Inventories and property inspections have to be done at check-in and checkout, and of course there are mid-terms, too. Reports have to be detailed, with photographs not just of rooms, but also any damage and dilapidations, whether pre-existing or new. And the reports have to stand up to scrutiny if there is a dispute that ends up going to one of the tenancy deposit schemes for arbitration.
Because of the layers of complexity, some bigger agents outsource the whole process to a specialist inventory provider – more on that later. But for those agents who prefer to do it themselves, technology has gone a long way to making life much, much easier.
Inventory Hive is a relative newcomer, but has made a big impact on the market with its user-friendly app that takes a lot of the pain out of the process. “When they set the property up on Inventory Hive they can choose an inventory template,” says marketing manager Mitch Handley. “So if they know it’s an unfurnished house in a good condition it will pre-populate the rooms – it saves the agent having to manually add each room and each item in the report.” The agent can then tweak the report as they go round.
“Inventory Hive already provides some descriptions they might want to use – for example, the kitchen is clean and tidy, with a neutral smell. But they can type in the box or voice dictate or choose from a drop-down list,” adds Handley.
You can also clone items at the click of a button – for example, the condition of the radiators – or even whole rooms. Photos are taken through the app and embedded in the report.
One feature of Inventory Hive is the ability to use 360-degree camera technology to capture a room in one hit, making it easy to compare before and after pictures at check-out.
There is also integration with Fixflo so that if any maintenance issues are raised, they can be dealt with at the click of a button.
The report is then emailed to the tenant who has the opportunity to provide feedback on it when they move in, reducing the potential for disputes.
“If the agent is giving the tenant the opportunity to provide feedback at check-in they can’t really dispute issues at checkout because they have had that opportunity to raise an issue,” explains Handley.
“Creating property inspection reports isn’t a fun job for a letting agent, so we try to make it as simple as possible through the app.
“Usability is really simple, and it’s not overcomplicated. There are less buttons to click, it’s easy on the eye, and the interface on the app is exactly the same as the desktop site. We offer a lot of support and training to all our users. We ensure we hold their hand to make sure they are using the software correctly.”
Inventory Base is a big player in this space, and enables agents to produce professional inventories, check-ins, check-outs, interim inspections, building inspections and risk assessments. A live dashboard keeps you informed and compliant with historical audit trails and instant notifications. Pre-configured templates can be accessed at the click of a button, and you can complete reports at the property using the user-friendly mobile app, which supports audio recording and speech-to- text. There is also a transcription service, if needed.
The app and website also support 360-degree photos and videos. Tenants can also do their own remote interim inspections, working with an agent in the office, avoiding the need for site visits.
Inventory Base allows you to schedule tasks such as EICR and gas safety checks with contractors. In fact, one feature that makes it stand out from the crowd is its marketplace solution for dealing with contractors.
“The providers will get an email allowing them to bid on the job; the agent can see the rating, make sure they are qualified and, say, RICS registered,” explains Inventory Base operations director, Sián Hemming-Metcalfe.
You can manage your resources and your suppliers – the key thing is, it’s about making that data share and connection frictionless. Sián Hemming-Metcalfe, Inventory Base.
“The money sits in an escrow account so the supplier knows they are going to get paid promptly. Sometimes they may have to wait 90 days – our marketplace solves that problem. Once the job is done correctly, the money drops into their wallet. Equally, if something goes wrong, there is the ability to recourse through a complaint process.”
Inventory Base works seamlessly with CRM systems such as Reapit, and contractor software like Fixflo.
“You can manage your resources and your suppliers – the key thing is it’s about making that data share and connection frictionless,” adds Hemming-Metcalfe.
Of course, despite these labour-saving apps, some agents prefer to outsource inventories and property inspections, allowing them to focus on the job in hand.
For those agents that prefer to outsource the inspection process, there are several options.
Savvy to outsource
Assist Inventories was started in 2014 by former letting agent Charlie Saunders, so he knows what it’s like for a harassed agency staff. “A few agents will try to do reports themselves, but the majority, particularly the savvy ones, will outsource it,” he says. “The main reason it is done by a third party is because if the agent is managing the property and there is a dispute with the deposit, it’s quite hard for the agent to argue with the tenant – if the agent has carried out the report they can be accused of being biased.”
A few agents will try to do reports themselves, but the majority, the savvy ones, will outsource it – if the agent has carried out the report they can be accused of being biased. Charlie Saunders Director, Assist Inventories.
The process is simple: when the agent finds a tenant, they will book an inventory check-in report. The clerk will get keys from agent, go to the property, take all the pictures, make a note of the condition and all the defects, meet the tenant and check them into the property. At check-out, the clerk meets the tenant at property, they hand over the keys and the clerk completes a check-out report.
“Because I used to own a letting agency I know everything that needs to be contained within the report,” says Saunders. “That knowledge is passed down to the office staff, we spend time training clerks to make sure the correct evidence is done in the correct order and the correct format, there are enough photos on there, and so on.
“That creates more work for us and more costs, so we are slightly more expensive than some, but it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if it’s not done properly and we have won multiple awards for what we have done.
Assist Inventories offers a full money-back guarantee on inspections. “That really helps cement what we are saying in that our reports are the best. Because we are not the cheapest, if a report is £20-£30 cheaper with another company but it doesn’t hold the evidence to get £100 off the deposit, it is a false economy.”
AI and inventories
One interesting future development in the inventory and property report world will be the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
While not quite there yet, most of our experts agree it will have a role to play in future.
“I can 100% see that will be happening in the future,” says Tomlinson of No Letting Go. “Obviously you are going to need someone there to take the pictures and there are always those things that are not so easy to identify – sometimes tenants try to hide things – but you could certainly cut down the amount of time it takes to do an inventory with AI. You can do more jobs, so it’s more cost-effective for everybody.”
Mitch Handley of Inventory Hive agrees. “Potentially AI could scan the room and pick up the contents rather than you adding in all the items manually – the TV, the fireplace, lightbulbs. The thing with AI will be making sure it is as accurate as possible because obviously it’s an important document.”
Sián Hemming-Metcalfe says Inventory Base is already looking at AI. “With a standard room, you could draw out the descriptions and produce a report from that – it’s totally do-able and something we are already looking at. It makes sense – there are things you can automate, you can streamline, you can make it more efficient for the user and for the buyer. She warns, however, that it is unlikely ever to be a complete solution, as it would be unable to pick up the nuances – looking inside an oven, or finding something a tenant was trying to hide.
Even if AI is a few years off yet when it comes to inventories, as with most things to do with the property world these days, technology is providing solutions to make lives easier and less stressful for agents.
Whether you do your own property reports and outsource them, pretty much everything now can be done at the click of a button.
National scale operator
No Letting Go is a national inventory provider, with 85 offices across the country. It is a franchised operation, but controlled and monitored by head office so the look and feel is always the same. “It’s incredibly time-consuming doing an inventory and check-out,” says head of operations, Justine Tomlinson. “It’s easy to miss things – our guys are experts in it, and are trained, and are doing it day in, day out.
If a dispute goes to adjudication, it is looked on more favourably if the inspection has been done by an independent company rather than by the agent themselves. Justine Tomlinson, Head of Operations, NoLettingGo.
“Also, if a dispute goes to adjudication, it is looked on more favourably if the inspection has been done by an independent company rather than by the agent themselves.
“All our inspectors are highly trained and monitored by head office and we take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.”
Like Assist Inventories, No Letting Go also offers a money-back guarantee to agents. “Providing we have done the inventory and checkout, we guarantee that report will stand up if it goes to arbitration, and if not we will pay out any losses,” says Tomlinson.
Agents are set up on the company portal and there is full online tracking from the moment the job is on the system. They can see the job been booked in, when the job is being done, and when it has been completed.
“When they are setting up the tenancy they can order the inventory at the same time,” she adds. “They are dealing with so many different suppliers – obviously the holy grail now is to be able to access all the suppliers via one system. That’s a big focus for us at the moment, making sure we are integrated with as many systems as possible to cut down on double-data entry for agents.”
Another issue that No Letting Go handles is key management. “We will pick up and return the key – sometimes we are asked to hold the keys for a short period of time,” explains Tomlinson. “Keys are the problems of the industry really, locating keys and identifying where keys are. So quite often agents will ask us to keep hold of the keys between a check-out and an inventory.”
One provider with a unique solution to the key management challenge is KeyZapp – see panel.
KeyZapp – The key to good service KeyZapp is a highly innovative standalone product that allows agents to keep track of property keys – whether it be for sales or lettings. Managing keys can be a nightmare for agents, so KeyZapp came up with a simple high-tech solution in the shape of a ‘smart’ key fob. Each fob is printed with a QR code and also contains a ‘near-field communication’, or NFC chip – the same one that allows you to remotely swipe your phone at a supermarket till.
Each set of keys has its own unique key fob that can be identified using either a specialist reader or your own smartphone.
“If an agent finds a random set of keys on their desk they can just touch the reader and it will tell them which property they belong to, whether they are coming back in or going out, or whether it is a master set or the tenant’s set,” explains director Tim Hill. “It also avoids giving tenants the wrong set.”
If an agent finds a random set of keys on their desk they can just touch the reader and it will tell them which property they belong to. Tim Hill Director, KeyZapp.
The system works with phones, too – if you hold fob to an iPhone, you don’t need to install an app, as long as KeyZapp knows who you are, you can identify the property address from your phone.
One useful security feature is that if a set of keys is lost, and found by someone who touches it with their phone, or tries to scan in the QR code, because they are not a recognised user, a form pops up that says ‘Have you found this key?’ that allows them to report the key as having been found.
With property sales, KeyZapp allows you to track the keys that staff are taking in and out of the office. “The common thing there is you take out five keys in the morning, bring a bunch of keys back, and you don’t realise you’re only brought four back because one as fallen into your footwell, or whatever,” says Hill. “If a key hasn’t been brought back you are alerted that the key isn’t where it is supposed to be.”
KeyZapp is surprisingly cheap at 25p per property per month, with fobs costing just £1 and readers £40.