These are challenging times for people living in rented accommodation. Rents are hitting an all-time high as landlords sell up and leave the market and mortgages slip of reach for all but the most well-off.

Around 35.7% of the population currently rent their homes according to the latest research. Of those, 16.6% rent from a housing association or local authority. [source] Which leaves just under 20% of us renting from a private landlord.

While there are undoubtedly many good, responsible private landlords out there, I’m afraid that there are still far too many who fail in their basic obligations to their tenants and are quick to threaten eviction whenever people push back. Sadly, the Renters Reform Bill, which initially proposed strengthening tenant’s rights and banned section 21 (no-fault) evictions hasn’t currently made it through parliament. Though there are proposals to reintroduce this after the election.

I’ve previously written about dealing with landlord disputes for Times Money Mentor. [https://www.thetimes.com/money-mentor/coronavirus-crisis/consumer-rights/tenant-traps-what-to-do-if-you-want-to-complain]. But one of the most common landlord / tenant disputes is worth covering in its own right. That’s the frustration that can arise when attempting to get your deposit back when you move out of a property.

What is a security deposit?

When you move in to a private rental property, you will be asked to pay a tenancy or security deposit. This secures the property for the term of the contract and is designed to give the landlord some security if you cause damage the home or to cover any missed rent payments before you move out.

As any seasoned renter will know, some landlords and letting agents have thoroughly exploited the demand for rental properties in the past by asking for ludicrous amounts of money to secure a property, far beyond the traditional ‘four weeks rent in advance’ that used to be the industry standard.

As a consequence, the rules now say that in almost all sets of circumstances, the landlord cannot charge you more than five weeks rent (six if the annual rent is over £50,000).

That doesn’t mean that some landlords or agents won’t try it on, of course. I’ve heard numerous reports of people being charged more. But because of the demand for homes, they haven’t felt able to ‘rock the boat’.

However, you can (and should) report a landlord or agent that does overcharge. Housing charity, Shelter, has as series of incredibly useful guides on tenants’ rights and how to complain on their website here.

What is the deposit protection scheme?

When you pay your deposit to the landlord or agent, they must put the cash in to a deposit protection scheme. This ‘protects’ your deposit (so the money can’t be spent or lost). The scheme comes in to its own, however, in the eventuality that there’s a problem when you come to claim it back. More on that later.

Your landlord has 30 days from the moment you pay to place the money in a scheme and give you the details about where the money is. The deposit is off-limits for the full duration of your contract, even if your tenancy ‘rolls over’ repeatedly over the years.

The three government authorised schemes are:

When you are notified about which scheme has your deposit, click on the website and take a few minutes to find out about how the scheme works and what happens if there’s a dispute.

Shelter has a guide to compensation if your landlord or agent has not protected your deposit. So all is not lost if there’s a dispute.

What if my landlord refuses to return my deposit?

Prior to the introduction of the deposit protection scheme, getting your full deposit back from a landlord could be a fraught experience. I once spent three months trying to get my cash back after my landlord demanded £700 for specialist cleaning of the (incredibly uncomfortable) seagrass carpet. In the end I got someone to clean it for £40 and refused to leave until the deposit was in my hand.

Depressingly, my experience is far from unique. Because though your deposit is protected, your landlord can still withhold some or all of the money under certain circumstances. These include:

  • Breaking the contract early.
  • Cleaning, redecorating and replacing lost or damaged items.
  • Rent arrears (including bills if part of the contract).
  • Damage to the property.

If you’re in arrears or you’ve bailed on the contract early, then you can expect your landlord to recoup their losses – though only within the scope of the deposit scheme’s rules and what it says on your tenancy.

But damage to the property and redecorating and cleaning costs are by far the most commonly cited sources of unfair landlord disputes. I hear constantly from people who have been informed by their landlord that their deposit is being deducted for trivial, or even non-existent damage. However, you can formally complain about any unfair attempts to hold on to your deposit.

What to do before you move out

Because disputes often only become apparent after you’ve left the property, it’s important to clarify with the landlord or letting agent what they expect from you before you leave the property.

Many part or fully furnished apartments have inventories that are supplied with your contract when you sign up. Take time to tick off everything on the list (don’t worry too much about minor things like cutlery!)

You’ll be expected to leave the property more or less as you found it, so you’ll need to clean – but only to the standard that the property was in when you moved in. Moving home can be stressful, so you might want to arrange to pop back to clean after the official moving date.

Make sure you take pictures of each room from different angles before you leave. Don’t forget to photo things like carpets and curtains, which are often cited in disputes over cleanliness. I’d strongly recommend getting the agent or landlord to visit before you hand over the keys to inspect the property. Ask them to confirm in writing while you are there that the property has been cleaned to a satisfactory level. They can do this by email or by form if you tell them in advance that this is what you’ll be seeking. Make sure you ask them if they have any other concerns that might affect your deposit before you leave.

Some contracts have overly fussy terms in them that are not considered to be fair, like insisting on professional cleaners or gardeners to be contracted at the tenant’s own expense.

Wear and tear… and redecoration fees

Over time, it’s natural that both the fabric of a building and the items within it will wear out or will need redecoration. This is generally the responsibility of the landlord unless they can demonstrate you’ve acted carelessly or caused unnecessary damage. You should not be expected to pay to replace a sofa that was already on its last legs when you moved in.

There are some exceptions. If you’ve painted your bedroom wall vicious pink, then you’ll have to return it to the boring magnolia it was when you moved in. If you’ve burned a hole in a kitchen surface with a hot pan, then it’s likely that the landlord can deduct some cash for repairs because redecoration is necessary for the new tenants.

However, I’ve heard from a number of people who have been billed for the cost of removing mould. Black mould is the responsibility of the landlord though you should report it when it appears so there’s a record of the problem. You may have contract clauses around condensation – but that doesn’t mean mould is your fault. And yes, you can dry clothes in your flat and not lose your rights.

If the landlord is saying that some deductions for redecoration would apply and it’s more or less fair, you can get quote for repairs yourself – rather than using a service favoured by a landlord. This can save you a fortune, but do check with the landlord first so they know what work you’ve agreed to have done. You could ask for the non-disputed part of the deposit to be refunded while the remainder is used to pay for the work.

Making a complaint about a deposit

If the landlord or letting agent wants to deduct some or all of your deposit, it’s vital that they put the reasons in writing. Make a formal complaint, setting out why you don’t think this is fair and ask them to address the points you’ve made in a letter or email. This is where those photographs you took before you left become incredibly useful.

Your deposit protection company should have an ‘alternative dispute resolution’ scheme (ADR). You can find out how to get started with a complaint online, but don’t delay. You’ll usually need to register the complaint within three months of you moving out date. You can be refunded any non-disputed part of the deposit within the standard 10 days and not lose your right to complain about the remainder that’s being disputed.

Make sure you provide evidence supporting your argument, including photographs and documentation from when you moved in and moved out, along with evidence from the landlord. If you’ve reported problems in the past like faulty items in the home, or mould, report that too.

Some landlords can be difficult and may refuse to accept the ADR scheme mediating. You can speak to organisations like Shelter or Citizens Advice if you want some free advice about your options. But failing that, threaten to take the landlord or letting agent to the Small Claims Court. This is much easier than you might think. Here’s my guide on Times Money Mentor.

Advice from Shelter

Despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself in a dispute with a landlord over your deposit. I spoke to Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, for her view on the wider problems with landlords and agents. Polly told me:

“For too long the stark power imbalance in private renting has left tenants at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Under-regulation combined with complicated rules and a lack of enforcement can leave people high and dry, even when the law is technically on their side.   

“With rents rocketing and competition for a limited supply of private rentals at boiling point, many tenants feel powerless to challenge landlords who fail to protect their deposits or carry out repairs. This can leave renters out of pocket or trapped paying over the odds for shoddy homes that pose a real danger to their health.  

“The only way to rebalance the scales is to strengthen tenants’ rights. Whoever collects the keys to No.10 must commit to scrapping all unfair evictions, limiting in-tenancy rent increases, and extending notice periods to make renting safer, secure, and more affordable.”  

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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