Life for renters during the pandemic has been difficult. Despite many tenants taking an income hit as a result of the outbreak, government support for those who rent their homes has been limited at best. While property owners were given mortgage holidays, renters were advised to rely on the generosity of their landlord if they fell into trouble. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many found that this method proved useless.
Luckily, legislation passed before the pandemic could see renters owed money by estate agents, as well as help them save money if they plan to move house soon.
The Tenant Fees Act, which began on the 1st of June 2019, banned estate agents and landlords in England from charging renters administration fees on contracts issued after this date. This means that check-in fees, referencing fees, cleaning fees – or any other arbitrary admin fee imposed on you by the estate agent or landlord – are no longer legal. It also caps the deposit to five weeks' rent (unless the yearly cost of rent is over £50,000). If services such as cleaning are still required, the estate agent would need to collect this charge from the landlord.
It isn’t perfect legislation – some tenants report having the banned admin costs passed onto them in the form of a rent increase – but for many, the Tenant Fees Act was an overdue goodbye to random renting charges.
Up until now, these rules have only applied to new tenancies starting after the 1st of June 2019. As of the 1st of June 2020, the legislation applies to all tenancies. This means that estate agents can no longer charge admin fees – even if they were in your original contract. It also means that you may actually be owed money, if you have been wrongly charged or overcharged.
How do I know if I’m owed money?
If you are currently in an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (the most common type of tenancy agreement), and you were charged more than five weeks' rent as a deposit when you moved in, then you are owed the surplus money back from your estate agent if you renew the tenancy. Anything that your estate agent or landlord holds over five weeks' rent will need to be returned to you.
If you move out after the 1st of June 2020, and you are charged check-out fees, cleaning fees – or any other admin fees now prohibited under the new Tenant Fees Act – then this money should be returned to you.
“Under the Act, the only permitted payments landlords and agents can take are the rent,” a spokesperson for online letting website OpenRent tells me, “a refundable holding deposit of up to one week's rent, a refundable tenancy deposit of up to five weeks' rent and few small exceptions, like replacing lost keys or making amendments to the tenancy agreement after it is signed.”
“Even if you signed a tenancy agreement in 2018 which says you have to pay £200 for professional cleaning when you move out, you no longer have to pay that fee," they add. "That's a great result for tenants.”
How do I get my money back?
Your estate agent or landlord should be aware of the new Tenant Fees Act. The burden is on them to contact you if you have been incorrectly charged. But estate agents aren't always helpful, so if you believe that you are owed money, you should contact them immediately, citing changes to the Tenant Fees Act.
If you still have a problem, you can reach out to the Property Ombudsman to complain.
So, good news for tenants?
The Tenant Fees Act is a welcome piece of legislation for renters across the UK, especially at a time when many are facing financial uncertainty due to the pandemic. However, the new legislation is only effective if both tenants and their landlords and estate agents are aware of it.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, tells VICE: "The Tenant Fees Act was a huge win for private renters because it stops agents and landlords charging extortionate fees on top of deposits and moving costs."
However, she also points out that much more needs to be done. Renters in the UK have limited rights, and things are only going to get worse as the coronavirus crisis continues.
"The government must act now to protect struggling renters by giving judges extra powers to prevent them losing their homes because of coronavirus," she adds. "If it doesn’t, a tidal wave of homelessness will follow, making it both unsafe and irresponsible to lift the evictions ban without these vital safeguards in place.”