Last week the government tightened its Right to Rent rules, making it a criminal offence for a landlord to let to anyone they know, or have reasonable cause to believe, is an illegal immigrant. Previously breaches of this law were sanctioned by civil penalties. However as of 1st December the penalty for failing to check a tenant’s right to rent is a criminal offense which may risk a prison sentence.
Under the Rent to Right policy, landlords must check that their tenants can legally rent a property. Tenants must produce a document, such as a passport or a certificate of naturalisation, to prove their Right to Rent.Under the new rules, landlords could also receive government notices to terminate tenancies for people disqualified from renting. In such circumstances renters may face eviction without a court order.
This policy has serious ramifications for renters. According to a survey conducted by the housing charity Shelter, 44% of landlords said the policy would make them less likely to rent to people who appear to be immigrants, with similar numbers saying the same about people without a British passport.
In addition to potential discrimination , reports exist of letting agents charging prospective tenants additional agency fees to conduct Right to Rent checks.
In 2015 a Home Office evaluation of the Right to Rent scheme found that some landlords were charging a fee which ranged from £10 to £120 to carry out immigration checks which the government estimates would take around five minutes to complete. The Right to Rent policy must be applied to all tenants and by law, landlords must check that every tenant has the right to rent in the UK which could lead to increased lettings fees for tenants.
Although the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement announced plans to ban lettings agent fees, there is an important window where landlords and letting agents can pass on the enhanced Right to Rent checks to tenants. Renters should therefore be vigilant that they check the amount charged by landlords for administration fees before the letting fee ban officially comes into force.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 that research from Seaford and Lewes Citizen’s Advice Bureaux which found that letting agent fees can range from £175 to £922 in addition to an average of a six-week rent deposit.
Also participating in the debate was Kevin Hollinrake, co-founder of Hunters Estate Agents and the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton who added that agents may choose to decline tenancies to prospective tenants with inferior credit histories if fees were scrapped rather than capped.
The Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, Kevin Hollinrake also contributed to the debate adding that letting agents rely on fees for their income, which would probably be obtained from higher rents or landlord’s costs if such fees were prohibited.
Letting agent fees are attracting increasing political attention as the housing crisis deepens with reports of many letting agents insisting on six month rotating tenancy agreements against the wishes of many landlords or tenants in order to charge additional contract renewal fees.
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”.
Two landlords at the center of a legal challenge to Chancellor George Osborne’s tax changes announced in last year’s budget have confirmed that two government departments had provided an “acknowledgement of service”.
The legal challenge to the Treasury’s tax changes was launched by two landlords, Steve Bolton and Chris Cooper, who used a crowdfunding platform to raise sufficient capital to employ Omnia Strategy, a legal firm founded and chaired by Cherie Blair, to seek a judicial review of the Chancellor’s measures.
The legal battle over the Chancellor’s proposed changes to Mortgage Interest Relief follows the failure of a Petition launched by the Residential Landlord’s Association to attract sufficient support to warrant debate in Parliament.
A petition to regulate estate agency fees has been launched on the Parliamentary Petitions website. The motion started by Nigel Whitley requires 10,000 signatures to obtain a government response and 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in Parliament.
Titled “Regulate agency housing fees” the petition calls for regulation of estate agency and private landlord fees and the full refund of tenants’ money if a prospective tenant fails the vetting criteria.
The deadline to achieve this goal is 16th July 2016 and follows in the wake of other campaigns to regulate the private letting sector. Mr Whitney claims that many private letting agencies and landlords perform costed background checks knowing in advance that they have no intention to leasing the property to an applicant, often charging disproportionate sums for the said reference checks. Mr Whitney claims that in many cases ten or more people are invited to apply for a single property with many being deliberately failed and charged by letting agents.
Letting agent fees are currently subject of much debate in parliament with some members of Parliament attempting to introduce private members bills to regulate the sector.