Communication and record keeping key if coronavirus drives up agency complaints

The coronavirus pandemic and its associated impact on the private rented sector (PRS) could lead to a rise in compliance-related complaints against letting agents in the coming months.

In order to demonstrate adherence with new rules protecting tenants from unfair treatment while safeguarding themselves and landlords, agencies will need to prioritise good communication and record keeping, according to PayProp.

New rules, new compliance risks

The spread of coronavirus has disrupted normal life to such an extent that some tenants may have difficulty paying rent, while landlords could find it harder to make their monthly buy-to-let mortgage repayments.

In response, the government has made various legal changes, including extending the eviction notice period from two to three months. Additionally, many landlords and tenants have made informal agreements to reduce or defer rent payments temporarily.

Any changes in law and rent payment schedules create space for miscommunication and misunderstanding, which could lead to a rise in disputes between landlords and tenants as well as complaints against agencies.

“With emergency measures in place and many people’s personal finances affected, there could be more disputes between tenants, landlords and letting agents in the coming months,” says Neil Cobbold, Chief Sales Officer at PayProp.

“Agencies therefore need to keep up to date with the latest government guidance, while communicating clearly and recording all information factually. By resolving disputes calmly and effectively, letting agents can provide a very valuable service to both landlords and tenants.”

Legislative changes to look out for

Cobbold adds that agents will need to be mindful of ongoing legislation changes to reduce the chances of complaints being made against them or their clients.

Last month, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act was extended to cover existing as well as new tenancies. This means that more renters can now take direct legal action if their properties are not up to scratch.

Landlords whose properties fail to meet appropriate standards could be ordered by the courts to pay potentially unlimited compensation, carry out compulsory improvements, or both.

On top of this, the Tenant Fees Act is being extended in June to cover tenancies that started before June 1 2019.

“Alongside managing the challenges posed by coronavirus, there remains a significant responsibility on agents to be compliant and help their landlords to meet their legal obligations,” Cobbold explains.

“Receiving complaints not only causes reputational damage – many of the latest pieces of lettings legislation carry significant financial penalties for non-compliance.”

How can agencies minimise the risk of complaints?

Good communication and record keeping will be crucial in the coming months to keep clients happy and reduce the likelihood of complaints.

In practice, this will involve recording changes to payment schedules, maintaining a full and transparent paper trail and keeping all parties up to date with the latest information. Technological solutions that automate these processes will be particularly valuable at this time.

“Poor communication and record keeping are regularly cited as the most common reasons for complaints made against letting agents in The Property Ombudsman’s annual report,” says Cobbold.

“With the administrative complications caused by coronavirus, this is highly likely to be the same in 2020. That’s why it’s so important for agencies to make sure they do well in these areas in order to protect their businesses and enhance their reputations,” he concludes.