Consumers are being warned by the UK’s largest property redress scheme about the actions of two lettings agents based in Southampton. Both agencies, trading as ‘The Flat Agency & Michael Browns Ltd’ and ‘Property Vibe Ltd’, were expelled from lettings redress membership of The Property Ombudsman (TPO) scheme for a minimum period of three years.
Without registration these companies cannot legally trade as letting agents, and other redress schemes will not allow previously expelled agents to join. Landlords who lease their property with an agent that is not registered with TPO will not be entitled to have their dispute reviewed by the Ombudsman, and nor will any tenants renting through an unregistered agent. The decision to expel The Flat Agency & Michael Browns Ltd follows complaints made against it from local landlords and tenants. The complaints were independently reviewed by the Ombudsman and all were upheld. Cases against this agent were all similar in nature, relating to delay and/or failure in paying money owed to the complainants and several flagged serious concerns with the Ombudsman, who described the agents’ practices as “dishonest and deceitful”. The Ombudsman ordered payment of the money owed together with compensation. When the agent failed to pay either the money owed or compensation, it was referred to the scheme’s Disciplinary and Standard’s Committee (DSC). When it still failed to pay, the DSC expelled the agent from membership and from registration. Gerry Fitzjohn, Chairman of the TPO Board, commented: “Cases like these are extremely rare but this agent has demonstrated a complete lack of regard for its clients, and failed to forward money to them which it should have been keeping in a separate clients’ money account. The firm committed several flagrant breaches of the TPO Codes of Practice for Residential Letting Agents and has been expelled as a result.” Property Vibe Ltd is the second Southampton firm to be disciplined this month. Despite leaving the scheme in 2015, after its membership ended due to its failure to pay its membership fees, Property Vibe Ltd was also disciplined for failing to refund money owed to complainants or pay an award of compensation. The Ombudsman criticised Property Vibe’s lack of response not only to the complainants but also to TPO which had provided ample opportunities to resolve this complaint without the need for a formal review. Mr Fitzjohn added: “Both agents have failed comply with the TPO Code of Practice by not providing any evidence to support their side of the story or demonstrate an appropriate complaints handling procedure. Their reckless management has caused avoidable aggravation, distress and inconvenience.” The Flat Agency & Michael Browns Ltd and Property Vibe Ltd were both officially expelled on 11 March 2016. TPO is working closely with Southampton Trading Standards in relation to these issues. Clive Robinson, Trading Standards Team Leader at Southampton City Council, said: “Trading Standards can confirm that we have received information both from the Ombudsman and a number of landlords and tenants. Membership of an approved ombudsman scheme is a legal requirement for all letting agents as is the proper protection of tenant’s deposits and we will be working with the Ombudsman and others to address any identified breach of the law.” Following the agents’ expulsion, consumer complaints will now be referred to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service for support and onward referral to Southampton Trading Standards.