• Brokers charge illegal fees

    Robbed by the realtor

    It’s illegal for real estate agents to make money off of a tenant if they didn’t actually find them a place to live. However, hardly anyone knows it. Student associations and a Groningen law lecturer help people to defend their rights.

    in short

    Even though several Dutch laws prohibit realtors from charging tenants brokerage fees, many still do it.

    Most people find rental property online rather than through a realtor’s office, but rental sites say those listings wouldn’t be online without the realtors.

    Ministers Opstelten and Blok have proposed to include student housing in the law.

    Students are often unfairly taken advantage of, particularly internationals. In one case, a tenant was threatened by his realtor in his home.

    Payters and Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten help tenants to reclaim their fees.

    full version

    Reading time: 7 min. (1,570 words)

    A good realtor can make good money – six figures-good, if you believe Robert Bakker. He is the owner of Bakker Woonbemiddeling, a real estate agency in the city centre. ‘You can assume that a good realtor has one transaction a day, and that is between 500 and 700 euros’, he says, ambling up the Herestraat. ‘Multiply that by 5. Multiply that by 50.’

    That adds up to an income of between 125,000 and 175,000 euros a year – if you’re good. According to income figures nation-wide, most realtors make closer to 67,000 euros a year on average. Even at the lower end, after accountants, lawyers, CEOs and doctors, a real estate agent is one of the best paid professions in the Netherlands.

    The tenant is paying

    That may be changing, though. Realtors are supposed to be paid by property owners when they find a tenant, but in reality, it is the tenant who is paying. Many tenants in the Netherlands see moving as a costly endeavour: they expect to pay one month’s rent, another month’s rent as a deposit and yet another in brokerage fees. However, according to the law, the realtor cannot charge those if he or she did not actually find the property.

    As it stands, the current law only covers independent rental housing – a property that has its own front entrance, bathroom, kitchen and toilet – but student housing has not been explicitly named by the law so far. A proposed change to include it is being considered by the relevant authorities now.

    It’s the law!

    The laws that cases for reclaiming brokerage fees rely on are Articles 6:264, 7:264 and 7:417 BW.

    Article 6:264 is about withholding performance. In an agreement about performing a service, if the party who first has to perform his or her duties (in this case, the realtor providing services for a tenant to rent a property) fails to do so, then the other party can withhold their end of the bargain. In other words, the tenant doesn’t have to pay if the service they were supposed to receive was not fulfilled or performed.

    Article 7:264 is about unfair advantage. In a contract for a lease, any provisions pertaining to anything other than the rent are null and void if they give an ‘unreasonable advantage’ to one of the parties – again, the realtor. If a third party has an unfair advantage in the transaction, then the contract is no longer valid.

    Article 7:417 is also known in Dutch as ‘dienen van twee heren’ – earning from two men. It states that it is not fair for the realtor to earn money from both the owner of a property as well as the tenant renting it, since the realtor cannot objectively represent the tenant’s interests if their main concern is their work for the owner.

    ‘We have a couple of – excuse my language – idiots in the government who say they are going to forbid this and that’, Bakker says. ‘They forget that there are 12,000 jobs on the line here. I know people who are already closely reading the health insurance act because they’re so worried about what will happen in 2015.’

    Although students are not his main clientele, he has strong opinions about the planned changes. After approaching dozens of realtors, he is actually the only one in Groningen willing to speak on the record about the situation.

    ‘So many people don’t know’

    He claims that he no longer charges brokerage fees himself, but he does charge administration costs of up to 100 euros. But according to RUG law lecturer Laura Peters, administration costs are not allowed either – ‘Another label does not make it legal’, she says.

    Peters and her brother, a debt collector in Nijmegen, started Payters, an agency to help tenants reclaim wrongly paid brokerage fees, in 2014. They bring the cases to court and then execute the judge’s decision, making sure that the plaintiff actually gets their money back.

    Peters only discovered that this practice was illegal a few years ago when she was looking for a house to rent. ‘Even as a lawyer I didn’t know – so many people don’t know’, she says. Currently, Payters has around 15 cases – if they win, they ask for 25 percent of the amount of the brokerage fee. If they lose, Payters charges nothing – and so far, Payters has won all of their cases.

    Students suffer

    Bakker firmly believes that realtors still serve an important purpose, even though many people find housing online through sites like Pararius nowadays. Jasper de Groot, director of Pararius, also sees realtors as essential – without them, the properties would not be listed online in the first place.

    ‘It’s the tendency in the market at the moment for renters to claim that they found a property online’, De Groot says. ‘But the fact that a renter found it online is because the realtor published it for the benefit of the renter.’

    Yet in many transactions where tenants find their rooms online or through acquaintances, they are still being asked to pay brokerage fees. Payters works with all tenants, but in Groningen, Peters sees many students falling victim to the unfair fees – particularly internationals. ‘They don’t speak the language and they are in a much weaker position in the rental market than any other student’, Peters says. ‘They are already paying a lot of money to be here and paying university fees, and they shouldn’t be put under pressure to pay this.’ For international clients, Payters offers services in English.

    Another group is also working in Groningen, especially with students, to get that money back: Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten. ‘Many students have their own apartment, so this group can use the current law in reclaiming the mediation costs’, says Marlinde Uri, a member of Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten, which is a collaboration among student associations GSb, KAB, SOG and the municipality of Groningen.

    As for those who are in student housing, there is still some hope to see their money again: according to Marlinde, Article 6:264 of Dutch civil law states that the costs should be in proportion with provided services. ‘However, this law is more difficult to enforce in practice since many mediation offices claim to provide services when they actually haven’t’, Marline says.

    Since it started in September, Steunpunt has received almost 100 inquiries. They offer free legal advice and, if a case goes to court, provide a lawyer for a reduced fee of 25 euros an hour, even though ‘one does not need a professional lawyers to proceed before the lower court in the Netherlands’, according to Peters.

    So, you want your money back?

    A student that was helped is Marnix Uri, a 20-year-old Bachelor’s student of Social Geography and Planning. His sister Marlinde works at the Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten and suggested he could its services after he found a room through a friend yet was charged 600 euros in realtors’ fees.

    He had already been able to view the room on his own. The realtor, whom he did not name, only gave him a 15-minute tour and sent him a standard contract via email. Marnix was told by Steunpunt’s lawyer that he had a case, which he started after moving out.

    ‘The realtor has been dragging it out’, Marnix says.  ‘There are so many lawsuits going against him that he may not be able to pay everyone and they may be left with nothing.’

    Ejaz Ahmad, a 33-year-old Master’s student in International Economic and Business Law from Pakistan, is one of Payters’ success stories. When he notified the realtor for his rental apartment that he would be taking him to court, it didn’t go well.

    Ejaz: ‘He called my wife and was yelling at her in Dutch, calling her names, like “Kankerhoer! Hoe durf jij dat te doen? Hoe kan je zo met mij omgaan? Ik ga jullie buitengooien, alle spullen buiten! Jullie mogen hier niet meer wonen!”’ (‘Whore! How dare you do this to me! How can you treat me this way? I’m going to throw you and all your stuff out! You can’t live here anymore!’)

    Half an hour later, the realtor burst into their apartment where Ejaz was home alone studying. After the realor refused to leave, Ejaz told him he would call the police – when he picked up his phone, the realtor slapped it out of his hand and took it from him.

    The realtor pushed Ejaz over, which alerted a concerned neighbour. After he let Ejaz use his phone to call the police, the broker finally left. Payters won the case – Peters accompanied Ejaz to the police station to file a report. It turned out that the cops were already familiar with him from previous complaints. Ejaz got his money back quickly and, on top of that, got a 9 on the exam.

    As for Marnix, his case remains unresolved, but he believes the market will be forced to change as more tenants know what their rights are, whether or not the current laws are further adapted. ‘If everyone becomes aware of the fact that this is not the right way, then the realtors cannot ask for it anymore.’