Most people have a nightmare story about a rented property. It might be the flatmate from hell who never tidies, eats all your food and runs off with the kitty. It might be that awful moment when you realise that the ‘up-and-coming’ area you’ve moved to is more ‘down and out’. But for many people, it’s a dispute with a landlord that lingers in the mind.

I’ve had a few rubbish landlords over the years, from privately owned flats to a housing association back when I first left home. So I understand how lost people can feel when trying to sort out a problem with the person you pay your rent to.

However, despite some encouraging improvements in various laws and regulations in recent years, there whole area of landlord/tenant disputes is patchy and riddled with gaps that can leave you out of pocket and sometimes out on the street. And in recent years, I’ve been contacted by a number of landlords who’ve found themselves saddled with tenants who have refused to pay rent and have damaged properties so extensively it’s cost thousands to sort out the mess.

In this feature, part of Time Money Mentor’s cost-of-living crisis specials, I’m going to cover your rights if you’re privately renting.

What to do if you have a problem with a private landlord

One of the most frustrating things about renting privately is your rights depend on the kind of contract you have. Your contract – or tenancy agreement to be precise – should cover your obligations and your landlord’s obligations to you. So your first course of action is to dust off your agreement and see what it says about your rights and what you can expect from your landlord.

There are a bewildering range of contracts, depending on what year you moved in to the property, if your tenancy is renewed as a new contract each year and many other factors. However, in very general terms, there are two main types:

Assured shorthold tenancy (AST)

This is the most common form of tenancy agreement in the UK and contracts tend to be fixed term (six or twelve months, for example) or periodic (the agreement ‘rolls over’, monthly or yearly). You may have a break clause allowing you to leave your contract early. The downside about these contracts is the landlord can evict you without having to give a reason. But – and it’s a big but – they must follow very specific procedures to do this. Shelter has a great guide to these contracts and the eviction rules here. The landlord is responsible for the majority of major repairs to your home.

Assured or protected tenancy

These tenancies provide more security to the tenant, which is why there are fewer of them about these days. The key factor is you’re more likely to be paying a ‘fair rent’ which is usually lower than the market value. With most forms of these tenancies, you can only be evicted if the landlord obtains a court order. As with ASTs, the landlord is responsible for most of the repairs to your home, though you may have more generous provisions for this.

Other tenancies

Things start to get complicated if you have a different type of tenancy, live with a landlord, only have an informal agreement or are a lodger. Getting in to the nitty gritty of these varied agreements is enormously complicated, but suffice it to say that you should have something in writing (if not – get it in writing) that can serve as the basis to resolve any disputes that arise.

What can go wrong?

By far the biggest issue that I’m asked about is the one with the hardest answer. Can my landlord evict me if I complain too much? This is also known as a ‘revenge eviction’. You are most at risk of this if you have an assured shorthold tenancy, though in theory, it could occur with other, more consumer-focused agreements.

As you’ll see in our definitive guide to renting and your rights, under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, private landlords have been able to evict tenants with just two months’ notice without having to give a reason. The reality of the matter is this process can be prolonged and many rules must be followed. But it’s the single biggest reason why people don’t pursue legitimate complaints against their landlord. Sadly, legislation is the only solution to this problem, but you can still stand up for your rights without necessarily creating waves.

How to make a complaint about a landlord

Tackling problems with your landlord can be a delicate dance. But making sure you keep the relationship positive can take some of the concern away from making a complaint.

It makes sense to send regular ‘updates’ if you spot something wrong with the property, even if it’s not that serious, under the guise of ‘letting the landlord know’. Ultimately, the landlord should not want any damage to their property to go undisclosed – and have the option to step in and carry out repairs before minor issues become structural problems. This is particularly important if you live in flats or a building with shared walls or infrastructure. Failure to correct a problem with your property could result in a very expensive bill for damage to other tenants or owner-occupiers.

The law makes it clear that you home must be ‘fit for purpose’ though that phrase is very much up for interpretation. So you may have black mould in your bathroom, but if you can control it with a spray it may not fall within the definition of ‘hazardous’. Because of this ambiguity, it makes it hard to give definitive examples of what is and isn’t acceptable. But as a general rule, if there’s a tangable risk from anything from infestations to exposed wiring, you should be able to make a complaint.

Take lots of pictures of any problems that emerge with your property and keep them saved and timecoded in an online folder or on your phone. Just like those landlord notifications I mentioned, evidence of ongoing problems can be very helpful in persuading a reluctant landlord to act. After all, if you can prove that a landlord has failed to carry out their basic obligations, then that can result in warnings, fines and even legal action from your local council.

Ultimately though, if you’re not making any progress, you will need to make a formal complaint. Landlord disputes that you can usually take further include:

  • Harassment, abuse and illegally entering your home
  • Refusal to carry our repairs as guaranteed in the contract
  • Discrimination
  • Health and environmental risks

The key factor to remember is the landlord is not allowed to evict you just because you made a complaint. However, often this is the pretext for doing so, which is tricky to prove. That’s why it pays to keep things civil and in writing, so you can prove that you’ve been reasonable. In worst case scenario, you can use this evidence to ensure that the landlord is warned or prevented from putting future tenants through the same problems (though that’s a cold comfort if you have to move). Remember to spell out what it is you’d like the landlord to do in order to rectify the problem.

It’s a good idea to see if you can get a third party to mediate on your behalf. This could include an organisation like Citizens Advice, who have loads of great advice on their website. Housing charity Shelter also has a range of services available to help people find out more about their rights and services available. You can also contact your local council’s Environmental Health Officer to seek advice or take the complaint further. If your landlord isn’t playing ball, they can issue formal warnings requiring them to take action. Finally, if your landlord has misled you then you can report them to your local Trading Standards Officer.

If none of this works, then it’s time to make a pragmatic decision. If you think things might get nasty, you can still make a complaint after you’ve left a property, including shopping them to the council. You may want to consider legal action if the situation has become untenable. But this can be pricy so get some introductory legal advice before going down this avenue, ideally before you’ve moved out, in case you need to gather some evidence to support your case.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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