Letting Agent Ripped Apart by Social Media

by Mark Alexander

7 years ago

Letting Agent Ripped Apart by Social Media

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Letting Agent Ripped Apart by Social Media

I am writing this blog to balance out another article on this website and to raise a question about whether it is reasonable for a business to be exposed to a trial by social media.

Is it even possible that a group formed on Facebook could muster up enough support to potentially bring an established business to its knees without a fair trial? Until this week I would have thought not but I have evidence that it is happening right now.

Now I’m not taking sides here, nor do I want to be a judge or a jury in a case that doesn’t effect me or my business. However, I am aware of a scenario whereby one persons word against another has been escalated to a point that could result in the collapse of an established business.

Is it right that media attention mustered up by a small group of disgruntled students and their parents could result in the suspension of a letting agent from a variety of trade organisations without a case ever going close to a court room?

The problems started when letting agent Campbells Property made a financial claim against a guarantor of a student who had allegedly soiled a mattress. The student denies the allegations and the guarantor refuses to pay the disputed damage claim.

I have spoken to a Director at Campbells who has confirmed their policy is not to take damage deposits. Instead they charge a none refundable letting fee of £220 per student and take guarantees from parents or an alternative guarantor to pay for any damages and any necessary cleaning to put the property back into a lettable condition at the end of the tenancy. Victoria campbell, a Director of the firm, told me “these terms of business are willingly entered into by around 1,500 tenants and guarantors every year with Campbells”.

The disputed bill for the soiled mattress has escalated to the point where a facebook page has been created to solicit more complaints against the letting agent. People thought to be posting in defence of the agent have been blocked from posting and had their posts removed. A completely independent letting agent was blocked mistakenly and reported this on Property118.com. He was commenting completely independently without taking sides and made this point on property118.com. He very quickly received a public apology (also on Property118.com) from the creator of the facebook thread.

To my knowledge the number of complaints equates to less that 1% of all tenants that let throughCampbellslast year. Despite this, the agents business model has been criticised to a point that the owners don’t know which way to turn.

The letting agent has been suspended from two organisations they subscribe to and now need to account for these complaints during their busiest season for letting. Note that first year students often seek accommodation 10 months in advance to secure a roof over their heads for their second and third years in university education. Some universities only allow agents that have valid accreditation to advertise to their students. Suspended agents are not allowed to advertise and their suspension is publicly displayed.

In the meantime, whilst their cases are being prepared and heard by the trade associations, the agent feels aggrieved that the reputation of their business has been besmirched to the extent that they will find it far more difficult to attract students and fill their properties in the coming year. Even if the trade organisations to which they subscribe find in their favour on every one of the complaints levied against them they stand to lose a significant amount of income and reputation whilst the case is under investigation and their memberships are under suspension.

Will the trade organisations take responsibility for any financial losses or defamation?

Is it right that a letting agent can be held to ransom by an aggrieved client in this way?

Will the trade associations risk finding in favour of their member with such financial implications as a potential court case against them by the agent on the grounds of lost income resulting in defamation of innuendo during their suspension?

From my very limited understanding of the cases in point, the agents procedures may be flawed. If I am right, they would be unlikely to be awarded the right to retain deposit moneys if they had taken them and the complaints had gone to arbitration. On this basis, I also doubt that the agents procedures would hold up to a small claims court hearing for the financial claims levied.

My understanding of the agents procedures in this case is that detailed inventories are completed, together with photographic evidence, at the commencement of each tenancy and are signed for. Inventories are also completed at the end of the tenancy and further photographic evidence is also collected. The possible flaw I can see in this procedure is that the end of tenancy the inventory is very rarely signed for as they are completed after the tenant has vacated. Therefore, it’s easy for disputes to arise and if there are two sets of photographs, one from the agent, the other from the tenants, which is to be believed?

In most cases it’s easy for landlords to demonstrate with a good inventory and photographic or video evidence when a property has been damaged, regardless of whether the tenant signs the checkout inventory or not. This is because most properties and their contents are very different. However, when there are several identical rooms within properties and the disputed damages relate to a carpet stain, a soiled mattress or a damaged piece of furniture, how can a decision as to whether the damaged item was actually the one in the room that’s subject to a damage claim? Who’s to say that mattresses were not switched between rooms by tenants or the agent? Who’s to say that either set of pictures taken even relate to the same room?

I have asked myself whether I would have joined the trade associations at all and put my business at risk in this way if I were a student landlord. However, if the best way to advertise to students was to be a member of the trade associations what choice would there be?

I would be very interested to hear what Inventory Clerks, Letting Agents and other student landlords feel about this case.

 



Comments

Tessa Shepperson

7 years ago

This article illustrates one of the problems businesses have in this new internet world today where it is so easy for anyone to be a publisher.

Back in the old days (not so long ago really, but they seem a lifetime ago) it was only the press you had to worry about.

Now it is facebook, blogs, twitter and all the rest of the onilne publishing paraphenalia which disgruntled customers can use to promote their complaints and version of events.

It is a big problem and there is no easy way around it. Particuarly where you are dealing with students who are very internet savvy. Suggestions could include being very careful about the claims that are made in the first place and only claiming where the evidence is good.

When claims are made, doing this in a sympathetic way so as not to antagonise people unnecessairly, and being willing to come to an arrangement will probably help.

With a problem such as this, generally suing people for libel or slander is often the worst thing to do as it tends to put you on trial and make the whole thing more widely known.

Going on a charm offensive wtih your other customers is I suppose one way to go.

As a last resort there is always changing the business' name - does anyone remember Windscale?

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

This conundrum goes beyond housing Mark. Look at the whole Ryan Giggs/twitter fiasco from earlier this year. Social media puts us in a wholly different world to standard print media. This is certainly a questionable downside.

Speaking as one of those people to whom disgruntled tenants go to complain but is not lost on me that many complaints often to hold any legal substance. Speaking as a tenant I hate my agents who I find arrogant, unhelpful and expensive but I have to admit they haven’t done anything wrong.

I hope I don’t sound patronising to tenants when I say many complainants can’t tell the difference between personal beefs and malpractice and it is stupidly easy to start a hate campaign supported by a handful of similarly affected tenants and their friends and families. From the other side, Suzy Butler, the infamous ‘Landlord in a tent’ headline from last year did exactly that to her tenant with a Facebook page that was ruthlessly defended by her friends when legally she was entirely in the wrong in her behaviour towards her tenant, supported by a very ill advised television programme which was on course to be criminally prosecuted if GMTV hadn’t closed down at the same time..

On this basis I wonder how the popular website Rate or Hate your landlord operates. I don’t go on there because I fear it will just be like a day at work for me and I don’t post there because I wonder if I would be unfairly besmirching people.

Despite landlords shouting at me all day long that I am naïve and stupid in believing my tenant’s lies, after 21 years at this I take every single complaint with a pinch of salt until I have evidence to back it up. Even if a black eye is sitting in front of me I wait to see if the evidence stacks up that it is the landlord who has done it.

I don’t think this kind of free, open source internet should be limited. That would be a disaster. The exchange of views is exactly what makes the internet so important and so vibrant. There is a downside and this agent is feeling that but I am sure new gadget manufacturers also feel the heat when they launch their new product that cost millions in development, only to have it rubbished by kids across the globe in a way they can’t control.

The only way I can see of limiting this, you’ll never eradicate it, is for agents to be properly regulated, which I hear has just been called for AGAIN today and I know even has many supporters on P118. I don’t mean just to control the behaviour of more wayward agents but also to provide some protection from complaints made against them by tenants amplifying a personal grievance.

As the population grows up and brings more internet savvy adults with it people can also use social media to back up further investigations. I don’t think anyone would cancel a holiday based on reading just 1 person’s view on Trip Adviser, similarly wise people should dig a bit further. Also companies need to be aware that they will need to understand how to manage these kinds of responses in the future.

A single regulatory body would expel members for genuinely proven breaches but should also be able to stand behind their members at times like these.
Sorry for the long response mate

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Sorry that sentence should read:
Speaking as one of those people to whom disgruntled tenants go to complain it is not lost on me that many complaints often fail to hold any legal substance.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Our posts went in at the same time Tessa. Change your name? haha Thats what all my fraudulent agents do, what are you suggesting woman? and you a lawyer haha

I think truly the most effetcive way to deal with it is to be absoutely bloody brilliant at what you do, a great reputation will do much to ride a storm.

Too many agents I encounter, and I encounter loads each week, just focus on profit and turnover rather than service.

John Lewis are infamus for the level of customer care. A perosn I know bought a glass bowl from them once. She set it atop the TV and it exploded from the heat. JL supplied a replacement without quibble and the next day she answered a knock on the door and found a French polisher sent with cost or request to remove the scratches from her coffee table cause by the shattering.

Try getting a 20 year old suit in a Samrt car to provide that level of service

Tessa Shepperson

7 years ago

Changing your name is not actually illegal you know! But you are right, good service is the only real barrier against this sort of thing. If someone tries to set up a negative facebook page about a really brilliant agent no-one will suport it.

Whereas if the dodgy agent changes their name, this will not do them any long term good unless they also change their practices. People will be starting new facebook pages about them in their new name!

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Absolutely Tessa. I have several agents who change their name regularly to hide their tracks but a bit of social media and internet research reveals the name changes and you have to ask yourself why they are doing it? If you are proud of your name the last thing you would want to do is change it.

We procesucted arogue agent a few months back who has re-launched under a different name with an 'Under construction' website currently online. When you ring the given contact landline number (his mobile works) it is for a hotel in Blackheath who have never heard of them and when I went to their given office address it turns out to be an Indian restaurant, and yet still I meet people who readily hand over dosh to this idiot.

People should be more fraud savvy and social media/internet is a great way to track down people's reputations. With a bit of experience you can spot the difference between personal vendetta sites and genuine information

7 years ago

I find this post very disturbing and the actions of the supposed aggrieved is akin to a lynch mob mentality.

In mediaeval times we burned people at the stake, who we didn't like, agree with, or felt aggrieved by.

Today we can burn them on Facebook or similar, and take no responsibility for our actions. In fact, we can even be anonymous, a courtesy not extended to our victim.

But this type of witchhunt is not new, it is just that social media spreads the news faster and wider than ever before.

I say not new, because many years ago a doctor in a practice that looked after me allegedly acted inappropriately with a female student patient.

The doctor was suspended whilst being investigated, the investigation took over 12 months and involved interviewing his student patients of the previous 2 or 3 years.

In the end, the doctor was exonerated and it transpired that the student had relationship problems.

But it broke the spirit of the doctor who took early retirement.

Reading this post, the only flaw that I can see in the agent’s procedure is that the checkout was not completed with a tenant or their representative present.

I used to be a letting and managing agent and to avoid such conflicts arising always carried out a pre-checkout inspection 3-6 weeks before the end of the tenancy principally to identify damage to the furniture, fixtures and fittings. The tenants were always present.

Samii Boyd

7 years ago

As people may not be aware we were subjected to an onslaught across the social media board by a competitor last year, who acting under a bogus name "informed" everyone that our site was illegal.
Unfortunately if we said nothing people believed it to be true so when we came back fighting people branded us as "aggressive."
Regrettably that is the world we live in today; where some ALWAYS have to be right and other will use underhand and immoral tactics to push a point, even if the final result is total destruction for the other party.
From our experience from what happened to us at LandlordReferencing we continued to prove our innocence by creating several blogs that we constantly pointed back to and eventually after mass debate and ridicule people understood that what we do is perfectly legal.
However, the attack on our company left a bad taste with many across the industry.

Tessa Shepperson's approach would certainly be the best way and no matter how disgruntled one may be, going on a charm offensive with other customers is in fact one of the best ways.
Also create blogs in your defence, make sure they are accurate and evident and when malicious remarks are made by a third party simply refer them via link back to these blogs.
Damage limitation in these circumstances is most certainly the best long term protection against your business suffering more losses in the long run, every time another post is uploaded.

Mark Alexander

7 years ago

Hi Samii

The other way of course is to do what you have done and get your happy clients for you to leave testimonials on your Gold Profile on Property118.com and then point people to that.

When I now do a Google search for Landlord Referencing Services, the first search result that comes up is your website and the second a link to the testimonials on your Property118.com Gold Profile.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

I think the key in what you say there David is that it isnt new. People have always been wrongfully accused and driven to despair by the accusations. It is only social media that is new and it isnt going away and what is needed are ways of handling it.

I too dont like the anonymity which is why I always post under my own name, even though I have received death threats and all sorts of strangeness from people upset by my opinions.

The only time I ever used an alias was in asking a question about the carburetor on my motorbike. I felt stupid for being a bloke not knowing the answer and posed on a bikers website as a young girl with her fist machine. I got the advice I needed but I was also asked to meet 'Fender bender at Charing Cross station on Saturday night. So anonymity has its dangers too

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