Students

Bye bye, brokerage fees

Fighting for reimbursement

Students and starters often pay through the nose in mediation costs when looking for a room or apartment. Most of the time, these costs are unlawful. In that case, they can attempt to reclaim the costs, but it turns out that that is much easier said than done.

By Anne Floor Lanting / Animation by René Lapoutre / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Brokerage firms are not allowed to make tenants pay for activities they carry out for the renters.

This was already prohibited for independent housing, but since 1 July 2016, this has also been prohibited for shared accommodation, otherwise known as student rooms.

Terugvorderen.nl helps tenants to reclaim their mediation fees and has so far assisted approximately 600 people. One in five cases resulted in a court case.

Rental brokers often change their legal entity, which makes it harder for tenants to reclaim their mediation fees.

Two judicial decisions are a cause for hope. The courts ruled that the new companies have to pay back the costs the tenants paid to the old ones.

Some brokers ask potential tenants to pay the mediation fees in cash without providing them with proof of payment that details the charges.

Reading time: 8 minutes (1,310 words)

It is 2014. Teacher education student Sam Huisman is interested in an apartment near Station Noord. She wants to rent it together with a friend. She is very happy when brokerage firm Spot In tells her she will be allowed to rent the apartment. She receives an invitation to sign the rental contract.

The invitation says Huisman will have to pay mediation fees. This is unlawful, because rental brokers are not allowed to charge tenants mediation fees for accommodation they are tasked by renters with renting out. ‘We went to the appointment thinking we would be able to reclaim the fees later’, Huisman says.

Enlisting an attourney

At the appointment, it becomes clear that the students have to pay the amount – one month’s rent, which was 726 euros – in cash. ‘When we refused, they told us there was no other way. There was no bank account number to which we could transfer the amount’, she says. The friends figure out what is going on and ask for proof of payment. ‘All they said they could give us was a handwritten receipt which didn’t detail the charges’, says Huisman. They have to agree or lose the apartment.

The students choose the first option: they cough up the 726 euros and move into the apartment. Once there, they find out their neighbours have also paid unlawful mediation costs, after which Huisman approached the Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten (Support Centre Mediation Costs). The support centre hires an attorney. The attorney sends emails and letters to Spot In, but the company does not respond. In the end, it turns out that Spot In has deregistered from the Chamber of Commerce (KvK).

After the failed attempts at contact – and because of the lack of a detailed bill – the attorney sees no point in starting legal procedures. ‘It was clear that Spot In knew that we could reclaim the mediation fees. They did everything they could to prevent that. I’ve lost a lot of money, but I’ve resigned myself to the situation’, Huisman says.

Fits and starts

In addition to the Support center Mediation costs, there are other organisations that Groningen tenants can turn to to get their mediation fees back. In the summer of 2014, then law student Geeske de Vries founded Terugvorderen.nl. Since then, her company has helped approximately 600 people, with varying degrees of success. ‘We always contact the rental broker involved to see if we can’t come to an agreement ourselves. This often leads to a form of settlement where the firm pays back part of the costs. We have started legal proceedings in approximately one in five cases, and we have won every finished case so far’, De Vries says.

But reclaiming unlawful mediation fees is not easy. It goes in fits and starts and takes a lot of patience. ‘We often deal with recalcitrant brokers who either don’t react or react aggressively. And when it does come to a court case, they can take up to a year’, the legal expert explains.

Bankrupt firms

Former student and entrepreneur Paul van der Werf knows like no other that not all efforts have the desired result. After his graduation, he went looking for a house of his own. In January 2013, he sees an apartment in the Corpus den Hoorn neighbourhood on brokerage firm DNHL’s website. DNHL also charges mediation fees: 700 euros. Van der Werf pays reluctantly, but does not protest. ‘I thought the amount was much too high. It’s just that back then I didn’t know those fees weren’t even allowed’, says Van der Werf.

The high costs keep weighing on his mind. When he hears that a couple in his apartment building was able to reclaim their mediation costs, Van der Werf decides to do something about it as well. In February 2014, he approaches Legal Aid. They refer him to Niels Hollander, the attorney who also handled his neighbours’ case.

‘I appointed myself building representative and set up a Facebook page to enable other tenants to join the case. It turned out there were more disgruntled tenants’, the former student says.

On behalf of Van der Werf and his neighbours, Hollander contacts DNHL’s attorney. In the months following, the two attorneys contact each other a lot, but in October of 2014, the trail runs cold. In the meantime, brokerage firm DNHL declares bankruptcy, and Hollander sees no point in taking the case to court to contest the costs.

Different legal entity

According to Van der Werf, DNHL continued its activities under another name after declaring bankruptcy. The trade registry at the KvK shows that DNHL has deregistered. But it is difficult to find out whether the company has continued its activities and, if so, under which name.

It is clear, however, that brokerage firms often switch from one legal entity to another. In August 2015, the Support Centre Mediation Costs published a list of 27 brokerage firms active in Groningen at the time. A search for these firms in the KVK trade registry turns up the following results: seven of the companies have deregistered in the meantime. At least four of them have continued their activities under a different name.

The firms’ former addresses now house ‘new’ real estate agencies with different signs. Kappenburg and Van Prooijen has now become Noordelijk Woningvastgoed (residential real estate). The location of Maxx Vastgoed Groningen BV is now occupied by Maxx aanhuurmakelaars (acquisition realtors) Groningen BV. And the building that once housed Spot In BV now bears the sign Spot IN Vastgoed BV.

Difficult, but promising

According to legal aid agency Frently, the actual amount of discontinued brokerage firms in Groningen is even higher. The agency says there are currently eleven.

Frently specialises in tenancy law, but no longer accepts cases to help reclaim mediation fees. ‘We’re currently too busy for that. It takes too much time and doesn’t get sufficient results’, employee Jan Pieter Fortuin explains. ‘Because of the large amount of discontinued firms, we cannot make promises in those kinds of cases. A court case against a legal entity that no longer exists is difficult.’

But rulings by the Rechtbank Midden-Nederland (District court of the central Netherlands) and the Rechtbank Amsterdam (District court of Amsterdam) are causes for hope. In those cases, people paid mediation fees to a firm that was then discontinued. The people behind the firm then set up a new legal entity. The courts ruled that the new firms had to pay back the costs that the tenants had paid to the old firms. ‘So we’re no longer falling for the brokerage firms’ tricks. These are great rulings, and we hope to be able to use them in the cases still pending’, De Vries says, hopeful.

The UK approached Spot IN Vastgoed, Maxx aanhuurmakelaars Groningen and Noordelijk Woningvastgoed for comment, but each firm declined.

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