The boss of a new lettings agency said he has set up in Bristol to try to do something thousands of renters would not think was possible – and be an ‘ethical’ lettings agency.
Ben Giles found The Balloon Letting Company less than a year ago, and is already expanding rapidly outside the traditionally lucrative areas of Clifton, Redland, Gloucester Road and the city centre to be Bristol-wide.
But after an ‘absolutely crazy’ summer last year, he said the company is determined to stick to its principles.
If most tenants in Bristol’s intensely pressured private rented housing market were asked to rank a list of professions in order of popularity, the letting agents of Bristol would almost certainly be at the bottom.
In a market where demand so heavily outstrips supply, tenants in Bristol have long complained that while landlords don’t have to do much in the way of dealing with problems – if the tenant doesn’t like they can just leave and there’ll always be someone else in line to rent the place instead.
And the same accusation can, at best, be levelled at lettings agencies – that they don’t need to do much at all in the way of customer care to let out a property when a regular two-bed flat in most parts of Bristol will have 50 people wanting a viewing within a day of it being listed to let.
While it’s normally rogue landlords who attract the attention and direct action of the tenants’ union ACORN, the practices of some of the bigger lettings agencies have even attracted seen the red t-shirted activists beat a path to their door.
Back in 2015, as the super-charging of the Bristol rental market was just getting going, one of the city’s biggest lettings agencies sparked outrage by sending a letter to all their landlords encouraging them to raise rents in this ‘buoyant market’.
More than ten thousand signed a petition, and a fairly large march to CJ Hole’s main office saw a protest and the petition handed in.
Since then, CJ Hole has been the subject of more ACORN protests, actions and challenges, as have smaller letting agencies engaging in dubious practices – like the agent in Brislington who was exposed in a Bristol Live investigation trying to evict a tenant claiming he was sub-letting, while quietly taking cash for rent.
Very often, it is the letting agency’s conduct towards tenants after there’s a problem during a tenancy that causes the most fury and reaction from campaigners like ACORN. During the process of actually trying to find a new home and successfully get a bid accepted, letting agents are – in Bristol at any rate, the gatekeepers trying to hold back a crowd when only one person can get through the gate.
It is in that climate that Ben Giles said he decided enough was enough. He’d spent eight years working as a letting agent for one of the biggest in the city, The Letting Game, and rose to associate director. He was something of a rising star in the Bristol equivalent of the Stath Lets Flats community – he’d won awards several years running as the best agent in town.
In 2019, he pioneered a partnership with Bristol Animal Rescue Centre to try to encourage landlords to be more open to accept tenants with pets, and in the spring of 2021, he said he thought there could be a better way altogether.
“What I enjoyed was offering a really personal service,” he said. “I was keen to be different, to see if it would be possible.
“I’d always seen that the key to a successful tenancy was about both sides, not just the landlord. The tenancies I had set up in a really positive way from the start were the ones that worked in the long term. If the landlord is happy and the tenant is happy from the start, it’s a lot more likely not to develop problems later,” he explained.
“It’s about even as something as small as just talking to people for ten minutes when they come in to try to find somewhere to rent. If you can get to know them and know who they are, then the landlord is more likely to know them too.
“Because the rental market is just so crazy in Bristol now, that was what was being lost – a landlord was just choosing tenants from a form, and what I wanted to do was to make it about the people again. I think a lot of lettings agencies and landlords are in danger of forgetting that.
“I instilled that in everyone that works for me – we’ll talk to people, try to offer guidance and help, be honest with people about the situation. For example, tenants normally get told ‘we’re fully booked’ for viewings when it’s just because the letting agent can’t be bothered to give a tenant a chance – they know they’ll probably get offers and a tenant in from the first ten people they list to view somewhere, so they don’t need to, but they might not be the right people,” he added.
“What we’re trying to do is build a bit of a community. Everyone looking to rent is in the same boat, and it becomes a full time job, and it’s so pressured. What we started was a thing where we put properties up on our Instagram page a few hours or a day before they are listed and open for offers – that gives people the chance to see all the pictures in advance and prepare to put an application in. It makes it a bit less pressured and people appreciate it – it’s not so manic,” he added.
Mr Giles said that, because of the situation where there can be as many as 50 tenants all vying for one property, lettings agencies won’t bother to get to know their tenants. “We make sure that if someone putting their name down and applying for a property is unsuccessful, we’ll talk to them about it, give them advice, make suggestions and help them with the next one,” he said.
That personal approach is almost, perhaps, going back to old-fashioned standards of customer service – the kind of thing that would have been normal 15 or 20 years ago.
“That is true to a degree, but it’s with a modern twist by using social media and things like the Instagram page. But yes, it’s really about showing people a level of respect they might not be getting somewhere else.
“Tenants, landlords, letting agents – we’re all still human, we’re all still people. I guess it is remarkable that when you talk to tenants they are grateful for that approach, because it’s been lost, and we’re just applying the same personal, friendly approach that hasn’t been there,” he added.
Mr Giles said that sense of standards applies to landlords too. “Ethical is the term I would use. It’s difficult, because it applies to landlords too and limits the landlords we can work with,” he said. “We will turn a landlord and a property away from our books, and have done many times. If a landlord isn’t prepared to put a property up for rent at a certain standard, then I don’t want us to let it out to people.
“It’s quite easy to spot. You get a feeling straight away really, just by meeting a landlord or viewing a property they want to rent out, that their main motivation is to get the most amount of money they possibly can by spending the least amount of money. If that’s their main motivation, then it’s a shame because it isn’t our main motivation, which is securing tenants for a landlord in a property where they and the tenant are going to be happy, so we don’t take them on.
“What is good is that even within 11 months, we already seem to attract the kind of landlords who want to work like we do,” he added.
Talk of an ‘ethical’ letting agency may well raise eyebrows among thousands of renters – who would point out that the landlord’s priority is going to be making money, and the letting agent is always working for the landlord, not the tenant.
But it is, according to ACORN, something that’s possible. They instigated an ‘ethical lettings charter’ seven years ago, got it adopted as an official status by Bristol City Council in 2016, and have signed up a number of smaller, independent lettings agencies to it over the years.
It holds lettings agency and landlords to a set of standards, and there’s a Gold, Silver and Bronze level for landlords and lettings agencies to aspire to.
It deals with everything from the way tenants are treated when there is a maintenance issue, to the thorny issue of agency fees, what happens at the end of contracts and notice periods.
Unsurprisingly, it’s voluntary. And although Bristol City Council are supposed to encourage landlords to sign up, especially in tandem with licensing schemes around the city, it hasn’t taken off as much as ACORN hoped back in 2017, but instead has been an influence on developing the council’s own licensing schemes and conditions put on landlords.
So much so that, despite eight years in the lettings agency game in Bristol Mr Giles confessed he hadn’t heard of it.
“It sounds interesting, and like something we should be considering – I’ll definitely check it out,” he said, adding that ACORN and their ability to quickly mobilise a direct action group of campaigners to support one of their members, is ‘a bit scary for letting agents’.
“I am a bit scared of them. If you do something wrong, then they can shine a light on it. You don’t want to be in their cross-hairs,” he said, adding that he hoped they would never arrive on his doorstep. “We’re trying to do everything we can for tenants in what is a very pressured market in Bristol. It’s working, I think, because we’re growing,” he said.