The UK student population reached 2.5 million for the first time in the academic year 2010/11 and figures continue to rise year on year. Although some twenty-seven percent of students live in their parental home while at university or college, the vast majority opt to live away from home in order to pursue their studies. Of those students living away from home more than thirty percent rent properties in the private sector. Although most students are satisfied with the rented accommodation they choose, there are a number of potential pitfalls which the unwary student should know about and be careful avoid.
Expenditure on accommodation is one of the most significant of costs incurred by those attending higher education. In many cases rental expenditure is even more than that spent on tuition fees. Those students who choose to rent privately do so because, in most cases, it works out cheaper than using university accommodation. Students who rent a house or flat privately also get to choose who they share with and where their accommodation is located, with many students preferring to live away from their campus. Another significant factor pushing students towards privately rented housing is the fact that most universities and colleges reserve their in-house accommodation for first year and final year students only.
What are the Pitfalls of Renting?
Most landlords provide a decent, fair service. However, there are a significant number of rogue landlords who are out to take financial advantage of young, inexperienced people who, in most cases, are living away from home for the first time. The National Landlords Association (NLA), the body representing reputable landlords, recently issued a warning to students to be aware of the actions of unscrupulous landlords.
The NLA reports a growing number of bogus landlords who take an up-front fee from students and then disappear with the money never to be heard of again. Such criminal gangs can be very convincing: in many cases they even use the NLA logo on their advertising to give the appearance of being a legitimate business. The NLA, together with the National Union of Students and the police’s National Crime Agency have issues a set of guidelines for students warning them of the potential pitfalls of renting. Students are advised to:
Never send any money up-front to an agency advertising online. Students should satisfy themselves first that the agency is a bona fide business and that the property actually exists. Only then should they part with their cash;
- Avoid wiring money via a money-transfer service as the account details you provide leave you vulnerable to further withdrawals being made;
- Always use a government-authorised deposit protection scheme, such as My/Deposit;
- If the landlord you are considering claims to be a member of an organisation such as the NLA or that he is officially approved by your university make sure you check with the organisation concerned that this claim is correct; and
- Insist on getting the right paperwork. A genuine landlord will always be able to provide you with a draft tenancy agreement and safety certificates for the property in question.
Spotting a Dodgy Landlord
In some cases you might have a gut feeling that something is not quite right with a particular landlord you have just met. Your worries may be groundless, but you should not ignore these instinctive reactions and make sure you carefully consider all the evidence before parting with your money.
Amongst the approaches by landlords that should set your alarm bells ringing are those who try to bribe or scare you into signing-up. Always be wary if he or she tells you they will give you ‘special price’ if you sign the agreement now or warns you that you’d better sign-up straight away as there are lots of other people after this property. Landlords who insist on a large signing fee should also put you on your guard.
The way your potential landlord conducts the viewing of the property you are considering will tell you a lot about the way he or she does business. If, for instance, they have not told the current tenants about your viewing that will indicate that the landlord does not respect the tenant’s right to be given at least twenty-four hours’ notice of a non-emergency visit. If your visit is conducted by the landlord’s driver, handyman or someone else who is not able to answer your questions you should be extremely wary.
Even when you have viewed the property and decided you like it there are still a number of things that might occur that suggest you may be dealing with a dodgy landlord. He or she may, for instance, refuse to allow you to take away the contract to study before you sign it. Or you may be told that you have to delay moving into the property as some work is being done on it over the summer. This in itself is generally fine, but not if he or she does not offer a compensatory rent reduction.
Finally, if the landlord makes any promises about the property, such as ‘I’ll get someone to come and cut the grass every week’ or ‘I’ll install a new boiler before the winter’, be very cautious if he or she refuses to write these additional clauses into the contract.
How to Spot a Good Landlord
A good landlord will do none of the negative things highlighted in the previous section. In addition he or she will always show you around the property personally and will give you the chance to view a second time if you wish. He or she will also be able to answer all of your questions.
Look out for the way your potential landlord interacts with his or her current tenants; a good landlord will be on friendly terms with them and know them all by their names. A good landlord will also have no objection to you speaking to the current tenants yourself.
After the viewing a good landlord will show you all the relevant documentation and allow you to take the contract away to check before signing. If any repairs or improvements are needed at the property he or she will be happy to write a promise to attend to this into the contract.
What are the Commonest Scams?
Student rental property is a major business: the market has a turnover of several million pounds every year. Unfortunately such rich-pickings attract the attention of rogue traders and outright criminals as well as that of legitimate landlords. Representatives of landlords, students and the police have identified a number of scams currently being operated by criminals in the UK. Here are five of the commonest:
Let and run – this scam involves the fraudster breaking into a property and passing it off as his own; he will even show potential tenants around. Once a gullible tenant signs a contract, which turns out to be a fake, and pays a deposit the criminal will disappear with the money. In some cases the fraudster will take multiple ‘deposits’ for the same property before moving on.
Hidden costs – unscrupulous landlords will sometimes add hefty additional costs to a tenant’s account without first notifying him or her. These can include questionable fees for inspections and searches.
Receipt fraud– this scam will be presented to you by a fraudster as a way of you proving to him you are serious about renting a property and that you have the funds to pay a deposit when required but, he will assure you, this can be done ‘without paying a penny’ up-front. He will ask you to wire a sum of money to a friend or family member and then provide him with the receipt as ‘proof’. Unfortunately this receipt will then provide him with all the information he needs to help himself to money from your account.
Deposit scam – this is a scam that targets not just you but your family members or friends too. On the back of an assurance that a deposit is not necessary the unscrupulous landlord will ask for full details of guarantors. When the tenancy comes to an end the scammer will hit each of your guarantors with inflated charges for very dubious and unnecessary ‘repairs’.
Unprotected deposits – deposits have always been a source of dispute between landlords and tenants. Some unscrupulous landlords at one time tended to act as if they were always entitled to keep the tenant’s money which had been lodged with them on deposit and would invent damage caused and repairs that were necessary in order to justify keeping the money. In 2007 the rules changes and legislation required deposits to be placed in a third-party protection scheme to try to overcome these disputes. Unfortunately, a significant number of landlords continue to ignore the rules and still make it hard for tenants to recover their deposit.
Getting it Right
So assuming you manage to avoid the fraudsters and you succeed in signing-up with a legitimate landlord there are still a number of tenancy pitfalls you need to avoid if you are to protect your deposit and avoid running up unnecessary extra charges.
Your deposit – most landlords in the private sector will require you to pay a deposit. This will be a considerable sum of money, most often the equivalent of a month’s rent, and is intended to give the landlord some protection against unpaid rent and/or damage to the property. The deposit will usually be a single charge, even if you and your friends have a joint tenancy, so it is important that you ensure everyone pays their share. Disputes between tenants can often arise, however, when deductions are made from the joint deposit by the landlord when the rent arrears or damage is clearly the fault of just one person.
Inventory – an inventory is a list of the fixtures and fittings in your property and a description of the condition they were in when you moved in. This document should be jointly agreed by you and the landlord from the outset as it will form the basis of any future discussions that might arise about damage to the property and deductions the landlord proposes to make from your deposit.
If there is a dispute about the condition the property when you leave your deposit will be held in the protection scheme until the disagreement is resolved. In severe cases, where you feel you have been unfairly treated, you can take legal action over an unreturned deposit. A housing advisory service, such as Shelter, can provide you with guidance in such cases.
Increasingly the property’s inventory will include a photographic record of each item listed. From the outset you should check that these pictures are accurate and up to date. The principle of ‘fair wear and tear’ will be applied to all fixtures and fittings and should not be used as a reason to penalise the tenant. Damage through wilful or reckless actions, however, will almost inevitably lead to a deduction from your deposit. In addition, if you leave the property an unacceptably dirty state, you may be charged for additional cleaning.
Therefore, if you are confident that you have looked after the property and carefully cleaned it before leaving, it would be a very wise move to record this with your own photographic record, in most cases following the same format as the original inventory.
Looking after the property – the ultimate responsibility for a rented property, for its repairs and maintenance, lies with the landlord. However, as a tenant you have a responsibility to take care of the property while you are living in it. If you fail to do so, as we have discussed, this can lead to you and your friends losing some or all of your deposit.
Cleaning – many student tenants have the mistaken belief that they can neglect any cleaning duties throughout the year and then put it all right with a major cleaning operation right at the end. This approach is rarely as successful as a ‘little and often’ one where grime is cleaned up as you go.
Posters – by all means have posters on your walls, but be aware that the marks left by tape or putty adhesive can prompt the landlord to have to re-paint the whole wall and charge it to your deposit. Far better to invest in a few match-pots and carefully touch up the paint.
Inspection – it makes sense to work with your landlord and address his concerns. Invite him round to make an inspection a few weeks before you are due to leave. That way you can be made aware of any concerns he has about the property, such as the state of its cleanliness, which will then give you the chance to rectify the issue thereby protecting your deposit.
Damp – if the cause of damp in a property is structural then it is the landlord’s responsibility. Should you become aware of an issue with damp you need to inform your landlord without delay. However, some of the other effects of damp, such as mould caused by condensation, can be the fault, so the landlord might argue, of your actions as a tenant. Most of us like a hot bath, for instance, but one needs to be careful to ventilate the bathroom afterwards to minimise the effects of condensation.
Parties – partying is part of student life. Be aware, however, that even a modest party in your student house can lead to a lot of cleaning up afterwards. Even worse, opening up your house to all and sundry can, under the influence of drink, lead to accidental or even malicious damage to your property. All-in-all it’s probably better to arrange to party elsewhere!
The Bigger Picture
There are a number of wider questions related to student tenancies. These include:
Contract length – contract length refers to the number of weeks in each year that student tenants are required to pay rent. At one time the norm was for the landlord to charge for term-time only, averaging thirty-nine weeks. Contract lengths now, however, average forty-four to forty-five weeks, meaning tenants are often required to pay for weeks when they are not in the property.
Other expenses – many student properties include the provision of gas, electricity and broadband access within the rental cost. Student houses, however, need to pay for their own television licence, though only one per property, and many properties do not have their own parking provision. Part-time students need to be aware that, in addition, they are liable for council tax payments.
Insurance – taking into account laptops, iPads and televisions the average student house may contain several thousand pounds worth of property. It makes good sense, therefore, for each student to have insurance cover and for you to ensure your landlord installs adequate locks on the property.
Your household – try to share people with whom you are compatible. Ask yourself some tough questions before choosing house-mates: Are you a party animal or do you prefer an early night? What is your attitude to housework and tidiness? Do you mind sharing with smokers? Do you prefer a small three-bedroom house or the buzz of a larger property? In most cases a mixed-sex household seems to work best. Sharing with a couple is fine, but not when they fall out!
Location – obviously it is important to choose a house or flat that is within easy travelling distance of your university or college. However, rental properties in the immediate vicinity are always in great demand and tend to be more expensive. More often than not is possible to get more a better deal and more space for your money in other parts of town.
A final word of caution for student renters from the NLA: ‘Remember, if the offer is too good to be true, it probably is.’
- Students warned over dodgy landlords – Your Mortgage
- Finding a Good Landlord – Leeds University Union
- The dodgy landlord scammers – Love Money
- Student housing – Deposits – Citizens Advice
- 11 ways to help you get your deposit back – The Independant
- Student accommodation: what you need to know | Money | The Guardian
- 10 things students ought to know before renting | Milkround