County Down couple 'let down' by letting laws
A couple from County Down whose rental house was badly damaged by tenants has called for better regulation of letting agencies in Northern Ireland.
Deirdre and Jarlath O'Hare, from Kilcoo, were left with broken windows, damaged furniture and a ruined garden after letting out their property.
They claimed the agent managing their rental did not live up to the service promised.
The couple felt they had no recourse due to a lack of regulation.
They had let their home out while living abroad and were told by the letting agent they employed that regular inspections would be carried out.
The agent also said they would be contacted about any issues with their property.
That turned out not to be the case.
"The neighbours were complaining about the animals. They complained to the RSPCA. They complained to the letting agent," said Mrs O'Hare.
"The letting agent did nothing, they were stonewalled, they got no response from them.
"We were paying a fee for them to look after the property. They let us down, incredibly much so."
There are more than 140,000 households in the private rental sector in Northern Ireland - that means about 18% of all houses here are privately rented.
Many property owners or landlords will employ a letting agent to manage the rental of their property.
Unlike estate agents, there is no legal requirement for letting agencies here to be regulated.
Some firms, however, choose to self-regulate through bodies like the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors or ARLA Propertymark.
"When you're talking about renting property - for a landlord, it's probably the most expensive asset after the home in which they live and for a tenant, it is their home," said David Cox, chief executive of ARLA Propertymark.
"Should it not be the right of the tenant and the landlord to have an agent that knows what they are doing?"
'Regulation not required'
Jonathan Quinn, who runs an estate and letting agency and chooses to regulate his business through ARLA Propertymark, told BBC News NI his agency would carry out checks to the required standard of the regulating body.
"Ultimately a regulated agent should result in tenants renting safer homes," he added.
The O'Hares did not realise regulation is currently not required by law in Northern Ireland, meaning essentially anyone can set themselves up as a letting agent.
When they tried to report their agent, they found there was very little action they could take against those agencies not signed up to some form of regulation.
"We had assumed they would be regulated or there would be some recourse if you had an issue with them," they said.
"It's only after this experience... we weren't looking for monetary (reimbursement), just we wanted someone to know that they weren't doing their job."
Tenants or landlords who have a problem with a letting agent can take up a complaint with an independent body like the Property Ombudsman.
However, the ombudsman will only investigate agents who have signed up to the Property Ombudsman Scheme.
The other option is through the small claims court, which can be a lengthy and expensive process.
The Department for Communities said it "recognised that lack of regulation (in the rental sector) is an issue and its recent review recommended the introduction of a regulatory framework".
However, it have been unable to progress this recommendation in the absence of a minister at Stormont for the past three years.
Letting agents in Scotland and Wales are already regulated.
In England, while no legal requirement currently exists a review has been carried out and will be considered by the government.
But in Northern Ireland, with a new Stormont minister now in place and facing a very busy inbox, it remains to be seen when this piece of legislation could be looked at.