Top Tips for Tenants

Fight the fees

Anyone can set themselves up as a letting agent, and most of us have heard horror stories about tenants suffering at the hands of dodgy or incompetent agents, and being hit with demands for exorbitant fees for spurious "services".

So many will continue to be charged for things such as checking references, credit checks, providing an inventory, handing over keys, phone calls and postage. Also watch out for tenancy renewal fees and late payment fees.

Always get clear information about a letting agent's fees. You will always be asked to hand over a deposit (usually a month's rent – sometimes more) and the first month's rent in advance before you move in. Don't pay a fee to register with an agency or for a list of properties - it's a criminal offence to charge for those.

Don't ignore the small print

Make sure you're clear about what kind of tenancy agreement you're signing. If all the people living in the property sign one agreement with the landlord when you move in, that's a joint tenancy. If each of you signs a separate one, you have separate tenancies.

Check the agreement includes all the relevant information, such as what the rent covers (does it include bills?), whether you can leave before the end of the tenancy and how much notice you have to give and any rules on things like pets, guests and smoking.

If you have a joint tenancy, all the tenants have exactly the same rights. You are all equally responsible for paying the rent and keeping to the terms of your agreement. If one tenant is not paying the rent or causing other problems, you could end up having to pay her/his share or any other costs. Your landlord may be entitled to keep the deposit if there is any rent owing or damage to the property at the end of the tenancy – even if it's not your fault.

Check how your deposit will be protected

Since 2007, private landlords and letting agents in England and Wales have had to use a government-approved tenancy deposit protection scheme to safeguard peoples cash. Your landlord should protect your deposit in one of the schemes within 30 days of the start of your tenancy, and must give you details of which one they are using.

In England and Wales, the three schemes are the deposit protection service, my deposits and the tenancy deposit scheme. Each offers a dispute resolution service which landlords and tenants can use to sort out disagreements about deposits.

Help from mum and dad?

Parker Stag may ask you to provide a "guarantor" – usually mum or dad – who will cover costs if the rent isn't paid or the house is trashed. The crucial thing for parents to know is that if it's a joint tenancy, with a single agreement, any guarantor will also be jointly liable for overdue rent or damage caused by the other tenants.

Make sure the inventory is accurate

The inventory is a list of everything that's provided with the property, including furniture, carpets, curtains, appliances, crockery and cutlery. It should also record the condition everything is in – for example, existing damage or wear, such as an old stain on the carpet.

Always make sure you are provided with an inventory – ask for one if necessary. Parker Stag will carry out a detailed and photographic inventory on the property.

Remember the bills

Don't forget to factor in costs on top of the rent, such as utility bills, TV licence and internet access costs. Remember that full-time students are usually exempt from paying council tax.

Watch out for any funny business with utility bills. Recently, research from comparison website uSwitch.com showed that some landlords and letting agents are breaking the law by issuing contracts preventing tenants from switching energy supplier to get a cheaper deal. A rental contract can stipulate that tenants ask a landlord before switching energy supplier, but it can't refuse permission to switch.

Some letting agents have struck deals with energy companies where the agent is paid commission if tenants use the firm's services. As a tenant, would you be happy knowing the letting agent was pocketing commission generated from your phone or electricity bills? Parker Stag will not enter into any such relationships.

Housemate troubles

If things get really bad, can you force someone to leave? Citizens Advice says that if you're all joint tenants, you usually have equal rights to remain in the property and one of you can't be forced to move out.

In a flatshare, you usually all share responsibility for the rent, it adds. If one person doesn't pay and it's a joint tenancy, you have joint liability and will have to cover their share and then try to get it back from them.

Meanwhile, if it's your name on the gas or electricity bill and the others won't pay, you will usually have to pay it and then pursue them for the money.

Keep good records

This could be vital if there's a dispute when you eventually come to move out. Useful items might include photos taken when you moved in (ideally, dated and labelled), receipts for any items you've replaced, correspondence about repairs and copies of bills.

When it's time to leave...

At the end of the tenancy you should get your deposit back WITHIN 10 days if you and your landlord agree the amount, says Citizens Advice. Your landlord can't keep your deposit because of "general wear and tear", adds Shelter."For example, if the carpet gets a bit worn out, it's probably wear and tear, but if you burn a hole in it, it's damage.

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