Beware of Stepping Stones Property Letting in Banbury


When I moved to Banbury in 2013 I rented a 2 bed flat in Peoples Place. Three years later in 2016 my landlord sold the property and after selling the property wrote to me to thank me for being such a helpful tenant and advised that a new property investor would be taking the property on.

At this point Stepping Stones took over the property and things quickly went wrong, very wrong! I had a range of issues with them, not least :

  • Problems and delays with maintenance.
  • A huge 15% rent rise.
  • Failures to provide legally required documents
  • Unwarranted threatening arrears notices and 
  • Finally an eviction notice.
Fortunately I fought them and had the resources to call on  solicitor who frankly made mince meat of them to a point where they offered me £1,800 to try and get me to sign a confidentiality agreement.

My case


Their response to maintenance issues was slow at best, for example they thought it was perfectly acceptable to leave me without a washing machine for two weeks and many more weeks before my kitchen was restored to its original state. This was a trivial in comparison to other matters.

Stepping Stones tried to push me in to a new long term contract which wasn't possible due to my personal circumstances. They also failed to take in to consideration my existing tenancy agreement, seeking to raise my rent without following the correct procedure. Within 9 months they sought to raise my rent by £100 a month (15%).

I decided to ask a solicitor to look in to the matter. He established various failings including :

  • Failing to send me details of the new landlord which is a criminal offence under s.3 Landlord and Tenant Act 1985
  • Did not provide details of the deposit protection scheme as required under s.21 of the Housing Act 2004
  • The copy they sent retrospectively did not  have the correct information and there was incorrect information and missing cross referenced clauses, therefore rendering it invalid.
  • When my solicitor asked for evidence they had complied with the law/regulations/procedures and had sent me the necessary documents Stepping Stones responded to his requests with an eviction notice.
  • Given all the holes in their documents my solicitor also advised we could challenge their eviction notice, but as you can imagine I wasn't relishing the thought of continuing with these cowboys.
Stepping Stones also sent me a number arrears notices one of which threatened court action. My solicitor told me to ignore these as they were invalid and eventually Stepping Stones admitted they made an error but blamed it on a computer and not the fact they had misinterpreted my contract or that they had failed to follow the correct procedure.

£1800 to silence me


Having decided  reported Stepping Stones to the The Property Ombudsman (TPO) soon after I received a communication from Ben Jones (one of the owners).

He offered my £1,800 to withdrawn my complaint on the basis I would sign a non-disclosure agreement but I refused. From my perspective this was just an attempt for them to bury the complaint and Stepping Stones needed to mend their ways.

Their justification for the money was that to respond to the complaint would take too much time and effort. Considering it took me less than a day to raise the complaint including compiling all the evidence and correspondence, even if they invested 3 days this would be excessive and so the only conclusion I could reach was that this was hush money.

Stepping Stones' response to the ombudsman was weak and lacking in evidence which served only confirmed this further for me.


The ombudsman


The ombudsman reviewed the case and found in my favour. A few excerpts from their investigation are below :

  • "No evidence was received from Stepping Stones in their submission documents to support the fact that these letters were sent"
  • "I consider that there is sufficient evidence of a failure to undertake due diligence and I refer specifically to Paragraph 11c of the Code."
  • "Failure on the part of SS to appraise themselves of all the facts is likely to have contributed to a level of unnecessary aggravation, distress and inconvenience."
  • "I have found that there were service shortcomings/failings under the Code of Practice and I will make  an  award  that  I  consider  fairly  compensates  for  the  aggravation,  distress  and inconvenience  caused  by  those  shortcomings."

The ombudsman also offered me compensation but the issue with this is that it closes off any further legal recourse and given the catastrophic, criminal failings and the fact it was never about the money I decided to turn this down to leave my options open.

Belligerent heavy handed tactics


I believe Stepping Stones play hardball because no matter how wrongly or unlawfully they acted, I imagine a lot of tenants probably back down and some of their online reviews certainly seem to confirm this.

I certainly got a strong impression they are not used to dealing with working professional tenants. Some of their attitude and approach harked back to my days renting as a student in Manchester, but thankfully I never had such terrible experience.

In my experience Ruth Neczaj (office manager) was dismissive at best and unwilling to acknowledge any issues. Alison Jones (one of the owners) was frankly belligerent and arrogant.

Indeed in the response to the Ombudsman Stepping Stones had little defence and what defence their was seemed to be predicated on the fact that no one had  challenged them before and  questioning  the qualification of my solicitor to do so.

Generally I found them to be poorly coordinated and communication was not their strong point, especially between their team. The fact they didn't have a standard process (or they failed to follow it) when taking on a new property is an illustration of their cavalier attitude to process and as for customer service, well I wouldn't get your hopes up. A professional property lettings agent this is not!


What are others saying?


If you read around online you will also find other reported cases of Stepping Stones being taken to the Ombudsman and to court as well as their heavy handed tactics. A few reviews I found online which reflect similar experiences to mine include :

  • "No customer service what so ever won't be using them again."
  • "Rented two properties from them, both times have been incredibly difficult. They tried to charge me £600 for damages, court deemed i should pay £53.... avoid at all costs."
  • "Stepping Stones are absolute gangsters who take advantage of the vulnerable state tenants find themselves in when moving house. They know full well that tenants do not have the time or resource to contest deductions and go in full whack."
  • "Very difficult and obstructive. ....... Should be avoided by landlords and tenants alike. I currently have a complaint against them going through the housing ombudsman and my local MP.
  • My view exactly. I hope they won and a letter to my MP is on the way"
  • "Rude, arrogant, and behaved as though he was doing you a favour letting you see the place, worst experience from a letting agent"
  •  "Awful! Rude! Time Wasters!"

Whilst this is a selection of reviews which reflect my experiences, overall their reviews do not fair particularly well. I would seriously advise you to do your own research before committing to any landlord or agent.

Conclusion

Having rented a number of properties over the years it's fair to say that Stepping Stones are the worst agent I have ever had the misfortune to deal with.

In my opinion their customer service is lacking, when faced with the most basic issues are slap dash and when challenged, Stepping Stones seek to deny, defend and discredit in an attempt to get you to give up or roll over.

Despite having presented no evidence to back up some of their claims Stepping Stones have fought this case all the way and as far as I can tell remain in complete denial about their abject failings.

My advice is stay well clear and if you are lumbered with them and experience an issue stand strong.

Useful links and references