Investigation: illegal fees from Glasgow’s letting agencies

Credit: The Glasgow Guardian

Roisin McCarthy
Writer

“We didn’t have an oven for over two months.” “There was mould everywhere.” “The ceiling caved in on the second week.” “There was no central heating.” These comments were taken from several students who had all paid over £400 a month for their rent in Glasgow.

Over the past few years, competition for accommodation has risen at an exponential rate following Glasgow University’s soaring acceptance rates for both domestic and international students. Choice has become a thing of the past as those lucky enough to get a flat viewing are forced to accept sub-par living conditions in the fear of not finding an alternative. As one four year film student remembers: “It reached late October and my friend and I still hadn’t managed to find anything. We were sleeping on friend’s sofas. It was a really stressful and unhappy time.”

For Glasgow’s letting agencies, this renting climate has offered up a wealth of opportunity to make as much money as possible. Students are not only being faced with paying large amounts of money for flats where the standards are increasingly intolerable, they are also being hit with various fees and charges by agencies. It is here that the most important point in this article must be underlined: students are under absolutely no obligation to pay anything more than their rent and a deposit that must be kept in Scotland’s tenancy protection scheme, SafeDeposits. The fact is, a vast proportion of students have no knowledge of this, while it can safely be assumed that all of Glasgow’s letting agencies are more than familiar with the rule. Students are consequently being exploited for their ignorance and paying for things such as “admin fees”, “premium fees” and “credit check fees”, all of which can cost up to £100.

One of the most notorious agencies involved in this deception is Infiniti. In the past few months, Infiniti has been brought into the public eye by the Glaswegian tenant union Living Rent after a renter sought reimbursement following charges including £180 in illegal fees. This was finally recovered after a five-day standoff where Infiniti’s staff barricaded themselves into the office and hired two security guards. As Living Rent reported, “The extreme measures with which Infiniti reacted has proven that companies like them are not used to being challenged by organised tenants.”

All of these charges are illegal under the Rent Scotland Act. So it begs the question, how are letting agencies getting away with breaking the law and why does it take the involvement of a tenant’s union to ensure justice prevails? After speaking to Glasgow City Council and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, it becomes clear that a level of uncertainty surrounds the legality of these fees. Both institutions believe the other is responsible for advising a tenant who faces additional charges while neither seem sure of what to suggest when it comes to advising tenants who have already paid an illegal fee and are now looking to reclaim their money. Their ambiguity reveals an absence of any methods or practises in place to enforce the Rent Scotland Act and in this way, similar to so many pieces of legislation designed to protect civil rights, there exists a discrepancy between the law in theory and practise. One member of Living Rent, underlines this point stating: “Methods to reprimand letting agents who break the law are haphazard, not punitive and take a long time to implement. There is next to no guidance for average humans on how to go about getting redress and extremely limited scope of getting funding for such actions.”

Without any clear-cut way for tenants to protect themselves from letting agencies, they are forced to seek justice independently and through a process that is costly and time consuming. Meanwhile, an agent operates in the full knowledge that their actions will not be met with a criminal prosecution. At worst, a tenant may bring them to civil court, a process that takes up to six months and is often settled prior to the hearing after an agent agrees to settle with a “good will” pay out. It’s worth noting that in this instance, the agent manages to avoid admitting responsibility for any wrongdoing and, in evading a court proceeding, is able to continue charging their additional fees. At best and by far most probably, stand the chances of a letting agency’s unlawful fees remaining unchallenged by a tenant. As a Living Rent spokesman outlines: “Once people leave, they have little incentive to fight for the fees. Agents intimidate and threaten those who raise issues and when people are looking forward to new flats with new agents, it is time consuming and tedious to fight a historic fight. Many tenants feel vulnerable and do not have the required tenacity to force the agents to return the illegal fees.” Power and control ultimately lie in the hands of an agency; they are protected by their size and comforted by the notion that even if the occasional tenant decides to challenge their illegitimate behaviour, the repercussions to their status or finances will be negligible.

We have entered into a situation where the maltreatment of tenants has become commonplace, whether that be in the form of a failure to ensure the living conditions of a flat are adequate to the needs of the tenants. Agencies are shielded by the prolific nature of these transgressions, a factor that restricts the law in guaranteeing universal retribution. They have developed into a somewhat insurmountable force, and yet, what remains clear is that their defeat is achievable. As Living Rent have proven, compensation and justice are possible and this is set to become even more effective following the introduction of class action claims in Scotland. This will allow individuals who are claiming under similar circumstances – such as illegal fees- to collaborate and seek compensation under one proceeding rather than facing the dispute alone. In doing so, a letting agency’s confidence in avoiding significant penalties will rupture.