What you need to know before renting a property
Landlords and Letting Agents have had the upper hand for too long, students may have a reputation for liking a party but that does not give anyone the right to treat them like second class citizens when it comes to renting a property.
Since the Introduction of The Housing Act 2004 rules covering deposit protection, shared housing and energy efficiency have helped to level the playing for students in private rented accommodation although getting Landlords and their agents to comply in not always as simple as it should be.
To help you on your way we’ll take a look at some of the most common pitfalls and provide practical advice on how you can avoid them. As you will see, the seeds of many later problems are sown before you even move in to the property.
Your starting point should always be the university’s accommodation department when searching for a property. Even if they cannot find you a property to rent they will have some good local knowledge to pass on. They can also give you details of the best local letting agents.
Whether you find a property through an agent or by contacting the Landlord directly it is always worth negotiating as in many cases there will be some room for movement on the advertised price. Do some digging to find out what the Landlord received the previous year - try asking the current tenants when you view the property or if you are seeing the property through an agent look at an old version of their website on the Internet Archive to see if the asking price has changed.
If you find a property through an agent they will charge a referencing or administration fee. This figure should also be up for negotiation – particularly if there are a group of you – as the agent’s main commission will come from the Landlord. The cost of each reference to the agent will be between £20 & £40 per.
With properties located in predominantly student areas there is unlikely to be any flexibility on the term of the tenancy – the Landlord will insist upon 12 months. This means that you will have to take the property before the term starts and keep it through the summer even though you may not be there. One option is to move slightly further out from the university to an area where students do not dominate. You can then request a break clause in your tenancy which would allow you to leave after 9 months instead of 12 – particularly useful in your final year.
Since 2007 it has been compulsory for a Landlord or Letting Agent receiving a deposit in connection with an Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement to protect it in one of the Government authorised schemes. The new rules were introduced to prevent Landlords from making unjustified deductions at the end of the tenancy. Each of the schemes offers Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to sort out any arguments about damages etc.
Although most Landlords are now aware of the new rules many choose to ignore them. You should be provided with details of where your deposit is protected within 14 days of handing it over. If the information is not forthcoming a polite reminder should be your first course of action. If the details are still not provided you should commence proceedings in the County Court. It is an inexpensive process and you are guaranteed to be successful. If the Landlord has still not protected your deposit by the time you go to court he will be ordered to pay you three times the deposit as a penalty.
At the end of the tenancy your deposit should be returned to you within 10 days unless there is a dispute. Since the introduction of deposit protection disputes are resolved through the relevant scheme’s ADR procedures and decisions to date have demonstrated that unless a Landlord can provide evidence of the alleged damage, normally by way of an inventory, they will be unsuccessful.
House in Multiple Occupations
The housing Act 2004 also introduced the mandatory licensing of what are deemed Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). In simple terms any property that has more than 2 storeys and is shared by 5 or more tenants (with the exception of single families) will come under the national mandatory licensing scheme. Local Authorities can apply to broaden the description at a local level and many do.
If a property falls within the criteria the Landlord will require a licence from the Local Authority and before that licence will be issued their property must meet certain fire safety regulations – these are likely to include such items as the installation of fire doors, emergency lighting and mains wired smoke alarms.
If you live in a shared house and are concerned that it may not meet the minimum standards give the local council a call. They will approach the Landlord directly to address the problem and your call will remain confidential.
One drawback of living in a HMO is that the Landlord is not required to provide you with an Energy Performance Certificate.
Gas safety should be right at the top of your checklist when moving in to a rented property. The Landlord has a duty to have gas appliances checked annually by a registered engineer and to provide the tenants with a copy of the certificate. You should never move in to a new property without seeing an original copy of the certificate – the tenant’s copy is currently pink. Following each re-inspection the Landlord has 28 days to produce the certificate.
Never be afraid to demand proof of inspection. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious matter; several people die each year in the UK as a result of poorly maintained gas appliances. Carbon monoxide gas is colourless and odourless and the symptoms - dizziness, nausea and headaches etc. – are easily confused with the aftermath of other, more enjoyable, activities.
Signs that there may be a problem include flames which burn yellow rather than blue or pilot lights which continually go out. Both of these are signs that ventilation is insufficient. You may also consider purchasing a CO detector with an alarm.
You wouldn’t think that a hard up student would be worth targeting but burglars would beg to differ. There are not many other types of property where they are virtually guaranteed to find a good selection of laptops, iPods and other easily re-saleable electrical items. A bonus for the thieves is that students are seen as having a somewhat laissez faire attitude to security.
If this is a particular concern of yours you may want to consider living slightly away from the main student housing areas. Before agreeing to rent a property go back and visit in the evening and take a look at the exterior. How safe does it feel? Are there poorly lit alleyways through which burglars could pass unnoticed? Also important is how safe you will feel walking home at night?
Ask your Landlord to fit key operating locks on the windows and 5 lever deadlocks on the external doors – these will normally be a requirement of any contents insurance policy that you take out. If you are going to be away overnight consider taking your valuables with you or leaving them with one of your housemates.
Written by Justin Burns MRICS – author of The Student Accommodation Guide