Before you rent: How to protect your legal rights

Finding a flat to rent in England can be tough. The stress only compounds when things don't go as planned. When I lived in London, I got caught out when my landlord insisted on "renegotiating" the tenancy terms after I had paid a holding deposit (a troublingly common practice in the market).

Here are twelve things tenants can do to protect their rights, which helped me succeed in my legal claim against my landlord.

1. Keep a paper trail from the start‚Äîsave emails and text messages with agents and landlords; take a screenshot of online flat advertisements; make a brief note of phone calls. Keeping a record helps to make sure all parties are on the same page. Because tenancy disputes often come down to “he said, she said”, having proof is key.

2. When you’re viewing a flat with an agent, check to see if any other letting agencies are advertising the same place online. If so, the agent you’re dealing with might not have any real power to hold the property for you, even if you pay a holding deposit.

3. If the agent or landlord asks you to pay a holding deposit, first discuss with them what the deposit actually holds. Will paying give you first dibs on the property? Record the terms in writing. If terms are pre-written, look out for legalese like “subject to contract” or other phrases that can put the basis of the holding deposit agreement in doubt.

4. Before you sign or pay anything, check out the Government’s How to Rent guide and its guidance on Private Renting and Tenancy Agreements. These explain the rights and responsibilities of tenants, landlords and agents. Check the letting agent’s fees‚Äîagents are legally required to display them on their website. (Note that most tenancy fees will be banned for new tenancies after the Tenant Fees Bill becomes law.)

5. Read the tenancy agreement and look for any surprises. If the terms are different from what you agreed when you paid a holding deposit, or if new “fees” are later introduced, question them with the agent or landlord. Even if they refuse to change the tenancy terms, making your complaint known at the outset can come in handy down the track.

6. Only sign if you’re willing to comply with the tenancy agreement. If you have concerns call Citizens Advice or Shelter, who may be able to give you advice or point you in the right direction.

7. When you move into a flat, take pictures and make a note of any damage or issues (even if they don’t need fixing immediately). Some landlords will contract this task to an inventory checking service. Read the inventory report carefully before signing it and make sure it accurately records the condition of the flat. Keep a copy and email details of any additions to the agent or landlord. This can help to avoid disagreements at the end of the tenancy.

8. Be a good tenant. You should hold up your side of any agreement, even if the landlord or agent doesn’t hold up theirs. There are legal avenues to protect tenants from breaches of contract or unlawful practices.

9. Speak with your landlord about returning your tenancy (security) deposit when your tenancy comes to an end. The law requires landlords to keep tenancy deposits in a government-backed deposit protection scheme. Find out whether your landlord intends to seek any deductions before you leave so that (if necessary) you can arrange to fix any issues yourself.

10. If you have a dispute with your landlord or the landlord’s agent, find out who can help. There is a useful list of free tenant legal advice services here and on Tessa Shepperson’s Tenant Law Blog.

11. Find out how long you have before your legal dispute will be barred by a statutory limitation period. For ordinary disputes over English contracts, for example, the period of limitation is 6 years from when the breach of contract occurred. So you may still be in time even after you move on and get your tenancy deposit. For certain excessive rent challenges, the limitation period is only 6 months.

12. If you believe you have been unlawfully treated or overpaid money that wasn’t due to your landlord or their agent, write to them to explain your issue and request they fix things. If they disagree, you can complain to your local council or to the letting agent’s redress scheme. Alternatively, you can take matters into your own hands. Find out whether your dispute should be dealt with by the First-Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) or by the County Court’s Money Claim Online. The government’s websites are informative and designed to be used by non-lawyers. The tribunal and court processes ensure all parties take the dispute seriously.

Renting can be stressful. The Tenant Fees Bill currently before Parliament will improve matters, but it will not fix all unfair practices. Fortunately, there are a number of places to turn when things go wrong. Good advice for tenants in two words? Be prepared.

Samuel Beswick is a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow at Harvard Law School

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Individual Advice

Generation Rent can’t offer advice about individual problems. Here are a few organisations that can:

You might also find quick but informal help on ACORN’s Facebook forum, and there are more suggestions on The Renters Guide.