Ombudsman; what a lovely word… not for a dyslexic who has been working for four months and spent the first two of those trying to learn how to spell it, never mind pronounce it (Om-buudz-man). Ombudsmen or redress schemes offer free services to consumers who feel they have been unfairly treated by a company. There are such schemes for all different sectors, such as property, energy, financial and legal. There are also your more niche redress schemes, for example the Double-Glazing Ombudsman, the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Independent Football Ombudsman.
Recently the Rail Ombudsman was in the news, having been launched on 26th November 2018 to support consumers who have been dissatisfied with how their complaint was handled by a train company. Somehow it is an offshot of the Furniture Ombudsman, and I would love to know how they made that jump.
Having graduated from UoN in the summer, I am currently working for the Property Ombudsman, operating since 1990 in Salisbury (yes, some of us did survive the Novichok). The Property Ombudsman (TPO) and the Property Redress Scheme (PRS) are the two services where consumers can take their complaints against estate agents to.
Both are free and will provide an impartial judgement of the dispute between the estate or letting agent and you, the consumer. If the judgement is in the favour of the consumer, the company may be asked to pay a relevant award. The largest the amount the Property Ombudsman can award is £25,000. In 2016 over half lettings awards made were between £100 and £499. Of 2,212 lettings cases (from both landlords and tenants against estate agents) which went to review in 2017, the Property Ombudsman supported the consumer in 67% of cases.
(Find the stats here and in the annual report on the right-hand side of the page).
Before choosing an estate agent:
It is a legal requirement for all estate and letting agents to be a member of a redress scheme, so you should be able to find any estate agent on www.tpos.co.uk/find-a-member or www.theprs.co.uk/consumer/members/
If your agent is not a member of either scheme, they are trading illegally and you should report them to your local Trading Standards. They have powers to impose financial penalties on the agent and force them to sign up to one of the two redress schemes.
Common issues among student tenants:
- Deposits – these must be put in a Tenancy Deposit Scheme.
- Viewings – estate agents should give appropriate and reasonable notice to current tenants of viewings unless other arrangements have been agreed with the tenant.
- Ongoing maintenance – response to issues should be prompt and appropriate.
- Inventories – tenants must be given up to 7 working days to read and comment on inventories, which should then be used as a fair measure at the end of the tenancy.
What should I do if I have an issue with my estate agent?
- Get advice! The SU are a great first point of call. Find out about your rights as a tenant. Shelter have lots of information about housing on their website. Call the Property Ombudsman call centre on 01722 333306. Even if your complaint cannot yet be considered, the phone team can help with general queries and what your next steps should be.
- Take your complaint to your agent. They will have an internal complaints procedure. Generally you will have to put your grievances in writing (letter or email), explaining thoroughly why you are unhappy with the service they are providing. They then have 15 days to respond to that.
- Take your complaint to the relevant redress scheme if the agent has not responded to you within 8 weeks or you are not satisfied with their response. You will need to be able to present hard evidence, such as email chains and photos to make your case. The agent you are claiming against can also provide evidence. The Property Ombudsman can only accept complaints against agents who are existing members of the scheme. They do not offer legal advice but having a complaint would not stop you taking it to court at a future date.
What should I do if I have an issue with my landlord?
- Get advice! Again speak to the SU. Unfortunately, the Property Ombudsman and the Property Redress Scheme cannot help here. It’s an issue the government are currently looking into. Shelter can give advice, but first always check your tenancy agreement. What the landlord can and cannot do is stipulated here. You’ll also find out what you need to do to make sure you meet your obligations.
Redress is an incredibly important service for consumers to make use of. However, it is only as quick as the consumers and agents using it. Be thorough in collecting your evidence and have the patience to see it through. Ombudsmen will also need to collect information from the business you have an issue with, and sometimes this can take time.