Can You Trust Your Landlord With Your Personal Details?
If you live in rented housing, then there’s a chance that your personal details are being stored and shared without your knowledge. It has recently emerged that landlords have been setting up websites to share records about their previous tenants, effectively giving them the ability to create a blacklist.
An episode of the Radio 4 consumer affairs programme You and Yours, which was broadcast on 19th March (the programme is still available on iPlayer and the relevant segment starts at 12:50), interviewed the founders of several of these sites, who claim that it is a necessary precaution for landlords to protect themselves from tenants who get into rent arrears or damage properties. Considering that nearly every landlord will obtain references for a prospective tenant anyway, these sites might seem a bit redundant, but referencing sites offer landlords a source of information that tenants have no control over.
Tenant ID founder Lorna Stevens claims that her site can tell landlords “anything from their previous address, through to their tenancy payment performance. We can tell you whether [previous landlords have] claimed against rent guarantees, whether they’ve withheld a deposit amount, or whether there’s been any reports of antisocial behaviour.” All you need to do to get access to this database of tenant information is fill in an online form claiming to be a landlord, then sit back and wait to be approved as a member.
Stevens claims that her website is “not Big Brother-y at all”, but from the sounds of it, tenants have good reason to be concerned. Many would consider this level of monitoring to be an invasion of privacy, and considering that the site exists to distribute information about people without their knowledge or permission, it’s treading on thin ice as far as data protection legislation is concerned. In some cases, it may even compromise tenants’ personal safety, as it could potentially be used by an abusive ex-partner to track someone down.
Tenants History offers a similar service but goes one step further, notifying landlords that their current tenant has been looking at other properties if someone else searches for their details. Site owner Steven Hanbury said: “I don’t think it’s intrusive at all, as landlords we always like to know whether a tenant is looking to move, so we can minimise the risk of them doing a runner, maybe not paying the last month’s rent – effectively getting their deposit back – and leaving the property in a mess.”
I can see how this might be tempting for a landlord who has had tenants disappear on them before, but the suggestion that all tenants should be treated this way is a little creepy to say the least. If you’re thinking about moving, is it any of your landlord’s business? I’m not suggesting that a moonlight flit is the right way to end a tenancy, but it does occasionally happen, and this is the kind of risk that landlords have to accept. Landlords are making an investment, and that always involves risk, but it’s the nature of the game – the value of your investment can go down as well as up. A rental property isn’t a magic cash machine, and landlords shouldn’t be able to use questionable surveillance methods on their tenants to try and turn it into one.
Of the three sites featured on You and Yours, Landlord Referencing is probably the least invasive one, as it keeps a list of the tenant’s previous landlords so that they can be contacted, rather than an address history. However, it’s still a little creepy, particularly as it specialises in what creator Paul Routledge calls “lifestyle referencing”, and is designed to send out notifications to members when someone who has been identified as a “problematic tenant” is moving house.
The issue here is that the definition of a “problematic tenant”, and whether their lifestyle is considered to be objectionable, can be highly subjective. What about the tenant who inconvenienced their landlord by insisting that repairs were carried out, or took them to small claims court over a deposit that had been unfairly withheld? There are some landlords who would consider that to be “problematic”, and giving them the power to harm the tenant’s reputation for years afterwards would unfairly punish an innocent person.
There’s also no way of even verifying that the people who sign up for the site are even landlords, and not just a random person with a grudge. Landlord Referencing’s blurb makes the point of telling the reader that tenants can’t be trusted to give the correct information about where they used to live, and if a landlord has bought into the idea that referencing sites are the only reliable source of information, who are they going to believe if the details held by a prospective tenant doesn’t match what is held in the database?
This post first appeared on the Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group website.
I am a tenant. However, I am involved in running a website for landlords.
I wasn’t aware of two of these sites before reading your post, but I do know about Landlord Referencing. At first, when I heard about the site I was highly sceptical about it, simply I didn’t like the sound of it. My concerns about this form of referencing arose from the fact that before he moved in with me my husband’s previous landlord refused to return the deposit because the flat was ‘dirty’ when my husband left it. Unfortunately we didn’t take photographs, but I KNOW it was perfectly clean because I cleaned it myself. AND, yes it was cleaned to a high standard… So my concerns were about this episode – the landlord claimed the place was dirty, but we knew it wasn’t – how many other shady landlords would lie about this kind of thing? This happened a long time ago and I am only mentioning it because it provides a reference to my thought process in not liking the sound of this kind of referencing.
But… Since then I have had to get to know landlords better (because of my work – but now I kinda love most of them!), and having read countless threads on the Landlord Referencing forum I can see that the majority of landlords would not behave in the way my husband’s former landlord did. Yes, there are some rogue landlords out there, but there are an awful lot more rogue tenants by the sounds of it. Most landlords have to service debt in the form of a hefty btl mortgage so it isn’t all Moet and holidays in the Bahamas for them – they work really hard. I know this now because I work with them.
Furthermore, I have since forged a good working relationship with Paul (who owns Landlord Referencing), and I know it isn’t about being a blacklist. It is about landlords sharing information about potential tenants with one another to enable them to offer a home to a prospective tenant – one who won’t smear their walls with excrement or pay the rent late – or worse – not pay the rent at all. What the new landlord does with the information the old landlord provides is up to him or her. The new landlord may decide that it’s worth the risk, and take the tenant on. Also, Landlord Referencing isn’t just about bad tenants – good ones get posted there too. It is also fully compliant with the data protection act as tenants provide their information for referencing purposes.
At the end of the day, if the eviction process in this country was faster landlords wouldn’t need to resort to these kinds of sites – they’d know that if their tenant didn’t pay up they could boot them out quickly, and get someone else in. I believe that in some states in America, landlords can evict a tenant if they’ve been late with rent by only 3 days. In the UK a landlord has to wait for the rent to be late by two months if they want to use a section 8 eviction notice, and then there is the long wait for court proceedings. It sounds like an absolute nightmare. The landlord by this stage is not receiving any rent, but has to pay for the legal fees as well, and continue to carry out repairs on the property if necessary and – if they have a mortgage on their btl, service that too. The weight of the law is on the side of tenants. This is why these sites exist. Your argument shouldn’t be with these sites but with the eviction laws that have indirectly created the need for such sites. Think about it, if you’d put your hard earned cash into an investment you’d do everything you could to protect it too – this is just what these landlords are doing – protecting their assets. I see nothing wrong in this.