Investigation: Private Student Housing

Our findings from this investigation suggests 55 per cent of Oxford’s student tenants were dissatisfied with the conditions of their private house.

The problems that students brought up in both our survey and interviews ranged from damp and mould – reported by 30 per cent of respondents – to more severe problems, which potentially demonstrate a breach of the law.

Other articles in this investigation:

 

“A cynical and greedy industry”

Fire alarms and boilers were left broken for weeks. Agencies allegedly lied about the rent they owed students. Some students told us how the houses for which they had signed tenancy agreements were not fully built. Tenants were reportedly forced to clean up raw sewage from their conservatory floor after a pipe burst, the result of shoddy maintenance work.

A student told us that the manhole for the sewage pipe that was under their carpet had not been secured properly and burst. The tenants were forced to clean up the leaked sewage themselves.

One student told us about being charged £2,000 for electricity used by builders working on the house.

The reason, they surmised, was that the letting agency in charge of their house “never paid for the electricity that the construction workers used all summer long”. 

Even after they turned off the electricity in all their rooms, the bill “still kept going up”, and they told us that every morning the builders asked if they could run a power cord into their front hall socket. 

 

Numerous complaints were also made about the attitudes of letting agents. Comments such as “Did your parents tell you to ask this?” were common, leading to more bad feeling between letting agents and tenants.

“They took such a long time to respond, perhaps hoping that we’d just give up”

Many of the students we interviewed were angry about the length of time it took agencies to reply to their emails, some of them being pleas for urgently needed repairs. In fact, only two of the agencies we contacted – Premier and
Taylor’s – appeared to take the concerns of the people we interviewed seriously by committing to investigating them further.

A spokesperson from Taylor’s told us, “Each property varies depending on what we do for the Landlord (Introduction Only or Fully Managed),” and suggested that the student in question get in contact with the agency. The student told Cherwell she had done this on many occasions.

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Some considered this reluctance to reply a tactic by letting agents to force students to give up on their demands. One commented, “They took such a long time to respond to our emails, perhaps hoping that we’d just give up.”

The problem of whether it was the landlords or the letting agents who were responsible for various problems was also a recurrent theme throughout the investigation. Grace Maher, renting with Premier, told C+ that the agency “washed their hands of us”, with Premier claiming that the house was “unmanaged” — in other words, not Premier’s responsibility, but the landlord’s.

Although this investigation centres upon a few agencies – S&C, Scott Fraser, Premier, Taylor’s and RMA – we also received complaints about students’ experiences with others, such as Manor House and Digs Property Management.

The latter agency responded to these allegations, saying, “We have no record of the complaints made against us about dehumidifiers and rodents […] but that might be because a lot of problems are dealt with directly through the
landlords.” 

They said that they were keen to hear about any more problems.

The students who we interviewed above all stressed the importance of researching letting agencies before signing anything, while one advised, “Don’t be afraid to fight and be forceful.”

Premier

 

Premier were one of three letting agencies to respond after C+ sent them a list of the issues that the students we spoke to had with them. One of their partners asked me to bring names and addresses “in relation to the ‘several complaints’ you have had”, and agreed to investigate the issues further.

One of these complaints relates to someone who says they were charged £400 for cleaning, despite being told by a member of staff that they were taking good care of the property. Meanwhile, the check-out report of the house next door stated a similar level of cleanliness, but were only charged a mere £35 – Jonathon Turnbull’s piece relates how the tenants successfully got the cleaning bill reduced.

The Premier partner told me that the person who dealt with that house had since been fired, commenting that the “£400 charge sounds a bit excessive, especially if they are taking care of the property”.

Another case related to an eight bedroom house on Divinity Road, which was in the process of being converted from a six bedroom property. Grace Maher, who graduated last year, told C+ how “the date that we were supposed to be moving into the property was delayed three times.

“All eight of us eventually arrived to find the house half-completed (without any warning from the landlord or the agents): there weren’t stairs between the top floors; there wasn’t a full wall to our living room; there weren’t doors to some of the rooms; all the rooms were filled with building materials.”

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1 in 5 students reported unfinished building work or poor quality maintenance

She explained, “The landlady was initially defensive (claiming it wasn’t her fault but the builders’) but became apologetic (especially when questioned as to why she hadn’t warned us before we all made our way to Oxford) and eventually agreed to refund us some of our expenses.

“Premier were totally useless – they have an office about 200m from the house but claimed to know nothing about the building works and washed their hands of us. We’d each paid £100 in agency fees by this point, but they claimed that since the property was managed by the landlord, it really wasn’t their problem, and they didn’t offer any compensation or apologies.

“The house was completed about a week later with quite a lot of shoddy work which caused problems, such as mould, leaks, and electrical issues.”

When C+ raised the case with Premier, the partner knew immediately which house I meant, commenting that their move-in day was “an absolute nightmare”. He had “rung the landlady every day throughout the week leading up to the move in date. While she assured me that the property would be ready at first, she stopped answering her phone a few days beforehand.”

He added, “There’s only so much you can do as a letting agent aside from going down to the house and doing the building work yourself.”

Responding to the claims that they “washed their hands” of the tenants, he reminded me of the difference between “managed” and “unmanaged” properties – in the former case, a landlord uses an agency to manage leases and tenants, while the landlord deals with “unmanaged” properties directly.

In response to the suggestion that students are seen as an “easy target”, the partner told me, “When a student walks through the door they’re a client just like everyone else. What I often find quite scary is how easily students sign up to leases without taking it away and thinking about it, and we then get calls from parents saying, ‘Why have you made my child sign this?’”

The partner said he was open to discussing with students their feedback from their private housing experiences, informing me that Premier had been in contact with Brookes Student Union representatives in particular. “You’re welcome to come and do half a day’s work with me so you can see first hand the respect we give each and every one of our clients,” he told me.