How to find a new home without getting into a flat spin

Ian Hunter on avoiding pitfalls for the unwary in the rented home market
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The Independent Online
This is the busiest time of the year for flat-seekers as the annual crop of students joins the growing numbers of people, most but not all of them young, looking for a place of their own. It should be an exciting experience, yet there are still plenty of pitfalls for the unwary entering the rented property market.

There is more property available for rent than there used to be but it is only a small slice of the total property market. Finding a flat is not always easy, particularly in a large city or a student town.

Often flat-hunters turn to flat agencies. Anyone using an agency should scrutinise carefully the terms of the agreement to ascertain in what circumstances a fee is payable. These agencies are subject to the Accommodation Agencies Act 1953, which expressly prohibits agencies from demanding or accepting money in return for registering the name and details of anyone looking for accommodation. It also prohibits agencies from charging for supplying lists of properties for rent.

Most landlords grant their tenants an agreement in the form of an assured shorthold tenancy. These agreements give the tenant a minimum of six months' security of tenure. However, at any time after the first four months of the tenancy agreement, the tenant can be asked to leave on two months' notice.

Tenants should, at the outset, be clear regarding their responsibilities under the lease. Usually the payment of bills such as gas, telephone, electricity and council tax will be the tenant's responsibility. However, the tenants should also be clear about other items such as responsibility for water rates and any repairs that may be necessary. Tenants will normally be responsible for effecting their own household contents insurance.

It is important at the outset to agree an inventory of the flat's contents which should be signed by both parties. It is often advisable to take photographs of each of the rooms to avoid any subsequent dispute as to the condition of the property at the outset of the letting. Many landlords will insist on taking a deposit as security for any damage caused to the property during the tenancy.

Landlords are often reluctant to release the deposit at the end of the tenancy. It is therefore best, if possible, to avoid paying it out at the outset. If the landlord will not agree to this, an alternative is to pay the deposit into a joint account: by this arrangement neither party can obtain access to the money without the agreement of the other.

Another option is to offset the last instalment of rent due against the deposit withheld. If the deposit is unjustifiably withheld and no amicable agreement is possible, an action can be commenced in the small claims court. The necessary papers can be obtained from the local county court. The procedure is intended to be quite informal and is not as legalistic as normal court procedures.

A common complaint is that landlords either fail to act or are slow in carrying out repairs for which they are responsible. If this happens, provided the lease does not expressly forbid it, a tenant can in certain circumstances set off the costs of doing the repairs himself against the rent that is payable. However, before tenants take such steps they should first give the landlord notice that repairs are needed. The landlord should then be given a reasonable amount of time to carry out the necessary work. Tenants can also seek to set off in respect of any loss suffered as a result of the landlord failing to honour his obligations. This may include items such as damage caused to property as a result of a leaking roof.

Failure to pay the rent will give the landlord, subject to compliance with certain procedures, the right to evict the tenant. Normally the landlord will obtain a court order. The landlord is also permitted to send in bailiffs in order to seize goods to the value of the rent outstanding. The landlord is not permitted to use force and cannot, under this remedy, arrive on a Sunday or after dark.

Once the goods have been seized the landlord must wait at least five days before selling the goods or up to 15 days if requested by the tenant. If the goods have not been repurchased by the tenant within this time limit for a sum equal to the rent outstanding the landlord may sell them at the best price possible.

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