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How can I find a letting agent who won’t let tenants run riot in my home?

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I have to let out my flat because I’m moving abroad for work for a couple of years. The last time I did this, the flat got pretty bashed up by tenants – not just a bit of wear and tear.

The letting agency was meant to manage everything for me while I was away and couldn’t do it myself, but didn’t appear to have taken much interest in cleaning it up and properly re-marketing it until I intervened and came back to resolve the situation.

I’m about to have a new set of agencies around to have a look. 

Are there any giveaway questions I should ask, or telltale signs I should look out for when I am interviewing the agents, to work out if they will find better tenants and do more to look after my flat? It’s my home, and I’ll be moving in again when I get back.

This reader is looking for a professional letting agent who will find good tenants for their home

This reader is looking for a professional letting agent who will find good tenants for their home

Helen Crane of This is Money replies: Handing over the keys to your home to someone else can be hard – especially if they are just keeping it warm for a short while while you are working away. 

A good managing agent should take away some of that stress, ensuring your property is well taken care of while dealing with any issues that come up, from a lost set of keys to a broken boiler to finding new tenants if it becomes empty.

For your peace of mind, you will also want to be kept in the loop with regular inspections and updates. 

This is especially important for you, as you will be out of the country for long periods of time – and it sounds as if your previous agent let you down in this area.

You’ll also be paying them a pretty penny for the privilege, so you need to know they are going to do a good job.

According to insurer Simply Business, landlords can pay anywhere between about 12 per cent and 20 per cent of the monthly rent collected to their managing agent, depending on the level of service they require.

There will also be one-off fees for things like finding new tenants and referencing.

I asked four property experts the questions they would ask a prospective managing agent to sort the wheat from the chaff, and they came up with the following advice. 

Get recommendations and check out online reviews

When you are searching for agents to interview for the job, a glowing recommendation can help you decide which firms should be at the top of the pile. 

If you know any other landlords, or perhaps colleagues who have also worked abroad, ask them if they used letting or management agents and whether they were happy with them. 

However, you will first want to check that they have similar properties to yours on their books. If they’re used to managing student houses or working for large portfolio landlords, for example, they might not have the right set-up for your flat. 

You should be able to get a feel for this by looking at their website, or giving them a call to ask.  

Renting out your home can be hard, but property managers can take away some of the stress

Renting out your home can be hard, but property managers can take away some of the stress 

‘Firstly, pinpoint three local agents that service your area and that have similar properties to your home,’ says Lara Bradley, head of lettings at property developer and manager Strawberry Star. 

‘Most of our business is from referrals, so try and partner with an agent who has been recommended to you. Then, do your research on all of them.’

Online reviews are also a useful tool. Look at independent sites such as Trustpilot and Google reviews, but bear in mind that reviews can still be faked, and some companies will give their customers incentives to post a good one. 

‘The first step to finding a good managing agent is checking reviews,’ says Jack Reid, founder and director of estate agent Orlando Reid. 

‘The agent should have a good number of high-quality reviews specifically mentioning management. 

‘Although it may be laborious going through hundreds of reviews, it should save the heartache of choosing an agent who doesn’t look after your property well.’

However good their service is, most agents will get negative reviews from time to time. How quickly and professionally they respond to these is a good indication of their competence. 

‘With online reviews, look out for when the agent takes the time to respond to any negative feedback and tries to resolve these issues’, Bradley says. ‘Look out for more recent reviews too; ones during the pandemic.’ 

Make sure they have the right qualifications

Another easy way to rule out agents is by discarding those who don’t have professional qualifications, although do bear in mind that these are voluntary and not required by law. Some agents with many years of experience may not have these qualifications.

‘Make sure the property manager is ARLA qualified so they are fully up to date with all legal requirements – their job is to protect you,’ says David Mumby, head of prime central London lettings at the estate agent Knight Frank.  

ARLA Propertymark is a professional body for letting agents, and has more than 17,500 member firms. 

While the property industry is not regulated, ARLA members voluntarily agree to provide company information to the organisation every year to demonstrate transparency. 

This includes details of their standard tenancy agreement, money laundering checks and data protection policies, for example. 

It is also worth doing some background research on the company and their staff’s level of experience – perhaps by looking at reviews on Glassdoor or Linkedin. 

Says Bradley: ‘You want to understand the size of the team and their collective experience – if everyone has been in the office a good number of years, it’s an indicator that the office is happy and customers are happy, as good people tend to stay.’

Check out the company's credentials online to find out whether their staff are happy - if they are, they will stick around longer and work harder for their customers

Check out the company’s credentials online to find out whether their staff are happy – if they are, they will stick around longer and work harder for their customers

Check their workload

You will also want to find out how many homes each member of staff is responsible for, as you don’t want your flat getting forgotten by an over-worked agent. 

Mumby says it should be no more than 100 per agent, while Bradley puts her estimate at 150 to 200.   

‘Find out how many properties they manage in their portfolio and how many staff,’ she says. ‘If they have 300 properties and only one property manager on the ground, this should be a red flag.’

Ask about their inspection policy 

In addition, you should find out how many times the agent would plan to visit your home for an inspection if you appointed them. 

‘How many times will the property manager visit the property, and will it be the actual property manager, or is this outsourced?’ Mumby says. ‘I would look for at least two visits per year, and more as required – should a neighbour call and say there was a party for instance.  

You might need to pay extra for more regular inspections, but it could be worth it for the peace of mind that your home is being treated well.  

Reid suggests asking for quarterly inspections, to encourage the tenants to keep the flat in good nick. 

‘There is normally a cost related to this, however, the fact that the tenant knows mid-term inspections will take place throughout the tenancy will encourage them to maintain the property in good condition,’ he says. 

The agent should provide you with reports after each inspection to keep you abreast of any issues with, or damage to, the property. 

Ask your prospective agents whether these will include pictures, if that is important to you. 

Since the pandemic began, some agents have been taking videos to send to landlords who aren’t able to visit the properties themselves. 

‘We’ve started doing video reports over lockdown, and that’s been very well received by our landlords – adding an additional layer of transparency and confidence,’ says Bradley.  

Grill them on current regulations

The pandemic has led to various changes in the rules surrounding rented properties, particularly when it comes to evictions and the notice period landlords need to give before evicting a tenant. 

Chris Morris, head of lettings at estate agent Cluttons, says this provides you with a good opportunity to check an agent is up to speed on the regulations.  

‘The agent should be able to confirm the amount of notice required to end the tenancy,’ he says. 

‘This has changed numerous times recently owing to coronavirus, so it’s an opportunity for the agent to demonstrate that they have a good command of current legislation.’

Currently, tenants should get two weeks’ notice of an eviction date and four months’ notice before court proceedings can start.  

Inventories and returning the deposit can be a source of drama between landlords and tenants, so if you are appointing a letting agent ask them how they manage the process

Inventories and returning the deposit can be a source of drama between landlords and tenants, so if you are appointing a letting agent ask them how they manage the process 

Ask how they carry out references and inventories

The vast majority of disputes between landlords and tenants occur because of disagreements about the condition of the property and how much of a deposit should be paid back – as you unfortunately found out when you let your home previously. 

This is why finding out how an agent carries out inventories is crucial. 

‘The process must be robust and incredibly thorough,’ says Bradley. ‘For this to happen, we use an external agency, as in case of any dispute they can act as an independent neutral party. 

‘Often, having an external inventory and check-out agency can remove the need for multiple back and forths, as it elicits much more trust in the process from both the tenant and landlord.’

Hopefully your next tenancy will run smoothly. But in case it doesn’t, you may also wish to ask what the agent’s track record is in deposit disputes that end up going to court. 

‘If the agent says they’ve had five claims on the deposit and they’ve won three, that’s considered pretty good in the industry, relative to the number of properties on their books,’ says Bradley. 

‘Claims often rest on how thorough the initial inventory is – it’s pretty standard that a one-bed property can have a check-in report 40 pages long.’ 

Tell them finding a good tenant is your priority 

From your message, it seems that finding a respectful tenant is perhaps more important to you than securing the highest possible rent. 

Managing agents are often instructed to do the latter, so be clear about what you want to get out of this letting arrangement and ask them how they will find you the kind of tenant you are looking for.   

‘The landlord should look for a managing agent that places a lot of focus on securing a highly appropriate tenant, and has the capability to do this,’ says Morris. 

‘Some agents think that landlords are only motivated by achieving the highest possible rent. The landlord should ask for examples of similar properties let by the agent and what type of tenants they attracted.’  

Asking about the referencing process will be crucial to this. Some may handle it in-house, while others will outsource it to an external company. 

To make sure your rental income is secure, a credit check should always be included according to Bradley.  

‘An Experian credit check should always be carried out. The tenants have to earn 2.5 times the rent to pass the affordability check – this is the bare minimum.’

Trust your instincts and first impressions

After spending some time interviewing agents, you should start to get a feel for their service and responsiveness. 

‘How quick have they been to respond and what have their service levels been so far? If you are having to chase them at this stage or they are unprofessional, steer well clear,’ says Mumby. 

Trusting your gut instinct might also come into play here.  

‘If the landlord develops a good rapport with one of the agents and genuinely feels they are the best person to look after their home and best protect their interests, they are likely to be right more often than not,’ says Morris. 

Meet the tenant before you leave

Once you have appointed your agent and they have found a tenant for you, try to arrange to meet them if your moving schedule allows. 

Ultimately it is the tenant who you are entrusting with your home day-to-day, and putting a face to their name will get your relationship off to a good start.   

You could also use this as an opportunity to show them how things work in the property; where they can find the stopcock and gas and electric meters; and to explain any quirks.  

‘To give our landlords more confidence that they have chosen the right tenant, I always advise that they meet their tenant in person before the contract starts,’ says Bradley. 

‘By meeting each other, you become real humans and, therefore, they are much more likely to show respect for the property. 

‘Being able to explain that it is your family home, as opposed to a faceless landlord just taking their money, often marks the start of a special relationship where more empathy usually follows on both sides.’ 

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Teenager arrested after car driven through Co Down parade, injuring two

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A teenager has been arrested after two men suffered minor injuries when a car was driven through a band parade in Co Down.

A 16-year-old has been arrested over a number of alleged driving offences and suspected common assault.

Police said a black Seat Leon failed to stop for officers and drove into the parade in the Newry Street area of Rathfriland.

The incident was reported to police at around 8.40pm on Friday.

Video of the incident shows the car driving towards the group before it mounts the footpath.

People can be heard shouting at the car to stop but it left the area at speed.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon district chief inspector Barney O’Connor said: “Last night, a black Seat Leon failed to stop, a number of times, for police who were on duty in connection with a band parade in Rathfriland.

“This vehicle then drove into the parade as it made its way up Newry Street.

“One man aged in his 40s and one man aged in his 30s received minor injuries following the incident.

“The male has been arrested on suspicion of six counts of dangerous driving, six counts for failing to stop for police, aggravated taking and driving away, disqualified driving, no insurance and three counts of failing to stop and report and remain at an injury road traffic collision.

“He was also arrested on suspicion of two counts of common assault and other related offences. He remains in police custody at this time.

‘Utterly reckless’

“At this stage, we are not investigating a sectarian hate crime motive in relation to this incident.

“Our officers are continuing to robustly investigate the circumstances of this incident.

“Officers have already spoken to a number of those present and I know this has been alarming for all those involved.

“I would like to thank those in the community and those involved from the band, who have already come forward, for their cooperation and assistance.”

Alliance councillor for the area Eoin Tennyson said: “Shocking reports from Rathfriland that a car drove through two marching bands last night.

“Utterly reckless and disgraceful behaviour. Thankfully no-one was seriously injured or killed.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “There is palpable anger across the unionist community following last night’s outrageous incident in Rathfriland in which a car was driven into two bands.

“This is entirely understandable as we could very well be waking up to news of many people injured or worse.

“The shocking behaviour captured on film needs to result in a robust PSNI investigation and arrests.” – PA

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Floating assets: Static homes on water are the new des res

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Living on a narrowboat or barge might be a dream for many, but the practicalities can be daunting; filling up water tanks with a hose, having to take the boat off to pump out and running out of electricity.

But it’s now possible to buy a modern static houseboat, which is just like living in a flat on water with the advantage of a beautiful location and being cheaper than a home on dry land.

Caroline Clark, 55, bought a luxurious 45 ft by 16 ft floating home from Prestige for £230,000 and is waiting to move in next month. 

Tranquil: Caroline Clark and her dog Aggie on their Prestige floating home at Priory Marina on the Great River Ouse, just outside Bedford

Tranquil: Caroline Clark and her dog Aggie on their Prestige floating home at Priory Marina on the Great River Ouse, just outside Bedford

After she sold her bungalow in a village just outside Bedford, she put the deposit down and worked out with Prestige exactly what she wanted for her home: a study rather than a second bedroom, and a separate bathroom and walk-in wardrobe instead of an en suite.

Since April, she’s been living in the showhome at Priory Marina on the Great River Ouse, just outside Bedford, where there will eventually be 12 houseboats.

Caroline had frequently walked round the back of the marina and seen all the boats moored there and thought they seemed appealing. 

So, when idly looking for properties for sale, she saw the floating homes advertised on Rightmove and couldn’t believe it.

‘I sent the link to my parents saying I’m tempted by this, then went to see it and immediately fell in love with the whole place.

I remembered going to Amsterdam in the past and seeing the houseboats on the canal and thinking what a fantastic way of life, but never imagining that I could live like this in Bedford,’ she says.

She hadn’t thought about living on a boat before as she didn’t want all the hassle involved and the potential cold in winter.

‘But these houseboats give you all the benefit of a boat, in fact with much better views out of the French doors, as well as the luxury of central heating, sewerage and running water from the mains.

‘As I live on my own, apart from with Aggie my rescue dog, those things are important.’

Caroline says she can walk into the centre of town in 20 minutes, swim in the river and she’s bought a big Canadian kayak.

‘You start doing different activities when you live on the water. It’s very sociable here, too. So far, there are four other boats on my pontoon and the owners are all in their 50s/60s.’

But it’s not that cheap to live on.

‘You can’t get a mortgage and insurance is quite expensive as if anything goes wrong, you have to pay for salvage. 

‘I pay about £900 a year and £3,000 in annual mooring fees, which includes water and sewage,’ she says. ‘But it would take a lot to tempt me away from here. 

‘There is a lovely tranquillity about this place and you feel connected to nature. It’s like a little haven in Bedford, tucked away, and it feels magical to be part of it.’

Nine similar floating homes are also available at Sawley Marina in Nottinghamshire, priced from £179,000, prestigehomeseeker.com.

Richard Homewood, of River Pod Houseboats, has been making bespoke floating homes for more than four years. 

Based in Kent, he delivers them on a low loader lorry all over the UK and these environmentally friendly houseboats have been bought by people as young as 22 and as old as 80, who all want a slightly different way of life on the water.

‘All our boats are on mains water and plug into mains electric. Sewage can either be pumped out every six months, plumbed into mains drainage or if someone chooses to have a Klargester system installed, the dirty water is treated and sanitised before going back into a river or into a holding tank. Then it only needs to be pumped out every one to two years,’ says Richard.

A couple of these homes have been bought for use as an Airbnb.

Tara and Quentin Branson, who are commercial builders, live near Allington Lock on the River Medway, Kent.

They bought The Lady Florence, which is moored alongside their land for £100,000 and have been surprised how much interest they have had in it.

‘We’ve used it a bit, it’s so beautiful on the river and a step away from our hectic life, but it’s fully booked through August.’

And they are so pleased with their investment, they are thinking of buying another. One, two and three-bedroom River Pods start from £68,000, theriverpodcompany.co.uk.

One problem to be aware of when buying a houseboat is finding a suitable mooring, which can be difficult. So, if you can find a houseboat that already has a ‘home’, then that should really float your boat.

On the market… and on the water

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‘They are everywhere in this area’

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We should see plenty of action in an hour, Dr John Dunbar says assuredly via email, excited at the prospect. As a venom expert, many nights are spent combing the walls and railings of Dublin housing estates for Ireland’s highly-poisonous false widow spider.

Alone in the dark, armed with extended tweezers and a headlamp, he carefully places each one inside long plastic tubes as the residents sleep inside, blissfully unaware.

On a chilly evening thousands of such spiders are scattered just out of sight along Beech Park, a long quiet suburban road in Lucan lined with detached homes and webbed hedges. The noble false widow – or steatoda nobilis – first recorded in Ireland in 1999 is far more common than most people realise and its numbers are increasing alarmingly.

Within two minutes Dr Dunbar is poking at a web string. He has spotted two long, thin protruding legs, inconspicuous to the passerby. It is the first trophy of 94 that night.

Although he has handled thousands, Dr Dunbar has never been bitten. Twenty bites have been recorded in Ireland, he declares, and the bite is one to be avoided.

Hospitalised

“In some cases [bite symptoms] are so mild they just observed it for a couple of hours and it was pretty much gone,” Dr Dunbar explains. “Then we’ve had other cases where people have been hospitalised.”

In some cases victims have experienced severe bacterial infections, debilitating pain and body tremors.

Steatoda nobilis is compared to the notorious black widow for a number of reasons including notable similarities in appearance, genetics and toxins. It is known as the “false widow” because in regions where they co-exist it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Smaller than the native house spider, chocolate brown with a large bulbous abdomen and an intricate cream pattern sometimes resembling a skull, the false widow is easy to identify.

Five or six years ago researchers would have had to look hard for one. Today, a single hunter can expect to bag between 100 and 150 in a few hours in any suburban estate.

Thought to have originated in the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Canaries, it arrived in the United Kingdom and Europe on banana boats. Throughout the 20th century it established thriving populations throughout England and Wales, and later colonised parts of western Europe, California, Chile and the Middle East.

Although found in Co Wicklow a little more than two decades ago, little was known about its presence here until more recently. A 2017 Royal Irish Academy study confirmed the species in at least 16 counties, but most significantly in the greater Dublin area where it is abundant in urban buildings and around street furniture.

As Dr Dunbar walks slowly from suburban home to home, he identifies and scoops up the spiders from virtually every single driveway pillar he examines. His head torch illuminates the undersides of wall ledges, shrubs, gates, guttering, the back of ESB boxes. They are everywhere. After just a short while it seems other native species are relatively difficult to come by.

“[Their urban habitats] bring them in conflict with humans,” Dr Dunbar explains. “Usually the spider accidentally gets entangled in clothing or bed sheets and when they’re unintentionally pinned or squashed the spider actually bites, purely in defence. They’re actually quite a docile species.

Potent venom

“But they do have a venom that’s a little bit more potent than what we’re used to. It’s very similar to the venom of black widows, not quite as potent, but still kind of getting there.”

The risk posed are similar to ones posed by bees and wasps. Each spider can give about half of one microlitre of venom, about one thousandth of a millilitre. On his regular hunts Dr Dunbar tells the gardaí he will be prowling. The glow from his headlamp and his intricate inspection of neighbourhood walls are common, as are encounters with neighbours.

Just as he is plucking a sample with his extended tweezers, a resident approaches with a fair idea of what is going on but curious all the same. “They are obviously everywhere in this area,” Colm Gallagher says resignedly. “I know what the implications are; they have venom and whatever else. But they’re not terribly dangerous.”

They do go inside houses, but not usually. Whether for the curious resident, the arachnophobe or the scientist, there is still a lot to learn about these creatures and a race to learn it.

“They are here to stay, there is no way we’re going to get rid of them,” he says. “But we really need to monitor them while we can over the next years and see what happens. Now science must tell us what we are dealing with,” he said.

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