Letting Agencies: Do We Need Them?

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You pay up to £150 per person if you rent your housing through a letting agency. Is it worth it?

As a private Southampton landlord told us, letting agencies “cost me and the tenants a fair bit of money”. So why do most students use them? Is it possible to rent housing without them?

Even the agencies admit: yes, it is. Tenant Direct told us, “you can [rent directly]. There are a few private landlords, and they do things very well”, whilst Lettings Direct conceded that, “there are very good private landlords”.

These can be easily found on sassh.co.uk, a database of student property in Southampton. One student who had found accommodation through the website told me “it’s a bit of effort to arrange the viewings, but at least you don’t have to pay agencies”. What’s more, direct contact with the landlord will be useful once you’ve moved in.

So why do lettings agencies exist? Ask them, and they have two justifications. Firstly, they claim to be more trustworthy than private landlords. Lettings Direct told us they offer “peace of mind” and “the security of knowing you’ve gone through a lettings agency”.

But explore this claim, and the only substance to this is that they are “registered with RLA” – the Residential Landlords’ Association. But RLA, with over 10,000 members, could be used to check out private landlords. So “security” can be achieved without agencies.

Their second justification is that they save clients time. Tenant Direct speculated that with a private landlord, you could “go out 6, 7 times a week [to viewings]and still not find the place you’re looking for”.

True, but this overlooks the fact that you can waste plenty of time with agencies, too. Many of the students we spoke to who had used agencies still found it time-consuming to find anywhere they liked.

Agency fees can thus appear not only avoidable, but excessive. Tenant Link, for instance, charge a £30 ‘contract fee’ which they can only explain by saying, “it’s for the contract: to write the contract, get the landlord to sign it and get you to sign it”. On hearing this, one student commented, “it’s not really worth it, they don’t really do much”.

Finding housing without agencies requires initiative and time, and it must be said that lettings agencies will almost certainly provide a wider choice of properties. But the university’s law school offers legal advice on renting houses and sassh.co.uk is a very useful database. Landlords themselves are also keen to find and co-operate with independent tenants. So for the ambitious and enterprising student, avoiding agencies can be a surprisingly easy and very economical alternative.

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