Lesley Henderson has been a landlord all her adult life and now runs a family business. She is also the author of the Landlord's Survival Guide.
The preceding chapter covered the payment of your deposit. In this section we will be dealing with the contents and conditions, which your deposit is designed to protect because inventories and deposits are intimately tied together.
Almost certainly you will be asked to agree and to sign an inventory, which will usually form the basis upon which your deposit return will, amongst other things, be based. Your inventory is absolutely essential, and will, if managed properly, safeguard your own, as well as your landlord’s, interests. Read it, check it and only sign what you agree is accurate.
Very occasionally you will be offered a property without a written inventory, and where this does happen it can be a very mixed blessing indeed. Without an inventory, neither party can actually prove what the original contents were, nor their original condition. While at first glance you may feel happy about accepting a property without any inventory, remember that you are far more likely than the landlord to have to use the courts in the event of a dispute, and you will have no proof of the original condition.
So, you might sensibly be wondering why your landlord doesn’t want to provide one of the most important documents of all. And it’s a foolish landlord indeed who skips this part of the process. Tenants without inventories are perfectly placed to deny any or all damage and, without an accurate signed document the landlord doesn’t have many legal legs to balance his argument on.
Types of inventory
Let us however assume that an inventory has been produced, and consider how and by whom it has been drawn up.
Many expensive properties, and indeed some fairly average ones, are offered with the benefit of an independent inventory, usually compiled by a specialist company. This arrangement has the advantage of being much more impartial than other types. When you vacate, the same company will complete a leaving check and assess if any damages or negligence (or home improvement!) have arisen. They will often also calculate the costs required to cover problems (often providing estimates), and advise the landlord or agency in writing of their findings. You should also be able to obtain a copy of both reports.
This is a highly satisfactory arrangement, and while it can seem expensive (the costs are often shared between landlord and tenant), it has the undoubted advantage of independence.
Tenants in high-rent areas, even where they have already been charged by their agent or landlord for alternative in-house’ services, should very seriously consider the advantages of paying for their own independent assessment at lease beginning and end. In central London for example, some rents are thousands of pounds per month, and this is a sensible safeguard for what will be a significant deposit. If you decide to cover your back with an independent inventory, arrange this for before you unpack. Provide the landlord/agent with a copy of the document – this in itself will usually be sufficient to discourage many end of lease shenanigans.
More usual are agencies whose own staff draw up the inventory, and conduct the final inspection. Remember that for agents and private landlords alike, there’s no quality control on the production of any legally binding inventory – nor any genuine guidelines to follow. It’s an ad hoc service – sometimes, but not always, done very conscientiously.
An obvious note of caution here is that many agencies run a number of smaller companies/operations within the overall service offered to landlords, e.g. cleaning companies, or decorating or gardening services. A sceptic might just consider the possible advantages in finding problems with the condition of the property once you have vacated. This is a highly lucrative sideline for many operators, and there is no independent scrutiny of agencies, nor are there any qualifications required before you can set one up.
Further advice on this is given in Lesson 10. All these issues should begin to be much fairer with the introduction of the new Tenancy Deposit Scheme discussed in the earlier Lesson on deposits.
Privately landlord inventories
Compiled by private landlords, these inventories (as above) can be either highly competent documents, or brief, handwritten scrawls. The same warning about objectivity applied to in-house inventories should also be applied here. They may be free, or chargeable. Ask.
Sensible service providers need accurate records and so do tenants. I always now take digital photos of properties on moving in day and ask tenants to sign them as accurate. Tenants too could do exactly the same thing and get them developed with a dateline. Get yourself some evidence of the original condition of rented property – under both existing and new systems of deposit systems, evidence can save you money.
Here’s an excerpt of a very simple inventory to give you some idea of what to expect. Many are much more detailed – some much less so.
All fitted units and cupboards clean
Cooker – clean on acceptance
Refrigerator – cleaned and defrosted on acceptance
Microwave – clean
1 pair small chequered curtains plus curtain pole and rings (clean)
1 small net curtain (please wash and re-hang on vacation)
Vinyl floor covering (in good condition)
Service automatic washing machine/dryer (service contract details in top drawer)
C/H boiler (landlord’s gas safety certificate (tenant copy) plus service contract details in top drawer)
Fitted chrome towel rail
Light fittings (3 halogen bulbs fitted and working)
1 smoke detector (batteries working)
1 carbon monoxide detector (batteries working)
1 domestic sized fire extinguisher and fire blanket
Many of us separate the contents and the building, therefore a schedule of building condition may be part of your inventory package and may look something like this.
Walls – plain cream, plastered and emulsioned finish. Unmarked except for small areas of damage behind sofa head. Three picture hooks provided. Please fix nothing extra to the walls (including pins and bluetac), as they damage the decorative finish.
Stripped floorboards in good condition with the exception of a small area of wear damage between bay window and hallway
1 casement window – in working order with working catches and window locks (key on LHS window sill of bay).
Paintwork – white gloss, several small chips to doorframe otherwise in good condition throughout.
Ceiling – white emulsion, unmarked
What to check
However formal or informal, these inventories are meant to represent the contents of the property, and the condition of its contents on moving in day. In some instances they also state the decorative condition of the premises you are about to rent (schedule of condition). You need to check any documents you are asked to sign extremely carefully. Too often, embarrassed tenants simply smile at the landlord and say they’re sure it’s OK. This has happened to me many times. I always insist that tenants both read and check the inventory because it is our mutual protection.
Draw any deficiencies (if anything’s been missed by accident) to the attention of the landlord/ agent. If you are asked to sign an inventory in an agency office having previously visited the property, ask to revisit before signing a thing – you must check the property conditions against the inventory and don’t take no for an answer.
Signing accurate inventories is a vitally important part of your deposit return process that can’t be skipped if at all possible. If you find for example that the inventory simply says ‘sofa’ but you can see a couple of cigarette burns or it looks slightly soiled, ask politely for this to be noted on the inventory. If you meet with a refusal to change the inventory, start asking yourself why.
This process can actually take a little time. Some landlords and agents can look rather pained if you want to be thorough. Ignore the clearing of throats and glancing at watches that can accompany this process, and don’t sign anything just to get hold of the property. Obvious deficiencies can truly come back to haunt you in this business.
Property is expensive – and so are its contents. Responsible landlords/ agents ensure that their paperwork is accurate. But the unwary fall victim to scams too numerous to mention. Here’s a tale from a leading financial journalist passed over to me only last month.
Inventories matter. Properties that don’t automatically generate new, accurate inventories will be problematic simply because you’ll be dealing with someone who is either not sure what they’re doing, or someone deliberately trying to undermine your deposit rights. Rent property that comes with an accurate paper-trail. If you really can’t – then at the end of this Lesson I tell you how to draw up a document of your own that could well help to protect your interests.
Safeguarding your deposit
This all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Ask to visit the property, take the inventory, have all the time you want to examine it, ask for anything that concerns you to be included on it before you sign, and bingo, you’re all set!
The reality can sometimes be a little different, as every relatively experienced tenant reading this will know. This particularly applies at the lower end of the price range. You may be renting a property with stains too numerous to mention on the furniture. You may be struggling to find something which you can afford, and the agent is telling you that he has eight other people interested! You may very well, on this type of property, never even see a written inventory.
Enter the reality zone for many tenants
Because property in certain price ranges (usually the cheapest) is in very high demand the last thing you can afford to seem is picky. The truth is that the last thing some landlords and agents want is a tenant trying to look after their own interests. You may not get the property at all if you start asking for paperwork – or even if you sound well informed. The truth can often be that your options are limited by what you can afford to pay. Not everyone’s a high flyer with a six-figure salary. The majority of rentals are mid-range and only affordable when shared and a sizeable chunk of our industry operates way down the pay-scales.
Sometimes tenants find that they have little alternative but to take a property that they know is less than ideal. In these circumstances, a slightly different approach may help and it certainly can’t hurt.
It is too often forgotten that for some of us, at certain times in our lives, the loss of even a hundred pounds can cause a great deal of hardship. It should also be remembered that most tenants have to plan and save for, or even borrow, the deposits on their rented homes. The unfair loss of even a proportion of it can trap people in a cycle of poor quality housing, because their deposit return is vital to fund the new deposit on a slightly better option.
This can be oppressive, and tenants in these circumstances need to act thoroughly to protect their own interests. You may, for example, have no alternative but to sign an inventory, which simply gives a list of items, with no indication of their condition. It may state ‘all items in good clean condition’, when they are not.
Ways to help yourself
Here are a few practical tips which can genuinely help. Take someone with you, preferably not a relative or a close friend, who can give independent evidence should you need it about how things really were when you moved in. Take a photocopy of the inventory you have signed and, on the first day of your tenancy, note every problem on your own copy of the inventory and post the photocopy, (never part with original documents) via registered post to your landlord or agent. A neighbour who isn’t the landlord’s tenant and who isn’t concerned may be prepared to take a look around and support your word on how things were when you moved in.
Create a valid paper trail to protect your deposit
The following is a procedure that is always worth following if you do not have the security of an independent inventory service – or indeed have taken on a property that didn’t come with a fresh, accurate inventory. This applies to property right across the price range. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming that top notch rent equals top notch conduct from management – or assume the new TDS will be able to help without evidence.
- On the day that you take possession, as your first task go through the whole property thoroughly, either with your inventory, which you have signed, or making your own paper record (something similar to the suggestions earlier in the lesson).
- Make a careful note of everything in the property, and make a particular note of everything which is already damaged, marked or broken.
- If mould is evident, make a note of its position and extent. It is horribly common in cheap-end rented property. Mould on the walls (black circular dots that rub away with a fingertip, leaving a residual stain) can ruin your belongings as it is impossible to wash out. It can also play havoc with your health!
- Make a detailed list of everything which concerns you, e.g. cooker rings that are loose or do not work, stains on beds, coffee-ring stains on tables, loose sockets, etc.
- Detail the state of the decorations, including whether or not they are in good condition.
- Sign and date the inventory/schedule and if at all possible, get a witness signature.
- Beg borrow or... well whatever... get hold of a digital camera and take photos of any damaged items, putting that day’s newspaper headline and date clearly and visibly in the picture.
- Have your photographs processed immediately, a same-day service is best and may even show a dateline.
- Place your detailed list plus your photographs in an envelope within 24 hours, and mail them registered post to yourself at your new address.
- When the envelope is delivered put it somewhere very safe, but on no account open it. I repeat, don’t break the seal.
It’s been my experience that deposit deductions are a bit like buses, they come along in groups. If a landlord/agent thinks you won’t kick up too much fuss they can start piling on the charges. Don’t accept this. If you damaged something (and accidents do happen) admit it–but don’t then feel pressurised to accept everything but the kitchen sink being thrown at you. I hate to say it, but these situations are far too common industry-wide. Twenty years ago, being a private landlord was a practical way for people to earn their own income. These days it’s a wish list for the fast living, easy buck brigade. Don’t let a well cut suit or crystal vowels intimidate you. Your rent pays everyone’s wages – remember?
Using your evidence
If there is any dispute when you come to leave the property about exactly what condition various things were in when you took possession, simply tell the landlord or agent that you took the precaution of obtaining proof. Do not at any stage either give them the envelope or break the seal, but explain what steps you took to protect your deposit. This will be valuable evidence if you need to go to court or any deposit resolution service over any dispute, and landlords and agents will recognise this very quickly!
What’s more, the total cost is about £5, which isn’t much for the protection – let alone your peace of mind – is it?
Why bother – isn’t this new deposit system going to sort out these problems?
Even when the new deposit system is up and running, arbitrators or courts will always be looking for documentary proof. It is amazing to me that tenants don’t take more steps to protect themselves. I can’t imagine any other circumstances where intelligent people would hand over hundreds/thousands of pounds to someone they have only known for a matter of minutes, trusting the integrity of a virtual stranger on the basis of a handwritten receipt and an in-house inventory.
By reading this and spending a few minutes once a year when you move, you could ensure that you are not always on the back foot where deposit refunds are concerned. The lettings business isn’t always a nice place filled with reasonable people. It’s a cold commercial concern where people are out to make a profit – from you!
Always remember that those landlords/agents engaging in sharp practice are relying on your lack of knowledge, or forward planning. They cannot exploit well-prepared tenants. Unfair deposit deductions tend to rely on your ignorance or timidity. Nor will any new system work well if neither party has bothered to do anything to show accurately how things were when you first accepted the property. Frankly, you have two choices. Let someone walk away with your hard earned money or do something to protect your own interests. I know what I’d do eight days a week!