Crystal Horwood Blog
Tuesday 24th April 2012
Type in ‘ethical letting agent’ with reference to ‘housing benefit’ into Google and you will immediately find over 17 million search results.
The term ‘ethical’ in the lettings world has become somewhat mainstream, yet by its very nature the word is extremely subjective and open to interpretation. What one agent deems ethical may vary wildly from the next.
Of course, over the past few years the lettings industry has come some way in defining an ethical framework, most notably with the formation of the Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) which aims ‘to ensure that a framework of ethical standards and professionalism is maintained at a far higher standard than the law demands’.
Without question, ARLA continues to be a great resource for landlords. For a start, if you use a Licensed ARLA agent, you are guaranteed that the agency is covered by ARLA’s Client Money Protection Scheme, the agency has Professional Indemnity Insurance and that they voluntarily follow ARLA’s Code of Practice and Rule of Conduct, and most importantly, you have a route to redress should something go wrong.
Choosing an ARLA agent is highly recommended irrespective of whether you are an experienced landlord or are new to the world of lettings. However, whether you are making a shortlist of potential agents or are looking to change, don’t be afraid to ask a few probing questions regarding the way in which the agent conducts themselves when dealing with tenants on your behalf.
Each agency will have its own ‘way’ in which it handles landlord and tenant issues, and there is no other tenant base where this is more evident than with those who are on housing benefit. As reported by Landlord Today, a recent survey of over 1,000 UK landlords conducted by flat and house share website Spareroom revealed that more than half (59%) stipulate ‘no housing benefit tenants’ in their advertisements.
Now, every landlord has a right to say who they would like as prospective tenants, but those tenants on housing benefit can be very good tenants. Of course, it pays to do your homework on the agent first.
But this then begs the question ‘how do you know whether an agency is capable of ensuring a smooth landlord / tenant relationship?’ I would be lying here if I said there were any certainties, but identifying the extent of an agent’s understanding of the benefits system to mitigate the risks is a great place to start.
Find out exactly what percentage of the agent’s tenant base is on housing benefit and how they have structured their services to account for the complexities and issues typically encountered by both landlords and tenants. Now this is easier said than done, but here are a few key pointers:
-Look for an agent that puts in place a dedicated property manager, with extensive knowledge of the housing benefits system, who acts as a single point of contact. Ideally, identify an agent who conducts property visits and checks themselves rather than relying on outside contractors.
-Don’t be afraid to ask what percentage of tenants have been in their tenancies for over three years: do be realistic, though, since people move for all sorts of reasons!
-Identify an agent offering a 24/7 emergency support service for any unexpected incidents.
-Check up on the agent’s referencing procedures to help prevent incidents of eviction. There are many agents out there that are happy to simply ask the current landlord for a reference, but if that landlord wants shot of the tenant for whatever reason, the reference is likely to be biased. It pays to make sure previous landlords are approached for a reference.
-Ask for an indication of the agent’s rent collection rate to get a true picture of how it manages rent owed.
-Most importantly, find out how the agent’s payments are managed. For example, for tenants on housing benefit it would be prudent to look for an agent that offers a 4-weekly payment cycle, rather than the traditional monthly cycle, to coincide with the benefits system to reduce the likelihood of rent arrears.
-Equally, flexibility of payment options is key – standing order, cheque, card, cash-in-office, directly to the bank or on card via secure online payment.
Ultimately, the more ‘ethical’ and transparent the agent, the more likely it is that they are going to welcome your questions and will be ready with answers that will reassure you of their capabilities.
* Crystal Horwood is a landlord and lettings agent. She is managing director of Pace, based in Southend
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