Rental Raters Blog

17th November 2014

Letting fees rule the roost

Written by
Gavin Haynes
Gavin Haynes
Follow author @gavinhaynes

Gavin Haynes has delusions of becoming a columnist or journalist. Working 9-5 to make a living, he amuses himself by writing Shouting From The Cheap Seats, a blog in which he rants and reviews whatever takes his fancy. He lives in north London with his wife, renting whilst praying for a collapse in the housing market.

Letting fees rule the roost

I live in London and have so far never matched more than three numbers on the national lottery. As a result of these two seemingly insignificant facts, I am among the millions of renters currently paying someone else’s mortgage.

And, like most of us third-party house financiers, I’ve had my fair share of accommodation ranging from the flatshare from hell (“But I thought that was a communal bath towel…”), to the heaven of the newly refurbished Victorian conversion complete with roof terrace and grapevine. Precious or not, there’s something comforting about knowing the complete life story of your bed or living room sofa. After all, it’s hard to ignore notches already carved into bedposts when none of them are yours. If rental furniture could talk, you probably wouldn’t want to listen. Some things never wash out.

Whatever route to rent you take, there’s a choice to be made before a mouse button clicks or a felt pen scribbles in the wanted ads. Do you deal direct or use local agencies?

Estate, recruitment, drug enforcement, secret… whichever flavour of agent you’re dealing with, chances are they won’t really have your interests at heart. Estate agents just want a buyer, recruitment only need a candidate, drug enforcement will take your stash, and secret… well, when did James Bond ever call the next day to say thank you for the lovely evening? Much of the talk about rentals focuses on either bad flatmates or bad landlords, but very little is mentioned about the humble letting agent.

Let’s start with the positive. There’s a certain peace of mind that comes with using an agent. You feel there’s less chance of waking up in the night to find your landlord sitting at the end of the bed or to discover that what you thought was a roof terrace was in fact the master bedroom. They may even wear a suit to add to their trustworthiness. However, while they’re helping you out with a sound property and a landlord who doesn’t need an unwitting life-drawing model, it’s your wallet they’ve really got their eye on.
“So you like it? Great!”… “No, I’ve already asked the landlord and they won’t take an offer”… “I don’t think you’ll find anything better”… “You’ll take it? Fantastic!” Sound familiar so far? Did you get a chance to make an offer or speak to the landlord? Didn’t think so. But no signing anything yet… we’ve not discussed the fees!

References: usually a “fixed” fee.  Fixed by who? You’ll never find out and chances are the agent will ask you to provide the references anyway, rather than sorting them out themselves. Akin to hiring a cleaner but doing your own vacuuming.
Inventory: got to have one of these. Need to protect the landlord’s possessions, don’t we? It’s unfurnished? Standard procedure, sir, for all our flats. No mention that you might also pay for another when you leave, which surely means the previous tenants just paid for one. Doesn’t matter – pay up.

Admin: if your blood pressure’s already on the high side, then I suggest you lie down now. I’ve yet to meet the agent who can adequately explain this fee, but all you need to know is that “admin” is not an activity that comes for free. It’s obviously labour-intensive as you’re paying for it. So cough up.

Contract: don’t get up just yet… Contracts may not fall under the admin fee. They may look like admin, sound a bit administrative, even be handled by “admin” staff.  But no! Just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks in your face then tastes great when crispy and covered in hoisin sauce, does not necessarily mean it is a duck in the land of the letting agent. Those dates on the standard contract template will not change themselves, and so this 20-second task has become a fee-paying exercise. A word to the wise: don’t work out what those 20 seconds add up to as an annual salary based on the fee you’re paying. It’s not cool to cry in front of a letting agent – they’ll only charge you for the tissues.

Deposit: it’s safe to say that a month up front and a month’s deposit are no longer enough to secure that unfurnished, partially painted one-room bedsit you’ll call home. Six weeks rent deposit now seems to be the minimum.  You’ll find the cash somewhere.
And after all that outlay, you just need to cough up the rent!

The alternative to all this expense is to take matters into your own hands. There are many websites advertising flats and houses to rent straight from the landlords themselves. What could this mean to you? Well, quite possibly a truckload of savings – and who doesn’t like saving money? References, credit checks, inventory can all be done at little or no cost, deposits may be smaller, and admin fees don’t even enter the conversation.

I’m not saying it’s all one-way.  Maybe there’s a nagging feeling that the landlord you meet – pencil moustache, slicked-back hair and coat made of dead kittens – might not be completely on the level. Yet all contracts need to adhere to certain legal guidelines, all deposits go in the deposit holding scheme and in some areas a landlord has to register with the local authority. With a little legwork you could leave yourself with enough cash to buy your own notch-free bedstead.

Ultimately it’s a personal preference: roll the dice or take the safer bet. Sometimes, though, gambling does pay off. If you’ve got your head on straight and eyes open there’s no need to talk to the monkey just to pass a message on to the organ grinder. You may save yourself a packet too.