Need to know
- People who rent report being given no choice but to use RentTech platforms and other online platforms – at their own expense
- Tenancy advocates say it’s all about shifting costs from the real estate business to the tenant
- We profile the stories of renters trying to fight this growing trend
Renting is hard and expensive enough in Australia without being hit with extra costs. But more and more landlords and rental agents are turning to RentTech platforms such as Ailo, Rental Rewards and Simple Rent and giving tenants little choice but to use them. In some cases, the platforms charge both payment processing fees and stiff late fees if tenants miss a payment.
It's an imposition on people who rent that seems to flout tenancy laws in some states.
In NSW, for instance, a landlord or real estate agent "must permit a tenant to pay the rent by at least one means for which the tenant does not incur a cost and that is reasonably available to the tenant" (other than fees charged by the tenant's bank).
Is it reasonable?
We've seen several cases where rental agents stretch the definition of "reasonably available", asking people who rent either to use the RentTech platform or online services, or to pay by cash or cheque at the office.
I quite quickly told them that I wasn't going to
use that service and asked what fee-free option they provide. They did not offer up any alternative
One tenant we spoke to, Stacy (not her real name), told CHOICE that her rental agent made Rental Rewards "the only option" for paying rent. But once she'd reviewed the service's terms and conditions, she decided to challenge the agent's request.
Case study: Paying another way
"I quite quickly told them that I wasn't going to use that service and asked what fee-free option they provide," Stacy says. "They did not offer up any alternative."
Eventually, the agent "begrudgingly agreed" for Stacy to pay in person at the office once a month, but then the COVID-19 pandemic began and the office was often closed.
At the agent's suggestion, Stacy opened a checking account and posted cheques to the office, but no one was there to deposit them on time.
In the end, the agent finally agreed to accept payment by direct debit from Stacy's bank account, "which I've done in every other rental property for over a decade without complaint".
But refusing to pay by Rental Rewards didn't seem to work in Stacy's favour in the long run.
"After all this trouble, we've also been told our rent is increasing $152 per month, which is legal but pretty excessive," Stacy says.
Users of RentTech platforms can be hit with a variety of fees on top of the rent they're paying.
Data security concerns
Aside from the extra cost of using a rental platform, there's also the matter of data security for renters to consider.
In a recent review of the privacy policies of seven popular RentTech platforms (for both paying rent and applying for a rental), we found plenty of cause for concern.
In general, there was limited or no information in the privacy policies about the way personal information was being stored. And where the platform makers said they stored data overseas, it was unclear how Australian consumers would be protected, given that privacy laws vary from one country to another.
Having our bank details on a third-party site is making us extremely nervous
When the platform makers said they store personal information via third parties based in Australia, there was no information about the privacy policies of these third parties.
Case study: No choice but to share personal data
Data security is a concern for another individual we heard from, Bill (not his real name). He was told to pay by Simple Rent when the place he was renting with his partner was taken over by a different estate agent.
"We had no option, they wouldn't take payments over the phone, and we couldn't go in," Bill says. "To avoid the biggest fees we had to link our bank account."
Bill's partner had just lost his job, so the extra costs to pay rent were especially unwelcome. In the past, Bill's partner had also had his personal details stolen from a third-party website used by a major retailer, so neither were comfortable handing over their personal details to Simple Rent.
"Having our bank details on a third-party site is making us extremely nervous," Bill says. "If a data breach happens through Simple Rent, what will happen to our account, especially when only one of us is currently working?
"With no way to change this, we are at the mercy of the real estate agent, their fees through Simple Rent, and the cyber security of Simple Rent itself. If anything happens to our data, we very much doubt the real estate agent will take any responsibility for it."
Shifting costs to the tenant
Leo Patterson Ross, CEO of Tenants Union NSW, says the use of rent payment platforms is rising rapidly in the rental market.
"What this is about is transferring costs from the property manager to the tenant," Ross says, adding that "the tenant is often the most likely to have costs shifted to them, because they're the easiest target".
It isn't just about fees incurred in order to pay the rent that are a concern. In a recent CHOICE national survey, 34% of people who rent said they'd offered to pay a higher rent than was advertised to secure a rental, while 20% had been asked by a rental agent to pay a fee to lodge an application (18% said they'd actually paid the fee to apply).
What this is about is transferring costs fromTenants Union NSW CEO Leo Patterson Ross
the property manager to the tenant
Other charges are also imposed on tenants via RentTech platforms, such as the option to pay for your own background check to increase your chances of being accepted. Some platforms even give you the option to indicate how much you're willing to pay, regardless of the advertised price.
People who rent in Australia are already under stress. RentTech platforms often make matters worse.
Late fees driving financial hardship
Having to pay a few extra dollars with each rent payment is one thing. But, according to Ross, the late fees charged by these platforms "are the thing that really drives financial hardship for people". Rental Rewards, for instance, charges a failed payment fee of $15.
"The payment apps aren't responsive to people's changing situations," Ross explains. "Something might have gone wrong the day before and you had an emergency to pay for, or you were just moving money around between your accounts.
People already give up so much of their personal data to these businesses, it's a kick in the teeth that they also have to pay for the privilegeCHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Rafi Alam
"But if you're just one day late, or even just a few hours late, you could be charged a late fee from the rental app as well as your bank, which doesn't seem very fair."
"It's disheartening to see RentTech platforms use their technology to increase costs for people who rent, especially when they are claiming to benefit renters," says CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Rafi Alam.
"People already give up so much of their personal data to these businesses, it's a kick in the teeth that they also have to pay for the privilege. In the midst of a cost-of-living and rental housing crisis, people who rent shouldn't be footing the bill for RentTech they don't even want."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.