On Friday 13th January 2012 I telephoned Aztec Estate Agents in Bletchley at approximately 09.30 to discuss a one bedroom studio flat they were letting in The Hub complex, Milton Keynes. I arranged to view the property at 10.15 the following day on Saturday 14th January with an agent called Mohammed. At approximately 16.30 on the Friday afternoon I called Aztec once again to double check that the viewing was still scheduled. I made them aware that I would be travelling from 70 miles away in order to view this property so wanted to establish whether I would be the first person to view the flat in order to avoid unnecessary travel and disappointment. I was assured that I was the first viewing of the day.
Arriving at the Hub Apartment complex at 10.00, I waited outside the main entrance for Mohammed. He arrived at 10.15 and he showed me to the top floor where the studio flat was located so I could look around. At 10.25 we were back outside the apartment complex. The entire process took no longer than 10 minutes. I told Mohammed I liked the flat and wished to secure it before signing a lease agreement to become the next tenant. Mohammed explained that in order to do so I had to pay £150 as a holding fee. Once this fee had been received, there would be a series of credit/identity checks before eventually signing a contract, paying the first months rent up front, in addition to a month and a halves rent as a deposit and receiving the keys. Satisfied that this seemed a relatively straightforward process we shook hands on the deal. Mohammed then telephoned the Aztec office on his mobile phone and informed his colleague, Chris, that I wished to sign for the flat and that the following viewings scheduled for later on that morning needed to be cancelled.
Mohammed went on to say that credit and debit cards were not accepted at the office as a payment method for the holding fee and although a cheque could be used, it would only secure the flat once it had cleared, so he advised against this method. He suggested that I should give him the £150 in cash there and then which would allow him to take the flat off the market. Mohammed then opened a folder, which was empty, and said he would be unable to give me a receipt or any documentation relating to the flat. I was sceptical about handing over cash with no proof of receipt so asked Mohammed about an alternative. He said I could drive over to the Aztec office in Bletchley and complete the process there with his colleague Chris, who he had spoke to 2 minutes earlier.
I agreed to go to the office, so walked across the road to a nearby cash point and withdrew £150 in cash before returning to my car and driving to Bletchley. At approximately 10.45 I arrived at the Aztec office. I was greeted by Chris, who was in the middle of dealing with a different customer.
I told him I had come to sign for the studio flat in the Hub Apartment complex. Chris replied that the lady who was currently sat at his desk was in the process of signing the flat and had already paid the £150 holding fee, therefore securing the property in her name. Bemused, I explained to Chris that I had just been with Mohammed at a viewing of the flat and having agreed to sign I came straight from the Hub to Aztec to make payment and fill in the necessary forms, as Mohammed had told Chris on the phone. At this point the lady stated she had also been with Mohammad looking around the flat at a pre-arranged 10.15 appointment. At no point between arriving at the Hub at 10.00 and leaving at 10.25 did I see anybody else in the building. The lady could not have seen the flat with Mohammed before 10.25 at the very earliest, as I was with him for the entirety of that 25 minute time period.
I telephoned Mohammed and asked him to explain the situation. I asked him why he hadn't cancelled the following viewings, as he told me he would, and his reply was ¢â‚¬Å“the lady must have been in the adjacent elevator as we were coming down from our viewing.¢â‚¬Â This seemed unlikely given you need the access code or a key fob to enter the apartment complex (I didn't have either of these and presumably neither did she). I went on to say that even if this was the case, why didn't he tell the lady that somebody else has agreed to sign for the flat and is en route to pay the £150 holding fee. Mohammed said this ¢â‚¬Å“was not allowed¢â‚¬Â and only ¢â‚¬Å“payment secures the property.¢â‚¬Â I then questioned Mohammed as to how the lady could have possibly seen the flat and reached the Aztec offices before myself, given that there was no possibility he could have showed her around before 10.25 which is when I left Mohammed. To this he replied ¢â‚¬Å“it was essentially a race once you had both seen it, unfortunately she got there first and there's nothing I can do about it now she has paid the £150 holding fee.¢â‚¬Â
The lady sat at the desk for approximately 10 minutes filling in forms and discussing with Chris what the next stages in the application process would be. I sat and waited for her to finish before continuing my conversation with Chris. Whilst I waited I noticed several things of interest. First of all at no point did I see any cash or payment made from the lady to Chris, which led me to believe this must have been the very first thing she did when she arrived at the office. Second of all Chris told her that once all credit checks and referencing had been completed Aztec would require the first months rent upfront and another months rent as a deposit for the duration of her tenancy period. I was told earlier by Mohammed that the deposit would be the equivalent to a month and a halves rent. When I later questioned Chris about this he immediately said he had made a mistake and the information he gave the woman was incorrect. Once I had left he said he would contact the woman to inform her that the deposit was in fact equivalent to a month and a halves rent. Finally, once the woman had completed her forms, the final thing Chris said to her was ¢â‚¬Å“Please can I see your photo ID ¢â‚¬â€œ I need to check it and take a photocopy.¢â‚¬Â Surely this is something that should be done at the beginning of the process, before any money is exchanged.
Once the woman had left I continued my conversation with Chris. Clearly upset and angry I asked why he allowed the woman to sign for the flat, when Mohammed had called him at 10.25 to inform him I was coming with the deposit to sign the flat. He said he was a trainee and any explanation needed to come from Mohammed. I told Chris that I would be making a complaint to the Property Ombudsman and asked for their contact details or complaints procedure. Chris did not know what an Ombudsman was. As a trainee member of staff he was left in sole charge of the estate agent office.