Hello Vicky, I’m wondering if you can help point me in the right direction to help a friend. She has a shared ownership flat, which means she pays a mortgage and rent every month. Her building was overrun with rats, who chewed through the water mains and flooded her’s and a neighbour’s flat.
The landlord, who owns the freehold, is refusing to step in and repair anything. As she lost her job during this period, she received Universal Credit, which is just enough to cover bills and food, and in a month she needs to start repaying mortgage and service charges to her landlord, which she is unable to afford. She has an eight-week wait on a decision for a housing benefit top-up.
Hello, excellent friend. Your mate is lucky to have you, and even luckier that you slid into my DMs. Most - no, scratch that - all of the advice I give here is rooted in one idea: our housing market is broken. It only works for investors - whether that’s Sally and John who live down the road and fund their son’s private education with the spoils of their buy-to-let portfolio of crowded Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), or the faceless international plutocrats who buy up British property because it’s a “better investment than gold”.
This doesn’t mean you and your pal should give up on humanity. It does mean that, in order to thrive and not merely survive, you have to understand why things are the way they are, what rights you actually have and how to advocate for yourself in a productive way in the fundamentally unfair economic environment we all inhabit.
When talking about home ownership, it’s a lot easier to say “redistribute wealth and ban property ownership” than it is to acknowledge that, because renting in Britain is unregulated and unaffordable, the chance to own a slice of something feels like a lifeline. In this respect, Shared Ownership, which is where you part-buy and part-rent a home, is a good thing.
In your friend’s situation, it can be painful and punitive, because anyone who’s bought a Shared Ownership home is at once a tenant and a homeowner; they have to answer to their mortgage provider, their landlord and their freeholder. They experience the worst of both worlds, as these properties also tend to be leasehold. Being a leaseholder means you don’t really own anything at all but, rather, you’ve bought the right from your freeholder to occupy a piece of land or a bit of a building for a specific length of time, and they can charge you ground rent for as long as you’re there. If that sounds like feudal freeloading, it’s because it is. Obviously, this is incredibly controversial and the government is under pressure to abolish leasehold once and for all.
Shared Ownership was complex long before the pandemic. Now, in the context of a massive recession caused by the economic fallout of an incurable virus, it’s nothing short of Kafkaesque. Perhaps it’s what he was imagining when he wrote The Castle. Like K, the novel’s protagonist, your friend has arrived - progressed to the next level of adulthood and managed to buy something - but she’s struggling to get to the next level and gain access to the mysterious authorities who control everything around her.
So, let’s take each problem in turn. First up, the vermin. If there are rats running throughout the whole building, it is the freeholder who should deal with them.
Shelter housing adviser Vanessa Vaughan explains “the freeholder usually has to arrange repairs to the building’s structure and communal areas, like lifts and stairways. But as your friend’s landlord is also the freeholder, it’s their responsibility to sort the rat problem and the damage caused if they’ve been getting in because of disrepair that falls under their legal obligation.”
If the landlord continues to evade these responsibilities, Vanessa says there are some things she can do: “keep records and evidence of the problem – take photos, save emails, texts or letters from the landlord, and chase them up in writing to remind them of the problem. She could also ask her landlord if she can arrange the repairs herself and deduct the costs from her rent. But she must get it in writing if they agree.”
If things don’t improve, and she feels the disrepair is damaging her health (which, let’s face it, it almost definitely is) it could be a good idea to report the problem to the council's environmental health department. Your pal might also want to check out the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which is doing excellent advocacy work in this space. And, as a last resort, if none of this works, Vanessa says your friend could consider taking legal action against her landlord. If she wins, the court could order them to carry out the repairs and pay her compensation. However, going to court costs money. It can be a long and expensive process, and given that she’s lost her job it might not be realistic right now.
Which brings us to your friend’s financial situation. I am so, so sorry to hear she’s lost her job. I can’t shake the feeling I’m on an island getting smaller by the day, as people I love around me receive similar news. I know that Local Housing Allowance isn’t going far enough, that mortgage holidays aren’t long enough, that nobody has really thought about how to help people in Shared Ownership situations.
If she needs help paying the rent, the Turn 2 Us website is a good place to start. It has a calculator where she can check whether there are any other means-tested benefits she could apply for. The site also lets you search for grants from local charities or other organisations. Shelter also has lots of information and advice for people who are struggling because COVID has wiped out their income.
I’m not going to pretend things aren’t shit right now. They are. I’m glad your friend has you on her side.
We’re having problems getting all or even a fair amount of our deposit back. The landlord is charging us £550 for redecorating the property, plus cleaning omissions, which are ridiculous stuff like “fluff on carpet”.
They haven’t given us the total for this yet, but this isn’t all! There’s more. Out of good nature, we patched up some walls with the specific paint that our landlord requested. And I can honestly say we spent three days cleaning the flat. We paid for a cleaner, we deep cleaned ourselves, we purchased new freezer drawers and we rented a carpet cleaner. We booked time off work and took the whole thing seriously.
Through the small amount of research that I’ve done online, I feel like we are being screwed over. Overall, it feels like they’re trying to get as much out of us as possible. It makes me so angry that, as tenants, we take the brunt. Bearing in mind, we've had to move out of the flat because of the financial impact of the pandemic, in contrast to this landlord, who owns more than one property. Help!!!!
Oh mate, urgh. What a mess. You’ve come to the right place for advice.
It’s a little known fact that I actually have a degree in end of tenancy deposit disputes. I’m even considering a Ph.D at the moment. I got my Master’s when I moved out of the last home I rented and the landlord tried to intimidate me into paying to redecorate the whole place. When I pointed out that he was showing me fake receipts (AKA scraps of paper with random amounts of money scribbled onto them) he started gaslighting me and accusing me of being “aggressive”. When I complained to the estate agent (a supposedly reputable national chain) they told me I was “overreacting”. I developed a streak of grey hairs which I’m 100 percent convinced were a direct consequence of the infuriating back and forth. That wasn’t during a pandemic, and I wasn’t moving because a virus had affected my income, so I can only imagine how you must be feeling.
First things first, you’ve done your bit. Tenants are required to leave the property in the same condition it was in when they moved in. It sounds as though you’ve done this. So, Shelter’s adviser Vanessa agrees that you should be able to argue that it's not OK for your landlord to deduct money from your deposit.
How should you go about this? Vanessa suggests “asking them to compare your check-in and check-out inventories to prove you haven’t caused any damage – but the catch is there’s no legal obligation for them to do this”. Yeah, I know. But give it a go.
Next, there’s something you need to know. I wish more people knew this. I keep hearing that tenants are being charged for professional cleaning automatically when they move out of a rented home. Vanessa says that “if your assured shorthold tenancy agreement says that you and the other tenants will be charged automatically for professional cleaning regardless of the condition of the property, this is prohibited and you can challenge it”.
Your landlord can charge you for genuine cleaning costs to restore the property to its original condition, but this excludes what’s known as reasonable wear and tear. In my experience, landlords and letting agents alike interpret what’s “reasonable” very spuriously, so quote Shelter’s definition at them and push back. You’ve already paid for a professional cleaner, so also attach the receipt to any email correspondence about this.
If you’re not getting anywhere, the best way to challenge these deductions is through your deposit protection scheme’s Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). It’s a legal requirement that landlords put their tenants’ deposits in a protection scheme and they all have their own dispute resolution services (if it transpires that your landlord has not done this, you might be able to claim compensation FYI). However, each scheme has slightly different rules and timeframes, so read the small print and get on it ASAP.
Vanessa points out that both you and the landlord have to agree to using the ADR. If they don’t agree, she says “you can make a money claim to try to get your deposit back”. Shelter has really good info on this. If you take this route, you may end up in court. Vanessa thinks it would be a good idea to talk to a solicitor, and says “some solicitors may offer a free initial consultation, and many give support on a ‘no win no fee’ basis”. You can search for local solicitors on the Law Society website.
It seems to me that too many landlords see their tenants’ deposits as their property. A little pot of money that they can just dip into when a tenancy ends, to line their own pockets even further. This is not the case. It’s your money. You’ve already paid to live in the property. Landlords and letting agents need to start seeing renters as customers and treating them accordingly, IMO. If you have the energy left, I’d suggest making a complaint about your letting agency too. They’re supposed to work for you as well as the landlord, and it sounds like yours didn’t get that memo. Shelter has great advice how to make such a complaint.
I know you need this money. I really hope you get it back.