For thousands of students, this September may be the first time they go to live away from home. It can be a daunting time, with many packing their bags to take up rented accommodation in university towns and cities across the UK.
Renting for the first time is a significant step and one which requires a great deal of independence and responsibility. It also involves plenty of paperwork and – of course – the dreaded ‘tenancy deposit’.
The tenancy or security deposit – usually a significant amount of money – is the lump sum paid at the beginning of your rental period by way of assurance that the property will be looked after and returned to the landlord in the same condition. Equally, it protects the landlord against tenants ‘doing a runner’ without paying some or all of the due rent.
However, regardless of how careful or house proud a student tenant might be, when summer comes around, many find themselves struggling to get their deposit back.
So what can be done to prevent you from being left severely out of pocket at the end of academic year?
Joanne Ellis, head of housing law at national law firm Stephensons, provides expert advice.
Before moving in
Hindsight might be 20/20, but when dealing with rented properties, a bit of forward planning goes a long way.
Joanne recommends taking the time to examine the property carefully from the moment the rent begins
“A major cause of disputes over deposits come down to the condition of the property. Quite often, the landlord will claim that the tenant was responsible for damage, whereas the tenant will say that the damage had already occurred before they moved in.
“With modern smartphones, there really is no excuse for not having strong evidence to prove your case. When you first move in, take the time to do a thorough sweep of the property, taking photos of the condition of all rooms – particularly where there is existing damage or wear.
“Save these photos, digitally, in a safe place, and make sure that they are time stamped so that the time they were taken cannot be disputed.”
Do your reading
The last thing a student needs is yet more required reading, but in the case of your tenancy agreement, it is vital.
Joanne says: “We are used to being faced with legal agreements that very few people bother to read – particularly for things like technology, software updates and so on. However, the tenancy agreement, although a rather dreary document, is very important.
“It contains all the terms and conditions between you and the landlord and can differ wildly from one property to the next.
“It might contain strict instructions on what you will need to do when you move out. This might include completing a check-list on the condition of certain fixtures and appliances, or even hiring a professional cleaner.
“It is definitely not a case of ‘just sign here’.”
Protect your pocket
Another piece of sage advice for students is to make sure their deposit is protected. Since April 2007, it has been a legal requirement that landlords hand over any deposit they receive to the government-run ‘Tenancy Deposit Protection Scheme’.
“TDP schemes are a legal requirement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your deposit is protected”, says Joanne.
“You should always ask your landlord for proof that your deposit is protected and – if you are still unsure – you can use the three online checkers for the Dispute Service (TDS), Deposit Protection Service (DPS) and mydeposits.
“The landlord should provide you with specific information regarding the deposit no later than 30 days after they receive it. This includes confirmation that the deposit is protected, where it is held and how to get it back. If they fail to do so, you may be able to make a claim of up to three times the deposit amount.”
Consult the inventory!
The vast majority of landlords will have an inventory document. This is, in essence, a checklist of everything and anything in the property when you move in.
Joanne suggests that even if you are not offered an inventory by your landlord, it is a good idea to ask for one.
“The inventory is good for landlords and good for tenants. The landlord gets a comprehensive account of all his belongings, furniture, crockery and cutlery. The tenant knows what’s theirs and what belongs tothe landlord, even after several months – or even years – of everything being muddled together.
“This also prevents any disputes over missing items. If the tenant says there were six coffee cups, whereas the landlord says eight, the inventory document – signed and dated by both parties – will resolve the situation.”
If you break it, buy it
Accidents happen. Unfortunately, when it’s the landlord’s property it will fall to you to replace it – like for like. Even in cases where items looking worse for wear after surviving several careless tenants, if it is you that ultimately breaks the wobbly chair, you will likely be expected to buy a new one.
In such cases, Joanne recommends doing it sooner rather than later.
“If you replace the broken item during your tenancy, you can often find a reasonable replacement for very little money. Landlords will often fill their apartment with budget items that are easily replaced and you should have little trouble finding a similar or identical substitute.
“However, if you leave it until the end of your tenancy – or don’t replace the item at all – the landlord will charge you. This could be a fair amount, or more likely, be substantially higher.
“A broken plate could end up costing £10. Worse, you could be charged for a full set of new crockery if a replacement is unable to be found.”
Scrub up well
Student flats have a perhaps unfair reputation for a lax standard of hygiene. But even if you’re utterly house proud, you have an obligation to return the flat exactly as you found it.
While general wear and tear is understandable – and shouldn’t affect your deposit – you shouldn’t give the landlord an opportunity to air a grievance when you move out.
“This one is fairly simple, but a very important step”, says Joanne. “Before moving out, invest in some proper cleaning products and take each room in turn. This includes communal areas and you should agree with any housemates to share the work between you.
“You should also clear out any rubbish, the contents of any drawers and not forgetting the fridge and freezer. The landlord or management company may well charge you to have these items removed and will be unimpressed by the smell once the electricity cuts out and the contents start to go off.”
If in doubt, get expert advice
Even after following all of the above steps, sometimes you can encounter a stubborn landlord desperate to cling on to your deposit.
If when summer rolls round and you’re still unable to recover some or all of your deposit, you should consider seeking the advice of an expert in this area.
In this situation, there are a number of legal avenues open to you, including ‘alternative dispute resolution’ and taking the matter to court.
Joanne says: “A specialist housing solicitor will be able to advise the best course of action when dealing with a dispute over a security deposit.
“In a case where the landlord has made deductions from your deposit, these can be challenged and – if necessary, pursue the matter through the county court.
“Taking legal action is no small step and you should always consult a solicitor, even just for initial advice, before doing so.”