17th December 2019

Matt Allwright: Letting away with it

Unscrupulous agents and landlords have plagued the housing market for years – but the introduction of new legislation could lead to a change for the better


By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
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People are now often in such a frenzy to find somewhere to live that they’ll take risks and hand over big money without keys or guarantees, leaving them as sitting ducks

Let me take you back four or five years to a tiny balcony somewhere in North West London. I’m filming Rogue Traders on this balcony with a letting agent who is threatening to jump to get away from our cameras. He is also claiming to have a heart condition which could kill him at any moment, and emphasising that I will be responsible for his demise, whether caused by coronary or concrete.

I maintain that he is at least partially responsible because we’ve filmed him renting this flat out to at least two different tenants that we know of, harvesting their fees and deposits, without ever handing over keys. It’s a good business – no overheads, no tenancy to manage, just a stream of hard cash until he flip-flops and phoenixes to continue somewhere else under a different name. Perhaps that’s why in the unlikely event that he did choose to jump, he’d land right next to his late-plate fully loaded Mercedes-Benz.

This story made it clear to me that the growing private rental market in the UK was, and still is, in meltdown. People are now often in such a frenzy to find somewhere to live that they’ll take risks and hand over big money without keys or guarantees, leaving them as sitting ducks. It’s why I started making my programme The Housing Enforcers, and lo and behold, once we scratched the surface we found manifold stories of landlords and agents ready to take the money without the duty of care, resulting in cramped and dangerous hellholes housing families and individuals who ended up massively out of pocket. One thing that surprised me was that the enforcement was as gappy as Alan Carr’s grin.

The EHOs I worked with could take action if the house was unsafe, but when it came to protecting tenants’ consumer rights, for a transaction which can strip you of your savings and then take half your wage packet or more, the territory was lonesome and unloved.

Surely a job for trading standards? Well, you might think so. It’s an area where a TSO could make a massive difference, not just to a tenant’s finances but to their home – the platform for all good things – and yet tenants are more likely to go to a charity like Shelter than to their authority if they’ve been stung. Hopefully that’s about to change. A National Trading Standards Estate and Lettings Agency team now exists, tasked with making sure TSOs across the country have the knowledge to help tenants in a fix.

There’s also new legislation for them to use – the Tenant Fees Act introduced this June means that my chap on the balcony should be out of business, as the fees on which his scam relied have been scrapped.

Part of the challenge now is to get tenants to understand their rights and know who’s there to protect them. It might also help to get County Council TSOs and District Council Private Rented Sector teams to sit next to each other. I’m guessing they could have a few things to discuss….