News that a Portsmouth lettings agency has closed, possibly owing thousands of pounds to landlords and tenants, is really sad.

It’s especially so for landlords because not only have they lost rental income but also they are liable for the deposits handed over by tenants even if the lettings agent never passed them on to the landlord or secured them with a tenancy deposit scheme.

Putting them into a scheme is what’s supposed to happen, with all the correct paperwork handed to the tenant. If that’s not done, evicting the tenant can also become more difficult.

As Milton Freedman once said, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There’s no such thing as a cheap way to letting property, either.

It’s essential that when, as a landlord, you select a lettings agent for your property you sign a contract with a firm that is a member of a recognised body, such as the Association of Residential Lettings Agents (ARLA) which insists its members have professional indemnity insurance (PI) in place. When things go wrong, at least customers stand a chance of getting some of their money back.

Ultimately, it’s in the hands of landlords to defeat rogue lettings agents. Landlords select the agent, after all, and tenants select the property. So if the property they want is with a poor quality agent it’s not their fault.

At the moment there is no regulation of any sort governing lettings agents. Everything is voluntary but seeing that a lettings agent is a member of ARLA and also of The Property Ombudsman scheme, is the first step on the right path to getting a good agent.

It’s easy to focus too much on what the agent charges and not enough on what level of service they provide. For landlords, it’s the service level and professional standing (not hearsay but proof in membership of the right trade bodies) that counts the most.

It may cost more in charges as a proportion of rent received but that may be better than paying smaller charges and ultimately receiving no service at all!

Everyone who has suffered at the hands of a lettings agent who has run off with the money keeps their fingers crossed that they will get some of their cash back. It’s probably better to get the fingers uncrossed and use them to dial a lettings agent who does a proper job.

And remember that while the politicians of all persuasions have shown little appetite for anything other than talking about the regulation of lettings agents you, as landlords, can force the poor agents out of the market by not using them. If you know other landlords, ask them who they use. What works for them could also work for you but do your own homework before you sign up.