We rent because we can’t afford to buy — if there was a mantra for my generation, that would be it.
There are now more than 2m buy-to-let landlords in the UK. With more of us priced off the property ladder, they’ve grown fat on our inability to buy. In my experience, the cost of renting only ever seems to go up, but the level of “customer service” from landlords and letting agents (if you can call it that) has never improved.
Dealing with the fallout has become a rite of passage for millennials, with many fearing they face a lifetime of renting. According to PwC, almost 50 per cent of people between the ages of 21 and 39 will rent rather than own their home by the year 2025.
The rising number of renters would not be such a problem if people didn’t feel so thoroughly taken advantage of by landlords and their agents.
Chris Hamer, the former property ombudsman, tells me he saw a near twentyfold rise in complaints about rented property between 2007 and 2015. For all the profits that are being made in buy-to-let as house prices soar, landlord penny-pinching is endemic.
Despite having to spend an ever-increasing chunk of our pay on renting, tenants find the quality of rented property remains stubbornly low. Speak to anyone in their 20s, and they will furnish you with horror stories about renting.
The current system allows landlords to cause trouble in all sorts of ways — from withholding your deposit to rootling through your sock drawer while you’re out, to flat-out refusing to fix that broken shower. I wonder how many of the following you might recognise in my rogues’ gallery of dodgy landlords.
Is your landlady a warm but slightly intrusive pensioner prone to deadheading the flowers outside your front door?
Or perhaps they keep essential items in the cupboard under your stairs and quickly pop in now and again to check they’re still there.
These scenarios commonly occur when you are renting a former family home from a landlord who cannot “let go”. Be aware — your landlord does not have the right to enter the property without permission from the tenant 24 hours in advance unless they need to carry out emergency repair work.
Do you wade through a colony of rodents to get from your front door to your mouldy bathroom — only to find the mouldy ceiling has caved in because nobody has fixed the leak you reported nine weeks ago? Sounds like you have a ghost landlord — generally absent, maybe living abroad. You can badger the letting agent all you like, but they can never seem to get hold of the ghost landlord either. Either way, they aren’t going to be carrying out any repairs.
Housing charity Shelter and polling group YouGov found that almost half of the people renting in England suffered problems with poor living conditions or disrepair within the past year. One-third complained of damp and mould, and one in five said they were cold because their home was so poorly insulated. A tenth complained of electrical hazards, cockroaches, rats or poor security.
What should you do in this situation? Your landlord has to keep your home in a safe and habitable condition in accordance with your tenancy agreement. But to enforce that, you’re going to have to sue them. If your situation is really dire, the environmental health officer at your local council may be able to help — but councils are facing a squeeze on resources and will only deal with the worst, most dangerous, cases.
The DIY Disaster Zone
The shower has run dry. The boiler has blown up. There has never been a greater need for qualified professionals to roll up their sleeves. But why would your landlord do that when they are so good at DIY?
Or at least — they think they are good at DIY, but in reality their protracted, noisy and inconvenient efforts to redress the problem just make it so much worse. Gaffer taping a bin bag to a ceiling in a misguided attempt to stop water seeping through, and varnishing the front door when the tenants were out (and leaving it open) are two examples that friends have experienced.
If you are a tenant, other than legal threats, there is not much you can do. Again, you could complain to your local council, but unless the situation is really dire they are unlikely to be able to help.
This type of landlord doesn’t really bother with you while you’re a tenant. It’s when you move out that he strikes, accusing you of unspeakable damage to the property and demanding the retention of the full deposit.
One of my friends was billed £96 for a new fridge door handle, plus £250 for leaving furniture in the property (which the new tenants had asked for).
Your main defence is making sure your cash is in a registered deposit protection scheme. In the case of a dispute, the scheme can mediate and decide what is fair — but be warned, it can often take months for this to happen. My friend eventually got his money back.
This kind of landlord decides for mysterious reasons that you can’t rent the property after all, even though the deposit has been handed over and everything verbally agreed.
Much of the time, this is actually a problem with the letting agent and not the landlord. Letting agents used to be known for taking a “holding deposit” — prospective tenants would hand over cash to secure the property and have it taken off the market. If this happens and the deal falls through because of the landlord, they must give you 100 per cent of your money back straight away. If they don’t, you can complain to the property ombudsman which regulates letting agents.
Did you complain once too often? Were you being a nuisance, with all your outrageous demands for hot water? You might find yourself asked to leave midway through the tenancy.
This is known as a “revenge eviction”, and it was made illegal in March 2015 as part of the Deregulation Act. But tenants can still be asked to leave if they have a break clause in their contract — which many do. Read your tenancy agreement very, very closely.
The more you look at it, the more you can see that the whole system of renting is tipped in the landlord’s favour. If you’re a private tenant, there is no satisfactory informal redress system.
The property ombudsman will deal with complaints against letting or estate agents, but not specifically about buy-to-let landlords. There is a housing ombudsman, but they only deal with complaints about social housing associations.
The only sure-fire way to deal with your shoddy landlord is to threaten legal action, which most people do not have the time or resources to do. So they move. And the next tenants who move in inherit the same problems.
The properties we’re renting are often substandard and they don’t come cheap. The rent situation could get even worse from April, when George Osborne’s efforts to make buy-to-let a less lucrative deal for landlords kick in. Faced with having to pay more tax, I imagine most will simply ask their tenants to pay more rent.