Dealing with letting agents

Updated: 
HousesNeil Faulkner shares the tips he's picked up over many years of dealing with letting agents.

I've rented several places, so I thought I'd share some of my experiences. I don't mean about the unpleasant things I've found under the sink or about the nocturnal habits of my old neighbours.

Nothing quite so toxic or disturbing (on this occasion). Rather, I'm going to take you through the process from starting your property search to signing the contract.

Friends and colleagues have successfully found properties to rent online using websites like Gumtree and Loot. There are some specialist magazines that can work well too. However, so far I've always found my rented accommodation by visiting letting agents.

1. How about letting agents' websites?
No, you're not listening. I said visit letting agents. Their websites are usually weeks out of date and are simply to lure you in. However, it can be useful to browse a few of them just to get a guide of the prices you're looking at in the area.


2. The letting agents crawl
Instead of visiting their websites, do the agents crawl. (Not as fun as a pub crawl, but you still end up with a headache afterwards.) This is where you set half a day to force yourself to visit as many of these businesses as you can.

Saturday mornings are good. Most are open on Saturdays from 9am until 12pm or 2pm.

There's nothing wrong with admitting to agents that you're shopping around, because they know that's what most people do.

I always think it helps to get off on a good foot by not being scruffy. This is particularly important if you're not a (so-called) professional. Landlords and their agents see some groups, such as students, as less desirable. So, if you think you might be discriminated against, you should put in an effort. The agent's opinion of you counts.

3. Work out weekly prices
Most agents talk about rent in weekly prices, rather than how most people would like it: in monthly prices. They do this to confuse you and to make it seem like the rent is lower than it actually is.

So, before you begin your search, draw up a table. You should start your search only when you know what your definite, total, absolute, not-a-penny-more, maximum price is that you could pay in rent. To that end, you should take with you to the agents a piece of paper or card showing a spread between your ideal rent and your maximum rent:

An example of a rent conversion table

Period

1

2

3

4

Week

£200

£205

£210

£215

Month

£867

£888

£910

£932


Notice that for each £5 weekly increase you need to find an extra £260 per year:

Period

1

2

3

4

Year

£10,400

£10,660

£10,920

£11,180

4. Let them think they've won something
What always happens to me is I look on the Web to see the type of property I want. I've got a good idea of the average price of these places, but I've also found several cheaper properties of similar quality.

So I think, fine, I'll look hard and get myself one of the bargains.

Then I go to the agent and, despite the fact they might even have some properties on their own website in the price range I'm asking for, they often say "Oh, you'll struggle to get something for that price." They can sound oh so sincere and dismissive of the budget. Ignore it. It's an act.

You should never give your top figure to agents. They like to think they've won something, so you should give them a significantly lower figure to start with and give them a victory immediately afterwards.

I handle this by telling them that my budget is significantly lower than it really is. When they grumble and say it's not possible, I say something like "Well, there may be some flexibility, because the council tax is a lot lower here." Any excuse will do.

I then say what my real budget is, which will not quite be my maximum budget. This is firstly so I have more leeway later if necessary, and secondly because they always show you places that are more expensive than you asked for, in the hope that you'll fall in love with it.

5. Stick with it
I insist that my budget won't budge any further. The next thing that happens is, over the following days or weeks, they take me to view some properties that are significantly worse than I had explained I wanted.

I believe the reason for this is that they first try to fob you off with the properties that no one wants which have been sitting on their books for some time.

The trick is to have patience. I've found that a better quality place comes seemingly out of the blue on my fourth or fifth viewing, for the same price.

6. Property visits
When viewing properties, you're usually shown around by the agent, but occasionally it's the landlord.

When you're being shown around, do not look pleased! A few years ago I inspected a flat with a flat mate and he was gawping and 'Wowing!' at everything. Needless to say, I was unable to negotiate the rent down on that occasion, and he did all the washing up for a week. Give them no signs, or it'll be harder to negotiate on price later.

If you're looking at a property with potential housemates, tell the agent you'll need to discuss it in private before you make a decision.

If there are tenants in the property when you're being shown around, have the confidence to ask them what they think of the place. It's a bit cheeky perhaps, but any clues you can get will help.

You're usually in and out within a few minutes, so you have to look carefully and pay attention.

Here are some things to look for and questions to ask before you make an offer:

Look at the cars
When approaching the property, take a look at the cars on the street. The types and condition of the cars gives you an excellent indication as to the quality of the neighbourhood.

Is there a flood risk?
I think that question is fairly self-explanatory.

Consider noise pollution
Is it on a main road, near train tracks or an airport? Then it's probably going to get loud.

It's difficult to assess noise during one brief visit, because traffic varies at different times. More than that, it's only really possible to tell how loud it is when you're alone in the flat, and particularly when you're trying to sleep.

If noise bothers you, you might want to give these places a miss. If it doesn't then you might want to just make sure the property has good double-glazing.

It's difficult to tell if you have noisy neighbours, although you might get an idea if you loitered outside for days. I've never done this; I've always left it to chance.

For God's sake, look under the sink
If the flat is unoccupied, look in all the cupboards and drawers. And under the sink. Please! I've learned my lesson on this; take a perfumed flannel to hold over your mouth and don't say I didn't warn you.

If you see unuseful items that have been left behind you might mention to the agent that, if you were to take the place, you'd want that stuff to be removed. Usually the answer is 'Yes' but, as this is all part of the negotiation, I've found that it helps if your flat mate isn't bouncing around like Tigger saying how amazing the place is.

Furniture and white goods
Don't forget to ask what furniture and appliances come with the flat. Typically the landlord should provide white goods: a fridge and washing machine, and an oven.

If you like any furniture you see, ask if it'll be staying. If the answer is 'No', say that it would help if it did. This often works. Also, think vice versa: if you don't like some furniture, ask if the landlord would be willing to remove it.

Ask about utilities and heating
Ask about the gas and electricity. What kind of meter does it have? It might be Economy 7 or standard. Most people won't like the fuss of Economy 7, as it means you have to time when you use appliances in order to pay the same or less than an average user.

Check how the place is heated. If it's got central heating and radiators, that should be fine. On a related note, remember that if anything isn't working that should be working when you start renting, it'll be up to the landlord to fix them at your request anyway, so don't be too bothered.

If you don't have central heating, ask a lot of questions and, if possible, test the heating. Old electric heaters, for example, kick out lots of noise, air and nasty smells.

7. Making an offer
People don't like negotiating, but this is silly. The agent must pass on all offers to the landlord to consider. Furthermore, if the landlord rejects your offer, they are not going to say: "You've had your chance and you blew it." If necessary, you can just make a higher offer later, so you can't lose by offering less.

I tend to negotiate to what I think is a fair price, or maybe just slightly in my favour. It's possible to knock off £5 to £10 per week with most places. It probably helps if you're a professional, but don't let that stop you trying if you're not. Simply say what your offer is, and ask the agent to pass it on.

8. The holding deposit
Next, you'll be asked to put down a holding deposit, which is basically to show that you are serious about moving in. Last time I moved, the agent asked for a deposit of £300, which I paid for, and then they emailed me the terms of that deposit.

This is crazy. If they had then turned down my offer and kept my deposit on the grounds of those terms, their case would be pretty weak.

I can't remember how it's worked for me previously, but I'd imagine the better agents ask you to sign the terms of the holding deposit and to pay simultaneously.

If you withdraw your offer, the holding deposit is forfeit. Also, the terms usually state that the deposit is forfeit if the landlord is unsatisfied with your references. However, in my opinion, he/she has to have good reason to be unsatisfied. A good reason might be that the references were negative. A bad reason, in my opinion, is that the referee was not suitable.

If I was ever given a reason that I didn't feel was fair, I'd pursue a claim for a refund.

What to do if you're not sure about your references
You might be unsure if your references are going to be suitable. As you're renting for the first time, you can't get the best reference of all -- the reference from your previous landlord.

So, if you're not sure, tell the agent what references you want to use in advance. Be honest: explain that you're a first-time renter. If the agent says this is fine then there should be no problem with your holding deposit.

9. The contract
I reckon most people just sign the template contracts that agents use without reading them properly. Yet you're usually charged a hefty fee in administration by the letting agent, perhaps £100 per person. That's why you should damn well make them work for their money.

To that end, I scrutinise every line of the contract and I always find things I don't like.

One time I was given a contract that stated that I couldn't hang up pictures, so I wrote a polite email to the agents asking that the landlord changed the clause. The landlord agreed, changing the clause to say that the tenants must 'make good' any damage we cause if it goes wrong. Fair enough.

The same contract stated that I wasn't allowed to switch gas and electricity provider. Knowing how expensive some tariffs are, there was no way I was accepting that clause, so I got that changed too.

More recently, I had several email exchanges with an agent, as there were a lot of clauses I wasn't happy with.

Firstly, the landlord wanted me to take out insurance to cover his property in the flat. This is unreasonable, as it's up to the landlord to cover his property using landlords insurance.

There were also various charges. For a start, they wanted to charge me for 'check-out costs'.

This is a cost at the end of the tenancy for checking that the flat is in the same condition as how we received it. The charge was about £100 per hour and, if we disagreed with the landlord about something, the longer it dragged out the more the check-out costs would ratchet up.

Quite rightly, I got the contract changed for both these points.

In a separate email, I also noted a mathematical error that would have cost me £20 more in rent by the end of the contract. So check the figures thoroughly.

However, you must read the contract again after the amendments are made, because sometimes they're not done properly. Often this is down to mistakes rather than a deliberate act.

Two more tips:

The total deposit you pay (including the holding deposit) should be no more than six-week's rent. If the landlord is asking for more, say you'll pay no more than six weeks.

Always get a get-out clause. You don't want to be tied in for 12 months, in case the property, your landlord or your neighbours turn out to be troublesome. Hold out for an eight-month get-out clause. This means after six months you can give two months' notice to leave. You may even press for a shorter period, if you're concerned about something.
10.

The inventory
Amazingly, I've never been given an inventory to sign, which is a report signed by you and the landlord testifying to the condition of the property, and logging all the flaws and existing damage. At the end of the tenancy, landlords then have the evidence they need to use some of your deposit to pay for damages, if there are any.

If you're given an inventory, make sure all existing problems are noted on it before signing. If you're not, the landlord would have a great deal of difficulty keeping your money if you had a disagreement about any damage at the end of the tenancy.

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