Now, she says, she faces bills mounting to £150,000 for repairs, and the letting agent has been accused of negligence by the family. The case comes amid concern about the lack of regulation in the property sector, despite a government consultation which recommended tightening rules two years ago.
It was not the first shock she had to endure. Shortly before, the police had discovered a cannabis farm in the other rental property she and her family own.
“The house and flat were pretty much destroyed in starkly similar circumstances, and I’ve been shocked at how little recourse I have,” says Shah. “We have been left financially devastated and no authority has been willing to investigate.”
The properties, in different London boroughs, were used to cultivate drugs but, the family says, they had been unable to get any enforcement agency to help them.
Shah says that she was told that both sets of new tenants had had bruising experiences with landlords, and wanted the agent to collect the rent and carry out maintenance and inspections.
Shah says she and her family usually manage the rentals themselves once their letting agent finds suitable tenants, but, when their tenants moved out in 2019, the agency, ABC Estates, offered to take over the management of both properties for no extra charge.
She claims that, despite repeated requests, she was only sent the signed tenancy agreements and tenant references for both properties in January 2021, 18 months after the first tenants moved in. “It appeared that ABC had done barely any checks on the tenants,” she says.
The cannabis farm inside one of Shah’s properties.
In summer 2020, Shah claims that ABC Estates notified her that the tenants in the house were leaving, and paying rent in lieu of notice. Shah inspected it with the agent and found it in good order. “A couple of weeks later, I was told that the same tenants wanted to come back and I agreed,” she says. The first cannabis farm was discovered by police at the house last November after concerns were raised by a neighbour. “Concerned for the second property, I immediately went round and found a man dismantling cannabis equipment,” she says.
Shah claims that ABC Estates acted negligently in failing to safeguard her properties, an allegation the company denies. Her experience appears to show the lack of protections for purchasers and vendors in an unregulated property sector. Two years after a government-appointed working group recommended a mandatory licensing scheme for estate agents and an industry regulator with enforcement powers, there has been no word on reform.
Estates agents do not have to have qualifications, despite handling life-changing sums of money and assets on behalf of clients. The only requirement is that they are signed up to a redress scheme that can mediate in individual disputes with clients. Local trading standards teams are responsible for investigating if an agent is in breach of the Estate Agents Act 1979, and the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT) can prohibit an agent from trading if breaches are serious. However, redress schemes have limited enforcement powers, and complaints can take more than six months to be heard, while years of under resourcing appear to have left trading standards ill-equipped to take action.
Her local trading standards department told her that since the properties were in two different local authority areas, it could not help and claimed it was a matter for the police. The Metropolitan police declared that it would not be possible to identify the cannabis growers and that her complaint was therefore a civil issue.
Shah escalated her complaint against ABC Estates to the Property Redress Scheme (PRS), a government-authorised service which considers consumer complaints about property issues. It told her that her allegations were beyond its remit as they involved the cannabis farm and were of a criminal nature, and referred her to trading standards. Moreover, all three bodies can only react to individual complaints, rather than proactively vet agents to minimise the risk of potential misconduct.