Page last updated at 20:02 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 21:02 UK

Money fears over letting agents

By Janey Doyle
BBC News Essex

Mervin and Lavinia Wright
Lavinia and Mervin Wright said they were left stunned

An Essex couple fear they could lose hundreds of pounds if a letting agency goes into liquidation.

Mervin and Lavinia Wright, aged in their 80s, could lose up to 500.

"If you haven't got thousands then hundreds of pounds is a lot to us," Mr Wright said.

"We do need it back, my wife has had to borrow 1000 to move elsewhere - we would have been homeless otherwise".

The Wright's tenancy term was ending on their flat and they decided to rent something smaller.

In February, they contacted letting agents Hot Lets Ltd in their home town Colchester, Essex, and put down 495 as a deposit on another flat.

Two weeks ago Mrs Wright read an article in her local paper saying Hot Lets had disappeared from the Church Street premises in the town and had apparently ceased trading.

The property stands empty and the telephones unanswered.

"We were stunned, when I read what had happened I thought 'that's us', you don't want to believe it - stunned," Mr Wright said.

The couple said they now believe they will not get their deposit back as they have not been able to contact the letting agents.

Liquidators contacted

Hot Lets ltd is advertised on the company's website as a letting agents for the North-East Essex area, owned by two sisters.

According to the company's own accounts with Companies' House Hot Lets' directors owed the firm 34,197 in August 2004.

Accounts signed in February this year show the total owed stood at 122,450 in August 2006.

Liquidators DTE Leonard Curtis told the BBC they have been advising the company's directors on steps to place the company into liquidation.

Hot Lets Ltd
Hot Lets' premises have been left empty

An initial meeting between the DTE Leonard Curtis and Hot Lets' creditors is due to take place on 7 May.

Hot Lets were not registered with the Association of Residential Letting Agents (Arla) - a voluntary regulatory body.

Arla regulated agents has 2,500 members who follow a code of conduct.

It estimates about 40-50% of the market place is taken up by unlicensed letting agents.

"Any public money is put in a ring-fenced account so if anything happens to the letting agents the landlords/tenants are properly protected," an Arla spokesman said.

The body is calling for all letting agents to be officially regulated.

At the moment anyone can set up as a letting agent, does not require official regulation, no experience is necessary and there are few legal requirements.

Since April 2007, it has been mandatory for all landlords and agents to register tenant's deposits with one of three official government tenancy deposits schemes as a safeguard.

'Landlords owed'

Liz Richfield, private sector housing manager at the University of Essex, said she has been contacted by a dozen students who rented properties through Hot Lets and are concerned.

"There could be many more affected. Our advice is to cease paying money into Hot Let's accounts and contact the deposit protection providers.

"A student from Brazil got a knock on the door from a landlord who had not received rent from the agency.

"She didn't know who he was, so contacted us - she had paid her deposit and rent to Hot Lets."

Stephen Carr
Stephen Carr has set up a website to help students

That landlord, Richard Logan, said: "I'm down about 1,500 - just over a four-month period and that's deposit and a month's rent.

"I went to the office and it was totally empty, there was just a hoover in the window.

"I'm doubtful whether I'll get my money back."

Stephen Carr, a law student at the university, and former Hot Lets tenant, set up a web forum for students who had used the letting agency.

"I've spoken to one student just yesterday and her landlords have been chasing her and her co-tenants for up to five months rent which hadn't been paid to him, they had paid it to Hot Lets.

"I set up a website so people could contact me. Eight students had the same worries - their money could be lost."

Hot Lets managing director Nicola Hamblion has been unavailable for comment.

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Hots Lets' Essex offices were cleared out two weeks ago

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