Rise in scams adds to problems for tenants

It can be difficult enough dealing with unscrupulous landlords. Now people in rented accommodation are being conned online

As hundreds of thousands of university students make the mad dash to find rented accommodation for the new academic year, they are warned to watch out for rental scammers and rogue landlords.

The private rental market has grown rapidly in the past decade. And with the mortgage market still restrictive it is set to increase more, leaving tenants even vulnerable to the potential pitfalls of renting. The issue of rogue landlords has become the target of a new campaign by homelessness charity Shelter.

"We want to expose as many rogue operators and con artists as possible," says Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter. "With more people set to become private tenants in the future, more people could become victim to rental scams. We must do something about it urgently."

A new scam recently came to light on the Gumtree website, exposing fake landlords asking unsuspecting potential tenants to send them money for non-existent accommodation. These scammers have become crafty, with many pretending to be a member of the National Landlords Association (NLA), using its logo and creating fake stationery. As well as having to cope with con artists, many tenants are also at risk of illegal eviction, losing their deposit unfairly, being charged way over the odds for hidden costs and living in an unsafe property.

"While the vast majority of landlords looking for flatmates or tenants are honest and bona fide, there will always be a few who are not," says Jonathan Moore, the director of Easyroommate.co.uk. "And, as online flatsharing has boomed, there has been a spate of online scams. In the past three years, we've noticed a marked increase in the number of bogus adverts and scams that our fraud monitoring team has caught."

With so many potential dilemmas, the biggest weapon if you're a tenant is knowledge – you can spot a problem if you know your rights and the legal obligations of the landlord. The golden rule is never to hand over any money until you are certain of the advertiser's authenticity and have his or her name with a UK contact address which they are required by law to provide. You can check whether a landlord really is a member of the NLA on www.goodlandlord.org.uk, or find out who owns the property by searching on the Land Registry website. Once you've found the right place and a genuine landlord, you should make sure the rest of the process goes smoothly too.

First of all, the landlord must provide you with a tenancy agreement. The majority of new rental arrangements are an assured shorthold tenancy which means the landlord must give proper notice and follow the correct procedure to evict you.

"It's important to go through the terms and conditions of a tenancy agreement with a fine-tooth comb, looking at the obligations of both landlord and tenant in terms of upkeep and maintenance of the property, respective liabilities, renewal processes and costs," says Nicholas Leeming, the commercial director of property website Zoopla.co.uk.

Included in any written agreement should be the name and address of the landlord and letting agent if there is one, details of the rent (how much it is, when it's due and whether it covers any bills or council tax), how much notice you must give if you are allowed to leave before the end of the tenancy and, crucially, details of the deposit arrangement.

Getting the deposit back is one of the biggest problems that tenants face, so examine the tenancy agreement carefully so that you know exactly what the deposit covers and the terms and conditions under which it is returned. Above all, you should ensure that your money is protected in one of three authorised schemes: Deposit Protection Service (DPS), Mydeposits.co.uk and Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS). Your landlord should provide you with proof that the deposit is in one of these schemes within 14 days of paying it.

"If landlords fail to protect a deposit, they may be forced to pay the tenant three times the deposit amount as punishment and are also unable to evict the tenant under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 until it is protected," says Eddie Hooker, chief executive of Mydeposits.

When it comes to maintenance of the property, your landlord is responsible for getting external and structural repairs done including the roof, guttering, walls, windows and doors, as well as the plumbing, wiring and central heating. The property must also comply with various gas, electrical and fire safety standards and you should be provided with an energy performance certificate. It's also a good idea to have an accurate inventory in place before you move in recording the condition and contents of the property. This may prove invaluable if there are any discrepencies about damage or missing items. If the landlord or estate agent doesn't mention a document, do ask and keep a copy somewhere safe.

As well as checking that the landlord meets his or her obligations, you should ensure that you keep your end of the bargain. As a tenant, you must keep your home reasonably clean and free of damage, so if you break something, your landlord is likely to charge you for it. You are also responsible for your own belongings so it's wise to get home contents cover.

If you fall behind with rent payments, your landlord is in a strong position to evict you. Get advice as soon as possible from organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, Shelter and National Debtline. If you're moving in with friends and all sign one joint tenancy agreement, you are all equally responsible for paying the rent and keeping to the terms of your agreement. If one tenant misses the rent or causes any other problems, you could end up forking out to cover their mistakes, so think carefully about who you live with.

Case Study: Sebastian Forbes, Student

Sebastian Forbes, 20, a third-year biology student at Newcastle University, came unstuck last year when he moved into rented accommodation in Jesmond with four other university friends.

"As soon as we moved in we found an eviction notice on the floor so we called the landlord straightaway," he says. "But he said to just throw it away and not to worry." The five housemates also had to contend with a list of broken fixtures and fittings including the garage door and hot water tank, which took the landlord at least six months to get sorted. Then in November, another eviction notice came through the post. When they called the court they were told it was highly likely the property would be repossessed.

"We started looking for a new place to live. We had to take a week out from university – it was so stressful. Then 24 hours before we were due to be evicted the landlord finally sorted something out with the mortgage lender so we ended up staying," he says.

This wasn't the end of their troubles, however. In May, yet another eviction notice arrived, leaving the students having to go to court and ask for an extension to their tenancy. Today, despite finally being out of the property, Mr Forbes and his former housemates are in an ongoing dispute with their former landlord over getting their deposit back. "It was a nightmare from start to finish but at least we got to know all the tenancy rights and landlord obligations. We're now prepared for a lifetime of renting!"

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