(I read the disclaimer in the sidebar: I'm not looking for legal advice: I'm just curious as to the implications to both parties).
Pre-amble and context: So I'm trying to rent a property in the UK. The agent we're going through wanted a holding deposit when we agreed to start the process (fine), which came with an agreement that the deposit is returned if we sign the tenancy agreement (reasonable), but not returned if we don't (ok, so they're protecting themselves against some loon block-reserving their entire property listing. Fine). I agreed because the justification sounded reasonable (with hindsight: I am not a smart man).
The fees had to be paid before seeing the tenancy agreement. The agency has thus far refused to negotiate terms on any bit of paper it's got me to sign (so we're clear: not asking about that. I ultimately agreed to the conditions, I understood the implications).
The question: Is it legal to have a deposit that is non-returnable on the basis of not signing a contract that the consumer hasn't had a chance to read before agreeing to the deposit terms?
I understand that a contract, in principal, needs to be fair (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1999/2083/introduction/made), but what if it wasn't fair? Could they have claimed it was fair, and refuse to amend any terms (at which point, I'd have had a "take it or leave it" contract that if I don't sign, I'm out of pocket)?
I'm aware the situation described is at least ethically dubious, but it seems to me that if they refused to negotiate, if I do sign it would be under some sort of duress (?) for the sum of money I'd be out-of-pocket by?
Likewise, this looks similar to the EULA sort of question that arises (pay money for a product behind terms that you can't read until you pay money).
(again, so we're clear: it's a situation that happened to me, but if I want actual legal advice I'll call a solicitor. The question is more that I don't understand enough about contract law to work out whether or not this was legally questionable rather than just the agency screwing me).