Life

Life For Rent: We Broke Up, But My Ex Is Withholding My Deposit

Plus: what to do if a friend asks you to be a guarantor on their flat.
28 February 2020, 12:00pm
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 lifeforrent@vice.com.

I recently broke up with my girlfriend but we were living together. The break up was a mutual thing but it was initiated by her. We had just extended the lease on the flat for another year so I had to move out as we shared the flat with another couple who were her friends.

I was really worried about ending the tenancy as living together meant we were able to afford a nice flat in a good area of London. Because we were living together we definitely kept the relationship going longer then its natural course as we were both aware that the cost of living would be so much more if we were by ourselves.

I moved out in June and initially didn't ask for the £1,000 deposit back straight away as I knew my ex wouldn't be able to afford it. I need the money now. It’s eight months down the line. When we last spoke she said I probably shouldn’t get it back as they’re all planning to stay for another year. What should I do? How do I make sure I get it back?

Many, many moons ago I moved in with a now ex-boyfriend. The day before I was due to arrive at the flat we were set to share with two friends – a converted office on Old Street (by “converted”, I mean sheets of MDF had been erected as makeshift walls) where the industrial radiators could never be turned off – I remember crying down the phone to one of my best friends and telling her I’d made a mistake.

“I’m not sure you have a choice,” she said matter of factly. “Can you afford not to live with him?”

It was 2010. We had just graduated. There weren’t really any jobs – the recession was in full swing. Rents across the country, particularly in London, were skyrocketing. It was, in the truest sense of the word, a marriage of convenience that was doomed to fail. It will come as no surprise to you that we broke up before our tenancy was over.

So, reader, I relate. In fact, you’re in incredibly good company. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of cohabiting couples is growing faster than married couples, up by 25.8 percent over the last decade.

This is not just because people are choosing not to get married. It’s because, increasingly, the most cost-effective way to tackle sky high private rents is to hutch up and live like rabbits – cramming two couples into a two-bed flat as you and your ex did.

This, as you are now finding out, comes with its own set of issues. It puts a strain on relationships and because there is no such thing as a common law marriage in the UK, cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights as married couples if things go wrong.

The Cohabitation Rights Bill, which addressed the rights of cohabiting couples, was in the early stages of passing through Parliament before Boris Johnson prorogued it because, you know, Brexit. It could be a while before this gets sorted out.

Which, my friend, brings us back to you. I know the post-break up period is a soupy mess of confusion, particularly when you’re suddenly sleeping alone after months or even years of sharing a circadian rhythm with another warm body. I know life feels like primordial ooze from which you are being forced to crawl and be reborn. It will get better, I promise. But, for now, let’s focus on the practicalities.

There are a few things you need to establish ASAP. Firstly, is the tenancy agreement you signed with your ex a joint tenancy? That’s one where all of your names are on the same contract. Or, do you all have separate agreements in your own name?

If it is a joint tenancy, which I’m guessing it is because in my experience these are more common in house shares, this could be tricky to resolve. In a nutshell, you’ll only be able to get your money back if your ex and your two former flatmates agree.

Secondly, has your ex-girlfriend got any plans to have your name formally removed from the tenancy? This might be a difficult conversation to have with her, but it’s one worth having. The good news is that it sounds as though you are on reasonably good terms with your ex. This is a sign that you are a good person (well done). It will also make this whole situation easier.

Here’s the thing: if this is a joint tenancy, then legally you’re still liable for rent – regardless of whether or not you’re not living there – until the tenancy comes to an end. Moving out doesn’t mean that your obligations end. That’s not how things work. The sooner you can have your name removed from the contract, the sooner you can not only move out but move on.

Thirdly, you need to have a big chat with your ex about what she plans to do when the current fixed term comes to an end. That’s the end of the year you signed up for, not another year if she wants to stay there. Shelter’s advisor notes this is really vital: “If they’re all signing a new tenancy agreement to stay on in the property, this is likely to end your liability.”

In the meantime, however, “you’ve agreed to a legally binding contract. If the rent isn’t paid – or the other tenants changes their mind about covering what would have been your share – you could be pursued for any money owed despite living elsewhere.”

Now, onto your deposit. As long as your name is on the contract, this is tricky. However, this could change if the tenancy agreement you signed comes to an end.

“You can argue that the tenancy you were involved in is ending, so it would be appropriate for you to get your deposit back,” Shelter says. “[But] unless the landlord is returning the deposit to the tenants, you’re still probably going to have to ask the other tenants to return your money to you.

“Technically, the landlord should return the deposits for the current fixed term, then request a new deposit for the start of the new one, but in practice the deposit will often be retained by the landlord. It’s just implied that it’s been returned to the tenants and then repaid towards the new tenancy.”

So, yes, this means you really do need to negotiate compassionately but firmly with your ex and explain that it’s on her to return your money. A grand is hardly pocket change.

If that doesn’t work, there is a nuclear option:

Once a fixed term comes to an end, any one joint tenant can serve notice to end the tenancy without the permission or involvement of the other joint tenants. “This means you could tell the other joint tenants that if you’re unable to get your money back by other means, you’ll have to consider ending the tenancy and your liability for further expense,” Shelter explains. “It’s possible that this will prompt them to return your money to you.”

Please use this with caution and only if you’ve exhausted all other avenues, because it will probably turn your relationship with your ex into scorched earth. It’s easier to end a relationship than a tenancy agreement.

Welcome to the 2020s, a decade in which you have to keep talking to your ex because you signed a rental contract with them. Come on in, the water’s lovely.

My friend is moving to the UK and has asked me to be the guarantor on his flat. I agreed to do it without thinking and now I've been sent loads of complicated paperwork asking me for my credit score, payslips and proof of address.

The contract also says that I won't be held responsible if he falls behind on rent and that they'll pursue it through the other tenants – but I find that confusing as, if that's the case, what's the point of a guarantor? If the worst happens and he can't pay his rent, will I end up liable somehow and will that affect my credit score? Or am I just freaking out over nothing?

No, you are not freaking out over nothing – I will get to this in a second. Before I do, I want to talk about money. Someone very wise once pointed out that your bank balance is a reflection of your emotional health. At the time, I had no savings, two credit cards and a massive overdraft. Naturally, I rolled my eyes and was like, “yeah, whatever, I’m fine”. Several 0% balance transfers, one very restrictive financial diet and a militant savings regime later, I completely agree with her.

It’s noble that you wanted to do this for your friend but your financial security is everything. EVERYTHING, for the people at the back. Money worries cause anxiety, they keep you up at night and they stop you functioning in the world in a meaningful way. Your credit score is your ticket to borrowing money (should you ever need to) and getting a mortgage. It is not to be taken lightly.

Back to the specifics of your situation. I’m not going to lie, this sound incredibly odd and not at all like a standard guarantor agreement. Shelter’s advisor agrees. “It certainly sounds unusual for a contract to suggest that the guarantor won’t be pursued” they explain. “As you rightly suggest, this would appear to make the role of guarantor largely redundant. What usually happens is that the other tenants are pursued first. If this is unsuccessful, one, some or all of the guarantors are asked to cover any outstanding costs. However, this will depend on the wording of the agreement and what route the landlord decides to pursue.”

So where does this leave you? The devil is always in the detail. You need to go through the small print with a fine tooth comb before you make a final decision. However, Shelter’s advisor thinks you should assume the worst here: “It’s probably best to assume that if your friend or one of the other tenants falls behind with the rent, or if there’s damage caused to the property for which the costs can’t be recovered through a deposit or other means, you could be required to pay these costs. It’s unlikely that this will affect your credit score directly. But if the landlord takes you to court to recover money from you, this could affect your credit score.”

So, just to reiterate: you are not freaking out over nothing. Hitching your credit wagon (not sure this phrase will take off, but you get my meaning) to someone else’s is not to be taken lightly. It’s a fate usually reserved for people who own property together or marry each other.

I think you need to talk to your friend. Be honest, be open. Tell them that this is a bigger commitment than you initially realised and explain that you’re not sure you can take it on. Say you care about them and that you don’t want to leave them in the lurch, but explain that you can’t put yourself in a position where you are liable for someone else’s outgoings. If they are truly your friend, they will understand.

Finally, because the agreement in question seems so unclear, it’s also probably worth getting it checked out. You can contact Shelter to see if they can help with this here. Or, you could see if this is something Citizens Advice can help with.

@victoria_spratt