Life

Life For Rent: My Landlord Insists on Doing Flat Viewings During a Pandemic

Plus: can you claim rent back if your landlord doesn't supply a gas certificate?
02 April 2020, 11:10am
Life for Rent housing advice columnist Vicky Spratt
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

My landlord and letting agents are really keen to find new tenants for my current flat and they keep contacting me about viewings. Normally this would be completely fine, but in the age of coronavirus I'm really not keen on four people walking through the flat and coming near me.

I don't want to stop people from renting, but is this allowed? Should I leave the flat when they come round and ask them to disinfect? The letting agent has also asked me if I'd be prepared to FaceTime viewings with potential tenants.

What happens now? How does pandemic end? Does anyone really know? I don’t know if you’ve seen Pandemic on Netflix yet. I don’t know whether your nervous system can handle it right now. But I imagine the young scientists who feature in it – earnestly testing a groundbreaking flu vaccine on pigs in Guatemala – have a pretty good idea about what is coming. Perhaps Boris Johnson could Zoom them into his next press conference?

Under lockdown, we’re forced to really think about what’s important, like our homes and our health. If you’d told me I’d be writing that two weeks ago, I would have laughed. But if COVID-19 is teaching us anything, it’s that we should take nothing for granted.

Of course you don’t want random people in your home right now. How can you maintain two-metre social distancing if there are strangers walking around your home? How can you properly disinfect afterwards without the equipment of an entire CSI team? Spoiler: you can’t. When all is said and done, human beings – evolved as we might be – are just vectors of disease. We leak snot and shed viruses wherever we go.

But fear not – I have some good news for you. Earlier this month, I wrote a scathing report about how some letting agents (eyes emoji) were still trying to conduct viewings against tenants’ wishes. One of the people I spoke to was self-isolating because she has asthma and her agency was STILL trying to bring people over. It should have been simple but, typically, the government’s advice was – at that point – still vague, and agencies were interpreting it in their favour.

However, the government have now issued guidance which is crystal clear. Last week, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, tweeted the following: “Many people have asked what to do if you’re moving house at this time. Buyers and renters should, as far as possible, delay moving to a new house while emergency measures are in place.”

He continued: “If you’re socially isolating or being shielded, it’s important to try to delay. Other parties should show pragmatism. If moving is unavoidable because you’re contracted and the parties aren’t able to agree to a delay, you must follow advice on social distancing when moving.”

There you have it. From the horse’s mouth. Show these tweets to your agency if you need to. Be co-operative. Give Zoom viewings a whirl. But, be in no doubt, staying at home means staying at home. It doesn’t mean going into other people’s homes and spreading Coronavirus.

Could I claim 12 months rent back off my landlord, because I haven't received a gas certificate since April 2018 and it’s now March 2020? It also said on the gas certificate in 2018 that there was no emergency shut-off tap on the mains supply.

Sorry, what?! Your landlord didn’t give you a gas safety certificate which they are legally obliged to do every year? I am shocked (not).

Gas safety is no joke so I’m going to get straight to this. Unfortunately, this cock-up doesn’t mean you have the automatic right to claim twelve months’ worth of rent back.

However, there are things you can do to hold your landlord to account. “Firstly, you can report them to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) using this online form,” says Andy Parnell, a housing advisor at Shelter. “The HSE can make your landlord do the necessary work, and if things are very serious could even start criminal prosecution. This is because, by law, landlords must make sure annual gas inspections for your property happen and keep gas appliances in good repair.”

Another option is getting in touch with your local council. “Most councils have an environmental health or private renting standards team to deal with these kinds of problems,” Parnell explains. “If there are hazards in your home, the council can inspect the property and take action against your landlord. If the council forces the landlord to carry out work on the property, in some cases this might give you the opportunity to claim rent back.”

However, I would say that right now – because we are in the middle of the public health crisis – councils that were stretched before are likely to be completely swamped. So expect to be on hold for a while.

In 2019, a new piece of legislation came into force thanks to the dedication and hard work of Labour MP Karen Buck and a couple of expert housing lawyers. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 requires landlords to make sure that their properties are safe for human beings to inhabit. Wild that this wasn’t law before, isn’t it? Well, the law was actually voted out of Parliament a couple of years before it was finally passed by the Conservatives but, hey, let’s not dwell on the past!

Parnell says that you could try to claim compensation under the Act “if you can show the landlord has not kept the property in a decent and liveable state”. He adds: “You probably wouldn’t be given back a full year’s rent, but the amount of compensation should reflect the risk posed by the landlord’s failure to keep up with gas checks.”

Thank you, Andy. You can speak to Parnell or his equally expert colleagues if you need more help through Shelter’s webchat service.

@victoria_spratt