Published: 16:18, 26 January 2021
| Updated: 19:21, 26 January 2021
A lettings agent which accepted a tenant on the strength of a screen-shot of a bank transfer resulting in him living rent-free for six weeks has been ordered to compensate a landlord.
The website of a sales and lettings agency promises: "We are committed to providing each and every one of our landlords with a level of personal and professional service that cannot be bettered."
But the same agency, Hatch Batten of Castle Road, Allington, has been ordered by the Property Ombudsman to pay £200 compensation to a client after a botched tenancy.
In February last year, Robert Knights decided to go travelling and sought to let his property in Allington while he was away.
He approached Hatch Batten and agreed to pay them £450 to find a tenant.
They did so, but allowed the tenant to move in on the strength of a screen-shot that the man had produced that appeared show a bank transfer of funds to cover the first month's rent and five weeks deposit. But the agency did not check to ensure that the funds had cleared. They had not.
The man continued to live in the property for six weeks without paying any rent, coming up with a range of excuses whenever the agency chased him.
When Mr Knights, who was in Thailand at the time, heard that he was receiving no rent he told the agency to evict the tenant, but before they could do so, the man quit voluntarily, allegedly after being arrested on conviction of money laundering in connection with a separate matter.
Mr Knights, who for the past eight years has run his own construction firm RJ Construction with his business partner James Bullock, asked Hatch Batten to compensate him with the £1,551 rent he had missed out on, but the company declined, offering only to waive their £450 finder's fee.
Mr Knights then took the matter to the Property Ombudsman.
Of the four complaints he made, the ombudsman upheld two.
The first was that the agency should have have been certain the tenant's funds had cleared, or else advised Mr Knights that they had not and allowed him to decide whether to proceed with the tenancy. The Ombudsman said this was particularly important because of the known risks associated with the tenant: both the agency and Mr Knights were aware that the tenant had failed reference checks because of unsettled county court judgements against him. The guarantor of his tenancy had also failed reference checks.
The ombudsman awarded Mr Knights a payment of £650 for this error reduced to £200 to take account of the firm's waiving of its finder's fee..
The ombudsman decided it was not appropriate to compensate Mr Knights for all his lost rent, because if the firm had declined the tenant on the strength of his funds not having cleared, there was no certainty that another tenant could have been found.
Mr Knights also complained that the agency had not informed the council or utility companies of the change in occupant. This was not part of their contracted arrangement, but something they had told him they would do.
The ombudsman said: "Although Hatch Batten were not contractually required to notify these services, they agreed to do so and so as a matter of best practice, I would expect them to honour this."
The firm was able to provide evidence of contacting the council and the water company, but could not provide evidence of contacting the gas or electric suppliers, though the firm said it did.
The ombudsman made no award for this however, saying that although she supported Mr Knights' complaint, it was in fact his obligation to inform the council and utility companies of the change of occupant.
Mr Knights also complained that the firm had alleged he "was in cahoots" with the tenant, but the ombudsman found no evidence of any untoward allegations.
He also complained that the firm had not acted to evict the tenant on his instruction. The ombudsman decided this was irrelevant since the tenant had gone before such an eviction order could be served.
James Seale, a director of Hatch Batten, did not want to comment. He said: "It's all in the ombudsman's report."