What happens if you wander into Tesco, help yourself to some food and walk out without paying? I haven’t tried it but I reckon those big burly security guards that Tesco employs (well, they do in my corner of South London) will be straight after you. The police will probably turn up blue lights a-blazing, arrest you and it will all end up in court. At best, you’ll have to pay Tesco for the food. At worst, you’ll have a criminal record.
But the law works a bit differently when it comes to landlords and tenants. While rogue landlords face various fines and penalties, tenants are seemingly free to fleece one landlord after another.
Take my friend Bob (not his real name). He’s a nice guy. His tenant – we’ll call her Miss T – decided to stop paying the rent one day without explanation but thought it was perfectly fine to carry on living in Bob’s flat. Unlike Tesco, Bob couldn’t simply call the police, report the theft and watch Miss T take the consequences. Instead, he had to go through a long and expensive eviction process until she finally moved out, taking Bob’s sofa and other items from the flat with her. At the end of the day, Bob ended up eight months’ rent and several pieces of furniture down. And the police response to his complaint? ‘Nothing we can do mate, sorry.’
Landlords whose tenants do a moonlit flit owing them money have few rights. Unlike stealing a packet of crisps from Tesco, not paying the rent you agreed to pay is not considered a crime but a ‘civil matter’.
This means landlords have to take their ex-tenant to the Small Claims Court to try and get the money owed to them. Even if they succeed in getting a County Court Judgment (CCJ) against the tenant, there’s still no guarantee they’ll pay up.
Bob’s story isn’t uncommon. According to the National Landlords Association, the past year saw 35 per cent of landlords experience rent arrears; 29 per cent had their property damaged by tenants; and 13 per cent experienced anti-social behaviour.
Meanwhile, a survey by Direct Line for Business found 30 per cent of tenants think it’s acceptable to take items from a rented property. Some of the most common items tenants have stolen included fridges, freezers, light fittings, televisions and sinks.
Of course, not all tenants deliberately fail to pay the rent or steal from landlords; some simply fall on hard times. Those who find they cannot afford to rent in the private sector, and who aim to get housed by the council, are often given suspect advice by local authorities. Landlords can give tenants on rolling tenancies two months’ notice to leave using a ‘section 21’ notice. However, tenants have no obligation to leave when the notice expires, and the landlord can’t force them to go until they have a possession order from a court.
Even when a court order has been granted, council officers’ advice is often for tenants to wait until the bailiffs turn up. Only this course of action, they say, will mean the tenant can be classed as ‘homeless’. Tenants who simply can’t be bothered to pay the rent, such as Miss T, often adopt the same strategy, safe in the knowledge the law is on their side. Landlords, meanwhile, have no choice but to carry on paying the mortgage and maintaining the property while the tenant lives rent-free.
Obviously, renters and their sympathisers won’t be shedding any tears for landlords in this position but it can pay to look at the bigger picture. For every non-paying tenant waiting for the bailiffs to arrive before they move out, there’s a good tenant complaining about the shortage of rental homes. And once a wronged landlord finally has possession of their property they’ll be looking to re-coup their losses – and re-letting it at a higher rent is the easy and obvious way to do this.
The Housing and Planning Bill which came into force earlier this year introduced new measures to tackle criminal landlords. These include bans for the worst offenders, the introduction of rent repayment orders and a new database of ‘blacklisted’ landlords and letting agents.
But how about a register of ‘rogue tenants’? As is stands, a rogue tenant can move from one property to another leaving a trail of rent arrears and unpaid bills in their wake. Tenant references are fairly easy to fake while credit checks don’t show if a tenant has paid their rent on time. If the Government is keen on protecting tenants from rogue landlords, why not protect landlords from bad renters too?
Emma Lunn is a freelance personal finance journalist