Life For Rent: How Do I Claim Rent Off My Landlord for Building Works?

Plus: our landlord keeps letting himself into our flat, even when we're out of the property!
19 December 2019, 10:23am
Life for Rent columnist Vicky Spratt
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email

I'm having lots of ongoing issues with my flat and it feels like we're living in a building site. What are my options when it comes to getting money off rent?

Water had been dripping down from the upstairs flat for quite some time into my bedroom, the toilet and sink/shower room. This finally got fixed, but it produced so much damp that the walls and floors had to come up and big industrial dryers were needed. It's really grim and the drivers have to be on all the time.

It's worth noting that we pay for electricity and bills aren't included. It looks like we could be living like this for a few weeks and the landlord is being really vague about timescales. What are my options when it comes to claiming back rent?

I would like to caveat everything that follows this sentence with the following statement: I really need a break. Like, really need one. 2019, man. Politically, I thought it couldn’t top 2016, 2017 or 2018, but here we are.

There’s a meme that keeps knocking around on Instagram – one that purports to be a Turkish proverb but is actually a canny rewriting of one: “The forest was shrinking but the trees kept voting for the axe. For the axe was clever and convinced the trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them.”

I’ll never be able to unsee the gloating press releases from landlord lobby groups and property developers that fired into my inbox shortly after Boris Johnson’s landslide victory was announced, nor will I stop being gutted about the fact that Labour’s brilliant housing manifesto failed to get through to Britain’s voters.

I was once in your situation. I lived in a house with five other women and one of our bathrooms was out of action for almost two months while male builders traipsed in and out daily, taking gratuitously long fag breaks while we queued for the only working loo in the house.

Nobody should have to live in a building site. You ought to be able to take your right to live in a suitable home for granted, particularly when you are handing over huge chunks of cash for the privilege of living there. Sadly, too many landlords fail to understand that tenants are their customers, paying for a service.

Of course you want some money back. If you bought a chicken in Tesco and discovered that half of it was mouldy, you’d take it back. If you bought a car and the wheels fell off you’d be looking for a refund. If… OK, you get my point.

It should be this straightforward with rented housing but, unfortunately, it isn’t.

So I’m going to deliver the bad news first. Mindblowing as it sounds, put simply, you don’t have any automatic right to compensation in your situation.

However, there is some good news. Shelter advisor Andy Parnell says: “You may be able to prove you’ve lost some of the use of your home and have incurred extra expenses, so it’s certainly worth talking to your landlord.”

By law, landlords should make sure any repairs in a “reasonable period of time”, but Parnell points out that “reasonable” is up to interpretation. It’s not defined in law and depends on the scale of the problem.

“If you’ve lost the use of part of the property or your personal belongings have been damaged,” he says, “you could ask for compensation, or to at least cover the costs of any damage to your belongings.” You can find out more about how compensation works here.

The massive industrial dryers might be necessary, but it’s beyond maddening that you’re footing their electricity bill. “Legally you must allow the landlord ‘reasonable facilities’ for carrying out repair work,” Parnell says. “This means you have to give them access to the electricity supply.”

That said, he thinks you “probably have a good argument to suggest that covering the cost of running the dryers goes beyond what’s considered ‘reasonable’. If you can prove that you’re taking on extra expenses to keep the dryers running, let your landlord know. You might be able to come to an arrangement whereby they cover this extra expense.”

As ever, all of this advice comes with a word of warning. In this country, private renters have shamefully limited rights. Until Section 21 evictions are abolished – which Tory housing minister Robert Jenrick assured me he is working on – your landlord could evict you in a revenge eviction if you fall out with the over this. These are illegal but they happen all the time. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is what it is right now.

So, tempting as it is to fire off curt emails to your landlord about this, I’m going to suggest you don’t do that. I know it’s probably the last thing you want to do. It’s nearly Christmas FFS. But, if you can, take a deep breath, send them love, light and all that crap and send a kind, thoughtful email asking whether you might be able to come to an agreement.

Even better, pick up the phone or invite them over for a meeting. We’re all inclined to hide behind our screens and it brings out the worst in absolutely everybody. I’ve yet to meet an exception to this rule. It is a truth universally acknowledged that it’s much harder to be a dick when you’re looking someone straight in the eye, so go on, give it a go.

I’ve got a really dodgy landlord who just lets himself into our house whenever he wants to. He does it when we’re out, he does it when we’re in. Help!

Reader, I sympathise. I had a landlord who did this. He would come snooping around, checking up on us and nosing through our things. I caught him out on more than one occasion because I was working from home. He would try to style it out, like “oh, I just wanted to see how you are”. Nope.

What. A. Creep. Of course you feel uncomfortable. Home is supposed to be our sanctuary. It’s meant to be the one place in the world that we are safe; where we can close the door on everything and take care of ourselves. Having this peace of mind, quite simply, is everything. Without it, we have nothing.

That’s exactly why the vast majority of tenancy agreements state that a landlord cannot let themselves into a property they rent out without prior permission. When you’re renting a home, it’s you who has control over the property, not the landlord. That’s literally what you’re paying for. Landlords are not supposed to disrupt their tenants' day-to-day living. This is known as the right to “quiet enjoyment”.

Shelter advisor Andy Parnell says that there are some exceptions (if this is a shared property where you all have individual tenancy agreements, for instance). But: “If this is a family home or if you’re all joint tenants and your tenancy covers the entire property, your landlord’s access rights are heavily restricted, and they should not be letting themselves in!”

He notes that there is a thing called the “right to exclusive possession”. This means you have the right to occupy your home, even if it’s not explicitly stated in your tenancy agreement.

Once again, I’m going to suggest that you try to talk this out because landlords still hold all the cards and, ultimately, I’m guessing you don’t want to be evicted in the middle of Christmas.

Have a word with your landlord. Express your discomfort and remind them that they can’t just go around letting themselves in willy-nilly like this. Hopefully, they’ll take it on board without being weird or defensive.

However, if they don’t, Parnell says you have a few options. “Unless your tenancy agreement forbids it, you could change the locks to prevent your landlord from physically gaining entry,” he says. “Make sure you put the original locks back when the tenancy ends, otherwise your landlord could charge you for this.”

If that doesn’t feel like the right approach, you could also get in touch with your local council for help. Many councils have advice services for tenancy relations, private renting or housing and they might be able to step in.

If worst comes to absolute worst, Parnell says as a last resort you could apply to a court for an injunction – “a court order requiring someone to do, or refrain from doing, something – which would place restrictions on what your landlord can do if successful”.

But, to do this, you will likely need legal help which, as we all know, costs money.

At the end of the day you have rights – specifically the right to feel safe in your own home – and your landlord has obligations. Something has to give here, and it shouldn’t be you.