Dwindling deposit costs tenants pounds 700: Lee Rodwell highlights one of the problems that can be faced by students renting accommodation

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When Paul Smith and three fellow students rented a five-bedroom terraced house in Divinity Road, Oxford, they were hard pressed to find the deposit of more than pounds 1,000.

However, they assumed they would get most of it back when they moved out in July.

The cheque arrived last week. Almost pounds 700 had been deducted by the lettings agency to cover cleaning and dilapidations.

According to the invoice that accompanied the payment of pounds 446.40 - all that remained of the pounds 1,142 deposit - the agency had deducted pounds 170.38 for 'cleaning to standard' and 'supplying a new shower curtain', pounds 171.55 for 'works carried out to carpets' and pounds 400 for the landlord's dilapidations assessment.

'There was no breakdown of how they arrived at these figures, particularly the pounds 400,' Mr Smith says. 'As for charging us for a shower curtain, the shower was only fixed the last month we were there.'

Mr Smith, now working in market research, adds: 'We expected there would be some cleaning costs but I cannot understand how they can justify this.

'The trouble is that you are presented with a fait accompli and it is very hard to question their figures. They already have your money - there is no big stick you can threaten them with.'

This month the National Union of Students and Shelter are joining forces to highlight the problems students face over housing.

Jo Miller, welfare officer at Manchester University, accepts that it is reasonable for landlords to ask for a deposit but points out that unwary students are easily exploited.

'We explain to students that they may be asked for a deposit of up to a sixth of the annual rent, although it is more usual for a landlord to ask for the equivalent of a month's rent,' she says.

'Part of this may be retained at the end of the tenancy if there are bills unpaid, if the property has been left in a dirty condition or if there has been any damage.

'We also advise students to get a receipt for the amount they have paid as well as a full inventory of the contents, agreed by them and the landlord, which notes the condition of each item at the start of the letting.

'However, we know that not all students can be bothered to do this and inevitably some get ripped off. We can arrange for students who have a problem to see a solicitor, but it can be difficult to get money back. There are always grey areas.'

John Birch, of the Association of Residential Letting Agents, suggests grey areas can be kept to a minimum if landlords and tenants follow the association's code of practice.

'We recommend that landlords get a professional inventory carried out by an inventory clerk,' he says. 'This might cost pounds 70 or pounds 80, but it would last for six to eight lettings.

'If landlords insist on doing the inventory themselves, the tenants should make sure this is not just what we call a shopping list. It should specify the condition of items, noting marks, stains or holes.

'At the end of the tenancy an inventory clerk produces a schedule of dilapidations which are properly chargeable.

'These fall into three categories - cleaning, broken or missing items and things like wine stains on carpets which cannot be put down to fair wear and tear.

'I would expect a landlord to give a breakdown of charges rather than come up with an overall figure.

'If someone has rented a flat through an agency which is one of our members and they feel something has not been done correctly, we will look into it.'

Mr Smith has decided to ask his letting agency to send him a more detailed breakdown of the charges. If he is still unhappy he may take the matter up with the ARLA.

Meanwhile, he hopes his story will alert other students. 'There was an inventory when we moved in,' he says. 'But it did not describe the condition of the house or its contents in any great detail.

'When we left nothing was missing or broken, yet we have been charged pounds 400. It has been a bitter experience, but perhaps our story will warn others to be more alert than we were.'

(Photograph omitted)

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