Renter beware

by Nathan Davis

With all the talk recently around house prices, it’s worth remembering how many people do rent in West Hampstead. It’s always been a popular place for first or second jobbers, and increasingly for people who love living here but simply can’t afford to buy.

A big rental market means lots of estate agents and landlords and inevitably, some are better than others. If you do run into problems, it’s good to know your rights. I found myself having to do a crash course in tenants’ rights and I thought those of you renting might find my experiences helpful.

Do you rent a flat in London? Did you know that…

1) Your landlord needs to pay your deposit into a Government approved deposit protection scheme and return it to you at the end of your tenancy (unless there’s a dispute about your tenancy).* (There is also an insurance-based scheme, though this is rarely used).

2) Your landlord isn’t allowed to enter the premises without prior permission from you (If they want to enter at a time inconvenient to you then as long as you give them a few alternative dates/times you can deny them entry). If they still enter the premises they may be guilty of harassment and harassment by a landlord is a criminal offence. Whether your tenancy agreement specifies it or not, you are entitled to “quiet enjoyment“.

3) The law gives certain rights to people who are renting and these cannot be taken away no matter what your rental agreement says.

4) If a landlord/agent tries to change your original tenancy agreement the changes must be acceptable to you. If they are not, you do not have to sign a new tenancy agreement.

5) When you vacate a property your landlord should not make any deductions from your tenancy deposit to pay for putting right normal wear and tear or because you did something the landlord didn’t approve of. You can also ask to be shown receipts or estimates for items that have been deducted from your deposit. This doesn’t extend to unapproved changes to the property itself, which the landlord could either ask the tenant to change back, or do the work him/herself and charge the tenant.

Landlords and agents may try and take advantage of you if you aren’t aware of your rights which is certainly what happened to me.

In 2005 I rented a flat through Paramount Properties (based on West End Lane). They managed the property and were always helpful, prompt and efficient with any problems we encountered. When it came to checking out, the third-party inventory company said that the place was ‘in a better condition than check-in’ and our deposit was promptly returned to us in full.

Fast forward to 2010. Another West End Lane letting agency, who shall have to remain nameless, took over the agency that looked after our new property on behalf of my extremely elderly landlady. Their official line was that they managed my contract but not the premises.

The first thing they tried to do was change my contract (see point 4 above). They argued that this was their standard contract, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Except that there was a large hike in the rent (on a property that could have been more dilapidated only if the walls fell down). There were other clauses nestled in it too that reduced my tenancy rights (including that of the right of the landlord to enter the premises). Eventually they relented after a lengthy back-and-forth.

After six years of househunting, we had finally saved enough and found a place of our own. We gave our notice. The landlady instantly arranged several visits with various workmen to inspect the premises. We were as accomodating as possible but, on one occasion, she emailed us on a Wednesday to say that she wanted to come with a builder at midday on the Saturday. This wasn’t convenient so I offered her several alternative dates and times.

She replied that this was the only time available and that the letting agent had confirmed she had to give only 24 hours notice whereas she was giving us two and a half days. She went on to say that we didn’t have to be present and it wouldn’t take long.

The law states “You have the right to live in your accommodation without being disturbed. You have control over your home so that your landlord and other people cannot freely enter whenever they want to. Your landlord cannot limit or otherwise interfere with your right to live in your home. If your landlord tries to do this s/he may be guilty of harassment which is against the law. The home you rent is your home and nobody can enter without your permission, except in emergency. If landlord lets himself in, he commits trespass. This is a serious, criminal offence. He/She needs to give you notice, a minimum of 24hrs and you need to agree.”

I could therefore have refused any access to the flat and still been totally within my rights. Instead we didn’t lock the door from the inside that Friday night and, as a consequence, had a builder measuring around us in our bed whilst we lay there mortified – I kid you not.

Even after we’d vacated the premises we were running into problems. Although the law seems to favour the tenant whilst they are in the property, as soon as they leave, it seems that the opposite is true. We were contacted by the lettings agency and paid them £114 for our checkout inventory. Tenants are generally encouraged to attend the checkout process but we couldn’t afford anymore time off work. We cleaned the premises to the same standard we had with the Paramount property.

Shortly after recieving the checkout report, the landlady wanted £420 of our deposit for wear and tear and professional cleaning. I pointed out that (as per point 5 above) she wasn’t allowed to make deductions for wear and tear, only for damage to the property, missing items, cleaning and unpaid rent. I also pointed out that to receive money for a flat to be professionally cleaned either just before or during extensive building work was absurd.

If your deposit is held with a deposit protection scheme and both parties can’t agree on a resolution then (if both parties agree) you can escalate the dispute to a dispute resolution service. This is a free service where both parties submit evidence and an impartial adjudicator decides who should recieve what.

This is where it gets interesting. If the agency/landlord refuses to go to a resolution service then you cannot get ANY of your deposit back unless you go to court. If, like myself, you don’t get paid when not at work this could prove a very costly experience.

As a last ditch attempt to resolve the situation, I offered to pay for the flat to be professionally cleaned (after obtaining a quote of £150). I said if the landlady would grant the cleaners access to the flat then I would happily pay for the service. The landlady replied that she “accepted my quote for cleaning in order to finalise this matter”. The amount was deducted from my deposit and the remainder was finally returned to me. She received the money for the cost of cleaning but not to have the flat cleaned.

The whole experience was a salutory lesson in both knowing and standing up for your rights as tenants. Most landlords are decent people, but it is an unregulated industry and there are certainly some less scrupulous property owners out there. Renter beware!

* If you moved in on or after February 28th 1997