The vast majority of landlords ask their prospective tenants to undergo a screening process before signing the tenancy agreement, asking them to provide proof of past address, bank account information, credit check reports and personal references.
A landlord may also ask for a guarantor for the rent to protect himself or herself even better.
It is less common for tenants to question who is signing the tenancy agreement, and even whether he or she has the right to let the property.
Tenants often don’t want to risk upsetting a landlord in case he or she turns around and refuses to rent the property (or just refuses to comply).
However, a tenant can better avoid fraudulent landlords by carrying out a few checks and being aware of common landlord scams.
Check who owns the property
If you are renting from a private landlord, then you can check whether he or she is the owner of the property by conducting a search at the Land Registry. You can do this online. A title register that shows the registered owners costs a few pounds to order to an email address.
Check whether the agent is really in business
If you are renting through an estate agency, the agent should be able to provide information about his or her client.
If he or she says that the information cannot be given to you for privacy reasons (e.g. under GDPR), then you should point out that you can obtain it in any case from the Land Registry.
If you are renting through an agency, you should check that the agency has been in business for a number of years, is a member of a estate agency organisation such as ARLA (check through the organisation’s website – don’t just take a logo on the website of the agency as proof) and has plenty of other properties on its books.
Don’t pay a deposit to secure a viewing
One scam is to charge prospective tenants a 'deposit' to view the property, and then either not let them go any further in the renting process (thereby taking the payment without any intention of ever letting to them) or showing properties that are unsuitable, or simply not showing them the property at all.
Viewing a property should be free. You certainly shouldn’t have to pay anything in order to make or 'secure' a viewing.
The landlord or agent may give you lots of reasons why a deposit is necessary. For example, demand may be high and there may be only a certain number of viewings possible. Or that the deposit allows you to view the property when you want. Or that you need to be registered on their books before you are allowed to view, and that this registration incurs a refundable fee if you eventually rent through them.
The issue here is that you are paying for an uncertain outcome. Even if you are shown a property you might like to live in, the choice at the end of the day as to whether to let you rent it is the landlord’s or agent’s.
If there is any talk of taking payment to show you a property, just politely decline and find an agent or landlord who doesn’t charge you.
Properties that aren’t on the rental market
Someone may show you around a property that isn’t for rent.
For example, the property might be for sale, but the person showing it to you has taken down the for sale sign, or he or she might know it is vacant and has broken in. There are also plenty of cases where prospective tenants have been shown the outside but not the inside, being given the excuse that the current tenants won’t allow the property to be shown.
The bogus landlord is likely to ask you to pay the deposit and the first month’s rent as soon as possible, using the reason that he or she has other people looking at it as well. He or she may ask for cash in order to speed up the transaction so that you can secure it faster.
However, after you’ve done that, the landlord will disappear, and you’ll learn that the property was never for rent.
Most tenancy agreements insist that the landlord can show around prospective tenants. So the excuse that the tenants don’t want their privacy invaded is a poor one.
Cash, of course, once paid is untraceable. So make sure that any payments you make are always through a bank transfer to a UK bank account, or better still, by direct debit. At least then you have a trail as to whom the money was paid.
You should be aware that a landlord is required by law to put your deposit in a government backed tenancy deposit scheme if you are renting a property on assured shorthold tenancy.
You can even check whether your deposit is protected by entering a tenancy deposit certificate code on the Tenancy Deposit Scheme Website. The landlord should tell you in advance which scheme he or she will use.
Fraudulent landlords sometimes put fake adverts on websites that allow them to do so for free. Usually a deposit is asked for in order to secure a viewing. The property may not be on the rental market, or even exist.
How can you protect yourself?
Avoid advertisements that are too good to be true (for example, a much lower rent than reasonable for the area); vague about the location of the property; says that the owner is abroad or is a sibling or a close friend.
Insist on visiting the property before you make the commitment to renting the property.
After you have visited the property and before transferring any money, make sure that you are presented with a valid tenancy agreement to sign which outlines the responsibilities and obligations of both you and the landlord.
Ensure that the landlord or agent is a member of a national recognised body, or that the property is on the approved accommodation list if you are student. Many colleges and universities have an approved housing list and a blacklist of rogue landlords.
Above all, remain aware of fraud. The impact of fraud has been adverse on the rental property market. Even if everything seems legitimate from afar, be cautious at every step. Taking simple steps such as visiting the property or requesting a valid ID of the landlord will save you from a lot of trouble, emotionally and financially.