Hooray! You’ve found a place to rent! Well done you, but you’ve been asked to hand over a full month’s rent plus a big deposit before you move in and suddenly you’re suspicious. How do you know that the landlord or their agent is legit, that they’re not going to scarper with your cash?
Truth is, you don’t, not until you get the keys, so I’d suggest you don’t pay more than a holding deposit until you’re about to move in. If you’re asked to pay a large sum to secure the property, the landlord might be iffy — my advice is to find somewhere else.
Most landlords will require the first month’s rent plus a deposit — usually the equivalent of six weeks’ rent — when you move in, so if you’re paying by cheque or bank transfer you’ll have to do so a few days beforehand to make sure the funds clear in time. To avoid this, my tenants often prefer to hand over cash when I hand them the keys, which is fine by me.
Certainly I’d urge you not to pay anything until you’ve seen the tenancy agreement and made sure you agree to the terms and conditions.
You’re likely to be offered an assured shorthold tenancy (AST for short), which gives you the right to live in the property for at least six months (although most run for 12 to 18 months). You may be offered an assured tenancy, which allows you to stay indefinitely, but these are less common.
There’s no standard AST for lettings; some are just a few pages, some go into minute detail about the landlord’s and tenant’s obligations, who pays for what, who’s responsible for the cleaning, that sort of thing.
Whatever their length, they should always include the dates of the tenancy, the rent and when and how it is to be paid, the size of the deposit, where it will be held and how it will be refunded at the end of the tenancy.
I have handed my new tenants a contract held together with a sparkly hairgrip, but it doesn’t matter how it’s presented as long as it’s balanced and fair to all parties. If there’s something you don’t agree with in the contract, ask for it to be changed before you sign it.
If the contract is for a year or more, but you’d like the option to move out earlier, it’s worth asking for a break clause. Remember, though, this will work both ways so the landlord could use it to turf you out after six months.
One thing to be aware of if you’re renting with others is that the tenancy agreement may make you jointly liable for the rent and any damages, so if your housemates move out early, skip their rent or trash the place, you might have to cough up the lot.
If your contract includes such a clause, make sure you can trust those you plan to live with.
When you move in, you’ll probably be given an inventory of the property’s contents. If so, check it straight away, not in two weeks, and let the landlord know immediately of any discrepancies. If you don’t, you can’t complain later that something was missing/broken/dirty.
If the landlord doesn’t provide an inventory, that’s their lookout. They can’t accuse you of breaking/stealing anything if there’s no proof it was there, intact, in the first place.
One final thing. You should receive written notification of where your deposit is held within 30 days of payment. If you don’t, ask the landlord. Further information on renting is available from www.direct.gov.uk.
* Victoria Whitlock lets three properties in south London