Our regular guest blogger Ben Reeve-Lewis tells it like it is.
Different strokes for different folks
Some of you may be familiar with the programme ‘Property Ladder’ from a few years back or the even more popular “House Doctor”. Both programmes involved decorating and preparing property for sale. And you may recall the main thing that both presenters emphasised throughout was to not treat the property as if it was your own home but to prepare it for the people who will be living there.
Usually their advice fell on deaf ears, particularly in House Doctor where people were often angry and emotional about Anne Maurice’s advice to take their personality out of the picture and neutralise it.
My advice to you here is …DO THE SAME WITH YOUR LETTING!
Why do landlords fall into this trap?
For many years my job was to prosecute private landlords for harassment and illegal eviction. Obviously I came across what Housing Minister Grant Shapps refers to as ‘Rogue landlords’, armed with knives and baseball bats intent on reclaiming their property come what may. But, rent arrears aside, by far and away the most common cases of harassment was the result of frustration on behalf of the landlord because the tenant was not using the property in the way the landlord would if it was their home.
This is not a legal problem but a perceptual one. The same one that Sarah Beeny and Anne Maurice encountered in every programme. Why do people do this? I think I know.
Anyone who works in housing will tell you that feelings run very high when it comes to any complaints of people interfering with a person’s home. To every single person a house is more than just bricks and mortar. It represents hopes, dreams, desire for safety and security and a host of other things.
People naturally behave in a protective and territorial way when it comes to their home. An Englishman’s home is his castle and all that. There is a website called ‘Victims of Hedge Abuse’, a gathering place where people living next door to neighbours who grow their Leylandii hedges extremely high can get advice and vent their spleen. On the face of it, it is simply about the offending hedge blocking out light but what drives the frustration and anger is the imposition on the other person’s rights, it becomes a respect issue.
I was once training a group of housing association staff in conflict management and an ex policeman on the course who was new to housing told me that he found dealing with angry tenants far more difficult than cases he worked as a copper because problems in peoples homes were much more deeply felt
Lets get the legal bit out of the way first. As a landlord, when you rent out your property you give up your property rights to it. The person you rent to, now has those. It may be ‘Your’ house but the moment you give them a key it becomes ‘Their’ home and if you go into the house without their permission you will be a trespasser and they can call the police to remove you.
Believe it or not by law a tenant can change the locks to the property and is under no legal obligation to give you a key….this is because, by law, as a tenant, they have ‘Exclusive Occupation’, which means they have the right to exclude anyone they like….including you!
Putting a clause in your contract saying no lock changing will not get you around this legal fact.
Under common law occupiers have the right to use the accommodation in what is termed a ‘Tenant-like Manner’. Now obviously creating neighbour nuisance, selling drugs, digging tunnels in the cellar….(yes really…see “Hackney Mole Man” ) is not tenant-like, but apart from these obvious examples most behaviours should be legally acceptable..
A Common Gripe
I hear so many complaints where someone lets out what used to be the family home and is then crestfallen to see people whose hygiene is not of the landlord’s own standards occupying a home with so many happy memories. Landlords in this situation can become tearful and angry but the fact is people don’t conduct their daily lives to others values.
Now if their hygiene causes environmental health problems it becomes a tenancy breach but generally not otherwise.
There are grounds for evicting tenants where they have let a property deteriorate or have caused vandalism but if your tenant’s behaviour doesn’t constitute that then you probably don’t have a case.
I will keep emphasising this because it is so common – when you rent out a property it is no longer your home.
More Tenant-like manners
Back in the 1990s I had 2 friends living in a shared rented house who were friends with some very famous DJs at the time. Twice every summer they held legendary parties that would take 3 days to prepare for. Industrial sheeting was put down and massive sound systems moved in and on the night the famous DJs would turn up and spin.
If you were the landlord turning up that night you would have been horrified to see your house turned into a dance club, but here’s the switch. Although the house was in a residential street in South London there were never any complaints of noise nuisance, because everyone in the street went to the party. The tenant’s were strict about ensuring that nobody hung around in the front garden so no gate crashers got in and 24 hour hours after the party ended you wouldn’t have known that one had taken place, no burnt carpets or broken fittings, just a normal 3 bedroom residential dwelling, as clean as Barbara Cartlands cushions.
You see having a party in your home is a perfectly tenant-like thing to do. If the noise causes nuisance then it is a tenancy breach but if there are no complaints and the house isn’t damaged where is the legal problem?
For Your Own Sanity
Whether you have 1 property that you let out or 20 don’t treat it as your home. Do what the professional do and accept that it is simply a business investment and that people are going to occupy it and express their lifestyles in any way they choose, because that is their legal right.
You wouldn’t accept a bank or building society with whom you have a mortgage to tell you how you can and can’t live in your home, and the same rule applies to you as a landlord.
I’ll emphasise again, when you let a property out it is no longer your home.
If you can’t separate your emotional attachment to a property then you will have a miserable time of it as a landlord and would probably be much happier doing something else.
When you have an emotional attachment to a property even something as common as rent arrears can feel like a personal insult. In reality it isn’t, it’s just business.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t care. When a tenant moves out and the place is a mess it is extremely annoying and takes a lot of effort to prepare for the next tenant. There are Rogue Landlords out there but there are also loads of Nightmare Tenants. You can have the best references in the world and they will still get through.
The hard fact of the matter is that renting out properties is an investment opportunity and any investment carries with it certain risks. The risk for a landlord is the nightmare tenant, but don’t confuse your tenants everyday behaviour with nightmare behaviour. Distance yourself learn to be philosophical about things……it is so much easier on the blood pressure.
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben was the Tenancy Relations Officer for Lewisham Council for 11 years, prosecuting landlords for harassment and illegal eviction. Now he is a freelance housing law training consultant with a more balanced approach, delivering housing law courses for the Chartered Institute Of Housing, Shelter etc. His aim now is to help the housing world work as a interdependent system that benefits all.