A Cautionary Tale
Now here’s an abject lesson in what happens when two perfectly decent parties try to enter into a landlord tenant relationship in a casual manner, thinking that this is all it takes and that if it doesn’t work out….well, so be it.
In 2012 Jane and Alistair (not real names but a case I have been dealing with this week) rent a 3 bedroom house from Susan.
It’s a joint tenancy for the whole property for two families, the other parties being Steve and Bonnie. All being good mates, Steve and Bonnie pay the deposit, while Jane and Alistair pay the rent in advance.
At the end of the 12-month tenancy, Steve and Bonnie emigrate to Canada.
Susan issues a new tenancy agreement for Jane and Alistair with 3 other individuals for a further 12 months. All parties can meet the full rent.
At the end of each 12 month period, a new joint tenancy is issued with Jane and Alistair named and different single tenants making up the full household.
By 2017 its become clear that Jane and Alistair are the regulars and so Susan, with Jane and Alistair’s approval, issues a joint tenancy agreement to them alone, on the basis that they will bring in whatever lodgers they need to meet the full rent.
Susan is a common visitor to the property and is friendly with Jane and Alistair but during these visits, Susan becomes displeased with Jane and Alistair’s housemates.
Arguments ensue and Jane tells the housemates that they have to leave, which they do, leaving Jane and Alistair unable to meet the full rent because Susan told the lodgers to leave.
With the lodgers gone and with a bit of bad feeling entering the relationship between landlord and tenant, Jane and Alistair wonder where they stand over getting new lodgers to replace but without them, they run into rent arrears.
Now Susan has begun possessions proceedings against Jane and Alistair who try to shore up their initial position by calling on the deposit to cover missing money, but Susan said she returned the deposit to Steve and Bonnie when they left for Canada.
There are still 7 months left on the current contract.
If Jane and Alistair leave early, then Susan is entitled to pursue them for the remaining rent on the contract, however if she tries to pursue the couple for rent arrears there is a good chance for a defence on the basis that the arrears came into being because Susan got rid of the other occupants who were contributing to the rent, even though she had no legal power to do so, effectively contributing to the cause of the rent arrears and unaffordability of the accommodation.
Could Susan intervene in the arrangement between Jane and Alistair and their lodgers?
No, of course not, but did Susan, Alistair and indeed the lodgers who left know that Susan had no powers in respect of this?
No, they didn’t. Everything was done on a nod and a wink, a common sense arrangement. None of which bears any relevance to landlord and tenant law.
Now everyone is pissed off with each other and are digging their heels in over perceived slights and wanting to fight their corner as the equally outraged party.
I’m not even going to bother explaining the various legal arguments here. In reality, there are even more complications with immigration law and homelessness regulations that turn this situation into a veritable knotted ball of string that needs unpicking.
The point of my piece is to highlight that none of the people involved in this fiasco ever thought it would come to this.
Jane and Alistair wanted somewhere to live. Susan provided it.
How hard can it be?
Arrangements with each subsequent tenancy since 2012 was always very casual and haphazard. People came and went. Tipex was liberally used and everyone just got on with their stuff. Susan got the rent, the residents got somewhere to live for six years.
Landlord and tenant law didn’t even come into it…..until the problems started.
Susan had a personal beef with people she had no contractual relationship with and as a result, they moved out, not knowing that she had no power over them and that they could have retained their home.
Jane and Alistair, operating under the similar misunderstanding that property ownership is all, allowed the situation to go ahead.
The details of this case are routine but the point I am emphasising is that despite there being nearly 100 years of modern legislation on landlord and tenant law neither landlords nor tenants know much about it.
People still continue to tap the side of their nose, shake hands like a Gypsy horse trader and embark on what all parties think of as a supply/demand simplicity, until it goes wrong, as here when the parties suddenly discover that 90% of landlord and tenant activities are about legal processes, not convenience.
Neither side in my case are villains
They just fell into the trap of thinking that what they were doing had no legal consequence and that if it all went south everyone would just shrug, shake hands and leave the field like gentlemen.
Now Jane, Alistair and Susan, should they dig their heels in and decided to fight to the death, will have a very expensive lesson ahead of them, regardless of who wins, not to mention the stress levels and psychic scars they will endure as both sides feel that justice has not served them.
Ignorance of the law
The problem for Jane, Alistair and Susan is not the law, the problem is their ignorance of the law.
It isn’t necessary to become a housing lawyer to be a landlord or tenant but it is necessary that landlords and tenants know the basics of their obligations and liabilities.
Overriding much of this particular case is the erroneous notion that everyone bought into, including the lodgers, that property ownership trumps all occupancy rights. It doesn’t.
I’ve had three decades of watching the same mad scenario play out like a badly written comedy sketch on repeat, where you know exactly what the punchline is going to be.
Both parties will hate each other, if it goes to court the argument will get messy over the rent arrears and the eviction of the lodgers, probably no matter what the judge decides nobody will feel they won.
Susan will forever feel ‘Once bitten twice shy’ in her approach to tenants and Jane and Alistair might find it difficult to find somewhere else to rent if Susan is unwilling to provide a decent reference and all parties will form the view that the law is always on the other person’s side.
All because so many landlords and tenants think that renting begins and ends with keys for money.