Life

Life for Rent: What to Do If You Need to Move House During the Lockdown

Plus: what to do when your landlord abruptly turns off the heating.
14 May 2020, 1:54pm
LIFE_FOR_RENT_MOVING_DURING_PANDEMIC
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

My boyfriend’s housing contract finished last month, so him and his brother had to move out and move back to their mum’s. This was the start of the lockdown period and they were due to move into another flat with a friend.

Their new landlord was gracious at the time and gave them a three-week delay on the start date of their new tenancy as they couldn’t pick up keys. They had agreed through the estate agent that this would be reviewed following the government decision on lockdown. The landlord is now keen for them to start the contract and payments.

Are there any legal protections which could allow them to delay the tenancy without financial burden? I am concerned that they would be coming from two households, and also returning to London.

First off, let me say that you’re a really great partner. (Want to go out with me?) I hope your boyfriend knows how lucky he is that you’ve taken time out of your day to email me because of your concern for him and his brother. I hope you are similarly looked out for and after in equally meaningful ways.

I write this to you, reader, as the news breaks that the English housing market has reopened. I know, it’s a drop almost as hotly anticipated as Charli XCX’s quarantine album. But as England reopens, housing markets in Wales, Scotland and Wales remain shut. Why? I mean, it could be because our GDP is falling, the economy is in trouble and England’s housing market is basically the lighter fluid for our country’s financial fires because we don’t really produce much else these days. But, hey, I’m just a humble housing journalist guessin’ over here.

Anyway, I digress. The housing market was sort of cryogenically frozen by the government when we went into what was supposed to be a full lockdown (though I’m not sure the people slugging Aperol Spritzes in the park near me got the memo). It’s now being thawed out. Estate agents, the only people in this country trusted less than politicians, are being allowed back to work as long as they take the necessary social distancing precautions. Let’s see how that one works out.

Since the lockdown has now sort-of-but-not-really been lifted, the government hasn’t issued advice that people shouldn’t move, which means agents are less compelled to be flexible. I don’t know what your boyfriend’s finances are like but Shelter advisor Andy Parnell has bad news, I’m afraid.

“Unfortunately, the terms of his contract still apply – including paying rent and the start date of his tenancy,” Parnell explains. “Ideally, landlords and tenants should work together to resolve problems like this. That could be to delay the tenancy’s start date or change the rent payment arrangements to make things more affordable. But if your boyfriend and his new landlord don’t manage to informally agree to something, he and his brother will still be legally responsible for paying rent.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. This landlord has already been decent. They’ve shown that they can be flexible, so your boyfriend should have a crack at negotiating again if he must.

Be warned that this might be more difficult than the first time round. “If the property is ready to move into now, it would be difficult to argue for putting back the moving in date again or avoiding paying rent,” Parnell explains. “But if it’s not possible to pick the keys up – for example, if the agency is closed – or if there are other problems that make moving in impossible, your boyfriend could argue that he shouldn’t have to pay rent until it’s possible for him to actually move in.”

I’m sorry I don’t have better news. It’s not right and I don’t think it’s OK. If things get sticky, you can get more information about housing and the coronavirus lockdown on Shelter’s website.

My landlord has full control over the heating in my flat but wants the money for the bills?! I've read on VICE before that the landlord is allowed to control the heating IF they are paying the bills, but he is not. He turned it off about a week ago and my flat has been freezing since, his reasons for turning it off is that it’s now summer?! I've been back and forth emailing him, and he's said I can either just move out, or opt out of paying my 20 percent of the bill which means I won't have a say in when the heating is on or off, but I don't have a say in this anyways! Please help me, what do I need to do? Is he allowed to do this?

Your landlord sounds like the Tony Soprano of renting – it’s a good racket they’ve got going on here. You don’t get any heating, but you still have to pay for it? It’s not even conniving; it’s flagrant. I almost respect it. You can’t even argue with them because they’re not trying to justify their behaviour. Who needs sharp rhetorical tools when you have the blunt instrument of holding all the cards in a situation.

It must be maddening. And I know what would usually be maddening is magnified tenfold by this pandemic, where there is no order and no routine. (Unless, of course, you’re a key worker being asked to put your life at risk to save others and our flailing economy, even though you were labelled “unskilled” only a few months ago.)

I’m not going to lie, you’re in a bind here. Don’t shoot the messenger but, first, let me just say that when you moved into your flat you should have asked your landlord for a breakdown of all the bills and proof of their costs to avoid uncertainty and conflict further down the line. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, I know.

Now let’s focus on the here and now. Shelter advisor Andy Parnell is clear: “If you directly pay the gas or electricity company that supplies your heating, your landlord should have no control over it, and you and the other tenants should be able to decide what temperature you want your home to be.”

Things get a bit more complicated if, as in your case, you pay your landlord directly. They might, for instance, feel that it’s fine to turn the heating off because the bills are exceeding the fixed amount that you pay. Or perhaps they enjoy living in cold conditions and doing a Mark Wahlberg-style workout at 4am every morning. Or, maybe, their sad life hasn’t gone to plan and childish displays of power like this is the only thing that makes them feel like the big guy.

Regardless, you really need to talk to your landlord properly. Continue over email, because you need a written record just in case. But, if you can, arrange a phone call or a Zoom call. It’s my experience that people are generally 1000 percent less of a dick when they’re forced to look at you than they are when they can hide behind a screen.

I know landlords are the de facto “enemy” but, whether you like it or not, you’re in a relationship with yours. It’s reciprocal – you both have a lot to gain and a lot to lose. So it’s in your interest to be on good terms with them, even if that means playing along with their wicked games for a while.

This is your home – you’re paying to live there – you should feel comfortable. Can you and your flatmates come together and ask a) why the heating keeps being turned off b) whether you need to pay more and c) how much the bills actually are a month so you can make an informed decision.

You’ll be pleased to know that there are regulations that cover the resale of gas and electricity, and if you suspect you’re being charged for more than you’re actually using, he might be breaking these rules. If he is, you could take legal action against him to get back all the extra money you’ve been paying him. You can find out how to do this on the Citizens Advice website.

Parnell says you “could also keep a record of the temperature in the property if you can – a basic room temperature thermometer should do the trick. If you can go to the landlord with actual data showing how cold your home is getting because he’s switched off the heating, this might help change his mind”.

The “if you don’t like it, you can leave '' approach from your landlord is absurd and, honestly, it’s posturing. Replacing tenants is a lot of hassle and most landlords want to avoid this, particularly as we face a large-scale economic downturn. You have more bargaining power then you realise. Hold your nerve, remain polite and try to move this situation on.

If that doesn’t work (let’s face it: landlords are only human which means they’re as prone to irrationality as the rest of us), you could contact your local council. Please be warned, though, that this could further sour relations.

Most councils have an environmental health or private renting standards team. Excessive cold can be a hazard, and the council has the power to take action against your landlord. Read more about contacting your local environmental health team on Shelter’s website.

Stay safe, stay sane, my chilly friend.

@Victoria_Spratt