Renting is getting more expensive in the UK. The landlord lobby points to 'below-inflation' average rises in rent, but these are deceptive. Average rises mask big variations in the real rents being charged, nor is 'rent' the only cost that tenants must pay. So, let's talk about the other costs of renting.
For those of you fortunate enough not to be in contact with private renting in the UK, let me elaborate on the process.
First, you see an advert for a home (more likely a room in a shared flat). You approach the 'lettings agent', a private company or person who put tenants in homes on behalf of the landlord and often manages the tenancy as well. They arrange a viewing, either with themselves taking you round or perhaps just a time when you can meet the current tenants. Unfortunately, there is now an increasingly uneasy trend for agents to run 'group viewings' i.e. showing lots of prospective tenants around at the same time to ramp up the pressure on tenants.
Next, you wade through the documentation, filling in an application form. Some lettings agents will charge tenants to process this form. For this form you could be asked for bank statements, pay slips, immigration documentation and a whole host of personal information along with the classic references from former landlords. The forms are sent off, and on to a 'referencing agency', for a fee – maybe £100. Even a credit check (actual cost £0.20) is often charged at £50.
Referencing agencies will look at your financial details and references, and then recommend whether you should be allowed to rent. For those who are self-employed, on fixed contracts, and the other precarious situations that pervade the UK, they can and do ask for a guarantor or several months rent up front. Some lettings agencies specify that the guarantor has to be a family member, and a property owner, and a waged employee – screening out those without family fortunate enough to own property. Lettings agents often charge for a 'Guarantor check' (maybe another £50 if it's a standard credit check – see above). Some bypass this system all together by offering prospective tenants a deal where they can 'secure' their future home by paying an up front reservation fee – there is no obligation for agents to honour this.
Assuming you've made it this far, next comes the deposit. It has long been standard for landlords to ask for a month in rent as a deposit, should there be costs associated with the end of the tenancy. In the past few years, the level of deposit has crept up to six weeks as standard with some agents and landlords asking for 12 months of rent. Nominally, tenants would expect to get their deposit back at the end of their tenancy – but the increase in deposit ramps up the up-front cost of renting. So, to rent you would need to pay at the start: one month rent, six weeks deposit, agency fees of up to £1000, plus your costs of moving.
A Kent CAB recently had a case where a prospective tenant with a poor credit record was charged £650 for a credit check, £1150 for the security deposit, and asked for 6 months rent up front. Later this was upped to 12 months rent in advance.
Since 2007 tenancy deposits have been protected by legislation – this was the result of widespread abuse of this system with landlords refusing to return the deposit to their tenants or overcharging for 'cleaning' at the end of the tenancy. According to the data provided by the main three tenancy deposit protection services, around 1% of the deposits they protect are the subject of a dispute. However, this does work out to around 25 000 cases a year. So far this year, 13 cases of deposit fraud have been investigated and are due to go to court – Newham Council is currently investigating around 32 lettings agents, and have recovered 'thousands of pounds' in illegally-held tenancy deposits.
The frequency of moves means further sets of fees, an increasingly high deposit, and all the other costs of moving. Whenever a campaign group such as Shelter makes noises about tenants not being able to stay long-term, the landlord lobby counters with their own research. Recently, a Shelter statement about retaliatory eviction (when a landlord evicts you for asking for repairs or otherwise asserting your rights) was met with a statement from the National Landlords Association (NLA) that 'the average tenancy lasts 2.5 years'. Data on private rented housing is notoriously poor, so where did this figure come from? It comes from a survey of 2068 NLA members conducted by a company employed by the NLA. By comparison, the English Housing Survey (drawn from a survey of 13,652) claims that the average tenancy lasts 3.8 years – significantly longer. There are two possible conclusions to draw, either tenancy are much shorter on average if your landlord is an NLA member, or that there is something up with the statistics.
Indeed, average tenancy length tells us very little. If someone has been a tenant in the same place for a long time (17+ years) then that will skew the average – and this is more likely because tenants living in the same place since before 1997 cannot be evicted without reason. You can see this effect at work in some of the 'stock condition surveys' carried out by local councils on private rented housing. In Bath & North East Somerset, 61% of private tenants had been in their current home for less than a year. However, the average length of tenancy across private renting was just under three years.
Statistics about rent increases are even more contested. Recently, triumphant headlines read that rents had increased by 1%. However, this is the mean average rent (i.e. rent increases in parts of the market could be masked by stable rent in another. If we look at median rents another picture emerges, between 2002/3 and 2011/12 rents rose by 67%. Wages rose by 25% over the same period, meaning that renting was becoming more expensive for more people. A survey by Shelter found that 4% of landlords increased rents as a result of mortgage costs, 20% were encouraged to raise rents by their lettings agent.
So, when we talk about the cost of renting we should talk about more than just the rent and actually think about it in terms of what it costs a tenant. Maybe we should think about the cost to the community when people leave after two and half years (to use the NLA statistics)? More families than ever are renting (more than doubling since 2000), and renting families are ten times more likely to have moved in the last year than those paying a mortgage. It's time to reform this system.
This article is part of our Housing in Crisis series.