Renting a property

Article written by Justin Burns MRICS

Author of The Student Accommodation Guide

Renting a property for the first time can be a daunting experience for a student. While there is plenty of legislation in place to protect you it usually relies upon others involved in the process doing their part - something that does not always happen.

To help smooth the ride we will take a look at 6 areas where things often go wrong with sometimes disastrous consequences.

It may not be a hangover

Let's start with the most important issue; gas safety. 20 people a year in the UK die from inhaling carbon monoxide fumes as a result of faulty or poorly maintained gas appliances. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness and drowsiness and can be fatal in a matter of hours. 

Landlords and Letting Agents are obliged to have gas appliances checked annually by a CORGI registered engineer (this will change to Capita from 1st April 2009) and must provide tenants with a gas safety certificate. Never move in to a property until you have had sight of the certificate - when it comes up for renewal you must be provided with a copy within 28 days. Don't be scared to ask and don't be fobbed off.

You may also want to buy an audible carbon monoxide alarm (manufactured to a recognised British or European standard) although this should be used as an extra layer of protection to compliment the regular inspections.

Crowded houses

The compulsory licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) was introduced primarily as result of the poor condition of student housing. Those properties that are designated HMOs must be upgraded to meet minimum health and safety requirements.

There are 2 types of HMO. Properties that span over three or more floors and are shared by five or more people (excluding single families) will come under the mandatory licensing scheme. In addition, Local Authorities have the right to classify properties within their own jurisdiction as HMOs and impose minimum standards - check with your Local Authority for details.

If the house that you live in is a HMO you have the reassurance of knowing it will be checked periodically for compliance. If the house you live in fulfils the description of a HMO but has not been registered speak to your Local Authority who will approach the Landlord directly. The cost of upgrading and maintaining a HMO is borne by the Landlord although this will often be passed on to the tenant through a slightly higher rent.

Beware of the Letting Agent

It is often necessary for students to make use of Letting Agents to broaden their search. An agent's main fee will be paid by the Landlord but if you decide to take a property you will be asked to pay an administration fee. The level of admin fees varies considerably between agents; from £30 to £150 plus VAT per tenant.

There is plenty of room here for negotiation. If the agent uses an external company to take up references - and most do these days - the cost to them will be between £20 and £40 per person. They will not want to miss out on the much larger commission by squeezing you on the admin fee, so drive a hard bargain.

The three professional bodies that cover letting agents are ARLA, NALS & RICS. If it becomes necessary to deal with an agent that is not a member of any of these organisations be on your guard against questionable practices - such as charging students to view prospective properties - and avoid those that practice them.

Signing on the Line which is dotted

It is not unusual for a group of students to leave signing the Tenancy Agreement until the day that they are due to move. While this may be convenient for all concerned it leaves you in a vulnerable position.

Although you may have agreed the terms several weeks before there is nothing to stop the Landlord from changing his mind at the last minute. He may be required to pay a withdrawal fee to the agent but you will not receive any redress. Once the terms of the tenancy are agreed get all parties to sign the agreement as quickly as possible; even if that means posting it between the tenants.

If you do end up in the unfortunate position of having a Landlord withdraw at the eleventh hour ask the agent if you can pay for you references and save time by using them on another property.

Be careful who you share with

You should be aware of the term 'Joint and several liability'. It means that, in legal terms, a person can be held liable for any part or all of a bill so in other words - be careful who you share with.

The principle of Joint and several liability applies to Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreements so if you and your housemates are on a single tenancy agreement and one of you fall behind on the rent the Landlord will come after the others to make up the shortfall. The principle also applies to guarantors.

Make a racquet if your deposit is not protected

A deposit of between 4 and 6 weeks rent will normally be required to protect the Landlord against damage to their property. Since April 2007 Landlords, or their Letting Agents, have had an obligation to protect deposits received in one of the authorised schemes. Tenants should be provided with details of where there deposit is protected within 14 days of payment.

There is still widespread abuse of the new regulations, either as a result of ignorance on the part of the Landlord or in many cases deliberate neglect. If your deposit has not been protected within the statutory period you can commence proceedings against the landlord under section 214 of the Housing Act 2004.

The Act states that a court must order the Landlord to pay the tenant 3 times the amount of the deposit if it has not been protected although in practice the sanction is unlikely to be imposed if the Landlord has protected the deposit by the time the hearing comes around.
The three authorised schemes all offer an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service and although the parties can opt out the courts are unlikely to look favourably on Landlords and tenants that refuse a free ADR service and clog up the courts. What is clear from the disputes that have gone through ADR so far is that if a Landlord does not have evidence - normally in the form of an inventory - that any disputed damage was caused by the tenant then the deposit will be returned in full.

Hopefully you will now be in better shape to enter the private rental market with confidence. Remember to make use of the Accommodation department in your university. Even if they can't help with finding you a property they are always on hand to offer valuable advice.