Life

Life for Rent: What to Do if You Buy a House Together But Split Up Later

Plus: don't panic if your landlord decides to sell your rented flat.
HF
illustrated by Helen Frost
January 11, 2021, 9:15am
Vicky Spratt Life for Rent housing advice column
Illustration: Helen Frost
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

I broke up with my unfaithful fiancé a couple of months after we’d bought a house in his name, though both of us paid the mortgage. Most of my savings and belongings are still tied up in my ex’s house, so I’ve been living in limbo during the pandemic. I’m staying with my brother because I can’t afford to rent privately. Do you know if there’s anything I can do to get some money out of the house my ex lives in?

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Hi, reader. I feel you, more than you’ll ever know. You’re going through what I have, through experience, come to call “the millennial divorce”. Housing is expensive (see: housing crisis), so many of us have joined forces with our significant others – perhaps prematurely – in order to defy the odds and become homeowners. When the shit hits the fan, the consequences can be devastating. 

There are two words I did not know before my own “divorce” and you’re going to want to write this down. Actually, you’re probably going to want to get it tattooed on your arm so you never forget it again: “cohabitation agreement”. This is a formal agreement made before you buy a property with someone that sets out what happens if you separate. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting unmarried couples have become the fastest growing family type in recent years. Unlike married couples, cohabiting couples have relatively few protections. People do weird things when they’re in emotional pain after a breakup. I know it’s not sexy or romantic, but everyone should draw one up before they lose their mind snogging under halogen lights in their nearest IKEA. I sure as hell won’t make this mistake again. Live, laugh, learn, etc. 

Where does this leave you? Shelter housing advisor Andy Parnell’s advice is blunt: “If an amicable arrangement isn’t possible, court action may be necessary.” Having spent thousands of pounds on solicitors myself in the last 18 months, I’d really recommend trying to be amicable. 

You’re going to need evidence. Find every single bank statement that shows that you paid money towards the mortgage. Find receipts for every bit of furniture you bought. Print them out, come up with a total figure and then put them in a lovely file. (Treat yourself to one from Muji and you will suddenly feel invincible.)

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Andy adds that you “should keep a record of anything you’ve personally kept that originally belonged to you both – for fairness’ sake, the value of this should be taken off what you think you’re owed”. 

Ultimately, there is no easy way to get your money if you don’t have a formal agreement. Negotiating like two people who don’t want to tear each other’s throats out is in your best interest. You didn’t want to live out the rest of your life with someone who cheated on you. Breaking up is the best thing that could have happened, so remain focussed. 

If you can’t reach an agreement, you’ll need to look into establishing a beneficial interest in the property – that means working out who owns how much of the property. “This would be based around the amount you’ve paid as a proportion of the overall value of the property,” Andy explains. “You could then request that he either sells the property or finds some means to buy you out, either using other savings he may already have or by borrowing money.”

If that’s still not working, you can play dirty a little by placing a restriction on the Land Registry title of the property. This won’t force your ex to pay you your money, Andy explains, “but it will give you  some control over whether the property can be sold in the future”. You can read more about applying for a restriction in this government guidance. While it might not be an entirely friendly move, it might provoke him into getting it together and dealing with you in a reasonable way. 

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If none of this works, you will need to apply to court for what’s called an “order for sale”. I really hope it doesn’t come to this, and you should avoid it if you possibly can. But if you find yourself at the end of the road, you’re going to need a family law solicitor who can help establish your beneficial interest in the property and help you with taking court action. You can search for solicitors on the Law Society website

When I got “divorced”, I kept feeling like I was running out of air. I’d be sitting in the pub with my friends and suddenly start gasping like I was stuck on a plummeting plane with no oxygen mask. But then one day it got a bit better. And every day from that got easier. What I mean is: you’ve got this, I promise. Be nice. Negotiate. Don’t waste money you don’t have on a solicitor if you can possibly avoid it. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but I promise you that you’re going to be alright. And get a cohabitation agreement in place next time, OK? 

Our landlord has put the house we rent on the market. We were given a six month notice period as opposed to three, so we need to leave by March unless it doesn’t sell… I guess. Do you know if the rules are different if they are selling? I can’t really find anything online so I wondered if this was a bit specific, but I’m sure with the stamp duty allowance a lot of places would be getting sold ATM!

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Oh pal, I’m sorry. Moving house against your will is exhausting at the best of times, but doing it during this never ending pandemic must be like being dropkicked in the stomach. Even when we weren’t in a public health crisis, renters were made unwell by their housing woes. In a study published by Shelter this time last year, 45 percent of private renters (or 3.8m adults) said they were experiencing stress and anxiety as a direct result of their housing concerns, with nearly one in three (2.8m adults) saying it kept them awake at night. 

But the government’s approach to the needs of renters during the pandemic has been short-sighted. In March 2020, they promised the country that nobody should lose their home because of coronavirus, but in July they announced a stamp duty cut that has made some landlords decide that it’s time to cash in and sell up, leaving their tenants, like you, a bit screwed. 

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So, let’s cut to it. Is there any specific protection for you? I’m afraid the simple answer is no. Andy from Shelter breaks it down: “Your rights are very likely to remain the same whatever the landlord’s reason for asking you to leave. The landlord selling the property and your rights as a tenant are in many ways separate. In fact, if your landlord sold up while you were still living there, your tenancy wouldn’t end – it would automatically transfer over to the new owner whether they had agreed to this or not.”  Wild, right?

You’ve been given six months’ notice, which is quite right. The government included this in their coronavirus protection measures for renters. Evictions are currently paused and set to resume on 11th January. The government may or may not extend this – we’re waiting to find out. I know this only adds more uncertainty to your situation.

Either way, Andy says, “it’s worth being aware that the six months’ notice is just the start of the eviction process. If you’re unable to leave by the time the eviction notice expires, the landlord then has to go to court for a possession order and bailiff’s warrant, which could potentially take several more months”. Most people don’t realise this, and it could buy you some time. 

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As ever, negotiating with your landlord is likely your best option. If you want to stay beyond March, say that. Ask if you can stay until the place sells, which might take longer than you think. It would be in your landlord’s interests to agree – they’d still have rent coming in while giving you more wriggle room to figure things out (win-win).

If they insist on you being out by a certain date, don’t stop negotiating – ask for them to help you with the costs of moving and see what they say. This would be a hell of a lot cheaper than them having to go through a full eviction process that could delay their sale. 

Whatever the outcome, Andy makes an important point that you’re not going to love: “Even though the landlord has given you notice, it doesn’t change your obligations – you still need to serve your own notice to end the tenancy.” It goes without saying that you also need to keep paying your rent. You really don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the law and being taken to court over it yourself. 

Be good to yourself and ask for what you want. The worst answer you’ll get is no. Anyone in a similar situation can find up to date advice on coronavirus and evictions here on the Shelter website. 

@Victoria_Spratt