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31st January 2017

Are letting agents doing enough for student tenants?

Are students really to blame for their poor standards of housing?

Student houses are notoriously some of the worst in the country, with students themselves having a reputation for being poor tenants and neighbours. However, is it always the students who are to blame for the state of their living conditions?

Having experienced first-hand the frustration of living in a house with a multitude of problems such as damp, vermin infestations and broken appliances which went unresolved for long amounts of time — despite multiple attempts to contact my letting agency — I was left wondering whether my student renting experience was the exception or the rule. I expected that renting using a letting agent over a private landlord would be far easier, and that there would be a fixed standard in terms of the condition of the house and the ease of having issues resolved, but this was not the case.

After surveying a group of students from the universities in Manchester, I found that 75% of those who rented with letting agents were dissatisfied with how quickly their letting agency resolved any problems that they had. 58% experienced problems with mould and damp, and other problems such as the property being “dirty upon arrival”, leaks, holes, and infestations of vermin. Not only this, but a few of the students I spoke to found themselves in disputes over their tenancy rights, due to a variety of problems such as noise complaints and payment disputes.

Out of the overall number of students I surveyed, including those renting with private landlords and in halls of residence, over 90% had experienced problems in general with their accommodation. One student felt that overcrowding in their shared house was a problem, another described “exposed wires, leaking boiler” and “broken fire alarms”. Clearly, such problems pose an immediate health risk, and could result in a fire or flood. Not only are these living standards uncomfortable, they are also illegal. Despite this, my experience with speaking to students would suggest that the problems are often ignored and go unresolved.

Final year English Literature and Spanish student Danielle and her housemates found themselves handed a court order, which she claims the letting agency had no grounds for. Danielle has stated that “[the] court order was supposedly because no one had paid the deposit or first month of rent”, but this was apparently unfair on the tenants as it was not made clear to them how to pay their rent, despite their best efforts to contact the letting agency through “calls, emails, and visits in person”.

Danielle went on to explain that “[the letting agency] messed up the contract like two or three times and then when we asked about how to pay they just didn’t respond. Our parents called and we called and emailed and they were like “we’ll get back to you” and the next thing we know we’ve got a bloody court order”.

This all happened before she moved in, but the problems continued. Danielle has also had problems with “mould everywhere”, and a front door with a faulty lock, which the Landlord was “super hesitant” to fix, instead trying to place the blame on the tenants. Only after “kicking up a massive fuss” did the Landlord fix the lock on the front door. I asked Danielle exactly how long it took to fix the problem, and she stated that took around “two weeks”. She further added that she “felt like [her] safety was compromised as often we would come back from uni in the evening and the door would be wide open”, and went on to point out that the “the area [is] renowned for sex attacks and burglaries”, which added to her unease.

The role of the letting agency should be to ensure that problems are resolved quickly, and that either the agency or the landlord does not leave the house in a state of disrepair. The average renting price for student homes in Fallowfield is £70-85 pppw, and agencies often charge extra fees on top of this, with flat-rates for lost keys and damage, as well as fees for late paperwork.

Another student I spoke to, who is in his final year studying Law at the University of Manchester but wishes to remain anonymous, explained that he “thought using a letting agent would be much better than a private landlord”, but he found himself to be very much surprised by the poor service experienced. I asked what was particularly negative about his letting experience, and he described the main issue as having “mice in [his] house for weeks!”, going on to add that “every time we told them about it, it was as though we spoke a different language.”

I asked how he went about resolving these issues, and he told me that “for it to finally get resolved [he] had to call the office every day for a week and nag them. Every day for a week. That should not have happened.”

Would he consider renting with them again? “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

I asked whether he feels that students bring problems such as vermin infestations upon themselves, and he replied with “No way. Why is it always students who are the scapegoats?”

I asked a group of students whether they would know how to file a complaint against their letting agent or landlord were they to be dissatisfied, and over 80% answered “no” or “unsure”, with one responding “inform the council?”. This in itself is as much as problem as the concrete issues with housing. According to Save The Student, “More often than we’re happy to admit, we hear stories of landlords taking advantage of young people’s lack of knowledge when it comes to their tenancy rights.”

Some rules and regulations tend to be well-adhered to by letting agents and landlords, such as the rule that tenants require a 24 hour notice period before visitation or inspection of the property. Other legalities are less clear cut, for instance it is difficult to know what exactly constitutes as prompt resolution of issues such as damp and broken appliances. Not only this, but actually involving the council can be a difficult task. Initially they will write to the letting agent or landlord, and provide a copy of this letter for the tenants, giving a set time frame for the landlord or letting agency to resolve the problem before further action will be taken. For students who are already suffering as a result of the state of their homes, this can be very unhelpful. Of course, the council cannot investigate every single claim they receive, but perhaps it would help to impose stronger measures against particular landlords or letting agencies whom they receive regular complains against. It seems that due to the relatively short time which students spend in one house, letting agencies can get away with leaving problems unresolved. As a student myself, I will admit that it is all too easy to accept a very poor standard of housing, rather than continually chase up problems when my contract will be over in a matter of months.

Vermin infestations are also difficult territory. Save The Student states that “When it comes to infestations of mice, rats, bedbugs and bats (yes, bats), you’ll be glad to know that it’s your landlord’s responsibility to sort them out (as long as it’s not your fault they’re there in the first place).” However, it can be difficult to prove when the infestation started and who is to blame. In terraced houses and flat blocks particularly vermin can move easily from house to house, so even the cleanest student houses can potentially become infested through no fault of the tenants. Mice can live off even a few crumbs of food, which further adds to the difficulty in finding a cause for the infestation.

However, there is hope for the lost and confused. Although most of the students I surveyed responded “No” when asked if they had used any housing advice services — and one student asking “where are they?” — several answered with “Manchester Student Homes”. Located in Fallowfield, Manchester Student Homes can not only advise you on your University accommodation, but also help you to find a property which is owned by a landlord accredited by them. They are owned and managed by the various Universities in Manchester, and their services are free.

Located in Fallowfield, Manchester Student Homes can not only advise you on your University accommodation, but also help you to find a property which is owned by a landlord accredited by them. They are owned and managed by the various Universities in Manchester, and their services are free.

Cooper Healey, the Manager of Manchester Student Homes has stated that “Manchester Student Homes runs a number of accreditation schemes for student landlords, and has hundreds of scheme registered landlords with thousands of student properties available in Manchester,” she further added that “to be part of our scheme, landlords and accommodation providers must commit to a high standard of property and tenant management, and we use feedback to ensure we only promote accredited landlords to our students. House-hunting students can also search our accredited database, have their contract checked and receive advice and guidance on housing and local Manchester communities.”

“If problems do arise at any stage of the searching or letting process – from disrepair to deposit disputes – Manchester Student Homes can help students, and conduct open and transparent investigations when code complaints are made. Students are advised to source their accommodation through our accredited providers.”

Despite reaching out to various letting agents for comment, asking whether they’d like to share their views on the matter and whether students are particularly difficult tenants, I received no response from any letting agency contacted.

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