A crackdown on rogue letting agents whose practices have been likened to the property industry's "Wild West" has been announced by the Government.
The plans to give better protection from shoddy service to England's nine million tenants living in the private rental sector will force letting and property management agents to join a redress scheme.
Some 3,000 agents, representing two-fifths (40%) of the industry, are not part of such a scheme, which would ensure that tenants received compensation if their complaints about being ripped off were upheld.
Calls for tougher regulation of the sector have been growing, with concerns raised that tenants are being stung by "hidden" charges, often when it is too late to back out of a rental agreement.
Demand in the rental sector remains strong amid a general lack of homes to choose from, despite signs that more people have been making the jump onto the housing ladder in recent months.
The plans were announced by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who said that the Government will publish a new code of practice setting standards for the management of property in the private rented sector, with a view to making it statutory to provide greater confidence for tenants in what they can expect.
A new "tenant's charter" will also be published for consultation, which should also help tenants if they feel they have been the victim of hidden fees or poor accommodation standards.
Tenants will also find it easier to agree longer tenancies, of three years or more under the plans, to help give families greater stability.
The charter will explain to tenants how they can ask for longer tenancies, which will help them avoid the extra cost of renewing a contract or moving to another property. These upfront fees are £300 typically but can be higher, the Government said.
Peter Bolton King, global residential director of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), which has been pressing for tougher rules, described the plans as "long overdue".
He said: " The lettings sector has for far too long been the Wild West of the property industry, with many tenants having absolutely nowhere to go should they wish to complain about shoddy service.
"The introduction of a code of practice specifically covering those managing rented property should certainly improve standards."
Mr Bolton King continued: "The Government needs to go one step further. Consumers still cannot be sure that the agent they're dealing with is suitably qualified or knowledgeable to operate.
"As part of our consumer research last year, almost 90% of people questioned felt that agents should be forced to register with an independent regulatory body before trading.
"We will continue to call for a consistent national regulation scheme for lettings agents which protects the public where the risks are greatest."
A forthcoming review will also consider whether landlords should be forced to repay rent where a property is found to have "serious hazards".
This could include allowing local authorities to recoup housing benefit so that taxpayers' money does not support landlords who provide sub-standard property.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of consumer group Which?, said: "Renting is now the only housing option for millions so we're pleased to see the Government taking steps to address problems in the lettings market. Making charges clear upfront will enable people to shop around more easily, and longer tenancies could mark the end of unnecessary renewal fees.
"The new legislation giving landlords and tenants access to a complaints scheme now needs to be brought in as soon as possible and there must be strong action taken against any agent in breach of the scheme."
Mr Pickles said: "T enants deserve better value for money, and dodgy landlords should be under no illusion they can provide a shoddy service with impunity.
"Today's proposals will raise the quality and choice of rental accommodation, and sharpen the tools available to tenants and councils so we can root out the cowboys and rogue operators in the sector."
Campbell Robb, chief executive of charity Shelter, said the announcement marks the " first steps towards fixing the broken rental market".
He said: "Whilst encouraging, these proposals lack teeth. As demand for rented property grows, many renters will still have no real choice over the homes they live in, the length of their tenancy, or the fees they pay to letting agents.
"With so many now priced out of homeownership, families and young people across the country are beginning to realise that renting could be their only option for years to come.
"This is a good start, but we look forward to seeing further Government plans to make sure renters can find a decent, stable home where they can put down roots."