Can I Sue My Landlord? Know Your Rights When Renting For The First Time

Knowing your rights is so important.

When it comes to renting, it’s not a simple challenge to find a property that suits your needs, won’t break the bank and has a clear-cut landlord, but more and more regulation is coming in on what to expect from your living situation, and when the red flags turn into red lines.

Councils across England have been handed a £4m budget by housing secretary Robert Jenrick to help crack down on so called ‘rogue landlords’ offering rip-off renting opportunities to vulnerable renters – incredibly important, as more people in the United Kingdom are renting now than ever – with one fifth of the population living in privately rented accommodation as of 2017.

Often, first time renters can be messed around by landlords or letting agencies who don’t expect them to fight back.

Tom Hinckley, 22, Manchester.

“Our landlord visited from Northern Ireland and told us that he was switching us to a new agents,

“We were happy with this. It went downhill after the switch. We would report things to the new agency and hear nothing back. We had a leaking ceiling, two broken fridges and my window wouldn’t shut – then the heating broke,

“The only thing they came to fix was the ceiling. We lived with no fridges for 2 months before we moved out – it felt like they were just waiting for us to leave so they could fix things.”

Then came the real sting.

Tom Hinckley

“The landlord had previously said the house was in good condition – but let us know after we moved out they were going to claim the entire £2000 deposit back from us,

“I went back to the house to collect something and saw that they had fixed everything we complained about after we left – I’m certain they were just trying to be cheeky and get us to pay for the renovation we’d been reporting for months.”

Eventually, Tom and his housemates got their deposit back after involving DPS (Deposit Protection Scheme).

Housing Secretary Jenrick said that it is “completely unacceptable” that a “minority of unscrupulous landlords” break the law and provide homes which fall short of the standards set – but cases like Tom’s are unfortunately not that rare; in fact, they’re symptoms of a wider problem.

The power imbalance between tenant and landlord is so severe that cases often go unreported. The landlord can see the situation as a business opportunity, whilst the tenant absolutely needs somewhere to live – so may not want to rock the boat too much. It is, therefore, essential that renters are fully aware of their rights.

Nicholas Nicol is a a barrister specialising in housing and human rights at One Pump Court chambers. He explained to Student Problems why clearing up misconceptions about housing law is so important:

Nicholas Nicol
Nicholas Nicol

“Anyone can seek advice from a lawyer about their situation without it necessarily escalating to the point where the lawyer needs to write letters on the tenant’s behalf to the landlord or even issuing court proceedings,

“An hour or two getting some basic advice is not expensive (it is free if it is obtained from a CAB, Shelter or a legal aid lawyer) and well worth it at any stage where a tenant has concerns.”

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether your landlord falls into the rogue’ designation or not – and whether you’re being treated unfairly or illegally.

The government’s website does contain some information on this – but it is not very easily digestible for first time renters, or anyone unfamiliar with government-speak, and all of the abbreviations and jargon that go along with that. 

Basic renters rights are laid out quite simply, however. As a tenant, you have the right to:

  • live in a property that’s safe and in a good state of repair
  • have your deposit returned when the tenancy ends – and in some circumstances have it protected
  • challenge excessively high charges 
  • know who your landlord is
  • live in the property undisturbed
  • see an Energy Performance Certificate for the property
  • be protected from unfair eviction and unfair rent
  • have a written agreement if you have a fixed-term tenancy of more than three years

Yet many first time renters, or ex-students used to the less than perfect conditions of student housing, may not understand what qualifies for safe or in a good state of repair – and when they do, getting these issues fixed can be trickier than it should be.

Emily Herring*

Emily* told us about the renting horror she endured after her pipes burst.

“We tried to phone the emergency number for our letting agents which was switched off mobile phone. We got through two days later and they refused to come and look at the damage. We were told it was fine to live in,

“They were not having that it was their responsibility to help. They said it was our problem and we needed to fork out for cleaning the property,

“They told us to stop contacting them. We said we would continue talking through lawyers since we believed they had breached both contract and potentially the law.”

Facade, Balconies, Urban, House, Architecture, Building

Emily’s letting agent and landlord had breached the law. The pipes bursting was in no way the fault of the tenants, and the landlord had a legal responsibility to repair that damage. 

After they introduced the idea of lawyers, the letting agency arranged a maintenance man to come to the property within 24 hours. 

It’s laid out on the government website that our landlord is always responsible for repairs to:

  • the property’s structure and exterior
  • basins, sinks, baths and other sanitary fittings including pipes and drains
  • heating and hot water
  • gas appliances, pipes, flues and ventilation
  • electrical wiring 
  • any damage they cause by attempting repairs

So make sure you’re not tinkering with any wiring yourself – this is exactly the sort of stuff your landlord should be doing! It’s what you pay them for. 

It’s also hard to tell exactly what an ‘excessively high charge’ is, and with the increasing rise of letting agencies, being on a first-name basis with your landlord is not as common as it once was.

If you do not know who your landlord is, you have the right to this information – and your landlord could be fined (LINK) for withholding it. 

The government made letting agent fees illegal last year. In fact, this is the homeless charity Shelter’s biggest tip to avoid being ripped off – do not let your letting agency charge you for credit checks, or any other moving fees – it isn’t allowed anymore!

Once you’ve moved in, all appliances fitted by the landlord must work and be safe, from gas to electric and water appliances. The landlord must provide you with an annual gas safety check on each appliance from a registered engineer on each appliance.

They must also provide a working smoke alarm on each storey of the building.

This means that they must see to it that everything in the house is ship-shape, including the bathroom. If your property has no bathroom window, it is easy for moisture to build up and create damp or mould; something that is unsafe and create smores which you breathe in, and could adversely affect your health – so they should provide damp traps or a working extraction fan.

Shelter points out that a landlord must give 24 hours notice before popping round for a friendly catchup/nefarious check-up – and you must agree to a suitable time.

Student Problems spoke to national community organisation, ACORN, about how people power can help make all the difference when confronting nasty landlords. 

ACORN membership officer for Leeds, R. Rouse, explained: “I always tell people going into rental accommodation four key things:

“1) Read the contract thoroughly and know your legal rights. Legal rights always take precedence before any contractual obligations,

“2) Take time-stamped photos of EVERYTHING before you move in, and keep them safe,

“3) Join a union like Acorn, and make yourself aware of the common issues that tenants face in your area,

“4) Make sure your deposit is protected in a scheme. If not, you can sue your landlord for the cost of the deposit.” 

Meanwhile, Manchester City Council recently created a Renting Pledge for the city – and advises potential renters to only sign up to landlords under this scheme. A council spokesperson told us: “Manchester’s private rental sector is expanding more rapidly than any other UK city and will continue to expand as the city’s economy grows,

“It is essential that these properties offer high quality, well-managed accommodation and tenants have confidence in their landlord to act responsibly and provide a desirable home. In turn, landlords should have assurance that those tenants will look after their investment and pay their rent.”

Salford City

Tenants in the city now have access to advice and information at council level if they have a problem with their landlord, as long as they fulfill the promises the council expects of them.

The landlord commits to several extra commitments above the law level – though landlords are not required to sign up to this scheme.

  • Repairing problems promptly – especially if there is a risk to the tenant or property when the issue should be dealt with straight away
  • – Dealing with antisocial behaviour and nuisance – dealing with it quickly whether it is the tenant being troubled by other people’s behaviour or complaints against the tenant
  • – Looking after the outside of a property – both the exterior and outside areas of the building should be kept in a good condition

The Council takes landlords to court and prosecutes against them to the tune of thousands of pounds each year, and recommends getting in touch for new renters who cannot afford a private lawyer.

If it comes to it, you have rights about wrong evictions, too. Your landlord needs to give you notice in writing, and get a court order, before court bailiffs can be used evict to you from any of the three major types of letting situations (assured shorthold tenancy, an assured tenancy or a regulated tenancy).

Housing lawyer Nicol explained what rights a tenant has if the landlord is seeking an early eviction:

“If a landlord or agent tries to get a tenant to leave, the tenant should be taking legal advice on their position,

“I came across a case just this week where a tenant left just because the agent was mildly insistent in several emails – with a bit of advice, the tenant would have known they had the option of just standing their ground.”

It doesn’t look like the private renting section is going to be getting smaller any time soon – a think tank in 2018 predicted that 1/3rd of UK millennials will never own a home – so being aware of your rights is more important than ever.

*Name changed for anonymity.

Feature image: Pexels

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