letting agencies who charge fees but do nothing, damp homes, fear of raising issues with the landlord and all the other problems with the private rented sector are going to change, we have to stand together and demand changes. We believe everyone has the right to a safe, dry and warm home. Join ACORN.
If this story seems familiar, or you'd like to have your say about your experiences please take a minute to fill in our survey. If you want to help out ACORN members taking a stand against exploitation like this, please join, or find us on facebook and twitter.
* Name changed.