“Do I have any?” and other questions about your rights as a renter

Image: kaboompics.com.

Around a fifth of people living in the UK rent their homes. And increasingly, they're a bit cheesed off.  

In the run up to May's London mayoral election, the #VentYourRent hashtag and blog collated renters' grisly stories of astronomica prices and lack of basic amenities. Meanwhile, the Debrief's Make Renting Fair campaign is pushing for an end to letting agency fees across England and Wales.

But a basic part of fighting back against the rather rubbish lot renters have in much of the UK is to know exactly what your rights are, because dodgy landlords are usually relying on the fact that you don't. We've collated the answers to some common questions, based on laws, information from the Citizen's Advice Bureau, and The Tenant's Rights Manuala helpful ebook summarising the law by solicitor Naomi Moore. 

It's worth noting that these guidelines are specific to England and Wales, as the law differs in Scotland and Northern Ireland. (You can find out information on your renters' rights in those jurisdictions at the Citizens' Advice Bureau.)

We've broken down the questions into sections; click on the titles below to jump to the one you need. 

Finding your property  handing over money, making sure you have furniture, and tenancy agreements 

Living there  pests, repairs, and resisting eviction

Moving out  your deposit back, and whether you need to shell out for that professional cleaner. 

Finding your flat 

Or: don’t be so grateful they’re putting a roof over your head that you forget to check the following

Do landlords have to be accredited?  

A big no, sadly. There are a few landlord accreditation schemes, plus something called the National Landlord Association, but landlords don’t have to be a member of any of them. Same goes for estate agents.

Ask from the outset if they are, though, because then you can look up the standards or code of practice they’ve signed up to and report them to the scheme if they break the rules. 

Are holding fees and letting agency fees legal?

Yes, at least for now  though every major party but the Conservatives proposed banning them in their 2015 election manifesto.  Ask early on what these will be, as extortionately high ones aren’t illegal, either.

What should my tenancy agreement have in it?

Under the Housing Act 1988, it must include: the date the tenancy began, the rent payable and its due date, the length of the term, any information about when rent will be reviewed, and any cases where the landlord wants you to take responsibility for things (e.g. specific repairs) which they would usually be liable for.

The landlord also needs to give you a copy of the latest gas safety check, which should be carried out once a year; plus an Energy Performance Certificate. 

Do I have to have one of those fiddly inventory things?

Yes. Either your agent or landlord must write out a list of the objects in the property, which you then check (with a fine-toothed comb, ideally) and sign. It's worth quibbling anything that isn't exactly as it says on the inventory if something's broken, say so that you can't be charged for it at the end of your tenancy. 

Is it illegal for my landlord to hold my deposit themselves?

Big time. Under the Housing Act 2004 deposits must be paid into a tenancy deposit scheme within 30 days, and you must be given information about where it’s being held. One exception: if your deposit is just rent paid in advance, it doesn’t need to be paid into one of these schemes. 

What furniture does the landlord have to provide?

This is a tricky one. In an unfurnished flat, nothing – you’ll need to discuss whether white goods, for example, are included, before signing your contract. 

If it’s let furnished, any furniture must be of safe, usable standard. It’s generally accepted that this should include table and chairs, sofa, bed and storage in each bedroom, heating appliances, curtains and floor coverings, a cooker, and a fridge. However, make sure you are happy with what they're providing before you sign anything. 

Living there 

Or: when the fun really begins.

What general standards must my house meet? Do I just have to put up with leaks/holes in the floor/giant roaches? 

The law is a bit mealy-mouthed on this one – basically, the property must meet health and safety standards but not much more. (There was recently a move to enshrine the fact that homes should be “fit for human habitation” in law, but this was recently rejected by the Lords.)

If something directly affects your health and safety, your landlord is obliged under law to sort it out. This can include mould or damp, asbestos, gas leaks, unsecured entrances, a lack of lighting, excessive noise due to poor sound insulation, pests, poor drainage, lack of water supply. If your landlord isn’t acting on any of these problems you have a right to take legal action

But should my landlord fix things even if they're not affecting my health?

No matter what your tenancy agreement says, the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 stipulates that landlords are always responsible for repairs to:

  • The property’s structure and exterior;
  • Anything that comes into contact with water – basins, sinks, baths, pipes, drains;
  • Heating and hot water;
  • Anything to do with the gas;
  • Electrical wiring;
  • Any damage they inflict while fixing the above.

For other things, like broken beds, fridges, washing machines, or sofas, your landlord is generally expected to repair them unless you were directly responsible for the damage or it says otherwise in your tenancy agreement. 

Are they allowed to take ages to do it?

Depends what it is. Under law, they must carry out fixes within the helpfully vague definition of a "reasonable period of time".

Lawyer Naomi Moore rekons that for emergencies such as an electrical or gas failure, this would be around 24 hours. For leaks and roof repairs, around a week. For aesthetic problems, like plaster disrepair, broken kitchen units or problems with window or door frames, a reasonable period would be about 28 days.  

What do I do if the landlord doesn’t fix the problem within a "reasonable period"? 

Sue them! Well, not exactly. You can take legal action through your local council's Tenants Relations Officer (TRO) to seek the repairs and compensation for your inconvenience. You can also pay for the repairs yourself and then bill the landlord, though proceed with this with caution (see "Can I withold rent?", below).

In this situation it's very important that you have a paper trail. Report disrepair to your landlord by text or email so you can prove when you first told them about it, and do the same with any followup. 

Can I hang pictures/install cabinets or shelves/paint the walls?

Changes of this kind can be seen as “damage”, since they change the state of the property. As a result, it’s best to check with your landlord first, as they could deduct money from your deposit in order to return the property to its original state when you leave. And it can be a mistake to assume you'll be staying for a while, and therefore it's worth risking it: landlords have no duty to let you stay longer than the time set out in your tenancy agreement. 

Who is responsible for rats/mice/spider/zombie infestations that occur after you move in?

Almost always the landlord, unless a) it says they aren’t on the tenancy agreement, or b) the pest infestation is your fault, and they can prove it. 

Can they raise my rent?

If you have a fixed term tenancy, not within the length of time set out in your tenancy agreement. At the end of that agreement, they can, as you’d be signing a new agreement if you decided to stay. Currently, there are no legal limits on how much rent can be raised at the end of a tenancy for new or returning tneants.

If you have a periodic, or rolling tenancy, your landlord can generally only increase the rent once a year, depending on the terms in your tenancy agreement. They must give you one month’s notice if you pay rent weekly or monthly.

Can I withhold rent if I'm unhappy with my landlord?

Yes, but it’s very risky. You don’t have a right to withhold rent because repairs haven’t been carried out, for example, and your landlord can start repossession proceedings and put you at risk of eviction if you do. 

A better route can be to use your own money for repairs, then recuperate the cost from future rent. You do have a right to do this. However, it’s important to follow the right procedure, including writing letters to your landlord, keeping copies, and sending your landlord quotes from contractors (more specific advice on that here). It’s best to get advice first so you’re protected legally  the Citizens Advice Bureau is a good place to start.

Can my landlord evict me?

Only if they follow a very specific legal procedure and have grounds to do so. The landlord also cannot harass you in order to convince you to leave the property, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and could be forced to pay you damages. If you experience any verbal threats or physical violence, go to the police.

If you’ve experienced illegal eviction or think you're at risk of it, go to your local council’s Tenancy Relations Officer, who can take your landlord to court.

Can the landlord turn up whenever they want?

No. It’s against the law for a landlord to enter the property without notice or permission. Under the Housing Act 1988 they must give you 24 hours’ notice in writing before coming round, and should only come at reasonable times so you can be present.

A few exceptions: if there is a fire, a smell of gas, urgent structural damage, or evidence of a criminal incident, they can enter without your permission. 

If they do turn up unannounced, you are under no obligation to allow them in, but if you do you’re not revoking your right to expect 24 hours’ notice in future.

During the last 28 days of your tenancy, the landlord can show round new tenants, but again, they must give you 24 hours’ notice in writing before doing so. .

Is subletting illegal?

Moving in a tenant who hasn’t signed your tenancy agreement is illegal if the landlord did not agree with it first. A landlord can evict you if they find out. Subletting social housing is even more serious, and is actually a criminal offence – you can go to prison for up to two years. 

Moving out 

Or: oh god am I getting my deposit back??

When can they keep my deposit?

The landlord can deduct money for any damage or mess which isn’t due to “fair wear and tear”. This is a tricky definition to apply sometimes, but as a rule, the landlord should not end up in a better position financially or materially than they were when you moved in.

Adjudicators at your deposit protection scheme can investigate any dispute between you and your landlord on this – it’s a good idea to have evidence, including damage noted on an original inventory or photos, to back up your claims if you decide to dispute the landlord's decision. 


Do I have to pay for a professional cleaner?

Yes, if it says so in your tenancy agreement. Otherwise no, though you should leave your property in roughly the same condition that you found it, allowing for fair wear and tear.   

What next? 

Maybe you're buying. Maybe you're moving home for a bit. Otherwise it's back to the beginning

More questions? Tweet them to us at @CityMetric or email Barbara.speed@citymetric.com.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.