Letting agents' fees are now "truly out of control" and tenants are having to go without food or turn off heating to cover their costs, a housing and homelessness charity has warned.

A mystery shopping exercise by Shelter among almost 60 letting agencies across England found they charged renters £350 in fees on average to set up a tenancy, on top of deposits and upfront rent.

The charity is calling for an end to letting agency fees charged to renters just to set up a tenancy, which include costs for "administration and credit checks".

Tenants are being handed these extra costs in spite of agents often receiving separate fees from landlords to set up a new tenancy on their behalf.

In some cases, upfront fees were non-refundable, even if the agreement failed through no fault of the tenant, the charity said.

'Causing real hardship'

Around a quarter of renters that dealt with letting agencies over the last three years had to borrow money to pay for fees, while one in six found themselves cutting down on heating or food to meet the costs, Shelter says.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of the charity, says: "When renters have to find hundreds of pounds in fees each time they move, on top of deposits and rent in advance, it's not surprising that fees are causing real financial hardship, and in some cases, preventing people from moving at all".

"The high demand for rented homes means that renters can't shop around, but instead have to deal with the letting agency their landlord has chosen. They have no choice but to swallow their anger and stump up their cash."