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.
What to look for
After your research and questions, you should eventually have a list of several properties that you have made appointments to view, through agents, landlords or a combination. The advice I’m giving you here has to be general. You’ll need to apply it to a wide variety of buildings and situations by using that most vital tool for renters – your common sense. However, as you go through a property, you need to be on the lookout for safety issues, which is why I have included them in this section.
You should have appointments to view with either private landlords, or agency staff, and you still need to find out quite a lot from whoever you’re meeting before you rush to sign on that dotted line. You are looking for a property that suits your needs, is within your budget and is safe. A viewing is your first (and possibly only) chance to learn almost all you’ll need to know about ‘the deal’ on offer. It should be a two-way process, where both landlord/agent and tenant discuss matters and decide whether or not they want to do business with each other. Don’t agree to accept a property if the agency sends you round with a viewer who doesn’t have a clue how to answer your questions. If that happens, note down your queries and go back to the agency looking for answers before you agree to sign contracts.
Avoid landlords who won’t talk to you – if they’re unwilling to explain anything now, things are unlikely to improve after you’ve agreed to hand over all that money.
What to avoid
No matter how tight your budget though, you must find somewhere safe to live. At the bottom end of the market, this is not as easy as it ought to be. And don’t assume expensive means safe either.
Many properties, especially at the lower end of the price range and often let to young sharers, are still technically unsafe, or unfit to live in (new rules about this were introduced in the Housing Act 2004 and came into force July 2007 – check Lesson 14 on Houses in Multiple Occupation if you’re a sharer). Although regulations exist to protect tenants they are monitored by overburdened local authorities, who, despite their best efforts, often do not even realise that a particular property is being let out at all.
There are still a significant minority of landlords who operate quite outside the law, and who continue to offer dreadfully inadequate property to tenants but who’ve happily hoiked their rent to near market norms. However, simply reading a guide doesn’t really give a flavour of either the state, smell nor overall levels of dilapidation that confront some tenants as they walk into some properties.
This chapter will try to give you some overall pointers on what to check for, whatever the price range. Decent landlords/agents will offer property that is clean and reasonably presented (which doesn’t mean expensively decked out). Expect that as a basic demand.
Advice about viewings
Before we begin considering specifics, the very best advice you can take is never to view alone. It is simply not wise to make appointments to go into empty properties with anyone you have never met before.
Besides which, there is simply too much to take in. It can be very difficult to remember everything you’ll need to, particularly if you’re viewing numerous properties over several days. Take a pad and pen and make notes – no one will mind a bit. If you are looking to share with other tenants, make sure that you’re all available to view together. Landlords and agents can quite reasonably be reluctant to reshow one property to various members of a group at different times.
The holding deposit
Be prepared for a request for a holding deposit if you do like and want a property (so long as you’re satisfied that all your questions have been answered. If not, hold onto your money until they have been). Holding deposits are a sum of money (usually about a week’s rent) that tenants hand over fairly soon after viewings to prove good intent – in other words, that they seriously want to rent a unit. This money may be used to fund references/credit checks – or it may not. This is something that you need to pin down. Find out exactly what you’re paying out for. It’s amazing, for example, just how much of this can disappear in costs when using agents with multiple reference charges.
Get a receipt
Make sure you ask for receipts for all holding deposits and indeed for full rental deposits too. These receipts should state exactly what the money is for, what costs you agree to be deducted from it and what circumstances will trigger a full refund. Then keep them safe.
Don’t imagine that, having agreed to take a property and having handed over a holding deposit, your brand new prospective landlord won’t continue showing it to other potential tenants. Similarly, most agencies will continue viewings until all the references you have provided are found to be acceptable. The paperwork required to establish tenancies isn’t instantaneous and most landlords/agents will hedge their bets until a much closer contractual stage has been reached.
Always remember that until all the necessary leases have been signed, and full monies exchanged, no contract exists at all.
If your references don’t stack up
Tenants who have paid part deposits may lose significant sums for referencing and administration if their prospective landlord/agent quite reasonably rejects them because references were poor or credit checks shaky. Keep an eye on your credit history – having a poor one can be an expensive mistake for prospective tenants.
If, however, you have paid a holding or full deposit out and you still want the property, then a private landlord/agent subsequently lets to someone else whom they simply prefer, you should expect a full refund.
Getting your ducks in a row
When you really want a particular property, you need to ensure that the paperwork required by your landlord/agent is quickly made available, and that you have the money required ready and waiting. Do not expect anyone to hold a property for you for days or weeks, while you sort yourself out. It simply won’t happen.
Learn how to say ‘no’
If, on the other hand you don’t want a unit, say so. It’s quite amazing how many tenants are too embarrassed to say ‘no thank you’ to landlords and agents. If you definitely don’t want it, say so. If you’re undecided, say so. Landlords and agents are quite used to hearing ‘No thanks, this one’s not for me.’
How to start looking
Learning how to choose a good rental involves quite a bit of thinking on your feet. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the area and look at the properties from the outside before you have your viewing, so much the better. This is often an excellent way of screening out those properties you simply don’t want before you go inside. However, if your viewing is the first opportunity you have to look at the property, look around carefully.
- Does it look neglected?
- Is it in noticeably worse condition than its neighbours?
- Is the area worse than the flat you saw yesterday for much the same rent?
If you are about to pay average or above average rent for the area, and the answer to these questions is yes, then decline, and move on to your next viewing. However, if you are struggling to find something that you can afford, you’ll probably have less choice. Unless shocked, continue your inspection – you’re now looking for basic safety – gas safety certificates, fire resistant labels on sofas – safety is the one thing that no tenant should economise on – but that doesn’t stop unsafe buildings being commonplace. There are very heavy fines for landlords/agents caught letting out property with dangerous facilities.
Remember that landlords/agents willing to take such serious financial risks are unlikely to make reliable parties to much else in a contract. The poisonous relationship of bad landlord working in conjunction with some less scrupulous agents often works in tandem to keep poor property circulating on the rental market. This type of deliberate flouting costs lives every year.
Don’t be rushed through viewings
Whether your budget is modest or huge, don’t feel obliged to rush through any viewing in five minutes. It is a very common problem. Looking at watches, talking about their next appointment – none of this is your problem. You are here to examine the contents and conditions of a very expensive contract. Ignore the pressure to rush.
Always remember that all landlords/agents need tenants as much as you need a place to rent. This is a very competitive market these days and no one is running a charity here. You don’t need hours to view a place, but don’t allow yourself to be hurried through in a few minutes either. Nor to be prevented from asking some basic questions. You, or your group, will be paying thousands of pounds to rent any property for a single year, plus you will be contractually bound in most cases for at least six months – in other words, stuck with it. Be wary of landlords/agents who can’t give you a bit of time to look round and answer a few basic questions.
Obviously the higher your budget, the higher your expectations should be. Don’t be afraid to try asking for, say, a new carpet to seal the deal – and get any agreements in writing. Landlords operating in areas where gluts of properties clog up the market can be surprisingly co-operative. Empty units are hardly a landlord’s ideal scenario – every empty day costs them money. Besides, remember – this is a business transaction. Be businesslike! Landlords aren’t always looking for people who haven’t a clue what they’re doing. Believe me, rental virgins can be very hard work.
Finally, never feel pressured to make an instant decision.
Beyond that, you can always go away and think about it for a short while. A quick dose of caffeine can often be all it takes to help you decide yes or no.
Feeling that ‘comfort factor’
Make sure that you are comfortable enough with your chosen landlord and be sure you ask who to report serious faults or the ubiquitous ‘lost keys’ to – and preferably get a landline phone number. A good question to ask is how long a serious fault would take to be repaired. Landlords who struggle to answer or who seem put out that you’ve asked should be given a wide berth if possible. And that ‘mobile only’ landlord can be hard to track down when the roof leaks.
Similarly with agents – though you can never be their customer – find an agent who is pleasant to deal with, who responds as promised and doesn’t break their word. These things matter in long business relationships. And again, don’t assume anything. Ask how long major repairs usually take and ask who to call on Christmas Day if the roof leaks. Most decent sized agents have a 24-hour emergency service.