If you're a landlord, you're likely to have the pick of hundreds of tenants replying to your property listing. Once you've picked someone, you can check them out via one of the tenant referencing services which have sprung up over the past few years.
There are a fair few measures in place to stop your tenant trashing your house, refusing to pay up, or generally acting like the worst house-guest ever. And even if you somehow pick a bad egg, you still have that security deposit to make up for it.
For tenants, though, it's adifferent story. According to Shelter, there are now over 9m of us in the UK, and yet beyond "looking them up and down" we don't really have any means of checking out landlords before we go live in their properties. Besides, it can be so hard to find a flat or house in the first place that you're likely to brush past initial misgivings ("Bloodstains? No problem!") for the sake of having a working kitchen and some sort of bed.
One woman, though, is keen to redress this imbalance. Hannah Williams, who rents in London with her two children, launched Rental Raters just over a year ago. The site allows UK tenants to leave starred reviews of landlords and their properties along with a testimonial. As far as she and we can tell, this is the only free site of its kind in the UK.
Williams tells me by email that she was inspired to create the site by the power disparity between renters and landlords:
The playing field between landlords and tenants is far from level, as while most renters are credit and reference-checked and required to pay a security deposit, they don’t have the opportunity to investigate their future landlord or letting agent in return
What really broke the camel's back, though, was a friend of hers who was evicted at short notice by a rogue landlord, leaving him and his fiancé homeless. These stories are becoming increasingly common: without any laws on tenancy lengths or rent rises, landlords can legitimately boot tenants out if they want to re-let the property for more money. Meanwhile, a law against revenge evictions has only just been passed, and won't come into effect until later this year. For now, tenants evicted after they complain of bad conditions still aren't protected by law.
Unsurprisingly, most of the site's negative reviews focus on evictions, deposit disputes, and flats left in poor conditions for months. Here's a one star review for a flat in Birmingham:
Among other things, this person found a rat in their bed.
Then there's this, for a flat in London:
These tenants had a hole in their bathroom floor for months thanks to building work in the landlord's flat below, never got their deposit back, and put up with "erratic electricity" for their entire tenancy. One to avoid.
And this flat in Uxbridge was, quite simply, terrible:
The site is still a little short on reviews – Williams wouldn't tell me how many she has collected, but says "the numbers are increasing all the time" – and is not yet a comprehensive database for would-be tenants. But even in these early stages, it's a useful resource. Tenants with grievances are, let's face it, more likely to leave a review; while would-be renters unsure about a property are likely to Google the address or landlord. If they go looking, they might now get some prior warning via other tenants' testimonies.
One reason reviewers might be slow to come forward , and why no similar services exist, is that while you can leave reviews under an anonymised username, the site also asks you to detail when you lived in the property. As a result, it wouldn't be difficult for landlords will to figure out who left that nasty review, and they could, at a stretch, affect your chances of renting elsewhere by giving you a bad reference. This is also, one assumes, why most of the reviews are left by ex-tenants, rather than current ones.
While this could be a useful tool for some, the system is still stacked in favourite of landlords (who also made up 21 per cent of the last House of Commons), and against tenants. It'll take more than a ratings site to change that.