It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that, in general, lettings agents aren’t respected by Joe Public. Some agencies, clearly, don’t deserve any respect, and the sooner the industry can eliminate these rogues, the better. Others, however, are highly competent, professional and diligent, but we never hear about those businesses other than in the industry itself. Bashing the bad guys makes far better headlines.
The consumer’s champion, Which? has just launched a campaign asking tenants for stories of mistreatment by lettings agents. They’ve come up with a memorable hashtag #RentRage and will probably make the maximum ‘political’ capital out of the stories they hear. I’m sure there are stories – plenty of them – I’m not in denial about the issues, but I, for one, am getting a bit sick of the constant targeting of our industry.
The fact is that we’re not all villains, and we’re willing and ready to change. We’re already getting a fees’ ban. Penalties are increasing, and licensing is on the way. Practices that were legal are being outlawed and business models are adapting to the new climate. None of this is going to be easy. Businesses will make mistakes and there will still be instances where the client doesn’t get a fair deal – as happens in every sector and every type of transaction – but, no doubt campaigners will use these examples to illustrate all that’s wrong with rented housing and demand yet more reform.
It’s a human reaction to feel aggrieved when there’s a problem, but the problems in the rented property sector aren’t always caused by the agents. I’m sure that if letting agents were asked to rage about problem tenants in a Which? style campaign there would be no shortage of material. There isn’t, however, the political will to defend those who lose money, time and again, to the unscrupulous tenant.
There are more sides to most stories than it is convenient to report. It’s easier to load all the blame for a ‘broken’ housing market onto the shoulders of lettings agents rather than unpick the real reasons, which encompass everything from the shortfall in construction and land banking to demographic changes and the financial crisis. The fact is that it’s called a housing market for a good reason. Rightly or wrongly, it is a marketplace, and it follows the usual rules of supply and demand.
When the changes are implemented, they will have consequences in terms of squeezed margins, job losses and business closures. Landlords will find their relationships with their agents change, and tenants may well find that the higher standards and clearer practices they demand are delivered at the cost of higher rents. Market forces in action.
Of course, housing is highly emotive, and of course, tenants need protection, but do we really need another round of raging against agents? My view is that lettings agents have had enough of a battering and it’s time to move forward with a constructive discussion. All sides of the debate should get together and try to understand what it’s really like on the other side of the fence. That way we may find ourselves with workable solutions that can satisfy all parties.