Today, we set out Labour's proposals to tackle unscrupulous letting agents and end rip-off charges.
While the majority of letting and management agents provide an important service and act responsibly, too many others are engaged in unscrupulous practices, taking advantage of people who work hard and do the right thing. This means that tenants and landlords don't get a fair deal and the many responsible agents are undercut and their reputation undermined.
It is estimated that there are more than 4,000 managing and letting agents that are entirely unregulated operating within the market. Complaints about their practices range from unjustifiably high charges applied to both tenant and landlord to too little financial protection for tenants and landlords and difficulties faced in contacting agents and getting repairs undertaken.
In addition, letting and management agents do not have to have any qualifications to set up in business nor do they need to conform to any requirements as to conduct or to provide safeguards for the consumer.
A recent survey of letting agents found that 94% imposed additional charges on tenants on top of the tenancy deposit and rent or rent in advance. The charge for checking references ranged from £10 to £275 and the charge for renewing a tenancy ranged from £12 to £220. In some cases additional charges for a tenancy amounted to over £600.
There are also cases of agencies, even large and well-established businesses, running into difficulties because they had no client money protection with both landlords' and tenants' money being lost. One such case is that of a letting agent in Oxford. Customers complained of not having their deposits returned to them at the end of the lease and others said their deposits were taken and not refunded when the letting agency could not provide a property. Landlords did not receive the rent they were owed. The letting agent failed to ringfence tenants' deposits, let properties without the authority of their owners and failed to pass on rent he collected to the landlords. Landlords and tenants are now owed over £300,000 and may never see their money again.
These are not just isolated incidents. In 2011 complaints against rogue letting agents surged by 26% to more than 7,600, according to the independent adjudicator The Property Ombudsman.
Right now, it is clear the sector is badly in need of reform - for tenants, landlords and the responsible letting agents. That's why we've called for change today.
We want to improve standards and practices, with the goal of creating a level playing field for the many responsible letting agents and basic protection for tenants and landlords. We will consult on potential measures to drive up standards including a code of code of conduct with entry requirements for letting agents and compulsory business and consumer protection measures. We will also consider how compliance could be monitored, including a regulatory body with enforcement powers.
We also want to end the confusing, inconsistent and opaque fees and charges regime. That's why we will work with the lettings industry to achieve greater transparency, clarity and accessibility of information relating to fees and charges. We want to see a regime where fees and charges are easily understandable, upfront and comparable across agents. We we will assess the level and extent of activities that can be charged for, including the size of deposits required in proportion to rent and the level of 'admin' fees for basic services, such as those for swapping, renewing or editing contracts.
Labour believes we should take steps now to stop irresponsible agents operating and end the scandal of rip-off fees. Labour wants to see a sector based on long-termism and responsibility that works for working people whether they are tenants, landlords or running businesses that operate within the sector.
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