In the past few weeks, a very high number of renters have contacted our office for support. It’s clear that many landlords still aren’t offering even the basic standards of accommodation which make a decent home. It’s apparent, too, that misrepresenting these sub-standard properties to prospective tenants is commonplace. If you rent a room, flat or house and then, quickly find good reason to regret it, you may well be able to assert your right to unwind.
The Right To Unwind
Recent advice to three renters who have asked for help with very different, unhappy situations, has been remarkably similar. One renter, new to London, saw an appealing room advertised on Gumtree and made an appointment to view it. When he arrived, the agent told him that room had already been snapped up. Instead, he was shown a much smaller, darker and poorly-decorated alternative. Somehow, the agent persuaded the renter to accept this room, at the same price as the one he’d earlier seen advertised.
Another renter was still was at home, in Italy, when she paid six weeks deposit and the first months rent; several thousand pounds in total, for a flat which, she was told, benefitted from concierge service. When she moved in, she found that there was no concierge service.
Most recently, a renter viewed a room while it was still full of the outgoing occupant’s possessions. The landlord didn’t mention, and she didn’t see, obvious signs of severe damp, until after she moved in.
Despite the varied circumstances, in each case, the best remedy exists within the 2014 amendments to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014 prohibit ‘unfair’ commercial practices. The prohibited practices are:
- giving misleading information (a ‘misleading action’)
- using coercion, harassment or undue influence (‘aggressive practice’) and
- failing to follow accepted trading practice (lack of ‘professional diligence’).
A commercial practice that is specifically untruthful is obviously a misleading action. When information is presented in such a way as to deceive, even if it is factually correct, if that information causes the consumer to do something s/he would not otherwise have done, that’s misleading, too.
It would also be misleading if important information were to be omitted or hidden. The landlord or agent’s liability for misleading someone by omission cannot be avoided by claiming no knowledge of the problem.
If you’ve signed a tenancy agreement because you were misled by the landlord or agent, or if you were pressed to do so, you can terminate the contract, and be released from any obligations under it. This is ‘the right to unwind’.
You have 90 days from the start of your tenancy to inform the landlord (or agent) that you want to reject the contract. It’s always best to do this in writing. There is no requirement for you to prove that you have suffered any loss, nor that the landlord/agent acted dishonestly or negligently.
If you inform the landlord or agent that you want to unwind the tenancy within a month of the start date, you are entitled to a full refund of all monies you have paid out for the accommodation.
When someone signs a tenancy agreement as a result of a misleading action or aggressive practice, that person also has the right to pursue damages if they have:
- incurred a financial loss
- suffered alarm, distress, physical inconvenience or discomfort
There is no 90-day time limit for claiming the right to damages. The Limitation Act 1980 period of six years applies. Damages are assessed according to the degree of loss or suffering experienced, but damages are limited to those losses reasonably foreseeable at the start of the tenancy.
Still, the landlord or agent can dispute the right to unwind the contract. Although two of the three renters advised as above have been successful in unwinding their contracts, the third is still in correspondence with in-house lawyers at a large, international property management company.
Under any circumstances, it should be possible to make a complaint to the relevant redress scheme. All letting agents and property managers are required, by law, to belong to one of the schemes.
The redress scheme ensures that tenants (and landlords) have a procedure through which a complaint against an agency can be lodged and adjudicated, independently. Agents are under a duty to advertise their redress scheme membership in their offices and also, on their websites. The trading standards department of the local council has powers to act against any agency in the area which is not a member of one of the schemes.
Of course, every renter can ask the letting or managing agent for the landlord’s contact details, to raise an unhappy situation directly. Even when the landlord employs an agency to manage the property, the renter is still entitled to know the landlord’s UK correspondence address. You should be given the information within 21 days of a written request. This right is laid out Section 1 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985.
Similarly, tenants also have a right to obtain the names and addresses of the directors, if the landlord is a company. Failure to provide the landlord’s details, within 21 days of a written request, is a criminal offence, punishable with a fine.
Three Year Tenancies
At the start of July, James Brokenshire, then newly-appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, proposed introduction of three year tenancies, with a six month break clause. Much more recently, it’s been reported that government has abandoned plans to introduce three year tenancies. However, we have it on good authority that this is not actually the case. Apparently, the relevant people are still examining consultation responses, so it’s too soon to know what will happen next.
Renters’ Rights London responded to that consultation, of course. We agree that three year tenancies would be much preferable to the current six or twelve month Assured Shorthold Tenancy. But, based on our engagement with renters, we understand that renters in England would prefer harmonization with Scotland.
In Scotland, a landlord can only end a tenancy under very particular circumstances. Indefinite tenancies would offer renters the security we need. We would still be free to give notice and move, but otherwise, as long as we paid the rent on time, and exhibited ‘tenant-like behaviour’, we could make ourselves at home. While indefinite tenancies wouldn’t solve the issue of affordability (or not), indefinite tenancies would reduce our stress levels and give us back some of the time we too-regularly have to spend flat-hunting, packing and unpacking.
‘Ethical letting agent’ is not necessarily an oxymoron. When a renter got in touch to ask whether Renters’ Rights London keeps a list of ‘ethical agencies’, I had cause to consider questions of right conduct and a life that is satisfying, in relation to estate agency.
There are basic standards which agents are required, by law, to meet. These include displaying a full list of their fees in their offices and on their website, along with details of their redress scheme membership. An agent who fails to do so would fail the ‘ethics’ test, and you should report them to the trading standards department of the local council.
Still, as ethics are a matter of personal responsibility, and individuals change jobs, it would be risky for this organization to endorse any firm as ‘ethical’. So, Renters’ Rights London doesn’t hold this kind of information.
Now, we’re very interested to find out whether you have had experience of an individual or, indeed, whole firm, where your experience was such that you would describe them as ‘ethical’? If so, do please drop us a line and tell us who, where, and how they showed their tendency to do good? Thank you!