You can’t open a newspaper or catch a series of Dispatches or Panorama without their being some expose of dodgy estate agents and landlords. These invariably shine a light on the dark minority, but nevertheless, underline a broader problem: the whole thing is wholly unregulated.
No one would suggest “doing a Jeremy Corbyn” and taking full-on state control, but consider this: if you buy a £20 monthly insurance policy or pay £500 for financial advice, both of these services are regulated. The people who provide them are checked out and if something goes wrong you, the consumer, have recourse. You can easily spend £1,500 per month on rent via an agent and have zero recourse when they fail to remove rubbish, refuse to remove furniture, tell you the private garden is now shared or hand over your personal data to third parties without your permission.
PG Estates in Islington did all those things to me recently.
The point is that estate agents manage huge transactions. For almost everyone, house purchases are the single biggest investments people make. Yet anyone can pop up and do it.
For years, the professional bit of the property industry has called for agents to be regulated. This is because the emerging build to rent sector – where investors build rented homes themselves with pension fund cash, and then rent them out a bit like hotels – don’t want to be tarnished with the same brush. They’re not renting out the kind of squalid shoeboxes typically highlighted by TV documentaries. And most of them have no interest in charging fees – as it’s not how they make money.
Public apathy to agents is wholly down to the fact that they charge huge sums of money and provide no service. Most sensible people accept that rents are a function of dysfunction: a lack of social housing (built by councils) has pushed low-income tenants into the private rented sector, while various issues with tax and planning make buying a property unaffordable.
These are problems for another day. But one thing that could be sorted overnight is a better renting experience for millions. Build to rent is only in its infancy. You have brands like Essential Living, Moda Living, PLATFORM_, Tipi, Society and Fizzy Living coming out the ground, and stalwart investors like Grainger, LaSalle, Legal & General and M&G doing the same.
For now, however, ministers should get tough with those agents who are at best incompetent – like the ones I’m renting from – and who are at worst criminal. Government should recognize just how many votes there are in a better rented sector.
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