It’s been two weeks since the housing courts reopened and over six months since landlords were last able to go to court to get a possession order.
During this time many tenants have seen a dramatic change to their previously normal lives, some have lost jobs, been furloughed and found themselves navigating the minefield that is the benefits system for the first time.
It’s no secret that some landlords have experienced tenants who have either not been able to pay their rent or in a minority of cases those who just decided not to pay and used Covid as the perfect excuse.
For many self managing landlords, the recent increase in legislation and taxes coupled with the issues Covid has brought, has seen many return to or start using a letting agent to manage the property and the tenants. This gives landlords the peace of mind that with a professional in place they will ensure compliance and remove risk and stress.
Heads in sand
Sadly, the opposite seems to be the case, with some landlords reporting that letting agents are not managing their properties well and have failed to cope with the temporary legislation as well as burying their heads in the sand when it comes to tenants not paying rent.
Many agents don’t have a detailed rent arrears policy that includes all levels of communication, it seems that a minimal number of text and emails are the only methods swiftly followed by a notice seeking possession.
This can leave an already worried tenant, defensive, scared and very unwilling to engage, a basic level of personal communication can work miracles in this current climate.
My experience has shown that there are many ways to communicate with people, but it seems managing agents fail to communicate from the start, leaving many landlords facing thousands of built up arrears and months and months of wading through the court process.
With all the technology available at our fingertips, why do the majority of letting agents still fail to communicate and still fail to manage properties to a good standard? Surely as the professionals in the industry letting agents should have the upper hand of both knowledge and skill when it comes to managing a landlords property.
I have worked with a number of landlords who use consultants like myself to help with damage limitation and I have been shocked and saddened at the poor level of service landlords are receiving from their agents, but also the lack of any housing law knowledge whatsoever.
One landlord has been left with over £6,000 of rent arrears and unable to evict the tenant, due to the letting agent serving three separate invalid Section 21 notices, meaning the landlord must now start from scratch and serve a new notice.
My intervention in this situation, discovered the tenant was a freelance photographer, so all his work had dried up, he was not aware he could apply for Universal credit as he was self employed, so felt shamed and embarrassed.
I picked up the phone and invited the tenant into the office, got to know him, we then did the following:
- Helped him apply for UC and request direct payment to the landlord
- Contacted Local council and secured a ‘Financial Inclusion grant’ which paid £3000 off the arrears
- Contacted two independent funds which support freelance workers, between these two organisations, they paid the remaining £3000 to clear the arrears
Now, I do not expect a property manager to be a qualified debt adviser nor do I expect them to be a councillor or a mother figure to a tenant, but I do expect property managers to have high levels of communication skills and a good understanding of their tenants and the support available with an ability to sign post them to this support.
If the last decade of change within the PRS has taught us anything it is that Property management is now more complex than ever, this change means property manager now need to be a different breed with very different skills to what we would expect.
Since the tenant fee ban came into force in 2019 there has been a knee-jerk reaction from letting agents to increase their fees to Landlord to help cover the loss that they were going to see from not being able to charge tenants.
But with the increase in fees sadly we did not see an increase in service.
Statistics released by The Property Ombudsman in their last annual report showed that communication and property management were the highest source of the complaints and this is only set to increase.
In addition, most reported illegal evictions are actually carried out by letting agents and not, as the media would have you believe, rogue landlords.
Bread and butter
It would seem that many agency owners do not put as much value in the role of a property manager as they do their negotiators, even though property management is the bread and butter of many agents who would undoubtedly fold without it.
Qualifications and training of property managers do not seem high on many directors to do lists, yet those same agencies pride themselves on shiny window sticker proclaiming they are a member of a number of voluntary industry bodies.
Agency owners need to understand what issues the industry now pose and what skill set a good property manager requires.
Implement a structured and comprehensive ongoing training programme for property managers, start to take pride in the fundamental service that a Landlord relies on and this in turn will bring a high staff retention, better continuity for both landlords and tenants as well as an improved level of customer service.
But the crux of the issue here is, no matter how inexperienced or how monumental the mistake an agent makes, the law states the responsibility lies with the landlord, so when your property manager doesn’t serve your Gas certificate on the correct date or fails to register a deposit and you find you can’t evict your tenant, ultimately the buck stops with the landlord, it is the Landlord who gets the hefty fine it is the landlord who is stuck with thousands of pounds of court fees.
But until the industry starts to take this area of its own business more seriously and understands that as agents they have a client (the landlord) AND a customer (the tenant), we will continue to see complaints rise and more landlords fall foul of a glossy window sticker.
Julie Ford runs the Hemel & St Albans Property Network