Stephanie Robinson answers all your rental questions

Stephanie Robinson (Rob Cooke's replacement as Rented page legal columnist)
Stephanie Robinson (Rob Cooke's replacement as Rented page legal columnist)

Are repairs really necessary and how much notice should tenants give when they want to leave? This month, Stephanie Robinson provides landlords with the basics for tackling these tricky issues...

My tenant has alleged that his property is in a state of disrepair. How should I respond?

As we have touched on previously, landlords have an implied duty to keep their properties in a good and habitable state of repair.

Often, you are dependent on the tenant to notify you when repairs are needed, but if you are asked to fix something and you ignore this request, your tenant may be entitled to compensation for the period he has lived with the disrepair.

So are you risking potentially costly legal proceedings in the period before the work is carried out? The answer is hopefully no, thanks to the Pre-Action Protocol for Housing Disrepair Cases, which lists a predetermined set of rules that both the tenant and landlord have to follow before embarking on court action.

The protocol aims to avoid unnecessary litigation, promote speedy repairs (that are the landlord’s responsibility) and encourage the early exchange of information, to keep the costs of resolving a dispute to a minimum.

Firstly, your tenant should send a letter of claim to you, containing specific information that will enable you to indentify and understand the problems. This should comprise the tenant’s name and address, details and history of the defects including efforts to rectify them, information about any previous attempts to notify you and the claims or losses they have suffered.

The protocol stipulates that you must respond to this letter within 20 days, addressing the points raised by the tenant. This is your opportunity to agree to the works if you accept they are required and decide if the tenant is entitled to damages. If there is a dispute or disagreement, then the rules suggest an expert should be appointed to look at the issues.

Knowledge of the protocol is essential for landlords facing this type of claim, as failure to follow the procedure can mean you will be penalised by a court by way of a costs order.

My tenant has just informed me that he wants to leave and has asked for a refund on rent paid in advance. What notice does he have to give and can I hold on to the rent?

As usual, the answer to this question depends on the type of tenancy you have.

If you have granted an assured shorthold tenancy, which is usually for six or 12 months and you are still within this initial period, then strictly speaking, he can only leave if the contract contains a ‘break clause’ and only then if the terms of this clause are followed.

If the tenant wants to leave during the initial shorthold agreement, there is no real notice period and he is liable for the rent for the remaining term. Obviously, this doesn’t usually happen in practice. It is more likely that the landlord will make informal arrangements with the tenant, for example, he could accept responsibility for the rent until a replacement tenant is found. Alternatively, it may be agreed that the landlord keeps any bond paid earlier as compensation.

The situation is, however, different if you are dealing with an assured tenant or he has become a periodic assured tenant because a shorthold agreement has expired. In this case, the tenant can determine the end of the agreement by serving a Notice to Quit, which must be given in writing at least 28 days before he wants to leave.

If your tenant pays his rent one month in advance, you will not have to return any pre-paid rent, although you will have to return his bond on termination of the tenancy, after a satisfactory inspection of the property.

An interesting point develops here – a landlord has more control over notice periods if the tenant has an assured shorthold tenancy. Therefore, when the initial contract is close to expiry, you may wish to invite your tenant to enter into a further shorthold agreement.

Stephanie Robinson is a solicitor specialising in property and commercial litigation at Sheffield’s Taylor&Emmet LLP. Telephone 0114 218 4000 or visit www.tayloremmet.co.uk and www.landlorddisputes.co.uk.