Renting returns to favour: Recession and the Housing Act have encouraged people to let their property. Anne Sacks reports

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ALAN and Lesley Austin and their two daughters, Danielle, 11, and Lauren, 7, are living in splendour in a four-bedroomed detached house with a three-acre garden in West Peckham, near Maidstone in Kent.

The family moved from West Yorkshire two years ago when Mr Austin, a business development consultant, was transferred to the South-east. Their house in Kent is valued at pounds 200,000 while their house in West Yorkshire is worth half that. So how can they afford to live in such style?

The answer is that the Austins are renting in Kent. The plan has worked so well that they intend to continue until prices stabilise.

The Austins are not only saving on their maintenance bills but also on their monthly outgoings. 'In Yorkshire I had a monthly mortgage repayment of pounds 850 for a four-bedroomed detached house while in Kent the rent costs me pounds 725 a month for the same sort of house but in the South and with a bigger garden. I couldn't afford to buy a house in Kent like the one I am renting,' Mr Austin says.

The same house in South Manchester and Cheshire would be about pounds 1,100 a month to rent, while pounds 725 a month would secure a modern, three-bedroomed detached house. Local agents think the higher rentals may be because of greater demand from the manufacturing and service industries in the area.

The trend towards renting as an alternative to buying has grown steadily in the past four years - ever since the 1988 Housing Act assured tenancy for landlords and saw off rent control. The recession accelerated the trend when homeowners who had to move but could not sell became more willing to rent. 'There has been a definite change in attitude towards renting,' says Martin Dearden, a partner with Robert Jordan and Associates of Wilmslow, Cheshire.

Michael Deacon, a principal with Allan and Bath, the largest letting agents in Dorset, says both landlord and tenant have benefited. 'Tenants have benefited by an increase in the supply of first- rate rental accommodation. Landlords have benefited because they can reoccupy their homes within 14 to 28 days after the end of the contract using 'fast-track procedures' laid down in the Act. In the past, landlords have not been entirely confident they could get rid of tenants. Now there is a level playing field.'

The 1988 Act has also freed the market. 'In the past a tenant could appeal to the Rent Officer to set a fair rent. This was usually 30 per cent below the market rate. Now that there is no Rent Officer, landlords don't have to worry about getting only two-thirds of what they asked for. Rents are protected by law,' Mr Deacon says.

Letting agents say renting has been greeted with a national sigh of relief, particularly during the recession. 'People are realising they don't have to sell if they have to move,' Mr Deacon says.

The trend has ushered in a new type of landlord. Many are homeowners who have moved to other parts of the country and are letting with a view to returning one day.

Builders with sluggish sales of properties are also turning to letting. John Harrisson, director of Harrisson Homes in South Manchester, has been letting properties for six years. 'Technically its sounds easy to let property but practically it's hard to keep people happy. Nevertheless, if you can't sell it makes sense to rent.'

The losers are those who purchased a property after 1988. Homeowners who bought before 1987 can obtain a rent to cover their outgoings. Those who were not so lucky will have a shortfall. For example, a mortgage of pounds 60,000 will cost pounds 525 a month and can be let at pounds 400 a month, leaving a shortfall of pounds 125 before tax. Tax is paid on net rent after many allowable deductions.

Mr Deacon believes that in a modern economy, nobody can afford to be anchored. 'We need mobility of labour . . . The pendulum in Britain has swung too far towards owning property and is now swinging back. The Government has recognised the need for more rented housing and is supporting efforts in this direction.' He hopes that when the market recovers, the idea of renting will have taken a hold. 'These days it's okay to be a tenant. Previously it was seen socially as a no-no. The clever person is someone who owns a property, lets it unfurnished so there are fewer maintenance costs, gets Miras and capital gains allowance, but rents a place wherever the jobs take him.'

(Photograph omitted)

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