You should only ever use letting agencies that are signed up to a main letting agency organisations and The Property Ombudsman.
This way you can be sure that they are adhering to an official code of practice meaning they have been vetted beforehand, and also ensure you have a greater level of protection should something go wrong.
Letting agents that sign up to one of the four associations should:
Put your deposit in a recognised Tenancy Deposit Scheme and adhere to its rules
Have professional indemnity insurance
Provide you with a copy of the Tenancy Agreement to review before you have to sign it
Give you a full inventory of the property
Treat you with respect
Have an in-house complaints system and give you the right to complain to The Property Ombudsman
Furthermore, they should not disclose your personal information without your consent.
Search recognised groups, like:
National Landlords Association (NLA)
UK Association of Letting Agents (UK ALA)
Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA)
National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS)
Use these to look for letting agents in your area, and cross-reference with the search on The Property Ombudsman website.
Always view properties with the agent before you sign anything or hand over any cash. This is the only way you can check that the property is actually theirs to let and see what it's like for yourself.
If they ask you to pay a fee before letting you see it, you know something's up.
Letting agencies will often ask you to pay a holding fee to secure a property you like before you have done any paperwork, and sometimes even before you have even visited it.
If you are certain it is worth paying out for then:
Get written confirmation of where your money will be kept
Get written confirmation that you will get your money back in full if you or the landlord pull out
Pay on a credit card or debit card
Get a receipt that states the exact amount you have paid
Many agents will keep your holding fee if you decide you no longer want the property. So be careful when paying and try to establish beforehand what will happen if you change your mind (and get it in writing).
Agents are not obliged to put these fees in any kind of protection scheme and there is no guarantee you will get your money back whether you end up renting the property or not.
There are many questions you should ask before moving in, but above all ask:
What fees apply upfront and ongoing? Letting agents need to explain their fees and tell you what they are for. If you feel they are unreasonable then negotiate or go elsewhere.
How much notice will you get if your landlord wants you to move out? Find out what is stated in your contract before signing anything.
How much notice must you give if you want to move out and how long is the initial tenancy?
Will the rent be fixed for the duration of the contract? Make sure it is, otherwise your landlord can increase it whenever they feel like it.
What is included in the property? Get a full inventory and check it before you agree to the rental.
How much is the rent? Get it broken down weekly, monthly and yearly so that it is absolutely clear what you are expected to pay.
When will you need to pay rent? Any good landlord should have a set date when they take payment, if it is monthly (or a set day each week if it's weekly).
How can you pay rent? Ask if it's possible to pay by Direct Debit as this will give you some protection. If they insist on cash, make sure you get a detailed and signed receipt each time.
How will your deposit be protected? Ensure that your deposit will be held in a Tenancy Deposit Protection scheme - it has been compulsory for agents and landlords to do this since 2007 so there's no excuse.
Your deposit could be the equivalent of a month or two's rent, so it is crucial that you make sure it is protected - otherwise you may not see it again.
Find out which tenancy deposit protection scheme the agency uses. Then, check that they are registered - do not just take their word for it.
There are three organisations currently in operation:
Deposit Protection Service
Tenancy Deposit Scheme
If the letting agent is not willing to tell you where your money is kept, or are not part of a protection scheme, do not give them any of your money.
Even if they are above board make sure you do not pay with cash. It may be the easiest way, but if you do there is no protection on your money.
If your deposit is more than £100, paying with a credit card will mean you are protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.
Otherwise, use a debit card because you may be able to make a chargeback claim if something goes wrong.
Without a full inventory listing every piece of furniture and the state of each room at the start of your tenancy, the letting agency could claim that you have caused damage which was not your fault.
This can be used as a reason to not give your deposit back, so make sure you have a signed inventory that you can use as evidence that you have left the property as you found it.
Ideally, get them to show you round again with the inventory.
Raise any issues promptly, otherwise you are essentially accepting the inventory and state of the property.
Don't get caught out simply by forgetting to contact your landlord or agent.
If the letting agency is holding off supplying one, be persistent and do not sign your tenancy agreement until you have got one and checked it against the house, flat or room you will be renting.
When you have got your tenancy agreement/contract, read it through and check all the details carefully.
Check that the costs and terms listed in the contract are the same as those that your letting agent or landlord verbally agreed to.
Make sure you raise any issues immediately and, if there is something which does not seem right, ask them to elaborate in writing before you sign the contract.
If you need help looking at the contract or are not sure if the terms are fair then contact the Citizens Advice and ask for advice.
The Property Ombudsman exists to help tenants who have a problem with a letting agent.
The problem is, they can only take action against letting agents that have registered with them.
Unbelievably, it is not compulsory for letting agents to sign up to the Property Ombudsman, so many of the worse type of agent are exempt from their mediation process and redress scheme.
It is not surprising that there have been calls for the system to be drastically altered.