We caught up with the founder of Marks Out of Tenancy, who’s in the business of ‘Hunting for rogue landlords’.
‘Hunting for rogue landlords’ is one of the slogans splashed across the loading screen on the review site dubbed the ‘TripAdvisor for tenants’. But Ben Yarrow, founder of Bristol based Marks Out Of Tenancy, is keen to stress they’re not out to slam all landlords, saying “we’re not anti-landlord, just pro-tenant”.
Launched in March 2017, Marks Out Of Tenancy now has 62 reviews in Bristol and 150 nationwide. Tenants can freely and anonymously rate their experience of a property, landlord, estate agent and neighbourhood. Ben hopes this will drive up the standards in the rental sector and introduce accountability for large and small players in the market.
While still relatively small, the service has made a mark in the rental sector attracting praise and partnerships from housing activists, councils and even landlords and estate agents. Unsurprisingly, not everyone has welcomed the initiative, attracting some suspect reviews and angry reactions on and offline.
Suspiciously high marks
“It didn’t bode well when they had three, 10-star reviews written for them in two days,” says Ben about a string of reviews singing the praises for Bristol estate agents the Letting Game. Following up the flagging of the reviews by the site’s software, Ben contacted the Letting Game and the reviewers to verify the accuracy.
Along with Tom Dickinson, the Marks Out Of Tenancy operations manager, Ben “cross checked the information with the deposit protection agencies, and found the tenancies were legitimate. But on further digging” says Ben, “we found one of the reviews was written by the girlfriend of a Letting Game employee, and another review was written by a person whose business was registered in the same building [as the Letting Game]”.
The reviews were subsequently taken down as they explicitly violated Marks Out Of Tenancy’s policies excluding reviewers who have close relationships to those being reviewed. This, Ben says, prompted an email from an employee of the Letting Game warning them that “your business isn’t even trading yet – you should be trying to make friends not enemy’s.” [sic]
“They were astounded that their reviews were that easy to spot, and that we’d gone to such lengths to investigate them, and that we were unwilling to shift our stance” says Ben, adding that they hadn’t heard from them since.
A spokesperson for the Letting Game protested the reviews were left in good faith. “We only mailed people who were in current active tenancies, that were set up by and managed by The Letting Game; so by definition, our tenants. […] We support and encourage any improvements in the Private Rental Sector and believe there are multiple opportunities that could help drive up standards.”
Landlords complain about the complaints
It may seem inevitable that the service will attract the ire of those who feel unfairly treated. One landlord on the receiving end of less than glowing reviews claimed that they had “been victim of an assault of false and defamatory reviews from a group of former tenants”.
Marks Out Of Tenancy directed the landlord to its complaints and defamation policy, even advising them to consider contacting a solicitor. “If a review is defamatory, we’ll take it off the website” says Ben, adding, “we engaged with the landlord, as we rightly should do, but we have to strike a balance between freedom of expression and defamation.”
Ultimately, the landlord was unhappy with Marks Out Of tenancy’s final decision to not remove the review. The landlord ended the correspondence with the threat of legal action: “I will consult my solicitor to work towards making your website shut as soon as possible.”
Another incident occurred at the Landlord Expo at UWE, an exhibition for landlords in the private rented sector. Ben was heckled by an irate landlord demanding that landlords be given the right to moderate reviews before publishing. Upon being denied the request, he shouted “WELL I HOPE YOU’VE GOT A F*****G GOOD LAWYER!” and stormed out.
Far from rattling him,“these sorts of threats help us to know we’re doing the right thing” says Ben. Indeed, the big idea behind Marks Out Of Tenancy is something that even many landlords could get on board with. “Piling landlords with red tape and hoops to jump through doesn’t improve renting. Marks Out Of Tenancy aims to use market forces to drive change, not regulatory forces – and that’s the kicker for some rogue landlords. They can easily pay for a licence to rent out property, but customer feedback will bring about real change.”
While still a new entrant to a massive sector, with continued plans and partnerships afoot for a national expansion Marks Out Of Tenancy will surely encounter more aggravation. “We know we’re disrupting an entire industry, we know someone has to stand out and take the brunt of angry landlords. But If nobody does it, nothing will change.”