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028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Myths on renting privately in Northern Ireland

Autumn is always a boom time for the private rented sector in Northern Ireland, often fuelled by the numbers of new students moving to university towns, like Belfast and Coleraine.  There are a number of myths out there that people might have heard about renting privately in Northern Ireland.   Here are some of the most common misconceptions.

MYTH 1: It’s the landlord’s house, so they can do as they please

A tenant who hasn’t rented before may not be aware that all private tenancies have an implied covenant of peaceful enjoyment.  This means that the property is the tenant’s home and no one should enter it, unless the tenant has given that person permission.

Of course, tenants need to be reasonable when dealing with a landlord’s request to enter a property to carry out repairs or an inspection, but the landlord must give at least 24 hours’ notice of any visits.  The landlord can only enter without giving the proper notice if there’s a genuine emergency, like a gas or water leak.

We’ve heard of landlords insisting that tenants store the landlord’s property in their home or that tenants allow the landlord’s family members to stay over in the property.  You don’t have to agree to any of this.  A tenant’s rental property is their home, not their landlord’s.

MYTH 2: Tenants can withhold rent if the landlord won’t do repairs

A tenant must pay rent until the tenancy ends, even if they feel that the landlord isn’t carrying out repairs. 

There are steps that tenants can take to try to deal with a landlord that won’t do repairs, but withholding rent is a massive risk.  A tenant can be evicted for not paying rent.

Any tenant considering using their rent to cover the cost of repairs in their home should follow a very specific procedure, outlined on our website.  Even then, there’s still a risk that the landlord could evict the tenant.

MYTH 3: Perfect tenants can’t be evicted

Most landlords love a responsible tenant and will try to keep that tenant for as long as possible.  However, any tenant without a current tenancy agreement is a periodic tenant.  And, landlords don’t need any reason to evict periodic tenants.  The landlord simply has to follow the correct legal process to end this type of tenancy. 

Although the landlord will still have to go to court to evict the tenant, the judge at court can’t allow your client to stay on in the property unless there’s a current tenancy agreement.  Any tenant who loves their rented home should ask their landlord for a new tenancy agreement.

MYTH 4: The tenancy agreement is void if the landlord doesn’t do repairs

A tenancy agreement is a legal contract like any other.  The landlord is agreeing to provide a service to the tenant, who is agreeing to pay for it. Tenants often contact us assuming that they can get out of the contract if the landlord has failed to carry out repairs.  But, it isn’t as simple as that.

It can be quite difficult to show that a landlord is in material breach of a tenancy agreement.  You need to gather your evidence and you need to be able to prove to a court that the tenant gave the landlord sufficient notice of any problems in the property and allowed a reasonable amount of time for these problems to be sorted out.  If your client is considering leaving a tenancy early, make sure you advise them of the associated risks.  The landlord may sue the tenant for unpaid rent and this could be a very costly exercise.

MYTH 5:  Rental properties are unfit for habitation

We get lots of complaints about properties being unfit and in a bad state of repair.  Many of these properties may be in a really bad condition, but they can still meet the legal standard for fitness.

The minimum fitness standards for properties in NI are pretty low.  While the council may be able to help if the condition of the property is seriously interfering with your tenant’s comfort, its powers are limited. 

For this reason, it’s vitally important that tenants have a really detailed look around a property during a viewing.  They should look for any signs of disrepair, damp or damage.  If a tenant spots something, get the agent or landlord to explain in writing what actions they will take to fix this problem. 

Repairs and replacements promised to potential tenants during a viewing don’t always materialise once the tenancy agreement has been signed.  And, once the agreement’s been signed, it’s difficult to get out of, as we’ve seen above. Get any promises in writing. This gives you a much better chance of cancelling the agreement if the agent or landlord doesn't follow through on any commitments.

MYTH 6: A landlord can “throw” a tenant out if they’ve broken the agreement or haven’t paid rent

Nobody, other than a court officer from the Enforcement of Judgements Office can physically remove a tenant or a tenant’s possessions from a rental property. 

If a landlord wants to evict a tenant, there are certain steps that must be followed.  It doesn’t matter how much rent a tenant might owe, the landlord must follow the correct legal process.   This means serving Notice to Quit and then applying to court for a Possession Order. 

If a landlord tries to evict you, to change the locks or to remove your possessions without this court order, he or she is carrying out an illegal eviction. Call the local council, not the police.  It’s the council’s responsibility to deal with illegal evictions.  The Police may not be aware that the landlord is acting illegally.

MYTH 7: Tenants can use their deposit to cover the last month’s rent

Tenants should pay the rent for the last month of their tenancy in exactly the same way as any other month.  At the end of the tenancy, the landlord should return the deposit, minus any deductions for rent owed or damage caused by the tenant. 

If a tenant suspects that their landlord is going to keep their deposit and feels that this is unfair, they need to get advice before the tenancy ends.  The tenant should check that the deposit has been protected and, if it hasn’t, they need to make sure that they’ve got the landlord’s address in case the matter ends up at Small Claims Court.

MYTH 8: Tenants get their rent in advance back

We get a lot of questions about this from tenants who’ve been claiming housing benefit but paid their first month’s rent in advance.

Sometimes, a landlord may receive more rent for the year than he or she was entitled to.  This generally happens where a tenant has been in receipt of housing benefit, and has also been paying a shortfall in cash.  

Say, your client’s rent is £500 per month and this was paid on the 1 June 2013.  Housing benefit of £440 is paid to the landlord every 4 weeks, starting on the 28th June 2013 and your client pays a top up of £60 on the 1st of each month to make up the difference.  If the tenant moves out on 30 June 2014, she should have paid a total of £6000.  But, if you add up her rent in advance, her 11 shortfall payments and her 13 payments of housing benefit she has actually paid £6880.  In this case, the landlord owes her £880 as well as her deposit.

Tallying up rent, which is due in advance, and housing benefit, which is paid in arrears, can be a minefield.  Tenants on housing benefit need to keep a careful track of what is being paid on their behalf and what they’re paying on top of this each month.  Encourage your clients to get receipts for all cash payments, if they don’t have a rent book and to keep their housing benefit statements.

More information

Any clients with questions about private tenancies can get online help at our website.

If you found this article useful, check out Myths about Social Housing in NI.

Tagged In

Private Tenancies, Practical tips
This article was written on 22 August 2014. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.