With more people renting than ever before, we advise on some of the issues prospective tenants should consider before signing on the dotted line…
Once upon a time, renting in the private sector was dominated by two types of tenant: (a) students and (b) so-called “young professionals”, renting for a year or two before getting their foot on the housing ladder. It was rare to find families with children renting privately.
That is no longer the case. Britain is becoming a nation of renters and recent research indicates that about 8.5 million people now rent privately and that a third of those are families with children. The consequence is that many tenants now see the property they live in not as a short term solution while they save for a deposit, but as a long-term home, somewhere they may live in for years. Renting is becoming the norm. Against this background, we set out 5 key questions that anyone embarking on renting a property should ask themselves.
1.What are the Landlord’s long term plans for the property?
…and do they fit in with your own. If you have a family, you may well be looking to stay in the property for years rather than a few months. Even without children, you may be looking for a long term home. Do not assume that the Landlord will also be thinking in the long term. The fact is that many private landlords, particularly those with larger properties, are often in the renting business for the short-term. They may never have intended to be landlords at all. Unable to sell their house for a price they can live with, they have decided to let it out until the property market improves. As soon as the market picks up, these “accidental landlords” will be looking to sell-up and release their cash.
Alternatively, the landlord may have short-term employment abroad, or may have taken that long-awaited 12 month sabbatical, fully intending to return to their property thereafter. That would give you 12 months at the most before you have to look for somewhere else to live. If that suits you, fine. If not, make sure that you find out before you sign the lease.
If you are signing a standard Assured Shorthold Tenancy – as almost everyone does – then you must be aware that the landlord can end the tenancy on only 2 months’ notice after the expiry of the initial fixed period. In many cases, you may be given “notice” at the start of the tenancy, meaning that when it expires, you will be expected to leave unless an extension is agreed. Often that means you could be looking for somewhere else to live after only 12 months.
It is essential that before signing the lease, prospective tenants make a few enquiries as to the landlord’s intentions. Are they letting out their home because they have been unable to sell, or are they a professional landlord with a portfolio of properties. If the latter, it is much more likely that they will agree to a longer term let.
If you think that 2 months’ notice is too short, don’t be afraid to ask for a longer notice period as part of the lease negotiations. Your landlord may not always agree but, given the right incentives (perhaps if you also agree to give a longer notice period when you leave), a deal may be struck. Similarly, most leases will be for an initial period of 12 months. If you think that you want to stay long term, ask for a longer period when you sign up. If the landlord refuses, you might question why.
2. Can you make the place your own?
Many standard tenancy agreements will contain detailed lists of things a tenant is not permitted to do. You can usually find these in the “Tenant’s Covenants” section of the tenancy. Check these through with a fine toothed comb. Are you OK with the fact that you can not fit a satellite dish to the outside of the building or is a life without Sky unthinkable? Are you allowed to re-paint that ghastly green wall in the main bedroom? Can you put up additional shelves for all those books you will be bringing? Can you put picture hooks in the walls (some leases will expressly prohibit this)? Can you hang washing over the radiators (another common prohibition)?
Most landlords and letting agents will reel off the same standard form agreement whenever they let the property. They may not themselves even be aware of the ‘dos and don’ts’ in the document. Read through them before you sign the lease and highlight any you are not happy with. There is a reasonable chance that the landlord will agree to remove the more pedantic clauses if you explain your reasoning. Once you have signed the lease, however, you have little further bargaining power.
3. Check the Inventory!
By law all tenancy deposits have to be protected in one of the government’s approved schemes. So the good news is landlords can not refuse to return the deposit for spurious reasons as sometimes happened in the past. And any dispute that can not be settled will usually be referred to arbitration under the deposit scheme rules. That is where an inventory comes in, for without a detailed inventory it will be impossible to prove that the red wine stain on the carpet was already there when you moved in, or that the towel rail in the bathroom was already hanging off the wall.
In many cases, the landlord or agent will arrange for a professional inventory clerk to check the property at the start and end of the lease, with both landlord and tenant signing the initial inventory to indicate their agreement with it. It is usual for one party to pay for the check-in inventory and the other to pay the check out at the end of the tenancy. Professional inventories can be relatively expensive but you may have difficulty proving existing damage without one.
If the landlord or agent does not arrange for an inventory, we strongly advise you to check the property yourself when you move in and note down every item that is damaged, marked or worn, taking photographs wherever possible. Preferably then share your findings with the landlord. There may be many other things to think about when you move in to your new home, but ignore these checks at your peril.
4.Who do you contact if there is a problem?
This may seem obvious but, particularly when you are renting the property through a letting agent, it is important that you know who you should call if there is a problem or if something needs repairing. If the property is being managed by an agent, we strongly suggest that you also obtain contact details for the landlord: some agents can be very slow at dealing with repairs, as they generally make no additional money from doing so and therefore have very little incentive to prioritise your broken boiler or leaking drain. This can be extremely frustrating and having direct access to the landlord can often help speed things up.
If the property is being let directly through the landlord, make sure that you have full contact details and, preferably, a second contact if the landlord should be unreachable for some reason.
5. Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours.
If you are buying a house, most people would think to ask about the neighbours. Strangely, when people rent a property they don’t usually consider this.
If your neighbour upstairs has a dog that won’t stop barking, it is better that you know that before you decide to move in. If the couple next door work shifts and are totally opposed to any kind of late night noise, then you may soon fall out with them if you intend to have regular parties. That may be something you decide you can live with. But forewarned is forearmed and information is power. So ask. If possible, such questions are best directed at the outgoing tenants rather than landlords or agents. They have actually lived in the property and are also most likely to give you an honest answer.
Don’t be afraid to ask to meet the outgoing tenants, particularly if you are thinking of renting the place long term.