9:30 AM, 9th December 2011, About 10 years ago
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.
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