Gordon MacRae: Tenancy laws are no threat to good agents

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IT IS deeply disappointing that letting agency DJ Alexander chose to blame its rent rises on efforts by campaigners and the Scottish Government to stamp out illegality and cowboy letting agents.

However, in citing two recent changes, which ensure better protection for tenants from being ripped off, the agency is in danger of reinforcing every negative stereotype people have about the letting agent market.

The first change is legislation to clarify an almost 30-year-old act that makes the charging of premiums to tenants, such as £50 for a photocopy of a lease or £100 for a credit check, illegal. This was originally passed into law in 1984. The new law should make prosecutions easier but premiums have been and will remain illegal.

The second change was to place tenancy deposits in a protected account managed by a third-party organisation that will arbitrate in any dispute between landlord and tenants. A deposit has always been the tenant’s money, held by the landlord or their agent much in the same way as a solicitor holds a client’s money on their behalf when they are buying a home. Best practice prior to the legislation, according to the letting agents trade body, was to hold this money in a special account, not to place it in the letting agent’s own coffers and never ever to spend it.

Our Reclaim Your Fees toolkit offers information and advice on what letting agents can and can’t legally charge for, template letters and a user guide to taking agents to the small claims court if they refuse to pay up. To date it has been used by 2,500 people to start proceedings to reclaim more than £280,000. Forty-nine of them were DJ Alexander tenants trying to claim back an average of £205 each.

Clarification of the law and the introduction of a tenancy deposit scheme are welcome and can only strengthen Scotland’s private rented sector to help make it a fairer and more secure place.

Only those who chose to flout the law by charging premiums and adopting the risky business model of relying on tenants’ fees and deposits to keep their businesses fluid should have something to fear.

• Gordon MacRae is head of communications and policy at Shelter Scotland.