Private renting: What you need to know
Private renters don’t always know their rights.
Here are some common misunderstandings:
“My landlord has given me notice, so I have to leave when they tell me to.”
Wrong. Not many renters know that it is actually a criminal offence for your landlord to evict you without a court order, and a court order is not the same thing as giving notice. Legally, you can stay in your home right up until court officials come to your house, which could be up to 6 months AFTER the end of your notice period. If your landlord tries to make you move out sooner by intimidating or threatening you, this is a criminal offence and you should tell the police (but be prepared for ignorance; some police mistakenly believe it is a civil, rather than criminal, matter!). You are allowed to change the locks to protect yourself from harassment, as long as you keep the original lock and put it back on when you leave. You should also tell someone at your council. In Waltham Forest, the council has outsourced its housing advice to a company called Ascham Homes. It’s their job to protect you from bad landlords. Their number is 020 8496 3000
“It’s my landlord’s house, so they can do whatever they like.”
Wrong. It’s your landlord’s PROPERTY, but while you’re paying rent it is your HOME. You do not have to let the landlord into your home if you don’t want to, and you do not have to give them a key. The only time you have to let them in is when they need to do repairs, but they must arrange a time with you first, with at least 24 hours notice. They cannot just tell you they are coming; they have to ask, because it is your home. If they come in without your permission, it is trespassing.
Many people, both landlords and renters, think that owning something means you can do whatever you want with it. But a home is so important to a person’s health and wellbeing that rules are there to stop landlords doing whatever they want. If you own a car, you cannot drive it in any way you want: you have to follow rules about how to drive it so that you don’t harm others. The same principle applies to homes. At Waltham Forest Renters, we think the rules should be made stronger.
“Landlords are only putting the rent up because they have to.”
Wrong. Many landlords say this, but actually business is booming for landlords. Monthly rents are already much higher than monthly mortgage payments, and landlords are enjoying record profits – especially for houses of multiple occupation (HMOs, or shared houses with three bedrooms or more). Many landlords have already paid off their mortgages, using the income from their tenants, and banks are now offering the best deals ever on Buy To Let (BTL) mortgages. The real reason they are increasing rents is because they can: fewer and fewer people can afford to buy their own homes and social housing provision is decreasing, so more and more people have no choice but to rent privately.
“My landlord said he’s putting the rent up next month, so I’ve got to pay it.”
Wrong. Landlords cannot legally put the rent up just by telling you, or by writing you a letter. Rent can only be increased if you sign a new contract at a higher rent. Unfortunately, the legal minimum tenancy length in the UK is only six months, so some landlords increase the rent each time a short tenancy expires – and if you can’t afford the increase, they just get new tenants who can. We have not had rent control in the UK since 1989, so rents are determined by the market, not by quality or by average earnings. You can check what the market rate is for your area at the Valuation Office Agency (www.voa.gov.uk). Waltham Forest is in Outer East London, or Outer North East, depending on which part of the borough you live in. If you think your rent is too high, you can apply to a Rent Assessment Committee, who will decide whether your rent is in line with market rates. But doing this is risky because sometimes, the Rent Assessment Committee will say that your rent should be even higher!
“Going through a letting agency protects me from a bad landlord.”
Wrong. Letting agents work for the landlord, not for the tenant. Agents charge tenants extortionate fees – sometimes totalling £500 – but most of our members report that once you have signed up for a house, agents lose all interest in getting repairs done: they say they can’t get in touch with the landlord or that the landlord hasn’t given permission. Some agents are known to encourage landlords to end tenancies every six months because they can put the rent up each time they get new tenants, and the agents can charge fees each time.
“I live in shared house, so I can’t do anything about a bad landlord.”
Most shared houses have joint tenancy agreements. If one person doesn’t pay their share of the rent, everyone else is liable, and some landlords use this to their advantage. For example, if one renter complains, they try to punish all the others by threatening eviction or rent increases in the hope that the other renters will then turn on the one who complained. Some of our members report landlords playing joint tenants off against each other, for example tricking them into thinking that all the others have agreed to something they haven’t. But if you all stick together and support each other, joint tenancies can actually be more powerful. A group is always more powerful than a single voice.
“I can’t complain about my landlord because if I do, they will evict me.”
Sadly, it’s true that ‘retaliatory evictions’ (also called ‘revenge evictions’ or ‘no-fault evictions’) are common in areas of high demand like London. But in most other developed countries, renters are protected against them – either by longer minimum tenancies, as in Europe, or by specific legal protection against retaliation, as in some US states. So it doesn’t have to be this way.
“I haven’t got a written contract, so I’ve got no rights.”
Wrong. As long as you have proof that you’ve paid rent (for example, from your bank statement) you have all the normal rights you can expect from an assured shorthold tenancy (AST – the most common kind of tenancy).
“I shouldn’t expect to get my deposit back; landlords usually take it and that’s just the way it is.”
Wrong. Surprisingly few renters are aware that since 2007, landlords have had a legal obligation to put your deposit in a protection scheme and give you proof of the protection within 30 days of the start of your tenancy. If they try to deduct money from your deposit after you move out, and if you can’t reach an agreement that you think is fair, the deposit scheme will provide an independent dispute resolution service to ensure your landlord doesn’t unfairly keep your deposit. Remember, ‘fair wear and tear’ is allowed; you can only be charged if you have caused serious damage. When landlords have failed to protect deposits in the last few years, some tenants have taken them to court and won three times the value of their deposit. However, other courts have ruled in favour of landlords.
“If I don’t like what my landlord does, I can go elsewhere.”
Landlords often say this, but they know that people can’t keep moving house every six months: it affects people’s health, relationships, jobs, schools and communities. A home is not like a T-shirt or a sandwich: if you don’t like the price or the quality, you can’t just walk away and choose a different one.
“I just want an easy life, so I’ll put up with it.”
Even if you’re prepared to tolerate broken central heating, a leaking roof, spiraling rents or landlord bullying, it still affects your fellow renters – whether it’s the ones you share a house with or just other people in your position. The worst landlords behave badly partly because they think they can get away with it. Do your fellow renters a favour: don’t put up with it.
“If I don’t like renting, I should just buy my own home.”
Landlords often say this, but they know that buying a home is impossible for the majority of private renters – even those who earn very high salaries. Most people do not choose to rent; we do it because we have no choice. The average price of a home in Waltham Forest is already more than 8 times the average salary, and prices are rising all the time. The problem is not unique to Waltham Forest or to London: in most of the country, house prices no longer bear any relation to earnings. But for landlords, it’s a great time to buy; the Buy To Let (BTL) market is booming.
“That’s just the way it is; there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Wrong. Private renters in other countries have a much better deal: there are tighter regulations about rent increases, tenancy length and repairs, so tenants can have proper homes. In lots of European countries, people choose to rent rather than buy: this is not a different ‘cultural attitude’, as people often say. It is simply because renting is better in those countries. Even here in the UK, we had a form of rent control until 1988, and tenancies were longer than the standard six months that we have now.
If we work all together, we can improve the lives of private renters in Waltham Forest and London. We can educate our landlords and other renters about renting laws; many simply do not know about them. We can put pressure on our council to do its job properly and help us when we have bad landlords. We can demand that the council keeps track of landlords who have complaints made about them, and we can demand that they prosecute the criminal ones. In Scotland, letting agents’ fees were made illegal as a result of tenant-led campaigns.Renters in some US cities have set up ‘escrow’ accounts – independent third party accounts that rent can be paid into when serious repairs need doing, so that the landlord can only receive the rent once the repairs are done. In shared houses, we can stick up for our co-renters to make a better home for everyone in it. We can talk to our MPs (Stella Creasy, John Cryer and Iain Duncan Smith) about why the private renting system is broken and why we need new rules. There are 73,000 private renters in Waltham Forest. There’s a lot we can do together. Spread the word.
Tessa Shepperson, a housing lawyer, gives excellent advice for private renters at www.landlordlaw.co.uk/tenants/tindex/tips
Shelter advice helpline: 0808 800 4444 (free call, even from mobiles)