When Yvonne Coutts moved home from the UK at the start of 2017, she lucked out with timing. A friend’s roommate had left their apartment but the lease wasn’t up. Coutts took her place.
But “in the contract there was a €190 fee to change the tenant’s name on the lease”, says Coutts.
To her, that didn’t seem fair. But she thought it was better just to pay up so she wouldn’t have to look elsewhere, she says.
Coutts says she’s still not sure whether charging fees in these cases is legal. But there should, at least, be a code of conduct outlining what letting agents can ask tenants for in fees and the like, she says.
The Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA), which licenses and supervises letting agents, estate agents and management agents, says that’s something it is currently working on.
Fees, Fees, more Fees
Coutts was leasing the house through a letting agent called REA Fitzgerald Chambers, based in Stoneybatter. REA Fitzgerald Chambers didn’t get back to several queries.
Coutts says she had never heard of this type of fee here before, although it was something she had encountered while living in the United Kingdom.
However, others tenants in Ireland also say they’ve been caught by fees imposed by letting agents.
A spokesperson for Threshold, said the national housing charity gets calls from clients about this.
“It is fairly common, we cannot however quantify the extent though,” the spokesperson said.
There’s the name-change fee. But there are others, too, the spokesperson said.
In one case, a letting agent was charging a fee for notifying a tenant that they were in arrears on their rent.
“The letting agency was charging €20 for every letter sent for rent arrears and also a levy for every day the tenant is in arrears of €20,” the Threshold spokesperson said.
Code of Conduct
It’s the PSRA that oversees letting agents – they have to register with the PSRA and get a licence from them.
At the moment, the PSRA currently do not consider charging a fee for changing a name on a lease as improper conduct, says Maeve Hogan, chief executive of the PSRA.
“A licensee [letting agent] charging a tenant for such services does not currently constitute improper conduct,” Hogan said by email.
As for the size of the fee, Patrick Davitt, CEO of the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV), a professional body that represents letting agents, auctioneers and valuers, said it depended on the details.
“If the agents are saying, ‘I’m charging you a €190 for changing this lease because I have to do up a new lease, an amendment to the lease, whatever it is and you’re signing it, and I have made it clear for you to be aware of it, well that’s fair enough,’” Davitt says.
“But if they’re not doing that and they’re just sending emails to the RTB, well then that’s maybe too much money,” he says.
Indeed, the spokesperson for Threshold, the housing charity, said its Cork office had recently dealt with a case of someone charged €100 to change a name on a lease.
“[O]ur client, who was leaving their tenancy, brought the case to the RTB as the letting agents tried to make deductions from our client’s deposit. The RTB found a reasonable fee to be in or around €50, on that occasion,” the spokesperson said.
While letting agents charging a fee for changing a name on a lease might be okay now, the PSRA is looking at bringing in tougher rules, Hogan said.
“[T]he Authority intends addressing this in a forthcoming Regulation on Minimum Standards which, as currently drafted, will deem such behaviour by a licensee to be improper conduct,” Hogan said.
The new regulation is expected to come into effect by the end of this year.
The PSRA has already approved a draft, says Hogan, and it just needs to be taken to various stakeholders for consultations.
Who’s a Stakeholder?
Should tenants be involved in such consultations?
Davitt, of IPAV, doesn’t think so. “The PSRA covers the conduct of the agent and the RTB covers the actual lease part of it,” he says.
“The agent can only act for one person, which is the person who owns the property. They can’t act for the tenants. They can only act for the agent,” he said.
But Michelle Connolly, a spokesperson for Dublin Central Housing Action, says she believes tenants deserve to be part of these consultations.
“If tenant groups were, in some way, invited to be part of that, to be consulted, that would be great,” says Connolly. “I do think there should be a recognition of the power imbalance that exists between a tenant and a person who has control over their property.”
She’d like to see included in the minimum standards, clear steps put on the PSRA’s website for disputes to be solved quickly and easily, as well as a requirement that agents are transparent about who a person’s landlord is, when the landlord is letting or having the property managed through an agent.
“Just because there’s been many cases where a house has changed hands and the tenants have been totally unaware as they keep paying rent to the letting agent,” says Connolly.
“And then suddenly they’re getting an eviction notice or their rent is going up and they’re saying, ‘Who is this landlord?’” she said.
However, Connolly says that Dublin Central Housing Action have dealt with tenants before who have complained to the PSRA.
“Their response was they won’t take the complaint about behavioral issues,” says Connolly, that they have nothing in their guidelines that deals with management’s behaviour or conduct towards tenants.
She’d like to see the PSRA opened up to tenants’ grievances, she says.
Correction: This article was updated at 9:06 on 23 May 2019 to correct the acronym for the Property Services Regulatory Authority.