The accidental landlord: why a deposit and a written tenancy agreement are cruicial if tenants leave without giving proper notice

How to make sure that tenants who quit without giving proper notice are still responsible for paying rent and bills...

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Out of the blue, I received an email from a tenant to say that she was moving out of her room at the end of the week. Just like that. No proper notice, no explanation, just: “I’m off.”

She’s not the first of my tenants to just get up and go. Most give me at least a month’s notice but there is always one who doesn’t realise that the lease they have signed is a legally binding contract.

I fired back an email telling her she could leave whenever she liked but she had signed a 12-month lease which could only be broken with one month’s notice. She would have to pay her rent until the end of the notice period, plus her share of the council tax and utility bills.

Silly girl, if she had told me earlier that she was planning to leave I would have tried to re-let her room, which would have saved her hundreds of pounds. As she didn’t, she will have to pay for a room that will be empty for a month, plus almost £150 in council tax and energy bills.

“Fine, I’ll pay,” she replied. But thankfully, just in case she doesn’t, I have taken a six-week deposit.

I also gave myself a little pat on the back for issuing her with a written tenancy agreement. I don’t always bother with formal tenancy agreements when letting individual rooms, but landlords who don’t have written tenancy agreements can sometimes get stung for tenants’ unpaid bills.

Some London councils chase landlords for their tenants’ unpaid council tax unless they can produce a valid tenancy agreement showing not only who lived in the property and when, but also that they were responsible for the bills.

I’ve also heard of utility companies trying to force landlords to clear tenants’ debts, but as long as the landlord has given them the tenant’s details and meter readings both at the start and the end of the tenancy, they aren’t liable. A friend who found out that her former tenant owed hundreds of pounds in energy bills was considering using the tenant’s deposit to pay it off, but this isn’t recommended.

The bill might have been sent in error, that sort of thing happens all the time, or her tenant might have been disputing the amount. If my friend had paid the bill, she might have ended up having to refund her tenant.

However, she was worried that if the tenant had in fact left the property with a large debt, it would affect her own credit rating if she eventually moves back into the house herself.

I have looked into this scenario and I have been assured that it’s a myth that occupants of a property can be affected by a former tenant’s debts. That might once have been the case, but these days, debts are assigned to a person, not a property.

It is quite possible that the energy company will bombard the new occupant with letters addressed to the former tenant — which, while it would be irritating, would not be the end of the world.

The answer if this should happen is for the landlord simply to mark the envelopes “Return to Sender” and pop them back in  the post.

And if the bailiffs come round to try to recover the debt, showing them some ID should send them on their way. Hopefully my former tenant will pay her rent and clear all of her bills in full, but if she doesn’t, at least I have got a deposit and a written agreement which clears me of liability.

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