Some landlords get away with terrible behaviour, while weaknesses in UK legislation often allow the worst to continue. One man decided to redress the power balance, by allowing tenants to rate their landlords online
“I’ll be glad to see the back of you.” Ouch, thought Ben Yarrow. His then girlfriend had only queried a small discrepancy over a utility bill. Their landlord’s email response was, in Yarrow’s view, way out of line.
But what can you do? For the vast majority of renters, power lies in the landlord’s hands. If in doubt, try getting a stubborn property owner to repaint your decrepit kitchen or fix a broken tap.
As the UK government continues to consider a private members’ bill against rogue landlords, Bristol-based Yarrow is short-cutting the system with a solution of his own. His answer is Marks Out of Tenancy, a service that enables renters to post reviews of their landlords online.
“If you had a meal and the waiter said something like that, you’d go straight on to TripAdvisor, no?” says Yarrow, referring to his former landlord’s email remark. So that is what he created: a TripAdvisor equivalent for renters.
Launched in April 2017, the site has 3,500 registered users so far. To build up his database, Yarrow, a former recruitment agent, is creating alliances with various student groups and tenants’ unions. “Local authorities store all the information about rogue landlords, but they can’t and don’t want to hand it over, so we’re having to partner with other organisations to spread the word.”
Bringing bad landlords to book isn’t Marks Out of Tenancy’s only aim. Another is to help good landlords and letting agents differentiate themselves. At present, a few rotten apples give the whole sector a bad name, Yarrow argues.
But for those letting agents and property owners who respond to complaints quickly and efficiently, little currently exists to help them stand out.
“Good landlords exist. We help tenants find the good ones. We want to enable the market to try and drive this change, rather than waiting for the regulation to catch up with it. Ultimately, it’s about empowering tenants to make better decisions about where they live,” Yarrow says.
Ultimately, it’s about empowering tenants to make better decisions about where they live
To that end, the website also invites comments about local amenities and the neighbourhood, so users can build up an accurate picture of an area, before signing on the dotted line.
For Yarrow, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and who became estranged from his family after leaving home aged 16, the venture is heavily influenced by a desire to effect social change. “Growing up, I never felt like there was a place to have my voice heard,” he says. “With this site, I now have the ability to give a voice to people who are being ripped off or taken for granted.”
One group that particularly concerns him are university students. Living away from home for the first time can be hard enough, without surviving in lousy conditions. The effect that poor housing has on student mental health and consequently on university grades is “well documented”, he notes. “Living somewhere terrible is often seen as a rite of passage, but for students, their homes are where they work, and yet these places are often not fit to live in.”
Inspiring as the project is, it isn’t without its challenges. Most obviously, it requires a critical mass of comments. With only around 500 reviews at present, it remains early days. But then TripAdvisor presumably started small too.
I now have the ability to give a voice to people who are being ripped off or taken for granted
Other potential hurdles await. One is the threat of landlords posting false comments, or strong-arming tenants to post favourable reviews. Another is tenants facing reprisals for critical reviews. Yarrow is confident that both are covered. The website boasts a sophisticated algorithm to guard against fraudulent posts, he says, and an anonymity policy to prevent victimisation.
To ensure balance, landlords also have a right of reply. Moreover, the site has a defamation filter that automatically rejects abusive or potentially libellous posts. Between them, the measures have prevented online slanging matches breaking out – so far.
Marks Out of Tenancy is also preparing to roll out a series of ‘tenants’ tools’. On the list are model letters that renters can use to terminate contracts, as well as guides on how to be a model tenant.
Early adopter Jamie Woods is a big fan. An IT specialist from Weston-super-Mare, he has lived in 11 rental properties since 2001. In several cases, the property turned out to be below spec, but by the time he had moved in, he felt it was too late to act.
“First-hand experiences of potential homes are a vital piece in the puzzle as we move toward a more rental-based housing stock,” he says.
Woods recalls one particular house with a hole in the wall. During a bitterly cold winter, he ended up shelling out £4,000 on gas for heating. As he says: “I would have loved to have been able to investigate that particular house beforehand.”