Should letting agencies in Edinburgh be treating student tenants better?

“In our first flat, we didn’t have a dining table, so we were eating on the floor, sometimes seeing the odd mouse running past us”, Sam remembers. Their flatmate Alex adds that it was, however, the best flat they have lived in so far as students in Edinburgh.

As February approaches, so does the serious stage of the annual hunt for student flats. Many students are likely to be looking for their first own home, which can be challenging, if not daunting. Many will use letting agencies for different reasons, like a lack of networks or fear of dodgy private landlords.

Letting agencies are the first point of contact for tenants, in the case of enquiries, necessary repair work, or complaints. As tenants move into a new home, it is also the responsibility of letting agencies to ensure that the house or flat is an accordance with hygienic and safety requirements.

For students, moving into their own home can be a rough awakening, often, experiencing instances where agencies do not fulfil, or even seriously neglect their duties. After an appeal on Facebook, over a hundred students completed a survey designed by The Student, and a dozen students shared their stories with us in interviews.

Of course, not every experience worth telling fits onto one page; what is presented here is only a selection.

Any student will have either experienced or heard stories of cold, damp rooms, extra pets in the shape of mice, mouldy bathrooms and walls, unreturned deposits, unfulfilled but required repair work. One could have the impression that students in Edinburgh have gotten used to a certain level of below par living standards.

The fact that such anecdotes circulate widely on campus probably contributes to this, as well as the romanticised notion of a Bohemian student lifestyle. “Now that I’m a student myself, it really annoys me when my mum gets nostalgic about her time as a student in a tiny cold room, because there really is nothing romantic about that”, says Sam.   

In their first year at university, Sam and Alex stressed about finding a place on the competitive housing market in Edinburgh, and chose a flat managed by Braemore Sales & Lettings. The trouble started on the day they moved in, finding a filthy flat without gas, electricity or heating. “The temperature was around 10 degrees, I got sick the next day”, Sam said. Different pieces of furniture were missing or broken.

A year later, in another Braemore managed flat, things were no better. With a broken washing machine and water all over the floor, the only advice Sam got from Braemore, at first, was to search self-help videos on YouTube. Currently, Sam, Alex and their flatmates avoid buying food that needs to go in the fridge, because their’s is simply too small for the number of people in the flat.

Another problem was the communication between them, the agency and the landlord. “We own five pet rats, and obviously know that many landlords might not be okay with that, so we asked our agent multiple times, and they assured us that it was not a problem and promised to endow us with a written pet agreement soon. But they never did. When the landlord came in for an inspection, he was not happy”, Alex said. 

Another notorious agency within the university community is Grant Property. Alan, a former tenant, recalls waking up one January morning and noticing that a cup of tea had frozen in his room overnight. The heating stopped working weekly, and some of the windows could not be shut properly. Grant Property also kept a considerable portion of Alan’s deposit after he accidentally damaged the kitchen floor. “What they [Grant Property] didn’t know was that the next tenants included my flatmate’s sister. Months later we went to her birthday party and discovered that a big hole in my bank account had failed to fix the big hole in the floor”.

Claudia, another Grant Property tenant, was unable to sleep in her room for about two months because of a stream coming from the ceiling, soaking the carpet. “Because I have eczema, my body quickly reacted to the humidity, and my skin got really irritable and infected. That, and the fact that I had lost my own space also had a negative impact on my mental health, exacerbating my depression”.

After a tedious back-and-forth, Grant Property agreed to pay compensation worth approximately three weeks of rent. “They only did that after my parents started to phone in nearly every day, after Patrick [Kilduff, President of Edinburgh University’s Student Association] called them, and because my boyfriend who is a journalist advised me to mention certain aspects of tenancy law in my correspondence”, says Claudia.

All students who were interviewed are convinced that agencies treat them less seriously because they are students, and thus often young, inexperienced and perhaps less self-confident than professionals or older people, as well as desperate for an affordable home. A common consensus amongst students is a lack of authority when handling tenant issues.

Talking to The Student, David Cabrelli, senior lecturer in commercial law, stresses that in extreme situations, it might be legitimate to withhold rent or threaten to do so.

Ginette Lowdean from the Advice Place, which is run by the Students’ Association, is not too surprised when she hears stories of the like. Queries and problems concerning accommodation are the second most frequent reason why students turn to the Advice Place, as she explained to The Student. ‘What I recommend is to check if a landlord is registered to take pictures of the property at the beginning, to keep a record of the correspondence with the agency and landlord, and to speak to us if an offer seems to be too good to be true.’

Students who are currently flat hunting may be pleased to hear that a new law, the Private Residential Tenancies (PRTs), came into force in December 2017. Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland, predicts that a new Code of Conduct will hopefully create a more transparent and open line of communication between tenants and letting agents.

This is particularly important for students in Edinburgh, where poor communication appears to be a particularly prevalent problem.  If still facing significant challenges, tenants are then able to bring their case forward to the newly established First Tier Tribunal, a free hearing allowing cases of misconduct to be brought against letting agencies. This could dramatically affect the letting agency’s credentials, hopefully creating the incentive for letting agencies to adhere to their new guidelines.

A further significant change is the end of fixed term private residential tenancies. Tenants are now able to end any contract signed after December 1, 2017 by giving 28 days notice, meaning you don’t have to spend your summers paying rent to an unoccupied flat if all tenants agree.

Image: Rosie Duckworth

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