You can avoid paying huge letting agents’ fees by renting direct from landlords, but if you’re dealing with an individual, how do you know you aren’t falling for one of the growing number of property letting scams?
It’s not always easy to know if your new landlord is legit and understandably you might nervous about handing over lots of cash to someone before you’ve got the keys to the property. There’s always a slim chance that someone other than the owner has got the keys to the property illegally and they’ll scarper with your cash. So what can tenants do to protect themselves?
First of all, make sure you actually see the property before you hand over any money.
Major property websites like Rightmove verify the advertiser’s ownership of a property before they allow them to place an ad, but other sites don’t so there’s always a possibility it’s a scam.
Ask for ID
Even when you’ve been shown round the property, you can’t be sure that the person who let you is the owner. They might be illegally subletting the property or they might have rented it temporarily via a website like AirBnB to persuade tenants to hand over deposits and the first month’s rent, then disappear by the time you turn up to move in.
You can check who owns a property at the Land Registry website, it only costs £3, then you can ask the person who shows you round for proof of ID to make sure the names match.
If anyone agrees to let to you without first running a credit check or asking for proof of ID, you should be suspicious. Few bona fide landlords would let someone move into their property without wanting to check they’re who they say they are.
Avoid paying cash upfront
Initially you shouldn’t be asked to pay anything other than a small holding deposit – usually the equivalent of one or two weeks’ rent – to guarantee the property and possibly the fee for credit checks, which shouldn’t be more than £75 per person (and should be a lot less).
If a landlord asks for a large deposit or a month’s rent weeks in advance before they’ve carried out any credit checks or referencing they might be dodgy, they might just be broke. Either way, find somewhere else.
Check the paperwork
Most, but not all, landlords provide written tenancy agreements. If yours doesn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean your landlord is dodgy, they might just be a bit slack, but it’s best to ask for something in writing. If you agree anything specific with the landlord verbally, such as that the property will be redecorated or they will provide additional furniture, get them to confirm this in writing.
Whether you have a contract in black and white or not, you should be offer an Assured Shorthold Tenancy for a minimum of 6 months. The landlord can only provide you with a shorter AST at your request. ASTs are usually for 12 to 18 months, some include a break clause, which allows either party to end the contract early. If there is no break clause but you think you might need to move out before the end of the fixed term, ask the landlord to insert one.
Read why break clauses are a good idea.
ASTs vary. Some are just a few pages, others go on and on. Short or long, they should set out what the landlord is responsible for and what are the tenant’s obligations . They should also tell you where and how your deposit is protected. Make sure you read the contract and that you’re happy with it before you sign it.
I’ll repeat that. Make sure you read the contract before you sign it. Contracts must be fair to both parties for them to be legally enforceable, but ASTs vary and yours might contain a few surprises.
Look out for the ‘jointly and severally liable clause’
For example, if you’re sharing with others, the contract might state that you’re jointly and severally liable with your co-tenants. Put simply, if your co-tenants default on the rent, you’ll have to cough up the lot, or if they cause any damage, you might have to pay, so make sure you can trust your flatmates or, if you don’t really know them, ask the landlord if you can have a separate Rent A Room agreement instead.
The contract might also contain other clauses you’re unhappy with. For example, some landlords insist that tenants are responsible for maintaining appliances, others state tenants must pay for professional cleaning. If there is anything you’re unhappy with, raise the issue with your landlord before you move in.
Check the inventory
When you move in, the landlord is likely to present you with an inventory of the property’s contents. If they do, check it straight away, not in two weeks’ time, and let the landlord know immediately of any discrepancies. Don’t assume the inventory will be an accurate report of the property, they usually contain a few errors.
If you don’t point these out to the landlord, you can’t complain later that something was missing/broken/dirty when you moved in.
If the landlord doesn’t provide an inventory, that’s their look-out. They can’t accuse you of breaking/stealing anything if there’s no proof it was there in the first place.
It’s quite normal for landlords to ask for a deposit of 4 to 6 weeks’ rent and they’re entitled to safeguard this in their own bank account, but the deposit must be protected. Ask the landlord when you view a property which scheme they use to protect their deposits. If they don’t know, walk away.
Read about how to make sure your deposit is correctly protected here.
Maintenance and routine checks
Once you’ve moved in, your landlord should leave you to enjoy the property and give you at least 24 hours notice if they want to visit, except in an emergency.
They’re entitled to carry out routine inspections, but only with prior notice and agreement.
If there’s a maintenance issue, they should deal with it promptly, although unless a property is considered uninhabitable there are no guidelines on how quickly repairs must be carried out. If the landlord doesn’t carry out repairs, there’s not an awful lot you can do unless the property is unsafe, in which case you could complain to your local council. However, it’s probably best to look for somewhere else as soon as your contract expires.
Remember that as a tenant you have a duty to inform your landlord of any maintenance issues otherwise you might be held responsible for any damage caused.
When you move out, your deposit should be returned to you within 30 days of you requesting the refund, minus any deductions for damage or unpaid bills. Your landlord should tell you what these deductions are and if you don’t agree, or if the landlord is not forthcoming with your deposit, you can complain to the scheme used to protect it.