Hundreds of thousands of students will this month be moving into private rented accommodation for the first time. Meanwhile, millions of other people, unable to get a foot on the property ladder, also have little choice but to rent – sometimes into their 30s or even 40s.
Disputes between letting agents, tenants and landlords are rife, so what can you do to make the whole process as stress-free as possible?
Fight the fees
Anyone can set themselves up as a letting agent, and most of us have heard horror stories about tenants suffering at the hands of dodgy or incompetent agents, and being hit with demands for exorbitant fees for spurious “services”.
The good news for those renting in Scotland is that last weekend the government banned letting agents and landlords from charging any tenant fees. Ministers said the law would be clarified so that all charges to tenants, other than rent and a refundable deposit, “will be deemed illegal”.
But there is no sign of this being extended to the rest of the UK, so many will continue to be charged for things such as checking references, credit checks, providing an inventory, handing over keys, phone calls and postage. Also watch out for tenancy renewal fees and late payment fees. Earlier this year Shelter’s Welsh arm said some agents were charging new tenants up to £600 in administration fees.
Always get clear information about a letting agent’s fees. Use one that is a member of a body or scheme such as the Association of Residential Lettings Agents, the National Approved Letting Scheme or the National Association of Estate Agents.
You will almost certainly be asked to hand over a deposit (usually a month’s rent – sometimes more) and the first month’s rent in advance before you move in. Don’t pay a fee to register with an agency or for a list of properties – it’s a criminal offence to charge for those.
Don’t ignore the small print
Make sure you’re clear about what kind of tenancy agreement you’re signing. If all the people living in the property sign one agreement with the landlord when you move in, that’s a joint tenancy. If each of you signs a separate one, you have separate tenancies.
Check the agreement includes all the relevant information, such as what the rent covers (does it include bills?), whether you can leave before the end of the tenancy and how much notice you have to give, and any rules on things like pets, guests and smoking.
“If you have a joint tenancy, all the tenants have exactly the same rights. You are all equally responsible for paying the rent and keeping to the terms of your agreement,” says Shelter. “If one tenant is not paying the rent or causing other problems, you could end up having to pay her/his share or any other costs. Your landlord may be entitled to keep the deposit if there is any rent owing or damage to the property at the end of the tenancy – even if it’s not your fault.”
Check how your deposit will be protected
Since 2007, private landlords and letting agents in England and Wales have had to use a government-approved tenancy deposit protection scheme to safeguard people’s cash. A similar system began operating in Scotland in July, and fully takes effect on 13 November.
Your landlord should protect your deposit in one of the schemes within 30 days of the start of your tenancy, and must give you details of which one they are using.
In England and Wales, the three schemes are the Deposit Protection Service, mydeposits and the Tenancy Deposit Scheme. In Scotland they are SafeDeposits Scotland, mydeposits Scotland and the Letting Protection Service Scotland.
Each offers a dispute resolution service which landlords and tenants can use to sort out disagreements about deposits.
Help from mum and dad?
The landlord may ask students to provide a “guarantor” – usually mum or dad – who will cover costs if the rent isn’t paid or the house is trashed. The crucial thing for parents to know is that if it’s a joint tenancy, with a single agreement, any guarantor will also be jointly liable for overdue rent or damage caused by the other tenants.
On his LettingFocus.com website, aimed at landlords, property expert David Lawrenson explains that many parents of students may not realise this. “It means that while they are comfortable with covering Toby or Amelia’s share, they are not happy to cover Toby or Amelia’s friends with the funny haircuts and the drug problem. [But] if the carpet that was ruined was in Toby’s druggie housemate’s room, you [the landlord] still have every right to pursue Toby’s parents – even though it was not nice Toby’s fault. And you may well want to do this if the chances of recovery are better from Toby’s parents.”
Parents can try to limit their liability by writing it into their guarantor agreement.
Make sure the inventory is accurate
The inventory is a list of everything that’s provided with the property , including furniture, carpets, curtains, appliances, crockery and cutlery. It should also record the condition everything is in – for example, existing damage or wear, such as an old stain on the carpet.
Always make sure you are provided with an inventory – ask for one if necessary. If you’re not given one, write one up yourself, get it signed by an independent witness and send a copy to the landlord. Shelter has a sample inventory form on its website that people can download.
Remember the bills
Don’t forget to factor in costs on top of the rent, such as utility bills, TV licence and internet access costs. Remember that full-time students are usually exempt from paying council tax.
Watch out for any funny business with utility bills. Last month, research from comparison website uSwitch.com showed that some landlords and letting agents are breaking the law by issuing contracts preventing tenants from switching energy supplier to get a cheaper deal. A rental contract can stipulate that tenants ask a landlord before switching energy supplier, but it can’t refuse permission to switch.
Some letting agents have struck deals with energy companies such as Utility Warehouse, where the agent is paid commission if tenants use the firm’s services. As a tenant, would you be happy knowing the letting agent was pocketing commission generated from your phone or electricity bills?
Safety, security and insurance
If you’re renting a big place with several other people, check whether the landlord has, or needs, a “house in multiple occupation” (HMO) licence for the property. Landlords of HMOs have extra legal responsibilities covering things such as fire safety. Your landlord must register their HMO with the council if it has five or more unrelated people sharing and is at least three storeys high.
Make sure all gas appliances have been checked by a Gas Safe-registered engineer. Landlords have a legal duty to have all gas appliances in their properties inspected every year. And fit at least one smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector if they’re not already installed.
If you’re a student, your parents may agree to include your possessions on their home contents insurance where this is allowed. Check the wording. If you aren’t covered by your parents’ policy and need insurance, shop around. There are student-specific policies but they can be poor value.
If things get really bad, can you force someone to leave? Citizens Advice says that if you’re all joint tenants, you usually have equal rights to remain in the property and one of you can’t be forced to move out.
In a flatshare, you usually all share responsibility for the rent, it adds. If one person doesn’t pay and it’s a joint tenancy, you have joint liability and will have to cover their share and then try to get it back from them.
Meanwhile, if it’s your name on the gas or electricity bill and the others won’t pay, you will usually have to pay it and then pursue them for the money.
Keep good records
This could be vital if there’s a dispute when you eventually come to move out. Useful items might include photos taken when you moved in (ideally, dated and labelled), receipts for any items you’ve replaced, correspondence about repairs and copies of bills.
When it’s time to leave …
At the end of the tenancy you should get your deposit back within 10 days if you and your landlord agree the amount, says Citizens Advice. Your landlord can’t keep your deposit because of “general wear and tear”, adds Shelter. “For example, if the carpet gets a bit worn out, it’s probably wear and tear, but if you burn a hole in it, it’s damage.” It says tenancy agreements often state that things such as carpets and curtains must be cleaned to a professional standard before you go, but “this does not mean they have to be as clean or cleaner than when you moved in”.
Case study: £440 bill for a mystery clean-up
When Vaughan George moved out of his rented Nottingham home, he imagined it would be straightforward, writes Penny Anderson. There was an issue concerning whether or not he had properly informed the letting agent about his pet dog, but he thought the situation had been resolved.
However, after he and his partner had gone, the agent’s inspection was completed. To his horror, the agent said the property was in such a sorry state that it needed professional cleaning (despite the carpet being marked as “fair” on arrival and departure.) The firm deducted £440 – almost half his deposit – for cleaning and gardening.
However, George, 62, knows the owner of the cleaning company the agent claims to have used. And the cleaners denied having cleaned the house. Yes, they had submitted an estimate, but they claimed they often provided quotes for the same letting agent, but were never commissioned to do the work.
George suspected this was fraud, so he called the police station and quoted the Fraud Act. But they suggested he and the letting agent should sort this out between them, before eventually explaining that the fraud squad were not interested.
He knows the sum involved isn’t that large, but, as he says: “I’m lucky – I had enough money put by for another deposit, but what about those who suffer from deductions? It’s wrong.”
His next port of call (apart from his local trading standards) is his deposit protection scheme, which provides arbitration if there is a dispute. But George would still like his day in court. He is waiting for the agent concerned to either admit it wrongly charged him for work that was not done, or maintain they did the work so he can take further legal action.
George is now awaiting the decision of the Deposit Protection Service, to come after the letting agent has submitted its side of the story.
The lesson from all this is be on your guard. Take good quality photographs of the state of the property on leaving. Above all, if you do not agree with deductions, contest them, as the process is not complicated.
However, George says: “I would like to see some prosecutions, if only to help other victims and deter agents from trying similar scams.”