Find out how to choose a rental property, including what to look for during a viewing, and what questions to ask the letting agent.
Searching for a place to live can be an exhausting undertaking, but going into property viewings armed with the right questions is essential. You can’t always count on a letting agent to proactively offer all the information you need about your potential new home, so it’s important to have a bit of your own research under your belt.
It’s also prudent to know about any warning signs to look out for, and what level of detail you should be able to expect in response to important questions, so you can make an informed decision.
Home viewing tips
At each rental property viewing, take your time to check the property to make sure there are no problems. If there are any issues with the following, either make it a condition of the contract that they are fixed, or seriously reconsider your desire to rent that property.
Check the exterior of the property
Are the gutters or any pipes leaking? Are the walls or window frames cracked? Is there a garden or outdoor area you’ll need to maintain?
Check the fittings
Do the taps work, both for hot and cold water? Is the water pressure high enough? Do all the light switches work? Are there enough electric sockets?
Be wary of mould or pests
Are there any signs of pests, including mouse droppings, cracks or holes in the walls? When was the property last treated for pests? Are there signs of mould,particularly in damp areas such as the kitchen or bathroom?
Letting agents should not be showing properties with damp or mould problems – and we know this happens more than it should.
Inspect the appliances
Confirm which white goods come with the property, including fridge, washing machine and dishwasher. But also make sure the appliances are clean and in good working order – and ask if the landlord will replace them if not.
Think about security
Do windows and doors open easily and close securely? Are there adequate locks on the doors? Do you have adequate escape routes in case of a fire?
Look for smoke alarms and CO2 detectors
Are smoke alarms fitted? And are they connected to the mains, or will you have to replace the batteries? If the property uses gas, is there a CO2 detector installed?
All properties must have at least one smoke alarm installed on every storey of their properties.
Currently, regulation in England around CO alarms is vague and potentially confusing: CO alarms are only required in rooms with ‘solid fuel appliances'(eg a coal fire or wood burning stove). But because carbon monoxide can also come from gas or oil devices – including boilers – this provision should be tightened to protect tenants.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a blanket rule to have them installed in all properties. We think this should apply to England as well.
Ask for certification
At the viewing, ask to view a copy of the property’s certificates. These include the energy performance certificate (EPC) and gas and electrical safety certificates. If the letting agent doesn’t have them to hand at the viewing, they should be able to follow up with an email providing them, and provide them before the tenancy starts.
The better the rating the EPC gives the property, the lower your utility bills are likely to be. This could save you hundreds of pounds a year.
How is the rental property classified?
If you’re moving into shared accommodation, check whether the property should have a ‘house in multiple occupation’ (HMO) licence from the local council. This usually applies to property that is three or more stories and occupied by five or more people who are not in the same family.
If it is a licensed HMO, the property should have more safeguards for the tenants, such as fire doors.
Rental property checklist
Before your tenancy starts, make sure you have:
- A copy of the government’s How to Rent guide (in England)
- A gas safety certificate
- Details of the deposit protection scheme
- The Energy Performance Certificate
- A copy of the tenancy agreement
It’s also good to have:
- Correct contact details for the landlord or letting agent, including a telephone number in case of an emergency
- Details of who is responsible for bills such as electricity, gas, water and council tax
- An agreed inventory/ list of fixtures and fittings that come with the accommodation (or check-in report)
- Confirmation that smoke alarms are provided and working
- Details of how to report maintenance issues
- Confirmation that Carbon monoxide detectors are provided and working (if appliances use solid fuel)
- A record of any electrical inspections
- Details of a code of practice for whoever is managing the property
How to choose a letting agent
Currently, it’s much more common for renters to choose the property, not the letting agent. But when Which? went undercover to investigate letting agents (see Which? letting agents investigation, below), we found a huge variance in the quality of service they provide.
Where possible, do your research on letting agents, and find a good one before searching for a property.
A good letting agent will:
- have a copy of the EPC at the viewing, and being able to explain what the rating means
- be able to advise on the rules surrounding gas and electrical safety checks, and know that a gas safety certificate must be provided at the start of the tenancy
- know where smoke and CO alarms are and have a record of when they were last tested
- show any property in its entirety and represent it fairly in advertisements
- provide detailed information of property management arrangements at viewings, including details of the landlord if it is the landlord, rather than the agent, who will be managing the property. be informative and happy to answer important questions about the property.
By contrast, there are some clear signs you should avoid an agent.
Property expert Kate Faulkner told us, ‘here are some key clues to properties that are not been rented properly: any with damp and mould, not having smoke alarms, coupled with not being able to see an EPC and/or tenancy agreement when requested and especially an agent that can’t answer basic questions on deposit protection.’
Key questions to ask when viewing a rental property
It’s important to know from the start how much it will cost you to live in the property, and what you can expect from the landlord/letting agent while you’re living there. Here are some important questions to ask:
- Who will be managing the property and what happens if anything goes wrong?
- You should expect letting agents to be clear on who you would contact to fix any problems, and if it’s the landlord, they should be able to give you some details about how the landlord works.
- Do you take a holding deposit? And if so, how does it work?
- Make sure the letting agent can tell you exactly how much the holding deposit will be, and under what circumstances you would have it refunded.
- Is any other agency advertising this property?
- Often, there will be more than one agency advertising the property – this is particularly relevant if the letting agent you’re dealing with asks for a holding deposit, because if another agency is also advertising the property, paying a holding deposit might not mean the property is off the market.
- Can I see gas and electricity safety documents?
- These won’t necessarily be available at the viewing, but an agent should be able to tell you the rules around gas and electrical safety (that you will have a gas safety certificate no later than the day you move in, and that it’s good practice for electrical safety checks to be done every five years)
- Can I see an EPC?
- A good letting agent will include an EPC on the property advertisement, and take a copy to the viewing. But even if they don’t have one to hand during the viewing, they should be able to tell you what the property’s rating is and what that might mean for your energy bills. By law, you have to have one no later than move in day.
- When was the boiler last serviced?
- Your gas safety certificate should include boiler servicing details. The letting agent might not know exactly when the boiler was last serviced during the viewing, but they should be able to advise correctly on the rules around servicing (have a service done once a year) and give you an idea of how old the boiler is.
- Are smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms fitted and checked?
- Letting agents should know the rules on smoke alarms – in England, this is to have at least one smoke alarm installed on every storey of their properties and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room containing a solid fuel burning appliance (eg a coal fire, wood burning stove). Ideally, carbon monoxide alarms should be fitted regardless – as is the case in Scotland.
- What is the duration of the contract?
- Usually there will be room to negotiate on this, depending on the landlord’s and your preferences.
- Would I be able to see a contract before paying anything?
- A good letting agent should be able to send you a draft standard contract to look over before you commit.
- What insurance does the landlord have to cover the property? What do I need to insure myself?
Most rental properties are advertised by letting agents, rather than directly by landlords. If you move into one of these properties you will pay:
- Admin fees to the letting agent
- as well as putting down a deposit on the property.
A new government bill to ban letting fees across England was introduced in May 2018, banning some fees and capping deposits. However this change will not happen immediately. So in the meantime, if you’re planning on renting in England, Northern Ireland or Wales, it is still really important to understand how much a letting agent could charge you. Tenancy fees are banned in Scotland.
These fees include an administration charge, a credit reference check, and check-in or check-out fees, often amounting to hundreds of pounds.
Letting agents may not tell you their fees until you have decided you to move into a property. So make sure you ask at the earliest opportunity.
Here are some key questions to ask about letting agent fees:
- What fees will I pay to move into the property, and how much will they cost? If necessary, ask if that includes admin, credit reference check and check-in fees.
- How much deposit is required?
- Which tenancy deposit protection scheme do you protect the deposit in (protecting the deposit is a legal requirement)?
- Will I pay any fees to move out of the property?
- Are the fees per person or per property? For example, are the fees divided between everyone moving into a property, or does each person pay the full amount?
- Do the fees quoted include VAT? Letting agents will often quote fees without adding 20% Value Added Tax.
- Can I have the fees in writing?
our letting agents investigation
We conducted an undercover investigation into letting agent practices and found that renters can expect a really patchy standard of service.
Some 20% of the properties we went to had problems with damp, but none of the agents showing the properties were able to commit to fixing this.
There was also a concerning lack of knowledge about carbon monoxide detectors – a key safety issue – and more than half of the visits scored poorly on the provision of crucial documentation.
In fact, 90% of our property viewings scored poorly on at least one measure, and 50% of visits resulted in our undercover fieldworkers saying they would not use that letting agent if they had to rent a property.
Just half of the agents were unable to provide any information at all on the property’s boiler, with just 13% able to supply the correct details about annual servicing rules.
Meanwhile, just one in three agents were rated ‘good’ for their knowledge of carbon monoxide alarms, meaning they were able to explain they were required, where they were in the property and if they had been tested.
Letting agents did better when it came to smoke alarms, where – unlike carbon monoxide alarms – legislation is clearer.
Our research: letting agent investigation
Fieldworkers posed as potential tenants interested in renting a property and were shown round by a letting agent.
In total, 30 viewings were conducted: six each in Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, and Manchester – areas with a large or significantly growing private rented sector.