GL #3: Guide to selecting good letting agents


In Good Landlording Episode #3, Richard and Suzanne broach the big subject of letting agents by giving an overview of what landlords need to know about agents to help them make the right choice, in the first of a series of three episodes on agents.

For many landlords, agents are a vital part of letting and managing their properties, while for other landlords, they prefer to manage every aspect of the properties themselves.

As experienced landlords themselves, Suzanne and Richard discuss the pros and cons of using letting agents, and share some little-known tips on how to select good agents, based on their own experiences and Suzanne’s legal insights.

This is an introductory episode on letting agents. Richard and Suzanne cover practical tips for signing up with letting agents in Episode #4.

Here are the detailed show notes for Episode #3.

>> Submit a question: Click here for question form

group of smiling letting agents

1. How many landlords use letting agents?

It’s difficult to know definitively how many of the 2.5 million or so landlords use letting agents as even the official statistics are estimates based on small samples. However, here are two surveys which both estimate that the overwhelming majority of landlords (over 80%) do not use them for property management.

The 2021 English Private Landlord Survey (EPLS) estimated that almost half (49%) of the landlords surveyed said they didn’t use a letting agent. 46% used an agent for letting services and less than one in five (18%) used one for property and tenant management services. Looking at it the other way, over four-fifths (82%) of the landlords surveyed self-managed their properties.

However, this was not only a small sample size of 9,300 landlords, the sample was not representative of landlords as a whole and  landlords who registered deposits themselves- figures for landlords whose agents registered deposits are not included in this analysis.

In the Property Redress Scheme’s 2023 Annual Sentiment Survey of 2,700 landlords and agents, 65% of landlords self-managed their own properties, with about a fifth (19%) relying on a hybrid of self and agent management. According to this PRS survey, only 14% of private rented properties are managed by letting agents. This number is less than estimated in the EPLS.

In the “old days”, before the internet, there were few letting agents and landlords would find tenants by advertising in the classifieds of newspapers. Suzanne remembers finding her first bed-sit in Clapham in the early 1990s in the classifieds of the Evening Standard.

Technology has been slowly making it easier for landlords to self-manage their properties, with the advent of OpenRent (affiliate link) and now the new self-service letting platform launched by Hello Neighbour in April 2024. (Hello Neighbour sponsor Good Landlording and offer listeners a £10 discount by using this Good Landlording link). These online platforms facilitate the process of finding tenants themselves, advertising on the property portals such as Rightmove and Zoopla, and “onboarding” them.

2. Why it’s important to choose the right letting agent

Letting agents can make or break the success of a tenancy. The experience of using letting agents varies considerably, and even from branch to branch of the same company.

The best agents typically find the best tenants. They do regular inspections, give landlords early warnings of an issue, and this results in properties being kept in good condition, with rent paid on time. They find long-term quality tenants which means ultimately fewer voids.

The converse is also true. Bad agents sign up bad tenants, they don’t do the right pre-tenancy checks, they don’t deal with maintenance issues or rent arrears properly. Typically bad agents have poor communication skills. Bad agents can cause terrible problems for landlords that could easily be avoided by choosing competent agents.

It’s important to be very careful when choosing agents to make sure they provide a quality service. Sometimes a letting agent might see to be a small, local business, but it’s part of a large group. For instance, Tucker Gardner in Cambridge is part of Countrywide. Also, many agents are franchises.

Choose agents with properly qualified staff

Landlords need to get to know the individuals who will be providing the services, and find out if they have the basic Level 3 qualification, for instance the Propertymark Award in Residential Letting and Property Management.

A letting agency might have the ARLA Propertymark logo, and be regulated by Propertymark, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the staff beyond the principals, partners and directors are members or fellows of ARLA. Some of them will be qualified. Letting agents who are qualified typically show their qualification and membership grade on their business cards and email signatures.

The initials MARLA (member of ARLA) means that the agent has a Level 3 qualification and one year’s experience. The initials FARLA (fellow of ARLA) means they have a Level 4 qualification and at least 5 years’ experience.

Check the letting agents genuinely prioritise tenant satisfaction

The choice of letting agent is also important from the perspective of the renter’s experience. Research from OSB Group’s Landlord Leaders published in December 2023 says that tenant satisfaction is considerably higher when tenants deal with a landlord direct.

In order to ensure the tenant receives a high quality service, landlords need to be very careful and ensure they choose agents who genuinely care about the tenant experience.

Check often do the agents carry out inspections

The standard frequency of inspections is one a year, but that’s not enough to keep tabs on maintenance or to see how the tenants are looking after the property. Most agents will carry out a second visit for a fee, and this is a wise investment.

Suzanne recommends having what she calls “maintenance visits” every six months. She prefers this term as it’s collaborative, and puts the focus on looking after the property, rather than checking up on the tenants. It’s also a good idea for landlords to accompany the agents on at least one visit, so they can see the condition of the property themselves, speak to the tenants, and see if the agents are doing a good job.

>> Related blog post: The Independent Landlord guide to mid-tenancy inspections

3. Why landlords should have copies of all documentation

Where landlords do outsource property management to agents, they should still ensure they receive copies of all relevant documentation from their agent as a matter of course.

4. What does the law say about letting agents?

Considering how many laws and regulations landlords have to comply with, there are very few laws that regulate letting agents.

Unlike realtors in the USA, letting agents (and estate agents) are not regulated. There is no register, no fit and proper person test, no compulsory code of conduct, and no minimum qualifications, despite the report by Lord Best into the Regulation of Property Agents in 2019, which recommended introducing all of this. There apparently hasn’t been enough parliamentary time in the 5 years since then.

Here are the key legal obligations that letting agents must comply with at present:

a. Be a member of a redress scheme

It is compulsory for letting agents and property managers to belong to a redress scheme. The agent has a legal obligation to display the name of their redress scheme in their offices and publish it on their website.

An easy way to see if an agent belongs to a redress scheme is to enter the agent’s name or postcode in the free Trading Standards Property Agent Checker.

b. Join a Client Money Protection Scheme

It is a legal obligation for all letting agents and property managers who hold client money to join a “client money protection scheme”.

Agents must display the certificate in any offices open to the public and on their websites. They must also provide a copy of the certificate to anyone who asks, free of charge.

Agents who don’t join a client money protection scheme may be fined by up to £30,000. Also, agents can be fined up to £5,000 if they don’t provide a copy of the certificate to anyone who asks, or don’t display their certificate in their offices or website.

Unlike the redress schemes, there isn’t a central place where you can check which client money protection scheme a letting agent belongs to. Instead, you need to check the websites of each scheme.

Here are the links to search the list of members of each Client Money Protection Scheme scheme:

c. Publish fees on website and in office

Letting agents have a legal obligation to publish their fees on their website and display them in their offices.

The list of fees needs to be sufficiently detailed so that a landlord or tenant can “understand the service or cost”, inclusive of tax. If the fee “cannot reasonably be determined in advanced”, the list must describe how the agent will calculate the fee.

The local authority can fine a letting agent up to £5,000 for failing to publish the fees appropriately.

5. Basic due diligence to avoid rogue or bad agents

Here are some simple due diligence tips to check that a letting agent is legitimate and well run:

  • Are their fees easy to find on their website? If they’re hard to find, it’s a sign they don’t value the customer experience.
  • Google them – but be aware reviews aren’t always reliable
  • Do they have the redress scheme logo on website? Cross-check their membership of a redress scheme here.
  • Check they really are a member of ARLA Propertymark by searching for their name in the Propertymark protection register here.
  • Cross-check client money protection scheme – see links above.
  • Look up their company on the Companies House website to see if they have filed their accounts on time and whether the company looks professionally run. You can check the company record for free on the Companies House website.
  • The website should display the logo of the agent’s chosen deposit scheme, i.e. MyDepositsDeposit Protection Service, or the Tenancy Deposit Scheme.
  • Professionalism – a legitimate and well-run letting agency will include the company name, number, registered office, and VAT number somewhere on the website. It’s best practice to include these details in the footer.
  • Does the “About Us” section on their website look legit?

6. How can landlords find a good letting agent?

A good letting agent is competent with good communication and organisational skills, excellent customer service, efficient, friendly and transparent on fees.

It can be difficult to find a good letting agent as they all invariably promise something like “detailed local knowledge and a passion for exceptional customer service”, but landlords won’t really know if that’s true until they use them.

So many letting agents have unfair terms that tie in landlords with high renewal fees, or make it expensive to terminate while the tenants remain. Consequently, unless the service is so bad so as to be a breach of contract, the landlord is stuck with them until the tenant leaves, or if they manage to argue the clauses in the contract are unfair, and breach Section 62 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. (More on that in a future episode).

Landlords can do a mystery shop posing as a tenant, or even calling as a potential landlord, and see how they are treated on the phone and check whether this agency gives the right impression of them as a landlord.

Landlords have considerably more protection if the agency are members of ARLA Propertymark logo, as they have to sign up to and abide by Propertymark’s Conduct and Membership Rules. Propertymark has a disciplinary process and their independent tribunal panel carries out disciplinary hearings, when Propertymark has evidence of a member breaching our conduct and membership rules. During the hearing, the tribunal panel considers the case and imposes sanctions if they find the agent has breached their rules.

The principals, partners and directors letting agencies which belong to Propertymark need to have at least Level 3 qualifications themselves, and carry out regular continuing professional development (CPD). They are responsible and accountable for running the agency in accordance with the Propertymark rules.

>> Hello Neighbour: Campaign to stop renewal fees

Golden nugget

When selecting letting agents, don’t just speak to one agent and make the selection on the basis of fees.

Speak to lots of agents, and ask them the questions about the same scenarios, to compare their approach to common issues, to see if they really do prioritise high service levels. It’s worth paying more for excellent service.

Good examples include how they would approach a broken boiler over Christmas, or how they manage damp and mould.

This simple but effective method will give you an insight into how they operate as a business, and whether they genuinely care about the tenant’s experience and what their service levels are.

Credits

Music: “Paradise Found” by Kevin MacLeod of Incompetech. Licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 License.

image of letting agents with title episode #3 letting agents

2 thoughts on “GL #3: Guide to selecting good letting agents”

  1. I just been invited to fill in the English Private LL survey and have been busy comparing my answers with 2021. It will be interesting to see the results on how it compares with 2021 in terms of use of agents. I suspect with the advent of RRB that agents will be positioning themselves as ‘regulation experts’ to LLs so I do envisage some LLs signing up to agents due to increase in red tape regulation

    1. How interesting! I’m glad they’re doing another survey as the last one is out of date. I wish I had received an invitation!

      I agree that the RRB does offer letting agents an opportunity to help landlords with the huge changes coming ahead. It will be even more important for landlords to choose agents that are properly qualified (at least Level 3).

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