Tenancy without tears

People who rent need to know where their liabilities end and those of the landlord begin. Ian Hunter reports; If a landlord won't release the deposit as the tenancy nears its end, one option is to offset the last rent payment against it
PETER RACHMAN, the notorious 1960s landlord who used strong-arm tactics to keep his tenants in line, may no longer be around. But there are still plenty of pitfalls for those people entering the rented property market.

Finding a flat is not always easy, particularly in a large city or a student town.

Flat agencies are one solution. It is illegal for them to demand or accept money for simply registering the name and details of anyone looking for accommodation, under the Accommodation Agencies Act (of 1953). This also prohibits agencies from charging for lists of properties for rent.

Anyone using an agency should scrutinise the terms of the agreement to find out in what circumstances any fee is payable. There may, for example, be a charge for finding you a flat. It may take the form of a percentage of the rent or be a straight amount.

Most landlords offer what are called assured shorthold tenancies. These agreements give a tenant the right to live in a property for at least six months. 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 about their own obligations under the lease. Usually tenants are responsible for paying bills such as gas, telephone, electricity, and council tax. However, you should also make sure you understand the position about other items, such as responsibility for water bills and any repairs that may be necessary.

Normally the landlord will be responsible for repairs. But you may be required to bring in industrial cleaners - in particular to shampoo the carpet - at the end of the lease, and at your own expense. And liability for water bills can be a grey area. If these responsibilities are not specified in the lease, get them set down in writing.

Tenants will normally be responsible for household contents insurance, but the landlord should take responsibility for buildings insurance.

Many landlords will insist on taking a deposit as security for any damage caused to the property during the tenancy. One to two months' rent is common. It is important at the outset to agree an inventory of the flat's contents, which should be signed by landlord and tenant(s).

Landlords are often reluctant to release the deposit at the end of the tenancy. So the best bet is to try to avoid paying it at all. If the landlord will not agree to this, an alternative is to pay the deposit into a joint account. That way the landlord cannot get his hands on your money without you agreeing. And this should force some compromise at the end of the lease.

If the landlord is unwilling to release the deposit as the tenancy nears its end, another option is to offset the last rent payment(s) due against the withheld deposit. The landlord will have a legal claim against you, but you will have a counter-claim for the deposit.

If the deposit is unjustifiably withheld and no amicable agreement is possible, you can take action in the small claims court. This will cost, in total, between pounds 10 and pounds 65, for a claim of up to pounds 1,000. The necessary papers can be obtained from the local county court, which is in the Yellow Pages. The procedure is fairly straightforward and does not require a solicitor. Often the threat of court may be enough to prompt the landlord to cough up.

Another common problem is that landlords either fail or are slow to carry out repairs for which they are responsible. If this happens, and provided the lease does not expressly forbid it, a tenant can set off the costs of doing the repairs himself against the rent.

Before you do this, however, you should first give the landlord notice in writing that repairs are needed. The landlord should then be given a reasonable amount of time to carry out the work - days for urgent repairs. It is best to write again before getting the repairs done yourself.

Note, though, that failure to pay the rent gives the landlord the right to evict the tenant, but normally not before a court hearing at which you could explain any offsetting you had done. The landlord is also permitted to send in bailiffs to seize goods to the value of the rent outstanding without notice. But the bailiffs cannot force their way in or be sent in on a Sunday or after dark.