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Private Tenancies During Coronavirus

In recent weeks we have seen many changes and disruption to our normal way of life, but it is important to remember that any rights you have as a tenant, or any protections outlined in your tenancy agreement, remain unchanged. If you are unsure of the housing agreement you have, and the rights associated with it, you can use this tool to find out - Tenancy rights checker.

General rights and eviction protection

Landlords’ repair obligations have not changed and tenants still have a right to a decent, warm and safe place to live. For example if your boiler breaks and you have no heating or hot water, your landlord should still arrange for it to be repaired. Similarly, if your landlord has an annual gas safety check due they still have a legal obligation for this to be done. The UK government is, however, advising “tenants and landlords to take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to non-urgent issues which are affected by COVID-19 related restrictions”. This includes arranging for any non-essential repairs, not needed to resolve a health and safety issue or an immediate structural problem to the property, to be done at a later date once restrictions have been lifted. 

Your rights in relation to your landlord accessing your home for repairs remains the same and anyone who comes to carry out repairs should follow government guidance on social distancing. Please see the guidance from the housing charity Shelter for further guidance - Repairs and inspections: access to your rented home

As part of the Coronavirus Act 2020 the UK government has introduced additional protection for tenants in which landlords/housing providers cannot begin eviction proceedings for three months. If you are threatened with eviction however, please contact the Student Support and Advice Team for advice as to whether eviction proceedings have been taken against you lawfully. 

Cancelling tenancies and rent reductions

There is no legal obligation for landlords to release tenants from agreements, nor are they required to negotiate rent reductions. This applies to circumstances in which you have moved away from the property and are unable to return due to travel restrictions. 

This does not mean you should not ask to cancel your tenancy or negotiate a rent reduction with your landlord. Your landlord may be sympathetic to your request to leave, or pay a reduced rate of rent. When you get in touch with them, make sure you outline all of the reasons as to why you want to end your tenancy early or pay a reduced rate of rent so that they can understand your situation. 

In circumstances where someone has had a reduction in their income as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak landlords are encouraged to be understanding of the situation. In the following document -  Coronavirus (COVID-19)- Guidance for Landlords and Tenants - the UK government states; "As part of our national effort to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak it’s important that landlords offer support and understanding to tenants who may start to see their income fluctuate." Buy-to-let landlords can request a 3-month “mortgage holiday” which may help encourage leniency with rent payments. They may agree to accept a rent payment late or negotiate a reduced rate of rent for a set period and we would recommend you highlighting this to them if needed. 

If you have bills included in your rent, and most or all of the tenants are not living in the house, your landlord may be open to negotiation on the basis that usage rates are going to be much lower. Some bills however, such as broadband and water, are the same charge regardless if anyone is using them or not. Energy bills should be significantly lower if there is a major drop in usage, but most rates will still include a “standing charge” which remains the same no matter how much energy is used. 

If you are unsure how to word your request, Shelter has published a helpful template you can use for negotiating with your landlord during the coronavirus outbreak. The template is not necessarily geared towards student lets, so you should not use it as an exact blueprint. You should also refrain from using the line “I will be able to pay off my rent arrears when I return to my full income”,  unless you have a concrete plan of how you will be able to save money to pay off the arrears. It will also likely be the case that you are trying to negotiate an overall total reduction in your rent, not just delaying when the amount needs to be paid by.

Important: If your landlord agrees to any changes make sure you have them confirmed in writing via email.

If you are experiencing unexpected financial difficulty due to an unforeseen change in your circumstances, and are therefore struggling to meet your rent payments, you may be eligible for financial assistance from the Emergency Student Support Fund or Student Support Fund. You can also seek additional money advice from the Student Support and Advice Team via their online referral form

Using a “break clause” to cancel a tenancy early

Tenancy agreements often have what is called a “break clause” which describes the acceptable requirements and circumstances for a tenancy agreement to be cancelled early. 

A common requirement is that you have to find a replacement tenant to take over the remainder of your tenancy. The replacement tenant would have to be agreed upon by both the landlord and all other tenants.  Even though the updated legislation, coming into force from 13th May, allows for house moves to be made under the current restrictions, it likely will be difficult to find a replacement tenant at this time. 

Responsibilities as a tenant

Unless you have ended your tenancy with your landlord or housing provider by mutual agreement, you will continue to be legally bound by the terms you signed up to in your tenancy agreement and will still need to meet your responsibilities as a tenant. 

If you are no longer living in your household, and are unable to return due to travel restrictions, you should make your landlord aware as it is often stipulated in tenancy agreements that tenants should inform their landlord if they leave houses empty for a prolonged period of time. You may need to reach a mutual agreement for your landlord to check on the property in your absence.

Further information on tenant responsibilities can be found on the following Shelter UK web-page - Tenant responsibilities

NB: Your tenancy agreement is a legally binding contract between each tenant named in the agreement and the landlord. While the University’s Student Support and Advice Team are able to provide advice and guidance related to your housing situation, please note that they do not possess the authority to enforce changes to your agreement or to extricate you from your tenancy.

What happens if I decide to stop paying my rent?

If you stop paying your rent, without any prior written agreement from your landlord, you will be in breach of your tenancy agreement and will be liable for rent arrears. If you fail to pay or come to an agreement with your landlord about your rent arrears, your landlord will be able to take legal action against you or your guarantor.  

In the current situation many students in joint tenancy households may be in situations where some or all of the tenants are no longer able to live in the property. In these situations it is important that those no longer residing in the property continue to pay their contractually agreed share of the rent. All tenants continue to be legally bound by the tenancy agreement and each individual listed on a joint tenancy agreement will be liable for rent arrears, including that of the other housemates.

Am I in a joint tenancy?

Many students renting in the private sector, but not those living in private student halls (e.g. Student Castle, Vita Student etc.) are likely to be part of a joint tenancy agreement. You have a joint tenancy if you and the other tenants all signed a single tenancy agreement with your landlord or letting agency. If your tenancy agreement has other named tenants on it then it will be a joint tenancy. Any changes in a tenancy will have to be agreed by all tenants in the tenancy agreement. 

In a joint tenancy your landlord can hold each tenant responsible for:

  • rent arrears caused by yourself or the other joint tenants
  • damage to the property caused by any of the tenants or their visitors  

This is called “joint and several liability”. For example if one tenant stopped paying their share of rent, each tenant, including the one who stopped paying rent, will be liable for any rent arrears accrued. To recoup rent arrears a landlord could;

  • recoup the money through a guarantor
  • deduct the arrears from a deposit
  • take tenants to a small claims court

It is important that all tenants communicate together to ensure rent is still paid and bills continue to be shared out fairly. If communication is proving difficult, your College support team can help. You can contact them for support planning the conversation, or facilitating the communication between you and another student. With utility bills any person named on the utility bill is liable for paying them. If someone leaves without paying their bill or falls behind with payments, it will be left to the named bill payer/s to make up the shortfall. This should be avoided by continuing with arrangements for how bills are shared out or mutually coming to an alternative agreement. The Money Advice Service has an article on how to split rent and bills fairly and what to do if another tenant isn’t contributing their fair share.

For further information on joint tenancies please see the following Shelter web-page - Joint tenancies

Cani I return to collect my belongings?

Government advice has now been updated to advise that students can return to their residences to collect belongings  as long as they follow the precautions laid out in staying safe outside your home. 

In arranging to do so you should communicate with your landlord or housing provider to ensure this is done safely. Large accommodation providers (e.g. Student Castle, Vita Student etc.) will likely have to coordinate people returning to ensure it is done safely.  You should also communicate with your housemates to ensure not too many people are returning to the property at the same time. 

 

I am overseas and unable to collect my belongings.

Travel restions may make it impossible or impractical for you to return and collect your belongings at this time. If you are planning on returning to the UK at a later date you could arrange for your items to be put into storage. If you are not planning on returning then you could arrange for overseas haulage. Possible companies that can help are found on our leaving the uk advice pages.    

You should also raise your situation with your landlord or housing provider to see what support they can offer. Some of the larger accommodation providers, such as Student Castle, are offering assistance in arranging for storage or haulage. Alternatively, if you have a trusted housemate still living in the property, they may be able to help arrange for your belongings to be collected by a storage or haulage service. 

 

My tenancy is due to finish, should I still move?

The government advice had previously been that renters should, where possible, delay moving to a new house while measures are in place to manage coronavirus. In the new legislation that comes into force from 13th May, moving house can now be permitted under the current covid-19 restrictions This includes allowing people to view properties and visiting a residential property to undertake any activities required for the rental of the property.  The government has stressed however that  no viewings should go ahead if tenants are symptomatic, self-isolating or shielding.

At all times  social distancing should still be observed. For example if multiple people are moving out of the house during the same period you should communicate with your housemates to ensure not too many people are visiting the house (e.g. removal services) at the same time.  Further guidance on the updated legislation, and observing social distancing through the house moving process, can be found here -  Government advice on home moving during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

I have signed a tenancy agreement but not moved in yet, can I cancel it?

You are bound by a tenancy agreement as soon as you have signed it, regardless if you have moved into the property or not. To cancel the tenancy early you have two options;

  • Exercise a "break clause" from your tenancy agreement. A break clause will stipulate the acceptable scenarios and requirements for a tenancy to be ended early. A common requirement is to find a replacement tenant to take over the tenancy. 
  •  You could negotiate with your landlord to see if they will surrender you from your contract. If your letting agent is not listening to your concerns you could instead deal directly with your landlord, as it would be ultimately their decision on releasing you from a tenancy agreement. As with any agreement be sure to get any agreed changes in writing.

Keeping up to date and further information

The UK Government has not provided guidance to address the specific challenges facing students and their tenancies to date. Take a look at the useful links below.