In his Autumn Statement today the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced plans to ban letting agent fees in England “as soon as possible” which may be save 4.3 million households hundreds of pounds.
Currently many tenants face charges to draw up tenancy agreements, conduct immigration and credit reference checks in addition to the payment of a non-refundable holding deposit paid before signing up to the deal.
The move comes as numerous reports have indicated that many tenants living in sub-standard housing are discouraged from moving out because of extra fee charges. A report published by the English Housing Survey covering April 2014 to March 2015 found that 69% of tenants living in poor quality homes are discouraged from moving out because of agent fees.
Nonetheless, landlords groups have claimed that banning letting fees will not necessarily reduce rental costs with landlords and letting agents increasing rental values to offset loss of income. However, renters groups assert that the ban will make it easier for tenants to compare the cost of different properties and reduce the incentive for letting agents to replace tenants.
The move is a culmination of greater regulation of the letting market and will move England further in line with Scotland where lettings agency fees to tenants have already been banned. Since 2015 lettings and managing agents in England and Wales have legally been obliged to clearly publicize their fees.
High agent fees are discouraging tenants living in unsatisfactory housing conditions from finding alternative accommodation according to the latest report on the Private Rented Sector.
The report published by the English Housing Survey covering April 2014 to March 2015 found that 69% of tenants living in poor quality homes are discouraged from moving out because of agent fees. In addition to complaints about fees, the report also found that private sector renters are less satisfied with their tenure than owner-occupiers and council housing tenants: overall 65% of private renters reported being satisfied with their current tenure compared to 98% of owner occupiers and 82% of social renters.
Important findings of the report include:
40% of private rented sector households were charged agency fees in 2014-2015, up from 34% in 2009-2010.
18% of private renters said that they felt some of the fees charged were hidden. 65% of private renters reported paying an administration fee
33% paid a finders’ fee, 7% of tenants paid a non-returnable holding fee, 5% paid a returnable holding fee and 4% paid an ‘other fee.’
The number of private renters who lived in non-decent dwellings rose from 1.1 million households in 2006 to 1.2 million households in 2014.
Surprisingly, despite the entry into force of deposit protection legislation in 2007 as part of the 2004 Housing Act, the Housing Survey found that only sixty four per cent of renters with a Assured Shorthold Tenancy reported that their deposit had been protected despite penalties existing for non-compliance with deposit protection rules.
Under deposit protection legislation, landlords must place tenancy deposits in one of three government-backed deposit protection schemes within thirty days of receipt or face a penalty of between one to three times the deposit amount with the penalty value determined by the seriousness and intent of the landlord’s non-compliance deposit rules. In general greater penalties for failing to protect deposits are awarded against experienced landlords or against landlords who have attempted to avoid protecting deposits for financial gain.
Despite charging for protecting deposits being against the spirit of the deposit protection legislation the Renters Alliance has encountered numerous examples of landlords and letting agents charging renters extra fees to protect their deposits. In one landlord’s forum for example, one landlord reported charging £120 for protecting tenants’ deposits recommending to other landlords that they call similar fees “Admin fees” rather than “deposit fees” for legal reasons.
Since the entry into force of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme many landlords and letting agents have devised ways of evading and ignoring deposit protection rules.
One common tactic which renters should be aware of is issuing tenants with a “licence to occupy” in place of an “Assured Shorthold Tenancy”.
A licence gives the right to occupy and is typically used for bed and breakfasts, hotels, holiday lets and some HMOs. Often tenants only discover that a license has been issued when attempting to recover their deposit at the end of their occupation. However, despite being called a license, you may still have an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST) in the eyes of the law. In this event it may be possible to use typical AST measures to recoup moneys owed.
Do I have a License or a Tenancy?
A tenancy is created automatically if someone moves in and starts paying rent. Some landlords incorrectly issue licenses, either through inexperience or design to give tenants less rights than they would usually expect with an AST. A tenancy cannot be turned into a license merely by both parties signing a piece of paper headed ‘license agreement.’ A landmark case which defined the requirements for a tenancy as opposed to a license was Street v. Mountford in 1985. This stated that one has a tenancy if one:
pays a rent
occupies the property for a term
enjoys exclusive possession of land / property
These conditions do not apply if one does not pay rent or if the occupier does not enjoy exclusive possession such as in a shared room or if cleaning and meals are provided as in a hotel.
The clearest way to identify the difference between the two [license and Assured Shorthold Tenancy] is exclusivity. If a tenant has exclusive use of at least one room in the property, and that room(s) is specified, this will usually be classed as a Tenancy Agreement. If the property is shared with more than one individual, this is more likely to be a Licence.
I believe I have been incorrectly issued with a license and my landlord has not protected my deposit, what should I do?
It may therefore be possible to claim damages from your landlord if they incorrectly issued you with a licence and failed to protect your deposit. According to current deposit protection rules, your landlord must register your deposit in one of the three government-approved deposit protection schemes within 30 days of the start of your tenancy. The penalty for non-compliance is a fine of between one and three times the deposit amount.
New research has shown that London renters looking to save money by moving into shared accommodation are paying an average of £2,000 in agency fees. The figure, mostly made up of up-front deposits and letting agent fees is almost £1,000 more than the national average. On average London renters moving into a flat-shares have to pay £2,043 on top of their deposit compared with the national figure of £1,175. Around 20% of these fees are paid to letting agents according to the flat-sharing website Spare room.
A further impediment to moving also includes a six-week deposit which is now normal across large parts of the UK, up from an average of a four week deposit a decade ago. Often tenant cash-flow problems may be exacerbated by deposit disputes between landlords and tenants despite the introduction of deposit protection dispute resolution schemes in 2007.
Foreign tenants are at a particular disadvantage also in this regard with many reporting being required to pay a holding deposit in addition to paying six months’ rent in advance. The National Renters Alliance is particularly concerned that this may encourage letting agent intimidation of tenants who have sometimes committed the equivalent of 8 month’s rent and substantial agency fees before occupying a new rental property.
Despite calls to ban or impose tighter regulation of letting agent fees as in Scotland, the government has been unwilling to impose new legislation in this area. Letting agent charges can include drafting and amending tenancy agreements, credit checks, references and administration costs. Across the UK 95% of people who used a letting agent paid fees. Many letting agents also charge prospective tenants holding fees for reserving rooms in shared houses.
The issue of letting agent fees is leading to more tenants to look for properties managed directly by landlords. However, this might be a luxury for some with many areas particularly in places with high student populations where managed properties dominate the rental housing stock.
Despite the pessimism of most young people who voted to remain in the EU in June, there have been some suggestions that Brexit may be good for British renters.
Whether brexit is good or bad for renters depends fundamentally on whether house prices fall relative to the earnings of renters.
Following the referendum result, Zoopla predicted that house prices may fall up to eighteen per cent. KPMG envisages a more modest decline of 5 per cent with London hit harder than the rest of the country. Both cite possible limited future access to the European market which might make British property less attractive to overseas buyers. Others speculate that there will be no house price fall since demand has far outstripped supply over the past few decades. However one ought to bear in mind that over optimism in the Housing market is a constant feature of house price predictions in the UK. Few for example predicted the 2007 sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession.
The devaluation of sterling might also offset any reduction in the attractiveness of UK property due to exclusion from the single market for international investors.
On the side of earnings; before the referendum, the Treasury warned that Brexit would cut economic growth by 3% to 6%. The TUC also warned that leaving the EU could reduce average earnings by £1976 per year by 2030. However, it is still too early to say whether wage decreases offset house price falls.
Fundamentally the most important cause of Britain’s housing crisis is British government policy, not international investors or the EU. The remedy, liberalization of planning laws and regulation of the letting sector, is opposed by most English and Welsh MPs. It is therefore unlikely that Britain’s decision to leave the EU will improve or worsen the lot of private sector renters.
Letting agent Foxtons is facing an £80m “class action” over letting agent fees which could see the company forced to pay back hundreds of pounds to current and former tenants.
The case, launched by the social entrepreneurial firm CaseHub, claims that Foxtons’ fees could be illegal under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, and its successor the 2015 Consumer Rights Act. CaseHub’s founder, Michael Green, claims that “service charges” such as £420 for administration, £300 for name changes and £165 for checking out a property are vastly inflated. Green states that fees for such services should instead range between £10-£55.
The Foxtons’ case comes at a time when the issue of letting agent fees and regulation has attracted increasing Parliamentary attention. In May the Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, secured an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons to discuss the Government’s actions in relation to letting agent fee capping.
Miss Caulfield reported research from Seaford and Lewes Citizen’s Advice Bureau which found that letting agent fees can range from £175 to £922. This is in addition to an average of a six-week rent deposit. During the debate Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, co-founder of Hunters Estate Agents, argued against fee capping. Hollinrake claimed that agents may choose to decline tenancies to prospective tenants with inferior credit histories or increase rents should fees were scrapped.
Green states that the proposed class action against Foxtons is about extravagant, gratuitous and hidden fees. These include overcharging, double charging landlords and tenants and introducing fees at the last minute.
Foxtons dismisses the claim, saying its fees are “open and transparent” and that tenants have full visibility of charges before renting a property.
Landlords in the UK may soon find it easier to track renters’s private social media content using software developed by a UK startup. The company, Score Assured, uses a program to scan prospective tenants’ social media profiles and private posts to record information such as relationship and family status. Also recorded are key words such as “no money,” “poor” and “staying in” which the company claims may indicate how reliable a tenant may be in maintaining rent payments.
The company’s co-founder, Steve Thornhill, has rejected claims that the program breaches privacy laws saying that the software is more innocent than it appears. “It’s about giving the tenant more opportunity to get the property they want,” he says. “A lot of people now, millennials, for example, don’t have credit scores — so how they can get a property when the answer from the traditional credit score is going to be no?”
Supporters of the program claim that a tenant must consent to a landlord running the program on their social media profiles before it can be used. Thornhill claims that such consent means that the program, Tenant Assured, is no different from a traditional credit check.
Others say that often tenants have no other option than to accept the download of their social media information to secure a property and hence tenants will be forced to accept an invasion of their privacy. Also consumer protection laws regulate credit checks because of their potentially large impact on consumers. Regulators also have recognized that although such checks may technically be “opt in,” they’re effectively not optional for those who don’t have the luxury of only choosing landlords, jobs or loans that don’t require them, or who work in industries or live in areas where such checks are standard practice.
A Renters’ Rights Bill was given a second reading in the House of Lords Yesterday. Under the proposals presented as a Private Member’s Bill by the Liberal Democrat Baroness Grender, local authorities would be required to give tenants access to a database of rogue landlords and property agents. Also included are proposed amendments to the Landlord and Tenants Act 1985 which would abolish a large number of letting agency fees currently paid by a large number of renters in England such as: These include:
inventory check fees
reference check fees
tenancy extension or renewal fee
The Baroness also proposes that persons deemed suitable for inclusion on a database of rogue landlords would preclude one the right of obtaining a HMO (House of Multiple Occupation) license.
Baroness Grender claims that the short-term nature of many modern tenancy agreements, with around one in four renters moving home in 2013-14 makes the abolition of agency fees significant. The Baroness claims that in London, the median anount that a renter must pay before moving is £1,500 with some renters forced to use loans or cut down on food and heating to cover up-front moving costs.
Contributing to the debate was the Conservative Viscount of Younger who commended Baroness Grender for introducing the Bill but expressed the Government’s reservations about the bill. The Viscount claimed that the banning of letting agent fees would not make renting any cheaper for tenants and Tenants would still end up paying through higher rents.
Aside for reservations however due to the the definitions of rogue landlords and letting agents and the best manner of regulating letting agent fees, the Bill enjoyed broad support and is scheduled to be considered by a House of Lords committee later in the year.
The Government considers current regulation of private sector letting and managing agents adequate according to a recently published House of Commons Research note.
According to the briefing there is “no overarching statutory regulation of private sector letting or managing agents in England or any legal requirement for them to belong to a trade association, although many letting and managing agents submit to voluntary regulation” despite the rapid growth in the private rental sector over the past two decades.
Furthermore, the Government plans to improve the quality of the rental sector by increasing the range of powers available under consumer protection legislation and has no intention of introducing regulation.
The Government does not intend to introduce regulation in the sector and has pointed instead to the existing range of available powers under consumer protection legislation. However, an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 enabled the Government to require agents to sign up to a redress.
This comes as private motions in Parliament have been heard recently in relation to regulating letting agent fees which one Conservative MP described as “an opportunity to fleece tenants”.
The research note states that the Government considers that the present legal framework strikes the right balance between landlords and tenants and that new regulations would “introduce too much additional red tape”.
The private rented sector in London has grown from 17% of all homes to 26% over the last decade according to a London Housing Committee
However despite the rapid growth in private renting in the capital, the rules governing the sector remain largely unchanged since the 1980s. According to the report which represents the view of the majority of the London housing commitee, the Mayor of London should:
Stimulate the build to let sector by getting government help for landlords competing to develop land;
Set up a London-wide register of landlords to help the boroughs enforce existing legislation and better protect tenants; and
Support London’s low-income renters by lobbying government to review the freeze imposed on Local Housing Allowance levels in London until 2020.
In addition to its consumer protection role, the National Renters Alliance is always open to ideas to present to government. If you have any suggestions to better protect and improve the situation of renting in London and across the rest of the United Kingdom please send us our thoughts.