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23 Dec 2021

Private sector tenants face 'postcode lottery' over standard of their homes

589,000 private rented homes estimated to have at least one major hazard

A 'concerning' proportion of private renters live in unsafe or insecure conditions and face barriers to enforcing their rights, according to a new report.

The National Audit Committee (NAO) found that the way private renting is regulated is 'not effective' at ensuring the sector is consistently fair for renters or that housing is safe and secure.

There are an estimated 4.4m privately rented households in England - and the system relies heavily on tenants being able to enforce their own rights.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee which scrutinises government spending said that private tenants faced a 'postcode lottery' over the standards of their home.

Here, Which? explains what the report found and your rights as a tenant.

The issues with private rented properties

The report found privately rented properties are less likely to comply with safety requirements than other types of housing.

An estimated 13% of private rented homes (589,000 properties) have at least one category 1 hazard - a serious threat to health and safety with associated costs to the NHS are estimated at £340m per year.This compares with 10% of owner-occupied homes and 5% of social housing.

23% of private rented homes are classified as non-decent - those with a hazard of immediate threat to a person's health, not in a reasonable state of repair, lacking modern facilities, or not effectively insulated or heated.

The report also found 25% of landlords are unwilling to let to non-UK passport holders and 52% are unwilling to let to those on housing benefit

An estimated 35,000 households live in properties unsuitable for their disability or long-term health and 7% of rented properties were overcrowded in 2019-20 - which doubled to 15% during the pandemic.

Who is responsible for protecting renters?

The NAO commented that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) does not yet have a detailed plan to address the problems that renters face.

The report found the DLUHC has taken a 'piecemeal approach' when introducing legislative changes to protect tenants' rights.

Changes include requiring letting agents to be part of approved redress schemes, a ban on charging letting fees to tenants and temporary restrictions on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, DLUHC does not yet have a strategy for what it wants the regulation of the sector to look like as a whole. DLUHC told the NAO that it is currently defining the strategic objectives of its reform programme.

The report found DLUHC lacks data on key issues where regulatory action may be required such as harassment, evictions, and the costs to landlords of complying with obligations. DLUHC said it wants to collect better data but it has not yet developed a plan to improve this.

It also has limited data on what tools and approaches are used by local authorities, and therefore cannot meaningfully analyse which are more effective at improving compliance and protecting tenants, the report said.

'A long way to go'

Adrian Schwab, Which? Legal lawyer said: 'There is an inconsistent and unfair approach across England for private sector tenants when reporting disrepair and harassmentissues from landlordsand letting agencies.

'The lack of regulations for the licensing landlords and letting agencies, can result in a lack of regulatory accountability and responsibility.

'Tenant's rights have improvedduringthe lastfew years, howeverthereis still a long way to go and the need for strongerregulation and a national redressscheme has never been greater.'

The DLUHC is planning to introduce reforms to the private rented sector and has committed to producing a white paper in 2022.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: 'We welcome this report. Conditions in the private rented sector are not good enough and we need stronger regulation and reform to ensure everyone has a safe and decent place to live.

'We are taking action to raise standards by driving out rogue landlords and strengthening councils' enforcement powers but we must go further. Our forthcoming white paper will set out comprehensive reforms to create a fairer private rented sector for all.'

What are your rights as a tenant?

The report said the system 'relies heavily' on tenants enforcing their own rights which means they must negotiate with landlords directly or take action through the courts.

But it also found tenants face barriers to enforcing these rights compared to the social rented sector where all housing providers must be part of an ombudsman scheme that resolves complaints.

It also relies on tenants having an awareness of their rights. Surveys estimate that 35% of tenants say that a lack of knowledge of their rights made negotiating with their landlord difficult.

You can use our guide to your rights as a private tenant to get clued up, but we've set out some of the major things you need to know when renting from a private landlord below.

Tenancy fees

Letting agents in England, Scotland and Wales are not allowed to charge you for general 'admin fees', reference or police checks, credit checks or renewing your tenancy contract.

A landlord or agent could face a £5,000 fine for charging any of the above.

Depending on your tenancy agreement, the only fees your landlord or letting agent can charge are:

  • Your rent, utilities and council tax
  • A refundable holding deposit
  • A refundable damage deposit which must be put in a deposit protection scheme and can be no more than six weeks' rent
  • A fee to change the details of your tenancy - capped at £50
  • A fee if you decide to end your tenancy early
  • Fees for a default. For example, paying rent late or losing a key

In Northern Ireland fees can be illegal if they are charged by a letting agent and cover services that benefit the landlord. But if you rent directly from a landlord they're allowed to charge fees.

Getting repairs

Your landlord is responsible for keeping your home safe and warm. You should have a working water supply and safe access to gas and electricity. You should ask your landlord to repair issues that threaten your health and safety as soon as possible.

Tenants are usually responsible for the general upkeep of their homes, such as changing light bulbs, unblocking sinks, gardening, and cleaning.

Rent increases

If you have a fixed-term tenancy, then your landlord can't increase the rent until the fixed term ends. The only exception is if there is a clause in the tenancy agreement saying rent can be increased.

In Scotland, landlords can only increase rent once a year. They must also give tenants three months' written notice of any rent rises.

Once the fixed-term has ended and the tenancy becomes a periodic tenancy, it's difficult for private tenants to challenge rent increases.

The landlord may choose to evict you if you refuse to pay more rent.

Deposits

All deposits must be paid into a deposit protection scheme.

The schemes offer a free service to help resolve disputes between tenants and landlords.

Landlords can make deductions from your deposit for:

  • Damage to the property or broken items
  • Cleaning costs
  • Unpaid rent of bills

If your deposit was not held in a scheme, you could take your landlord to court if you can prove this.

Where to find more help

There are plenty of free guides on the Which? website about your rights with information on how to complain.

Which? Legal also offers expert advice on housing issues. From £9 per month you can access experts in consumer law, travel, motoring, landlords and tenancy, wills and probate and more.