You’ve cruised the portals, found the perfect property to rent and even passed the referencing stage but your letting agent is asking for one more thing – your signature. You’ll be asked to put pen-to-paper – or finger-to-screen if presented with a digital document – in order to sign a tenancy agreement. In this guide, we explore the basics of a tenancy agreement and what renters should look out for before they sign on the dotted line.
What is a tenancy agreement?
A tenancy agreement is a legally-binding document drawn up by a letting agent or landlord. The agreement sets out the rules of the agreement and the expectations of the tenant when living in the property, such as how much rent should be paid and when, what restrictions are in place, how long the tenancy lasts and the protocol for ending the tenancy. Once a tenancy agreement is signed by both the landlord and the tenant, you’re bound by law to abide by what’s within the agreement.
Are all tenancy agreements the same?
The short answer is no. While the Government recommends all landlords and letting agents use its suggested document, called The Model Tenancy Agreement, this is not a legal requirement. Landlords and letting agents are free to create their own tenancy agreement, and there can be different rules and restrictions in each one. This is why it’s so important for tenants to examine their tenancy agreement in detail before signing.
I should read the small print, right?
Exactly! Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘signing your life away’? It refers to the practice of blindly signing a legal contract, not really knowing what you’re signing up to. We know being presented by a multi-page document, with words in a tiny font and unfamiliar language, is a chore but it’s essential you read every word to fully understand the terms and conditions of your tenancy.
Signing a tenancy agreement may be the first time you have committed to a legal arrangement but this isn’t a time to skip past the small print. Even if you feel hurried into signing the tenancy agreement – perhaps there’s pressure from your agent or you simply want to get moved in – don’t succumb to the temptation of signing without due diligence.
What might trip me up?
The small print can contain some unexpected clauses (these are the rights and obligations each party has under the agreement) and covenants (the things you are prohibited from doing) that may catch you out. It’s not unusual for landlords to use a tenancy agreement to ban tenants from keeping pets or prohibit smoking within the property. Likewise, it’s common to find a clause that states a tenant can’t move in a friend or partner without the landlord’s consent. There may also be a restriction on noise, especially in blocks of flats.
More unexpectedly, there may be covenants covering laundry – some tenants are asked not to dry their wet washing on radiators or even hang their washing out on a balcony. Trampolines, vegetable patches and hot tubs in the garden? They may be off limits. Fixing posters to the wall, putting up shelves and repainting the bathroom? Read the small print to ensure they’re not forbidden.
Will the agreement say if I can end my tenancy early?
Life is unpredictable but signing a legal document can tie you to a property for a set length of time. Although it’s generally the landlord that tailors the agreement, a tenant can also ask for inclusions. If you think you may need to leave the tenancy before the prescribed end – or just want reassurance that you can move out early – you can ask for a break clause to be added. This gives the tenant, or the landlord, the right to end the tenancy before the fixed-term period ends, and is especially useful if the renter is signing up to a tenancy length of more than 12 months.
What happens if I break a rule or restriction that’s in my agreement?
Breaking the rules set out in a tenancy agreement is often referred to as ‘breaching the terms’. Any breach represents a tenants’ failure to uphold their legal obligations and a landlord is within their rights to give notice or not renew the tenancy. In severe cases, the landlord can seek to start the eviction process and try to reclaim costs if a tenant’s breach has resulted in damage.
3 essential tenancy agreement checkpoints
1. Insist on a written tenancy agreement
Although tenancy agreements can be verbal, always ask for a written document so that everyone involved in the let can be held accountable. Written proof is far more reliable should there be dispute during or at the end of the tenancy. If you’re asked to sign the document first, always request a final copy of the agreement so you have proof that the landlord - or the letting acting on their behalf – has also signed. Without two signatures, the agreement could be deemed invalid in the event of a dispute.
2. Be clear on repairs and responsibilities
Who is responsible for general upkeep, repairs and maintenance in a rental property has long been a grey area, even in the court of law. A good tenancy agreement will outline who is expected to test, fix, replace and service when it comes to a rented property – the landlord or the tenant. From major items, such as boilers and white goods, to common niggles, including blocked sinks and blown light bulbs, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification in your tenancy agreement when it comes to responsibilities.
It’s also wise to read your tenancy agreement to see if it’s your obligation as a tenant to notify the landlord as soon as a problem arises – even a delay in reporting a fault could mean you’re in breach of your agreement. If you want some further reading on the matter, the Warren versus Keen judgement in the 1950s is still used as a defining court case when it comes to landlord versus tenant responsibilities.
3. Check the fundamentals before you sign
Before signing a tenancy agreement, you must check that:-
- every tenant involved is listed on the agreement and that their names are spelt correctly
- the address of the property you want to rent is correct
- the type of tenancy is included, such as assured shorthold, fixed-term or periodic
- the start date of the tenancy matches what you agreed with the landlord or letting agent
- the amount of rent verbally agreed is reflected in writing, with details on when it should be paid, to whom, how and if/when the amount may be reviewed
- you’re happy with the duration of the let
- you understand any break clauses and notice periods
- you understand what the rent does or does not include
- you are fully aware of any caveats, clauses and restrictions
Don’t forget, a tenancy agreement is in place to protect tenants as much as it is to protect the interests of the landlord. Ensure you’re happy with what is being asked of you in terms of money, responsibilities and behaviour, and don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation if there are terms and phrases you don’t understand.