A Which? undercover investigation has revealed that renters are being let down by letting agents. Tenants on property viewings were faced with properties plagued by damp and a lack of vital safety information.
Choosing somewhere to live should be one of the most carefully-considered decisions of your life. But for too many of the estimated 6 million families in the UK private rented sector, the reality is one of settling for sub-par flats, committing to contracts with important information missing and scrambling to pull together a substantial amount of money for the privilege, too.
We sent undercover researchers on 30 property viewings across England and Scotland, with a list of questions to ask the letting agent showing the property to see if they were giving vital information and following health and safety protocol*. We also surveyed thousands of UK renters about their experiences**.
What we’ve discovered is a sector that’s in need of reform, where the conduct of letting agents varies wildly, and renters put up with the bad treatment through gritted teeth.
20% of the properties we went to had problems with damp, but none of the agents showing the properties were able to commit to fixing this. There was also a concerning lack of knowledge about carbon monoxide detectors – a key safety issue – and more than half of the visits scored poorly on the provision of crucial documentation.
In fact, 90% of our property viewings scored poorly on at least one measure, and 50% of visits resulted in our undercover fieldworkers saying they would not use that letting agent if they had to rent a property. The problem is, that’s not a realistic choice for the vast majority of renters.
There were also a number of visits where our researchers noted a shocking distinction between how the property was represented online versus reality – though perhaps not so shocking to seasoned renters in the UK. Keep reading to see the worst contrasts we found.
In our survey of renters across the UK, 61% said they’re not expecting to move out of the rented sector in the next five years. As more and more people in the UK are expecting to rent for life, and renting is now the most common type of living situation for under 35s, it’s vital that the situation changes radically.
Below, we reveal the most troubling results from our undercover investigation, explore how bad practice and misinformation can set renters up for difficult tenancies, and ask: what should tenants, landlords and letting agents do about it?
Know your rights as a tenant: find out what you should know before renting.
Video: Which? letting agent investigation
Watch the video below to see what we found when we went undercover to view rental properties.
Rental properties plagued by damp and mould
Our survey revealed that a whopping 41% of UK renters have experienced damp problems since moving into their home – with 33% also citing condensation.
So it’s no surprise that our undercover fieldworkers also saw properties with damp – six of the 30 properties had it.
One of our researchers commented: ‘There was a strong smell of damp, and visible mould on the walls in several rooms – as well as graffiti on communal walls.’
Another told us that the place they saw: ‘Didn’t look smart like the pictures – everything was dirty.’
One letting agent told our researcher who pointed out mould in the bathroom that it ‘could happen in any flat’. But that the landlord might not do anything about it, unless they asked for it to be fixed in their contract.
Another, when asking about a damp stain on the carpet, was told that the agent ‘[couldn’t] comment, because I don’t have the technical expertise to work out whether that is dampness.’
When we asked renters what they wish they’d known before moving in, in a separate survey***, comments about the extent of damp and mould was one of the most common themes.
To help us assess the properties we visited, we consulted property expert Kate Faulkner on best practice for letting agents. She told us that agents really shouldn’t be showing properties with mould and damp, and that it’s important to get the message out to tenants that this is not ‘normal’ or ‘to be expected’.
Find out how to buy the best dehumidifier.
The sinking feeling of stepping over the threshold of a property to realise that it’s nothing like its pictures is a familiar one for many UK renters.
At best, a ‘spacious’ living area was nothing more than a wide angle shot. At worst – as in some of our undercover visits – bathrooms that looked pristine online are covered in black mould, or broken furniture and cracks in the plaster. In one case, we even found graffiti on the walls.
One researcher commented that there was so much mess remaining from the previous tenants that it was hard to get a proper look at anything.
Some (non-mandatory) letting agent codes of conduct require agents to use accurate and representative photos to advertise a property, and alert potential tenants if the photos weren’t taken of the property’s current condition.
But it’s clear this stipulation isn’t being met in all cases.
Unclear on repairs
We rated eight viewings as ‘poor’ for their comments on property maintenance and repairs, and letting agents were often keen to brush off questions about maintenance.
A common response to questions about repairs was that ‘it should be done before you move in’. On multiple occasions, responsibility was brushed off onto the landlord with no specifics about who the landlord is or their approach to repair requests.
Renters can’t rely on repairs being completed before they move in, based on our survey results***. Only half of those who requested repairs before signing the contract said that all of them were completed.
Misrepresentation of how and when repairs would be done was also cited by many as something they wish they’d known more about before they moved in.
Property expert Kate Faulkner told us that work required should be made conditional as a special clause in the tenancy agreement. But if – as with many letting agents in England – you have to hand over a holding deposit before seeing a final contract, tenants still have to make a leap of faith.
See what you need to do if you want to claim against your landlord for disrepair.
Problems with heating and hot water
In the UK, it’s pretty crucial to have good heating and guaranteed hot water. But a paltry 13% of visits in our undercover investigation were rated good for their boiler knowledge.
It might not be something you first think about when deciding to rent a property – but many of the renters we asked said they wish they’d known more about the age and quality of the boiler, or how difficult and expensive their home ended up being to heat in the winter.
In our survey**, 60% of UK renters said they had experienced heating or plumbing issues since moving in – with 31% still experiencing those problems.
This goes to show that letting agents should know about the boiler, and be able to pass this information on to the tenant.
Something that seems nitpicky at the viewing stage suddenly takes on new significance when facing an ice cold shower on a chilly morning, or having to wear three jumpers to bed.
Video: letting agents nightmares
From enforced rental bidding to flooded basements and hallways caving in, five Which? staffers share their experiences of what happens when the lettings industry doesn’t work for renters.
We want to hear your rental stories. Vent your #RentRage on Twitter or post your story on Facebook – search for @whichuk.
Holding deposits: be careful
Some letting agents charge prospective tenants a holding deposit in return for taking the property off the market while the finer details of the contract are worked out. There is no requirement for holding deposits to be protected in a deposit scheme.
This creates another potentially perilous situation for renters wanting to lock down a property as quickly as possible. Handing over money before knowing exactly what the terms of the contract will be, including the amount for rent, and in not knowing when they’re able to get their money back.
On eight of our 30 undercover visits the agents were rated poor for their lack of explanation on how the holding deposit would work. Just under half were rated good on this measure.
But when handing over hundreds of pounds in a faith agreement, you’d hope that all of them were really clear on exactly what was going to happen to all of that money and in what circumstances you’d lose it.
- One of our researchers was told that she’d have to call the office about anything to do with fees and terms of the deposit
- One agent couldn’t say exactly how much the holding deposit would be
- Another assured our researcher that there wasn’t a holding deposit, but that payment of the administration fees would be accepted to take the property off the market. This sounds like a holding deposit to us.
Paying a holding deposit is no guarantee that you’ll still get the property. Anecdotally, we’ve heard of prospective tenants being coaxed into a bidding war after handing over a rental deposit, then having to wait up to a week before getting it back.
That’s why it’s important to get confirmation in writing as to how your holding deposit will be used.
Find out more about holding deposits.
Unclear administration fees
Letting agents were better at explaining other fees, including security deposits and administration fees. By law, agents in England must make fees transparent at all times, and most do this by listing their costs and what they cover online.
Some agents require a cut of the rent to cover administration fees, but this seems bizarre. In most cases, the administration involved should cost the same – regardless of the rent price.
This just shows how arbitrarily the amount of these ‘admin’ fees is sometimes decided. As well as the fact that our researchers were quoted anywhere from £20 to upwards of £400 for administration fees.
The government has committed to banning tenant fees, but it will continue to be legal to charge a holding deposit (albeit capped at one week’s rent), and there is a provision for vaguely defined ‘default fees’ to be charged.
It’s important that tenants actually get the protection this new legislation is aiming for.
Why safety and energy documents matter
You’d expect to move into your new home secure in the knowledge that it will be warm in the winter and safe to live in. But our investigation revealed that most letting agents fall short on the provision of key documentation and explanation of energy performance, and gas/electrical safety.
These documents provide tenants with assurances that vital safety checks have been made, as well as important information about how easy or difficult the place will be to heat in colder months.
Earlier this year, the government opened a consultation on plans to strengthen electrical safety requirements in the private rented sector, as recent data from Electrical Safety First revealed that these tenants face a heightened risk of electrical shock and fires caused by electrical faults in their homes.
Do you know what documents renters are supposed to get?
Take our quiz, below, and find out.
Our survey found that renters aren’t always aware of what they should be given at the start of a tenancy or before. Plus our investigation found that when agents were asked about documentation, we got vague answers in response. This isn’t good enough.
Visit our guide on the questions to ask when renting a home, for a full list of the documentation and information that should be provided to you.
The Energy Performance Certificate (pictured below), for example, will tell you how energy efficient the property is. The better the rating, the lower your energy bills. For more information, see our guide to Energy Performance Certificates explained.
Even if you ask for the Energy Performance Certificate, it doesn’t mean you’ll be given it. The certificate wasn’t available at all on just under half (13) of our 30 visits.
In England, the government’s How to Rent guide, a guide that aims to give tenants standardised and crucial information about their renting rights and responsibilities, must be given to tenants at the start of their tenancy.
Yet by that time, its section on what to ask when viewing properties is irrelevant. Best practice would be to offer this at the viewing stage, but that didn’t happen on any of our visits.
Why rental properties should have carbon monoxide alarms
When we asked letting agents about carbon monoxide detectors, only one in three gave a comprehensive explanation as to whether they were required, where they were and if they had been tested. High numbers of renters could be at risk due to this knowledge gap.
Currently, regulation in England around CO alarms is vague and potentially confusing: CO alarms are only required in rooms with ‘solid fuel appliances’. But because carbon monoxide can also come from gas or oil devices – including boilers – this provision should be tightened to protect tenants.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a blanket rule to have them installed in all properties. We think this should apply to England as well.
Our recent carbon monoxide tests have uncovered cheap, imported CO alarms that fail to do the one job they’re meant to do – let you know if there’s unsafe levels of carbon monoxide in your home. Watch our video, below, to find out how to spot them.
Letting agents did better when asked about smoke alarms – 21 out of the 30 were rated ‘good’ on this measure. By law, all rental properties must have a smoke alarm. This suggests that clear legislation prompts better behaviour by agents.
Rude letting agents
The results of our investigation suggest that while some letting agents are doing everything they should be, many are in need of improvement, and some are worryingly incompetent.
The very inconsistent nature of the industry is a big problem for tenants who must step into a game of chance with whatever agent they get.
Ideally, the tenant would choose the agent first, not the property. But because that’s not what usually actually happens, there needs to be more accountability with the way letting agents operate. Tenants should be able to expect a higher level of protection and professionalism.
It’s still worth doing your research and trying to seek out the best agents, where possible (scroll down and see: What does a good agent look like?).
Some of our researchers were kept waiting and treated very rudely. One said: ‘[the agent] refused to let me enter and sit down despite me being on time for the viewing, when I asked because I am disabled.
‘There were seats available inside. Instead she finished the viewing that was scheduled after me as they had shown up earlier than me.’
On another viewing, our researcher waited around at the lettings office for 10 minutes with no one there, and another 15 minutes while the agent tried to find someone free to take her on the viewing.
Find out how to complain about your letting agent.
Pressured and rushed viewings
There is often a sense of pressure – whether manufactured or not – during a viewing. Tenants often do not feel they have time to check specifics when they are either viewing or about to sign for a rental property.
Imagine handing over upwards of £1,000 and committing to live in a space you hadn’t even seen. This was the proposed scenario for a couple of our researchers.
One was told that she wasn’t able to see the second bedroom as the landlord’s friend was currently lodging in there, but that it was ‘pretty much the same as this one’ – the one that she could view.
Another told us that in the property they were viewing: ‘all three bedrooms were locked.’
During our investigation, there were also multiple incidences of researchers feeling uncomfortable asking all the questions they wanted to.
One of our researchers said that she ‘felt nervous from asking questions because [the agent] didn’t seem very open to answering them and he didn’t really know anything about anything.’
Another noted that the viewing was ‘quite rushed and [the agent] wanted me to stop asking questions.’ Another said the agent ‘wanted the viewing over as soon as possible and was very non-committal on maintenance issues.’
One researcher told us: ‘To be honest, the agent spent more time talking to the builder than he did to me; he didn’t really seem to care much that I was there! He didn’t really volunteer information until I asked him.’
By contrast, there were also reports of ‘very professional,’ ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘upfront’ agents who had ‘lots of information’ and were ‘aware of the obligations of a letting agent.’
Property expert Kate Faulkner said ‘This research showed there are some great agents out there, but it’s a shame that tenants have to work hard to find them, rather than this level of service being standard across the industry.’
25 of the 30 agents we visited were registered with the industry body Association of Letting Agents (ARLA), which has its own code of conduct, two were registered with the National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS) and the remaining three weren’t registered with any bodies.
The variability of the letting agents we came across shows that registration with an industry body isn’t a guarantee of a good standard of service.
How can you tell if a letting agent is any good?
It’s equally important for tenants to be aware of what good agents are doing, so that they know that there’s a higher standard out there that they’re able to demand. Our investigation revealed that there are some highly competent, capable and professional letting agents operating, who may be overshadowed by the apathy induced by the bad ones.
The best agents we found were willing and able to answer questions with specific information, and offered the right documentation – if not at the viewing then via a follow up email.
Some offered the prospective tenants advice on signing the contract and what they could reasonably include in their terms, and took time to understand what the tenants wanted in a property.
Kate Faulkner said: ‘A key part of a lettings agent role is to ensure a rented property is never shown to a tenant unless it passes all the health and safety requirements, or there is a plan in place to ensure when the tenant moves in it’s legally let on the day.
‘Tenants that let through agents and landlords who pay for their expertise should both be able to be confident that these checks have been made and either know they will be sorted prior to the property being let, or not be showing properties until they are.’
Some of the hallmarks of a good agent that we observed in our undercover visits are:
- Having a copy of the EPC at the viewing, and being able to explain what the rating means.
- Being able to advise on the rules surrounding gas and electrical safety checks, and knowing that a gas safety certificate must be provided at the start of the tenancy.
- Knowing where smoke and CO alarms are and have a record of when they were last tested.
- Showing the property in its entirety and represent it fairly in advertisements.
- Providing detailed information of property management arrangements at viewings. Including details of the landlord if the property is self-managed.
- Being helpful, informative and happy to answer important questions about the property.
Property expert Kate Faulkner also highlights some key clues to properties that aren’t being rented properly: ‘Any with damp and mould, not having smoke alarms, coupled with not being able to see an EPC and/or tenancy agreement when requested.
‘And especially an agent that can’t answer basic questions on deposit protection.’
Change in letting agent conduct?
Some long-overdue changes in the letting agent practices are gradually beginning to be introduced. The proposed Tenant Fees Bill aims to introduce more consistency on what letting agents can charge tenants, by capping deposits and banning administration fees.
The government has also proposed a mandatory lettings agent code of conduct (which already exists in Scotland) as well as an independent regulator responsible for its enforcement.
For now, it’s important that tenants arm themselves with the knowledge of their rights and responsibilities, and know not only what questions to ask when viewing a property, but the level of information they should get in return.
There is a lack of education on all sides – tenants, landlords and letting agents need to re-imagine what an acceptable level of service looks like, and raise the bar of what can realistically be expected.
Which? Managing Director of Home Products and Services, Alex Neill, said:
“There are clearly real issues with letting agents showing prospective tenants properties that aren’t up to scratch. It’s unacceptable that all too often agents can’t answer basic questions about important issues like boiler safety and carbon monoxide alarms.
”Tenants need to be given clear and accurate information before moving in to a new place and agents must do more to deliver an acceptable level of service.”
Which? is currently undertaking comprehensive research on the tenants’ entire consumer journey from searching for and securing, to living in and subsequently moving out of, private rented accommodation and will publish a report on whether the sector is working for consumers later this year.
We want to hear your stories. Tell us on Twitter #RentRage or search for @whichuk on Facebook.
Which? letting agent investigation: our research
*Which? conducted an investigation into the practices of letting agents by carrying out mystery shopping. Fieldworkers posed as potential tenants interested in renting a property and were shown round by a letting agent.
In total, 30 viewings were conducted: six in 6 Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, and Manchester – areas with a large or significantly growing private rented sector.
We used internal Which? data (not published) on the number of estate agent instructions for lettings to inform which companies we chose for each area. This resulted in most mystery shops being conducted with larger letting agents, the majority of whom are members of ARLA (Association of Professional Letting Agents).
**Populus, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 2,000 UK adults who live in a privately rented property online between 21-26 March 2018. The data was not weighted.
***YouGov, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 2,574 adults who have ever rented private accommodation online between 23-25 May 2018. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).