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Thousands owed to landlords and tenant deposits not secured as estate agent collapses

PUBLISHED: 12:36 15 June 2018 | UPDATED: 16:05 15 June 2018

Owner and director of eHomes Victoria Steele. Landlords say the firm owes them thousands of pounds. Photo: Archant

Owner and director of eHomes Victoria Steele. Landlords say the firm owes them thousands of pounds. Photo: Archant

©Archant Photographic 2010

A Norfolk estate agent has gone to ground owing landlords thousands of pounds, an EDP investigation can today reveal.

Landlords accuse Swaffham firm eHomes Limited of not paying them rent and not securing tenants’ deposits in protection schemes, as required by law.

The company’s sole shareholder and director, Victoria Steele, has not returned messages from landlords or from this newspaper.

Our investigation into eHomes has found:

•Landlords have had to shell out thousands of pounds as tenants’ deposits were not registered in protection schemes.

Matthew Green at his premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian BurtMatthew Green at his premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian Burt

•The Property Ombudsman has ordered eHomes to pay one landlord £10,000.

•When landlords chased eHomes for money owed they were given a series of excuses.

•The previous firm run by Mrs Steele went into liquidation in 2015 owing creditors £100,000.

Matthew Green, 34, rented his shop on Station Street to eHomes and the company also let a house for him.

Matthew Green's premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian BurtMatthew Green's premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian Burt

The property developer said he was paid no rent from January to March for his shop, a total of £2,250.

The rent from his tenant was also meant to be paid directly to him but it was paid to eHomes instead.

Despite months of chasing, he has not been paid the money, leaving him more than £4,000 short in total.

The last message he had from Mrs Steele was at the start of May, reading: “I am overseas at the moment.”

Landlord Trevor Hucklesby said his tenants' deposits were not secured in a protection scheme by eHomes. Picture: Ian BurtLandlord Trevor Hucklesby said his tenants' deposits were not secured in a protection scheme by eHomes. Picture: Ian Burt

Mr Green, 34, said: “I have been chasing since February. Financially I have a lot of mortgage commitments.”

His tenant’s deposit of £1,038 was also not registered with a deposit scheme for four months.

By law, tenants’ deposits are meant to be registered in one of three government-backed protection schemes within 30 days.

But it is the responsibility of the landlord, rather than the letting agent, to make sure they are secure. It was finally registered in April but Mr Green’s tenant David Taylor, 53, has now had a letter from the scheme, saying eHomes’ membership of it will be terminated in August.

The eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian BurtThe eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian Burt

He is not alone in having issues with his deposit.

Karen Barnaby could also find no evidence that her tenant’s deposit of £1,107 was registered with any of the three deposit schemes.

Unable to get hold of eHomes or its director, the 32-year old, who lives in Portsmouth, took legal advice and has had to pay the deposit to the tenant.

Mrs Barnaby, who used to serve in the military, has put in a court claim against eHomes.

The firm has stopped trading. Picture: Ian BurtThe firm has stopped trading. Picture: Ian Burt

“I felt sad last week when I found out others were affected, the stress from it and the deception,” she said.

Another landlord, Christine Stone, said she paid thousands of pounds to eHomes for work on her home in Viking Close, Swaffham.

But her tenant, mother-of-four Nicola Kendle, who has now moved out, said the home was riddled with problems and not well-maintained.

“I had huge ongoing problems with the property,” the 36 year-old said. “When you used the shower, water came through the light fitting downstairs

Garry Walker set up a Facebook group for those affected by eHomes. Picture: Ian BurtGarry Walker set up a Facebook group for those affected by eHomes. Picture: Ian Burt

“One of the bedroom walls was black with mould.” She said that affected two of her children’s asthma.

Mrs Stone, 53, from Newmarket, said: “I spent thousands on property maintenance but it was not maintained. It has been a nightmare.”

Garry Walker set up a Facebook group for people affected by eHomes after reading posts about the problems on the social media site. It now has around 100 members.

Mr Walker, from North Pickenham, found out deposits, worth £1,300, for two Swaffham properties his mother rented through eHomes had also not been put in protection schemes.

According to the contract with eHomes, the deposits were meant to be protected by the Deposit Protection Service, but a search of the scheme’s website shows they have not been registered.

“Hopefully through this (Facebook) group we can co-ordinate some form of action,” he said.

Trevor Hucklesby, 66, from Great Cressingham, also rented his Swaffham house through the firm.

“I didn’t smell any sort of rat until I didn’t receive any rent from November last year to January,” he said.

He was later paid the rent money but once again he could find no record of his tenants’ deposits registered with a scheme.

He sought legal advice and has paid the deposits himself. He estimates it has cost him £4,000.

Derek Rogers, 63, from Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex, said he is owed £1,120 for rent in April and May.

In a series of messages to Mrs Steele about where his rents for those months were he said he received no response.

Landlord Helen Dunk, from Peterborough, meanwhile, contacted Norfolk Trading Standards about her case. She said eHomes charged £24 to protect her tenants’ deposit in a scheme but again it was never registered.

“I’m so angry about it all,” she said.

Mrs Steele did not respond to requests for comment.

In May she said in an email to one landlord that eHomes was ceasing trading. A document filed on Companies House on June 5 said the company will be struck off within two months.

But by Tuesday that strike-off action had been suspended.

Mrs Steele set up a new firm in March called Love Norfolk Limited which lists hotels and holiday accommodation as its business.

•Ordered to pay £10,000

Late last year Sean Boyle noticed several months of rent had not been paid to him by eHomes.

The 49-year old had been working abroad and had not checked the account the rent was meant to be paid to.

But he had received remittances from eHomes stating the rent had been received and paid to him.

The Swaffham firm had also taken out service charges but had not then paid the service firm.

He got the Property Ombudsman involved who took almost four months to rule in his favour.

The ombudsman found in May eHomes owed Mr Boyle £10,000, including £6,600 in unpaid rent.

Mr Boyle described the ombudsman as “toothless”.

“Why is the protection for consumers and landlords not there?” he said.

The ombudsman has been contacted for comment.

•Last company collapsed owing £100,000

Victoria Steele’s last estate agency firm went into liquidation owing creditors more than £100,000.

Prestige Lettings and Management Ltd, which she owned with her husband, Fergus Steele, appointed liquidators in July 2015.

When it went into liquidation it owed HMRC £50,000 and trade creditors more than £25,000. Employees were owed £7,750 and banks another £19,246.

But the taxman later lodged a claim saying it was owed even more at £130,000.

According to the firm’s latest statement of affairs in September 2017, it is “unlikely” creditors will get any money back as the firm had just £12,700 in assets.

The company was bought for that sum by Mrs Steele’s new firm, eHomes, in July 2015.

Other than HMRC, the biggest creditors included NatWest and Breckland Council.

In January 2018 it removed its liquidator and appointed a new one, meaning liquidation is yet to be finalised.

•Tenants’ rights

Tenants’ deposits are meant to be protected by law with one of three Government-approved schemes.

The schemes are the Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS), Deposit Protection Service (DPS) and My Deposits.

A spokesman for TDS, which

is terminating eHomes membership, said: “We regularly carry out compliance checks on the companies and individuals who use our services.

“Typically, if we find a landlord or agent to be in contravention of our rules, we will terminate their membership of the scheme.”

They said that if a tenancy deposit had been registered with TDS, the tenant could raise a dispute.

And if an agent went into liquidation, the tenants’ deposit would be protected.

But if a landlord or agent has taken a deposit without registering it, there is little they could do, the spokesman added.

Norfolk County Council said Trading Standards were aware of complaints made against eHomes.

A spokesman confirmed they were making enquiries “regarding any Trading Standards breaches”.

•Anyone with concerns about eHomes should contact the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06 or Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040

•Follow the latest from our investigations unit on Facebook

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