When lease spells loss: Fixed-term deals tie in tenants for the duration, warns Sue Fieldman

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MARY LYNG has been asked to pay hundreds of pounds in rent for a flat she no longer occupies. Her financial predicament is a warning to all tenants that if they take on a fixed-term agreement, they are stuck with it until the end of the term.

In July 1992, Ms Lyng and a friend rented the flat in Highbury, north London. The rent was pounds 737 a month, which they split. The flat was to be let for a year and was held on an assured shorthold tenancy.

Assured shorthold tenancies have become very popular. Landlords like them because the tenant has no legal right to occupation at the end of the term. Tenants know that they have security of tenure for a fixed period, unless they breach the terms of the lease.

Ms Lyng was more than happy at the outset. At the beginning of October, her friend left the flat. Both shares of the rent were paid to the end of November. However, Ms Lyng was unable to find someone else to share with her. She looked for a new tenant to take over the whole flat but without success. Her financial situation was getting worse and on 15 December she decided to move out.

'I did not realise how difficult it would be to get the flat re-let,' she said. 'I did not pay any rent for December, but my rental deposit would cover my share of the rent for that month.

'I told the landlord that I had left. He said that I had an agreement that I could not break and if he did not get a tenant quickly he would sue me for the rent.'

When Ms Lyng signed the agreement, she did not realise that there was no let-out clause. There was no notice provision, so she was liable for the whole term until July 1993.

John Samson, property partner with the solicitors Nabarro Nathanson, said: 'Leases are about commitment, just like marriage. You cannot get out of it, as it is standard not to have a notice clause.

'If you take on a lease for a fixed period, you commit yourself for the rent for that period. But a landlord must try to mitigate his loss.'

The landlord informed Ms Lyng that a new tenant moved into the flat at the end of January. The landlord was not going to charge her for cleaning costs, nor the estate agents' charges for finding a new tenant. However, he was looking for the rent due from the date she left until the new occupation - pounds 1,006.

The landlord said he did not wish to be particularly difficult 'unless we do not have a satisfactory arrangement with you for the payment of the debt'.

He added: 'I must, however, warn you that in the event that we do need to take legal proceedings we will claim the full rent right up to the end of the term of the contract, together with related expenses and costs.'

Ms Lyng was given five working days to pay pounds 1,006. She offered to pay pounds 600, which was not accepted. She was told that legal proceedings would be started against her.

We spoke to Subash Thakrar who, with Lance Blackstone, is the joint landlord. He said: 'We are not toughies, we are quite soft. We do not want Ms Lyng to feel unhappy but she has let us down very badly. She is an adult who signed a contract for the full term. We are still happy and keen to sort it out. We are prepared to accept the balance of the money from her in a sensible arrangement.'

They have now agreed that Ms Lyng will pay pounds 600 immediately, and the balance of pounds 400 in four post-dated pounds 100 cheques over the next four months.

Mr Samson advises those contemplating a fixed-period tenancy to ask for a clause to allow them to end the lease early. 'Most landlords should be amenable to it, but they may well ask for a rental penalty of say two to three months.'

(Photograph omitted)