Mystery Shopping with Private Tenants

Peter O’Neill, Housing Rights Service

This was an initiative lead by the Housing Rights Service (HRS) in 2013 and undertaken in response to the practice of letting agents charge additional upfront charges to would-be applicants for privat
How It Works

The “mystery shopping” exercise was essentially an undercover survey of 40 NI based lettings agencies, undertaken by tenants, to find out more about the fees and charges that prospective tenants have to pay before they can rent accommodation. They asked questions about these additional fees such as: did they carry out this practice and, if so, what were the levels of fees; and what exactly were they for? 

They discovered that the majority of letting agents contacted in the survey charged these additional fees. There was quite a wide variation, with charges ranging from £25 to £100, and the average fee being approximately £50. Through this data gathering the private tenants were able to assist in contributing to a report, which was subsequently published.  Since then they have spoken with various civil servants, MLAs and other opinion-formers about the findings of the Report, as well as their own experiences as tenants.

The Report has been circulated quite widely to people within the housing and consumer protection policy arenas. The NI Trading Standards Service is now looking at this issue and carrying out its own investigations. It is felt that the “mystery shopping” Report helped stimulate that interest, and provided an evidence base for them to benchmark their own investigation. 

To access a copy of the report, follow this link: http://www.housingrights.org.uk/news/letting-fees-northern-ireland#sthash.1PZRDpKq.dpuf

How It Works

It was easy and relatively simple to conduct.  HRS described it as a piece of social action research that has been effective in drawing attention to the issue of additional charges and in providing an evidence base for discussion with policy and decision makers such as, for example, NI Trading Standards Service (which is responsible for addressing unfair practices relating to consumer protection law).  

This initiative was described as being both manageable and tightly focused, aspects which were felt to contribute to its success.  It was achievable in a relatively short time frame and produced data that was used strategically, soon afterwards, to influence change at operational and policy levels.

Those who undertook the mystery shopping were tenants themselves and had personal experience of taking out tenancies and dealing with letting agents etc. and so were able to bring a more nuanced and user-centred focus to the research project.  They had a personal interest in the issue and therefore were keen to get involved and have been eager to follow the progress of this policy intervention.

 An additional positive outcome of the initiative was that the tenants who participated acquired new skills in carrying out research – training was provided by HRS to support them as part of the process. HRS intends to use a similar approach to this in investigating issues in the future.

 For further information see the Mystery Shopping entry in the Tools Directory.