News' Emily Roberts reports on the campaign spending of the Conservative candidate for West Midlands Mayor, Andy StreetWritten by Emily Roberts on 27th April 2017
Redbrick News Investigates: Student Lettings In Selly Oak
Redbrick News' investigates the local rental market through a student survey, letting agent interviews and council regulation research
With nearly half (49%) of Selly Oak’s residents aged between 18 and 24, and the rush for University of Birmingham (UoB) students to sign tenancy agreements moving earlier each year, the demands on companies, students, and landlords are increasing annually.
However, amid new initiatives led by the Guild of Students and online review websites, Redbrick asks whether student living in Selly Oak has become a simpler, less stressful, and more pleasant process.
For the past two months, the Redbrick News team have run student surveys, held interviews with several letting agents, collected numerous reviews of most local housing companies, undertaken research into council regulations, and spoken with Izzie Nicholds, the Guild’s Housing and Community Officer (HCO), in order to clarify the picture for students considering renting in Selly Oak in the future.
In our 2017 survey that was targeted at UoB students and alumni who indicated that they have lived, currently live or have signed a contract to live in Selly Oak, Redbrick received 648 responses after promoting the survey through Facebook, principally on the Fab N Fresh Facebook group. The second most popular response concerning students’ experiences with letting agents was ‘generally bad’, which received 26.9%.
In order to find an explanation for UoB students’ ‘mixed’ experiences, Redbrick spoke with Izzie Nicholds, who highlighted the importance of letting agents building positive relations with students upon first contact during house viewings. For most, especially first-year undergraduates, the search for rented accommodation serves as their introduction to the property market. Therefore, their first impressions of letting agents may shape the ways in which they view property professionals in the future.
Nicholds suggested that unfriendly house viewings, often characterised by agents pushing students ‘to sign the dotted line’ after initial tours, reveal an impersonal attitude of certain letting companies who ‘just see it as another contract signed’ whilst overlooking ‘the welfare needs of students’, which could lead to negative attitudes developing from initial encounters with letting agents.
Furthermore, in her general advice to prospective renters, Nicholds stated that students should try to avoid the mid-November housing rush that forces many people into contracts they are unsure of; a rush that she believes is created by letting agents and landlords in order to ‘create a competition’. She indicated that it could be this impersonal, business-centric outlook of particular letting agents that result in students’ ‘generally bad’ and ‘mixed’ impressions of them in the long-term.
‘Please do not rush’, the HCO advises, ‘When landlords say to a student that this property will go in 5 minutes, they believe them because they don’t know any different. What we [the Guild] say is that you can still find a great house come December or January’.
Another reason behind the general unpopularity of letting agents in Selly Oak could lie in the rising prices and value for money in the area. In Redbrick’s survey, it was found that 38.5% of respondents saw their properties as having ‘generally bad value’ for money.
The survey also found that 44.2% of respondents reported payment of hidden fees – costs not included in the rent price advertised – to their letting agents or landlords. 246 of those people had paid administration fees, 102 hold fees, 53 late fees, and 31 ‘other’ fees. With many of these additional costs being one-off and often relating to contract or property administration, however, it is unlikely that the ‘generally bad value’ verdict was majorly influenced by hidden fees. Rather, it seems that students are generally unhappy with the value for money of their monthly rent.
Redbrick spoke to Patrick Garratt, Co-founder and Managing Director of Purple Frog, who explained the rising cost of rent from his company’s perspective. He told us that ‘on average, rents have risen 2-5% per year’ over the ten years that Purple Frog has let properties in Selly Oak.
Garratt highlighted that this surge has been driven mostly by the increase in UoB students aiming to rent in the area, and the restrictions imposed on landlords by the council regarding houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Purple Frog has also been affected by the government’s introduction of ‘tenant tax’, which results in landlords having to pay tax on their rental income, rather than just profit.
Gary King, managing director of King & Co Properties, also noted the recent rise in prices, stating that ‘as an approximate estimate, [he] would say landlords increase rents annually by £1-2 per person per week (pppw) on average’ for their properties.
However, with the increase in rent comes an increase in quality, according to both managing directors. King told Redbrick that after letting student properties for over seventeen years, he has ‘seen a massive shift in the rental market and [is] pleased to say the majority for the better’.
Continuing, King said, ‘obviously, rents have increased (as has the price of everything), but overall so has the quality of the properties and the level of service offered to students by landlords and agents alike’.
“'the standard of properties has increased drastically, as has the number of larger refurbished properties'
Garratt, who lived in Selly Oak as a student in 2005, also commented on the improvement to properties over the past decade. Since graduating, he said, ‘the standard of properties has increased drastically, as has the number of larger refurbished properties’.
‘There were only a handful of 6-bed properties when we opened our office in 2007; double beds, en-suites, TVs in rooms and bills included, which are very popular now, weren’t heard of 10 years ago’.
Pete Hughes, a consultant working for Britannia Property Services and former Environmental Health Officer for Birmingham City Council (BCC), reported that ‘over the years, a lot of the student market has gone very upmarket [...] which has meant that the variation in the quality of accommodation is much wider than it used to be’.
To explain the increase in rental costs, Hughes cites an increase in the number of international students ‘who are being funded by their governments and their employers’ and students from wealthier families who may ‘see money for rental as no object’. This creates an issue in his eyes:
‘The problem there is, as I see, some landlords are actually going upmarket and catering for, by providing studio accommodation and en-suite accommodation, trying to provide for that market.’ However, Hughes claimed that some landlords charge ‘upmarket’ prices for ‘properties which [they] have spent nothing on’. ‘I've seen student housing in other areas. Selly Oak has really geared itself to the student population’.
Council and Governmental Regulations
The reasons behind Selly Oak’s popularity may not just lie with its proximity to UoB and increasing property modernisation, however. Essentially, it is the area’s unlimited capacity for HMOs that makes it a landlord hotspot – inevitably resulting in a rise in rental costs.
An HMO differs from a family household in that it is home to three or more unrelated tenants living there as part of at least two separate households whilst sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities. Similarly, a licensable HMO consists of a property three or more storeys high with five or more tenants sharing the aforementioned facilities. It follows therefore that the vast majority of UoB students would be categorised as HMO tenants.
Despite the many practical advantages of living in an HMO in Selly Oak – being able to live with friends and living in close proximity to the university, for example – recent legislation and council activity has put a significant strain on landlords, hence causing them to raise rent.
The so-called ‘tenant tax’, which will come into effect on the sixth of April this year, has caused landlords to increase rent so as to have little impact on any profit they make. Consequently, rental prices across the country have risen significantly, and students are being hit hard.
Moreover, HMO licensing on properties with over five tenants (as described above) has also contributed to this increase. Purple Frog’s Garratt estimates that HMO Licensing has added more than £1 per person per week (pppw) onto rents for licensable properties.
In addition to soaring rental prices, BCC are working to restrict the number of HMOs in Selly Oak, despite rising numbers of students moving into the area. Purple Frog also claim that BCC seem to have changed their policy and are as a matter of course denying any planning applications for HMO’s with 7 or more bedrooms.
“Steve McCabe, the MP for Selly Oak, has been actively campaigning for restrictions on converting properties into student accommodation
Steve McCabe, the MP for Selly Oak, has been actively campaigning for restrictions on converting properties into student accommodation after being inundated with complaints from residents.
McCabe has been joined by a range of cross party MPs whose constituencies have also been affected by high numbers of HMOs. These politicians argue that HMOs are prime targets of rogue builders, and hence limiting student accommodation could help to reduce these cases of fraud.
The issue is further stressed by the implementation of an Article 4 direction in certain areas of Selly Oak, Edgbaston, and Harborne, that limits the number of residential properties that can be renovated into student lets outside of the central student district of Selly Oak. The area unaffected by this law includes residences enclosed by Bristol Road to the north, Bournbrook to the east, Raddlebarn to the south, and Heeley to the west (see image below).
Nevertheless, restricting the number of HMOs outside of these boundaries puts added pressure on lettings close to UoB, driving the increase in rental prices.
Gary King from King & Co Properties spoke to Redbrick about the introduction of Article 4 to the area. He told us that landlords have ‘basically got no chance of transferring a residential that [they] can buy now [in the Article 4 zone] into an HMO property [...] unless [they] can prove there is less than a 10% concentration of HMO properties within a 100m radius’.
The issues at hand paint a very worrying picture for students moving into the area, as well as those already living there. With increasing prices and restrictions on accommodation, the idea of occupying any property as a student seems to be a financially daunting prospect.
Considering this increasing monetary anxiety, some have been calling for the abolition of administration fees charged by letting agents. In 2016, the government’s Autumn Statement declared that they had listened to these requests, and would hence ban this kind of hidden fee across the UK. However, since the publishing of the Statement, nothing further has been clarified.
In their report entitled ‘A State of Disrepair’ published last month, Citizen’s Advice suggested that the government should ensure that the ban on administration fees be ‘enacted as soon as possible’. Although the charity welcomed the ‘apparent shift in political emphasis towards renters’, they also showed through their research that ‘every month this is delayed, renters pay in excess of £13 million in unfair and uncompetitive fees’.
The decision to introduce the ban into government policy has sparked significant debate regarding the impact that this may have on prospective tenants, landlords, and letting agents alike. On one side of the argument sits Campbell Robb, the chief executive of nationwide housing charity Shelter. He applauded the development, stating:
“‘Millions of renters in England have felt the financial strain of unfair letting agent fees for far too long'
‘Millions of renters in England have felt the financial strain of unfair letting agent fees for far too long, so we’re delighted with the government’s decision to ban them. We’ve long been campaigning on this issue and it’s great to see that the government has taken note. [...] This will make a huge difference to all those scraping by in our expensive, unstable renting market’.
This opinion is not shared with National Landlords Association’s chief executive, Richard Lambert. He believes that taking this step merely highlights that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, ‘lacks an understanding of how the whole sector works’.
Lambert fears that the cost would ‘boomerang’ back onto private tenants, explaining, ‘agents will have no other option than to shift the fees on to landlords, which many will argue is more appropriate, since the landlord employs the agent. But adding to landlords’ costs, on top of restricting their ability to deduct their business costs from their taxable income, will only push more towards increasing rents’.
Advice for Tenant Protection
It is important to note, however, that rent prices are not the only costs that students have to pay in order to live in Selly Oak. Despite most contracts detailing a refundable deposit that will be returned at the end of the tenancy, Redbrick’s survey found that 42.8% of respondents had suffered deposit deductions due to cleaning or damage problems, 223 of whom did not feel that the amount subtracted was fair.
Regarding the fairness of deposit deductions, Purple Frog’s Patrick Garratt was very eager to stress that students should only deal with letting agents that abide by deposit protection legislation, ‘so landlords can’t charge more than is justifiable from [students’] deposits’. He also emphasised the importance of letting from ‘an accredited landlord or agent’ to avoid the ‘rogue elements’ of the letting trade:
‘The biggest problem for students in Selly Oak are rogue agents and landlords; there are still a significant number of landlords who aren’t looking after the properties and tenants as they should’.
Speaking again with Izzie Nicholds, the HCO pointed to a number of services that Guild Advice already provide to ensure that all aspects of student’s experiences with housing in Selly Oak run as smoothly as possible, such as contract checking and signposting legal services, which she assured us are ‘great contacts’.
Izzie also mentioned that the Guild holds a partnership with Living, the university’s accommodation service. She was certainly confident in the levels of awareness that existing students have of these services, saying that ‘if the student needs to use the service they find it easy to come and find us’.
“'it’s great because we offer the support side as well'
Naturally, the most significant example of how the Guild believe that a letting agent should be run can be seen through its handling of its own service, Guild Lettings. When asked about the ways that Guild Lettings is different to the other agents in Selly Oak, she said that Guild Lettings ‘goes above and beyond what is available in Selly Oak on a regular basis’.
The Guild’s own letting agent is one of the few in Selly Oak that doesn’t charge students ‘unnecessary’ fees, and according to Nicholds, offers a service that makes the move from university owned accommodation to rented property ‘an easy transition [...] especially for first years’.
‘With students who may be more uneasy about finding a house the first time [...] it’s great because we offer the support side as well. We make sure that we sit down with [the tenants] and go through every line of the contract with them, so they know exactly what they’re getting for their money’.
Gary King’s advice follows King & Co Properties’ policy of asking ‘tenants not to sign for a property until they are 100% sure and committed to the tenancy’. He highlighted the integral role that digital media now plays in the letting market:
‘Thankfully, through the development of social media these days, students now have an outlet to express their concerns and “call out” rogue accommodation providers’.
‘The flip side of this is that tenants can also provide positive feedback on experiences they have had with more reputable providers. We actively encourage prospective tenants to look at our Google and Facebook pages to see how current and previous tenants have found dealing with us. We also encourage students to look at all other agent’s social media as well to compare their level of service - transparency is the key!’
“'dramatic increase in price, with some properties seeing price gains of over 15% in a year'
Social media and online review platforms are also becoming popular beyond individual letting agents’ promotion. For example, review aggregator websites such as StudentBricks, which was launched in 2015 by two UoB students, work to provide transparent and unbiased reviews of properties written by students, for students.
Redbrick met with Tom Brooks, co-founder of StudentBricks, who described how his company helps to distribute advice to UoB students planning on renting in Selly Oak. He told us, ‘StudentBricks is here to help students be more informed and reduce the likelihood of getting into a poorly managed tenancy’.
On describing the current letting market, Brooks revealed that he has ‘seen dramatic increase in price, with some properties seeing price gains of over 15% in a year. In likelihood, this is following the increase in sale prices of properties in highly sought after student areas’, such as Selly Oak.
Brooks also offers advice on speeding up deposit returns at the end of tenancies, which he suggests is smoother by avoiding ‘unsettled utility bills and incomplete council tax forms’, which ‘are reasons frequently associated with delays in deposits being returned’.
Furthermore, he identifies that keeping undetailed inventories can result in ‘some students [...] wrongly losing out on their deposits. Making sure your landlord uses the correct deposit schemes and thoroughly completing your inventory will reduce likelihood of losing any deposit’.
StudentBricks has close relations with the Guild since both managing directors are alumni of the university, and thus they can often be found at housing fairs to offer impartial advice to students. Izzie Nicholds stated, ‘When it comes to getting students to write reviews make it more transparent, peer-to-peer advice that you wouldn’t see from a letting agent, and as a letting agent, you really want and expect good reviews, and those will come about from StudentBricks.
“‘crucial to help combat those few rogue landlords and agents who operate in the market’
An alternative review scheme that Purple Frog is signed up to is TrustPilot, which, like StudentBricks, offers students to write a review about specific letting agents online. Purple Frog's Patrick Garratt, told us that these reviews are extremely useful for prospective tenants, but also for the company itself, which uses ‘this information to cater [their] services to [their] tenants’ needs and share it with our landlords to make sure they are providing the right properties’.
Whilst discussing the university’s influence on Selly Oak’s letting market, many agents saw UoB’s proximity to the area as a positive, since it vastly increases the number of prospective renters. Most were also glad of the Guild’s educational programmes, housing fairs and impartial advice, which Purple Frog saw as ‘crucial to help combat those few rogue landlords and agents who operate in the market’.
Direct Housing’s Claire Dempster, however, said that although the Guild are very helpful with advice generally, ‘sometimes this can prove to be tedious encouraging students to have contracts checked over and over again. Our contracts have been checked and verified many times by the Guild,’ she said.
Conversely, as repeatedly emphasised throughout this investigation thus far, Direct Housing were keen to stress that advice bureaus, such as the Guild, and review websites, such as StudentBricks and TrustPilot, all work in unison to ‘expose below average letting agents and landlords’ and protect students from dangerous and unfair contracts.
All the factual information gathered has either been provided voluntarily by each letting agent, or taken from their website.
‘Manage directly’ refers to the percentage of properties managed directly by that letting agent on behalf of the landlord and is an approximate figure provided by each letting agent. The ‘price range’ was also provided by each letting agent, with the exception of Easy Lettings for which the figure was taken from their online listings. ‘Grace-period’ refers to how late tenants can pay their rent before the letting agent will charge a late payment fee. This is only applicable for properties that the letting agent manages directly. Where applicable, all fees listed are inclusive of VAT.
Respondents to our initial survey were also asked to provide details of personal experiences they had with each letting agent. We received between 5-12 responses for each company (unless otherwise stated) and have set out a selection of those responses below.
Purple Frog was set up by two former UoB students over 10 years ago. One of the founders, Patrick Garratt, told Redbrick: ‘We knew we could provide a better service to students, and that’s what we strive to do every day.’
Purple Frog’s tenants have access to many national and local discounts, including Vodbull, Stupid Tuesdays, and The Soak. The letting agent will also be offering free contents insurance for tenants renting in 2017/18.
Respondents to our survey complained about how long it took Purple Frog to attend to issues.
Sean Roche, a UoB alumnus expressed this frustration, saying, 'We had a wasp infestation at one stage which took 3 weeks to clear out and the house was almost unliveable due to how bad it was.’
In response, Purple Frog apologised that Roche had these problems, and said, ‘we take great care to fix problems as quickly as possible; our maintenance team in Selly Oak currently averages 4 days to set all reported issues right.’
According to Garratt, as long as the tenants provide Purple Frog with copies of their final utility bills, deposits are normally returned within 14 days. Garratt added that, with the exception of rent arrears, the average deduction of deposits that weren’t returned in full is 11%.
Another respondent complained about large sums of deposits withheld for 'exaggerated cleaning issues'. The company responded by saying, ‘we work hard to ensure our tenants don’t get unnecessary charges,’ and reminded students that they can dispute any charges deemed unfair with an external arbitrator.
The most positive review came from Jess Murfin, who described Purple Frog as ‘remarkable’. ‘Any day, any time, whatever the issue is they quickly respond and sort it,’ she said. ‘Their friendly and helpful manner makes renting a student house easy, affordable, and trouble-free.’
Responding to these comments, Purple Frog said: ‘We love hearing feedback from the people who use our services [...] it’s only by hearing their stories that we can learn whether we’re doing it right.'
Speaking to Redbrick, Mohammed Fiaz, a Property Solutions manager, said that they have a large team of mostly university graduates who have experienced living in student accommodation themselves. ‘By having this experience we ensure we try our utmost to facilitate a smooth tenancy.’
Property Solutions give tenants seven days after reserving a property to formally sign their tenancy agreements, and advise groups to use the free contract checking service offered at the Guild. Fiaz told Redbrick that over the last few years they have offered some deals and incentives for students.
Whilst they charge a late payment fee, Fiaz told Redbrick, ‘If tenants have genuine reasons for late payment and inform us in advance, our accounts department are able to use their discretion and not charge the late payment fee.’ Property Solutions told Redbrick that 95% of their tenants’ deposits are returned within 14 working days, and around 90% are returned in full.
Of several tenants questioned, one complained about their landlady, but said that the letting agent had ‘done their best’, whilst another who complained about their landlord said that Property Solutions subsequently stopped working with him after the tenancy.
In response, Property Solutions said: ‘Although the ultimate responsibility lies with the landlord, we always try our utmost to assist tenants who experience problems with their landlords.’
Another former tenant complained about unannounced viewings, which they said was ‘really annoying and inconvenient.’ In response, Property Solutions advised students to refuse entry to any agent that has failed to provide sufficient notice, explaining that ‘where a landlord has given his/her property to multiple agents we have noted instances of other agents not giving the required 24 hours’ notice to existing tenants.’
Alex Reay, a final year student, said that Property Solutions ‘have been nothing but good to us so far’. Reay praised their swift response in fixing faulty furniture and leniency regarding late payment, as well as their organisation when paying the deposit and starting of the tenancy.
Guild Lettings, owned by the Guild of Students and located in University Centre, don’t charge any admin or holding fees for students, simply taking deposits and rent.
Speaking to Redbrick, Guild Lettings Manager Catherine Tulley said: ‘We also only advertise properties with landlords who are MLAS accredited, so we’re trying to improve the quality of properties and landlords that students are renting from.’
Tulley also told Redbrick that roughly 46% of their tenants’ deposits are returned in full, around 50% have between £6 and £80 deducted and about 4% over £80. According to Tulley, it usually takes between two and four weeks to return deposits, but it depends on students returning forms.
One respondent complained about how long it took Guild Lettings to reply to emails and confirm viewings. In response, Guild Lettings said, ‘this appears to be a one-off and may have been during our very busy housing season.’
Another former tenant praised Guild Lettings, saying ‘I didn’t appreciate how great Guild Lettings were until I used a different letting agent.’ Whilst most of his dealings were with the landlord once the tenancy started, he said that the viewing and signing process with Guild Lettings was very smooth. ‘It was my first time renting, and I felt that I could really trust them.’
Britannia Property Services’ houses can be identified by their distinctly blue front doors. Pete Hughes, who works as an independent consultant on behalf of Britannia, told Redbrick that they offer many of its tenants free WiFi and TV Licenses, and many have free monthly communal cleaning and gardening services.
In addition to this, for their properties on North Road and Dale Road where they cannot have wheelie bins, they put the rubbish out ready for bin-day.
‘We've, to a large extent, driven the market in Selly Oak,’ Hughes said. ‘We were the first people to be providing large kitchen dining lounges with 60 inch plasma TV, breakfast bar, the works. We started that, and everyone very quickly followed us.’
Although Britannia charge an admin fee of £120 per person for one or two tenants, they do not charge an admin fee for groups of three or more. According to Hughes, Britannia charges a late payment fee to persistent late payers only.
Hughes also told Redbrick that at least 95% of deposits are returned in full, with minor deductions taken for lost sets of keys. ‘Unless there are disputes (which are rare),’ he said, ‘we aim to return all deposits within 6 weeks, and most are returned within 3 to 4 weeks of termination.’
Nevertheless, one survey respondent alleged that all of their deposit was taken ‘for blue tack, not getting a professional cleaner in [...] and a cardboard box’.
Britannia responded by saying that they can’t verify this type of allegation without more details, however, they stated: ‘Britannia are confident that no deposits have been withheld on these grounds alone, and no dispute could have been upheld by the Tenancy Deposit Scheme on such grounds.’
Voicing a different perspective, another survey respondent compared Britannia to a local competitor who they’d previously used, describing Britannia as ‘a million times better’. This tenant said that Britannia have texted them between 24 and 48 hours in advance of viewings and would recommend others to use them.
Broad Court claim to cater to students by doing all administrative work online, including booking viewings, making payments and completing all paperwork using DocuSign. ‘These systems were specifically designed for use by students, as we find it difficult if not impossible to get groups together for joint contract signing etc.’
Whilst Broad Court charge an admin fee they do not charge a holding, signing or reservation fee. Speaking to Redbrick, Brian Mothersdill, Broad Court’s General Manager, said that last year all deposits were returned within 10 days unless Broad Court were awaiting contractor’s invoices or decisions from tenants on the division of costs.
Mothersdill claims that around half of the deposits were returned in full, and the deduction between all the tenants in a house would total £100 on average. ‘We find this system very effective,’ Mothersdill said. ‘Last year we did not have a single disputed deposit return.’
When asked about their experience using Broad Court, several survey respondents complained about the speed at which the company would reply to emails and perform maintenance tasks.
One respondent claimed that it took over a fortnight to repair or replace a broken washing machine.In response to these claims, Broad Court said: ‘It’s difficult to comment [on these specific cases] without having further information.’ Nevertheless, another former tenant said that although it took a long time to replace a broken hoover, everything that needed fixing was done very quickly.
This former tenant also said that they had their locks fixed for free, and that Broad Court were easy to contact and speak to.
Direct Housing claim to be the first letting agent in Selly Oak having first started 25 years ago. Speaking to Redbrick, Direct Housing Manager Clare Dempster, said, ‘We work with integrity, transparency, and attend the University regularly for up to date meetings about all things relevant to the students in the area.’
Demspter told Redbrick about Direct Housing’s commitment to securing Selly Oak and keeping students safe with the locally run ‘Bournbrook Gate Project’. Direct Housing also holds prize draws for Facebook reviews and offers vouchers to customers.
Whilst Direct Housing charges a late payment fee, the letting agent only deems the fee applicable if a tenant fails to inform them that their rent will not be paid on time. Direct Housing said that before a late payment fee arises there will be several warnings to the tenant.
Direct Housing claim that they generally don’t retain deposits and that they ensure that pre-inspections are conducted & cleaning checklists are sent, and offer an independent cleaner.
When Redbrick asked students about their experience with Direct Housing, the results were mixed. One respondent complained about how long it took for Direct Housing to respond to complaints, referring to an issue with their bed frame. ‘I complained about this and there was quite a lot of back and forth before anything got done,’ they said.
In response, Direct Housing said: ‘We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your review, at busy term times we do appreciate your patience. Feedback is valuable for us to improve our service to tenants.’
Nevertheless, Khalid Krairi, a History PhD student was highly complimentary about Direct Housing’s staff who he described as ‘always outstanding, friendly and wishing to help’. Krairi, who has used this letting agent for four years said that Direct Housing is ‘the best agency I would recommend for anyone.’
Oakmans is a member of various organisations, including the National Landlords Association, The Property Ombudsman, and the Midland Landlord Accreditation Scheme. The letting agent offers students an optional bills package through a partner company to make the billing process easier for students.
Oakmans claims that approximately 85% of their tenants’ deposits are returned in full, and that the process of returning deposits usually takes a month.
A former tenant of Oakmans told Redbrick that although their experience with the letting agent was generally good, they felt very pressured to pay the admin fee that was required to reserve the house for a week. ‘It was incredibly stressful getting the paperwork in on time,’ they said.
The same tenant also expressed their surprise that they had to pay a £550 deposit before having seen the tenancy agreement. Elaborating on Oakmans’ customer service, they said: ‘The lady who showed us around the house was friendly and helpful, however our encounters with other members of their office staff were negative, in that some were abrupt and at one point even rude.’
Responding to these comments, Oakmans said: ‘all of our tenants are advised that there is a 7 day process due to the demand to sign contracts and pay their deposit [...] without knowing the exact property address I cannot comment further.’
'We would never ask for a deposit without the tenants seeing sight of a tenancy agreement. It is sent out in an initial email that goes out to all of our tenants when they have reserved a house for their reference.’
In a contrasting review, one respondent said that Oakmans were professional and friendly during their house viewing, and appreciated the ease of signing the contract on an electronic system. ‘So far, I have had no qualms with the agents, and I would recommend them to everyone.’
KING & CO
King & Co is a family run business that claims to operate with a focus on quality rather than quantity. Managing Director Gary King, told Redbrick,‘we always tell landlords the quality of their property should be at a standard they would consider acceptable for housing their own son, daughter or other family member.’
Whilst King said that some letting agents have proven that it’s possible to grow and still provide a high quality of service, he ultimately believes ‘a lot of agents grow their business faster than they can cope with.’
King told Redbrick that he believes that it is ‘immoral’ to charge a tenant a fee to sign a tenancy agreement or reserve a property. ‘It's not something that we used to advertise, until we found out that everyone else is charging fees,’ King said.
King & Co also offer 24-hour maintenance on all management properties. ‘[We] respond promptly to all maintenance issues,’ King said. ‘This is something we are known for in Selly amongst both students and landlords.’
Although there is a late payment fee in the tenancy agreement, King told Redbrick that they only enforce this clause if they feel that the tenant is intentionally avoiding contact. 'To put it into figures,’ King said, ‘out of the thousands of rents we collected we charged a fee on only two occasions last year.’
When it comes to deposit returns, King & Co claim to have returned approximately 97% of deposits last year, and of those that weren’t returned in full, the average deduction was £27 per person.
Redbrick were not able to find a sufficient amount of reviews of King & Co for any to be included. The letting agent suggested that readers could find reviews of their services online through Facebook or Google.
Redbrick understands that Easy Lettings has offered tenants in the last few years a £35 Virgin Media discount voucher. According to a current tenant with Easy Lettings, the letting agent charges both an admin fee and a reservation fee, but the latter is deducted from the deposit. Easy Lettings is believed to charge tenants £5 each day tenants are late in paying rent.
Several respondents described Easy Lettings’ staff as ‘rude’ and ‘unhelpful’, with one describing their customer service as ‘pretty horrendous’. Others expressed that this letting agent doesn’t care about its tenants.
A common problem was unannounced house viewings. ‘They've let themselves in to show the house off without telling us,’ one respondent said.
Another claimed that there was an unannounced house viewing, ‘where no one from the house was given any notice, and half of the occupants were in bed or getting changed when people tried to enter their rooms.’
Nonetheless, one respondent noted that although there was a viewing which tenants were not given 24 hours’ notice for, Easy Lettings were ‘very understanding’ and it never happened again.
Similarly, a current tenant of Easy Lettings told Redbrick that recently they had been quick to fix problems. Still, the student acknowledged that they are generally hard to get in contact with. ‘If we have a problem and email them, they never reply to the emails, they just send someone round at any time suits them.’
Jamie Crawford, a UoB student, said that he once signed a tenancy agreement with Easy Lettings, but the landlady had sold the house and the new landlord wasn’t obligated to keep them as tenants.
Despite worrying that they had in fact not secured their tenancy, Crawford claims that Easy Lettings kept reassuring them that it was fine. ‘They didn't take our concerns very seriously and didn't appear to know what was going on with regards to the lease of the property.’
Easy Lettings were given the opportunity to respond to these comments, but chose not to.
K B ROMAN
K B Roman are located on Bristol Road and work almost exclusively with students. This letting agent, which offers student accommodation to students at Aston and Birmingham City University too, has another office in the city of Birmingham.
Although K B Roman charge an admin fee of £40 per person for groups of three or more tenants, one or two tenants are charged £55 per person.
K B Roman also charges a reservation fee of £50pp, or £250 per house, which is later deducted from the deposit. At the end of a tenancy with K B Roman, the letting agent typically returns deposits 14 days after the contract has terminated.
Whilst K B Roman agreed to participate in Redbrick’s investigation, their answers were limited and few students provided comments about their experience with the letting agent.
Redbrick News would like to thank everyone who helped us with this investigation. We are grateful to all of the letting agents who volunteered information about their company and all those who completed our surveys and provided reviews about their student letting experience.
Thanks also to Jamie Crawford for designing the graphics for this article.
Redbrick would also like to thank the Guild of Students for their support throughout the investigation through interviews, information and legal advice.
Finally, the investigation team would like to thank the Redbrick committee for their continuous support and patience over the last two months.