The accidental landlord: don't sign up to a noisy nightmare

Victoria Whitlock discovers why contracts should be considered carefully to protect tenants and landlords when it comes to tenancy length
A colleague has told me a story of how he and his family are trapped in their hellishly noisy flat because the landlord is threatening them with a hefty financial penalty if they break the 12-month contract they signed only a few weeks ago.

As soon as my colleague moved into the flat with his wife and toddler, he discovered they were living above a bunch of rowdy lads. Every night, just as they've finally got their little one off to sleep, the guys downstairs start to party.

The landlord also owns the flat below, but he hasn't been able to get the lads to pipe down. My colleague can't stand the noise any more — he and his wife aren't getting any sleep — so they want to get out of there as soon as possible.

The guy I work with is nice, and he's offered to help the landlord to find new tenants by showing people round himself. However, the landlord has refused to re-market the flat and he insists that if the family leave before the end of their contract they'll have to re-pay the commission he paid the letting agent for the full 12 months.

Quite honestly, I think this landlord is being a bit of a jerk. He ought to have agreed with the agent before letting the property that if the tenancy ended early for any reason they would refund any commission paid in advance, or at least waive any commission charges for re-letting the property. All reputable agents agree to one or the other.

The landlord is right to point out to my colleague that he signed a contract that makes him liable for the rent for a full year, but the landlord should try to mitigate the family's losses by trying his best to re-let the property. I don't think it would be unreasonable of the landlord to expect my colleague to cover his additional costs, such as referencing a new tenant and organising an inventory and check-in report. After all, if the boot was on the other foot and the landlord wanted to repossess the property, he wouldn't be able to kick out the tenant.

However, my colleague is worried the landlord won't even try to re-let the property and will keep his entire deposit instead. Fortunately for him, tenants have a legal right to challenge any deductions from their deposit and if the adjudicators think a landlord has been unreasonable, they'll order him to give the money back.

To avoid this kind of struggle between landlord and tenant, I'd advise both parties to insist on a six-month break clause at the start of all new tenancies. Then, if either party is unhappy with the arrangement, they don't have to wait too long to get out of it.

With such a shortage of quality accommodation in London, I can understand why tenants might be keen to secure longer contracts. I recently had a young woman who asked me for a three-year tenancy agreement. The letting agent was keen, I wasn't. I didn't want to commit to such a long let to someone I didn't know and, tempting as it is to lock a tenant into a long tenancy, I would urge other landlords to think twice before doing so.

If both parties do want a long-term agreement, here's what I suggest. Start off with a one-year contract with a break clause after six months, but offer to insert a clause in the tenancy agreement stating the tenant has the option to renew for a further 12 months at no more than an inflationary increase in rent. That way, everyone's happy.

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