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Housing court could help in landlord and tenant disputes

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The Government is currently seeking views on the creation of a new Housing Court to make it easier to resolve housing disputes, following arguments that the current system is time consuming and confusing.

Currently housing disputes can be heard in county court, the first-tier tribunal, the High Court and magistrates’ court, but if the new housing court is given the green light, it would deal with all such cases and offer a single route to pursue claims.

The proposal of a Housing Court and the consultation process has already been welcomed by the Residential Landlords Association, who have criticised the current system for making it difficult to address breaches of tenancy effectively. The result has been a reluctance by landlords to offer longer tenancies, despite a rise in demand for rental properties.

The Government consultation closes on January 22nd 2019 and can be found here – www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/H52P-+C8P

Despite the best of intentions disputes between landlords and tenants are sometimes unavoidable, commonly over issues such as rent arrears, maintenance and repair issues and the return of their deposit.

Often disputes can be avoided by consulting with a solicitor at the start of the process to draw up a tenancy agreement which is tailor-made to your needs. They will also fully explain your rights and responsibilities as outlined in Landlord and Tenant legislation.

How to avoid tenant disputes – tips and advice

Before you start – get to know your tenants
You can avoid problematic tenants by running some simple checks before they even move in. These should include obtaining a reference from their previous landlord or agency and a credit check. Speaking to someone first hand can often reveal more and help you to gauge the character of your tenant. As of February 1st 2016 you must also check their right to rent status, which usually means a passport check to ensure they are a British Citizen or hold a European passport.

Payment of rent
You should aim to have a written tenancy agreement in place, such as an Assured Shorthold Tenancy agreement. This sets out the amount of rent payable and when. Your tenancy agreement should also clearly outline what penalties there are for paying late, when rent increases will be made and whether Council Tax and fuel, for example, are included in the rent.

Tenants are far more likely to be angry if they feel they are being presented with an unexpected charge, so take the time to spell out their responsibilities as clearly as possible at the start of a tenancy. Ideally, your tenant will pay their rent into your account via standing order which will help you to evidence the payments you receive, and those you don’t, providing a clear paper trail.

Property maintenance
As a landlord you are obliged to ensure the structure of your property is sound, that the exterior is in good repair, all utilities are in working order and the heating and hot water facilities are in a good condition. Your tenancy agreement should clearly outline what maintenance services you will provide, as well as your right to ‘reasonable’ access to carry out repairs to the property. Except in an emergency you will always need give the tenant at least 24 hours (and more commonly 72 hours) notice that you plan to inspect the property.

While your tenants have the right to ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their property, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be conducting regular inspections to keep an eye on your investment. For new tenants inspections might be scheduled quarterly, moving to every 6 months after a successful first year. Make sure you set out how inspections will take place in your tenancy agreement.

Damage caused by tenants or their visitors is common, and while they have a responsibility to keep your property clean and in good condition, an allowance must be made for ‘fair wear and tear’ to carpets and furnishings which cannot be charged to the tenant. Fixing the little problems will save you money and maintaining your property and garden will help to keep your tenants happy.

How quickly a problem is responded to has a big impact on your relationship with your tenants, so always be clear with them how long something will take to resolve and why.

Tenant deposits
Since April 6th 2007 landlords and letting agents are required to register tenants’ deposits with an approved Tenancy Deposit Scheme. The deposit is usually held by the deposit scheme itself or the landlord retains it whilst taking out an insurance policy to cover the deposit retained. Whichever approved Tenancy Deposit Scheme is used it is there to protect the tenant’s money and help to resolve any disputes at the end of the tenancy.

To make a deduction from your tenant’s deposit, you must prove the damage was the tenant’s fault. This can be achieved through an independent inventory conducted at the outset of the tenancy and at the end. You should also be able to justify the amount deducted by providing quotes for any cleaning or repairs needed.

Cleaning the property at end of tenancy
Make sure you take photos that show the condition of the property at the time the tenant moved in (date stamped) and remind them in writing before their contract ends of their obligations to return the property to that state enclosing the photos. Why? Because utilising a tenant deposit to carry out this essential cleaning is a key trigger point for disagreements between landlords and tenants.

These photos should form part of a detailed inventory which also lists the contents of your property when the tenant moved in. Also, don’t forget to update this inventory as required, as an inventory agreed and signed by the tenant is the best way to prevent deposit-based disputes from occurring.

If the worst happens…how to evict a tenant
It is essential to carry out eviction correctly in order to avoid accusations of harassment or illegal eviction which is a criminal offence. Your tenancy agreement should specify the notice period that your tenants have to vacate the property. If they remain in the property at the end of the notice period, you can apply to the courts for a possession order. If the possession order is granted and the tenant does not comply, you may then apply for an eviction warrant from the county court. The county court will then arrange to send in bailiffs.

Here at Hibberts Solicitors our specialist legal team can explain all the options available to you to regain possession of your property. These can include the use of a Section 8 notice where the tenant is in clear breach of the terms of their rental agreement, or a Section 21 notice commonly known as the ‘no fault’ method because the landlord does not need to prove the tenant has done anything wrong.

Hibberts Solicitors can deal with all areas of landlord and tenant law and are skilled in settling disputes, many of which can be avoided with the right legal advice from the start. If you would like further advice as a landlord or tenant then contact our residential landlord and tenant services team by calling Stewart Bailey on 01270 215117 or email Stewart.Bailey@hibberts.com

This blog is not meant to be taken as official legal advice and we recommend you always seek professional legal advice if you have questions about your specific situation.

Stewart Bailey

Managing Partner

Stewart started his legal career in the City before making the decision to balance work and play more evenly. Returning to his Cheshire roots he joined what was then Durrad Davies & Co, experiencing the firm evolve into the Legal 500 recognised Hibberts LLP.