Life For Rent: My Friend Owns a Home and I'm Moving In – What Should I Know?

Plus: a tenant is haunted by the ghost of her former contract.

by Vicky Spratt
10 October 2019, 1:50pm

My friend owns a property and I've just moved in. It's sick because I'm paying cheap rent and obviously I totally trust them, but I don't want to get accidentally screwed when it comes to contracts or anything. Is there anything I should watch out for?

A: Most of the advice I give here is rooted in the notion that our society is a bit broken; that the social contract is damaged because we’ve stopped viewing houses as homes and, instead, turned them into live-in cash machines. As a result, the people – even the ones you might call friends – are a bit broken too.

In my experience, when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Hold tight, because I have some fairly bad news for you – and it's possible that your friendlord may not even be aware of this, so what you do with what I’m about to tell you is completely your call.

Before we dive into what – you're about to find out – is a pretty murky area of housing law, you might find comfort in knowing that a similar issue came up in a recent reader’s letter. It turns out that if you live with your landlord, you are actually an occupier and not a tenant. This will be the case in the eyes of the law, even if you have signed a tenancy agreement.

As Citizen’s Advice point out on their website, "If you share some accommodation with your landlord, such as the bathroom or kitchen, then you're known as an excluded occupier." In a nutshell, excluded occupiers have very limited rights and, if your landlord – in this case, your mate – lives in the accommodation as their only or principal home, then this is definitely the housing jargon that best describes your new situation.

So, as I mentioned, excluded occupiers have very few legal rights. Citizen’s Advice note that while "you may have some contractual rights that have been agreed verbally with your landlord or that are set out in your agreement ... it can be difficult to enforce your rights because excluded occupiers can be evicted easily".

Whether they’re aware of the term "excluded occupier" or not, your friend is likely excited and slightly concerned in equal measure, just as you are. Our friendships, like all of our relationships, are far more fragile than we care to admit. Inviting you into their home in this way will not have been a snap decision. They trusted you enough to ask. They, too, will have asked themselves whether this might screw things up.

But you can't enter new living arrangements out of fear. You can’t let the housing crisis warp the way you see this person who, by the tone of your question, it seems has never given you any reason not to trust them.

Our society is a bit broken, but that doesn’t mean you should completely give up on other people. It just means that, in order to get ahead, you need to be wise. That means being mindful of the potential precarity of your situation, but if this is where you want to live and who you want to be living with, there’s no need to rock the boat.

Q: Three years ago I moved out of a flatshare after my contract ended. Some of my housemates at the time stayed, paid all the fees and provided all the paperwork that the agency asked for. So far, so standard, right? Well, herein lies the rub. I’m still liable for rent. Yes, you read that right. The lettings agency are saying that as the other tenants haven't paid the change of sharer fees and haven't given the proper documentation, I am still liable for the flat because I didn’t "formally end the contract", although I told them I was moving out once the contract ended three months before it ended.

I've been trying to sort it for the past three years. Because of the agency's high turnover this case has been with six different people, all of whom didn't know anything about this topic whatsoever until I told them. They have no idea who lives there now, they say they can't access the property because they don't manage it, and because they're getting the rent they don't really care. I'm worried something might happen with the flat and it will be my responsibility, and I'm not even sure how this affects my credit score (if it does). PLEASE HELP!

This sounds like the stuff of housing crisis urban legend. You moved out of a flatshare in 2017, moved on with your life and you’re still haunted by a ghost tenancy agreement and being asked to pay for a home you no longer live in.

You’ve forwarded the emails you’re getting from this very well-known, supposedly professional national lettings agency. They read like a dystopian nightmare.

Every week you’ve sent a fraught email asking for confirmation that you’ve been released from this tenancy agreement. You receive a response asking for thousands of pounds, often from a different staff member because the person you were dealing with a few weeks ago has left. Everyone, it seems – your former flatmates included – has left this property except for you.

You protest that you no longer live there, you moved out years ago. Someone says they’re "looking into it". Another automated demand for rent arrives: "Your Overdue Rental Payment". This must all be so infuriating and anxiety-inducing. I know it’s overwhelming; I know you’re worried. So let’s take a step back for a second and zoom out on your situation.

It can’t be legit, can it? Surely this can’t happen to anyone? Well, first of all, there are a few things everyone should know about ending a tenancy.

Housing charity Shelter lay out the procedure for legally ending a tenancy very clearly on their website. You must give notice in writing, return the keys and, if you’re leaving early – as you did – come to an agreement about finding someone to replace you.

If you do not do the above, as Shelter note: "You’re still liable for rent until the property is let to new tenants, unless the landlord releases you from the contract or you can end it by giving written notice."

But here’s the thing: you did all of this. You did everything right. New tenants were found, you were replaced. You’ve even received calls from the landlord asking you who lives in the property because he doesn’t know himself.

This looks like an admin error on the part of the agency – a fuck-up so big it’s hard to comprehend. But the good news is that you’ve got receipts in the form of years and years' worth of email threads.

You’re getting nowhere with the agency. They also say they have no idea who currently lives at the property and are arguing that you're on a periodic rolling tenancy, even though you gave notice in writing, ended your contract and left. It is, quite literally, their job to know who lives at the property, but right now you're doing their work for them and trying to find out.

However, this is very serious and the agents show no signs of leaving you alone any time soon. Shelter has an excellent legal advice team. Contact them immediately. Once you’ve done that, open a case with The Property Ombudsman. They are an independent service set up to resolve disputes like this between consumers and property agents. I've used them before and they will be able to assess your situation. Send them everything – and I mean EVERYTHING. Every email, every demand for payment, every text message. Do this today. Do it now.

All this being said, it is truly mind-blowing that something like this could have happened to you. I know it has had a huge impact on your mental health – how could it not. I hear letting agency horror stories all the time and, sadly, I fear that the industry has an endemic culture problem. You are a consumer, paying them for a service, but you’ve received absolutely awful treatment. The lettings industry needs to wake up and realise that tenants are their customers, too.


Life For Rent