Renting during COVID-19: Student tenancy rights and responsibilities

Dan Wren

The Coronavirus pandemic has caused great disruption and uncertainty for landlords and tenants across the country. 

In this week’s blog, we look at the landlord-tenant relationship in the context of students renting and what both parties should take into account. 

 

Before moving in: negotiating and signing a tenancy agreement

For all parties, many of the issues that may come up will come down to the specific wording of the tenancy agreement. Be sure to read the agreements carefully and negotiate any necessary amendments before signing any agreement.

Where student tenants are unsure about whether they’ll be staying in the accommodation for a long period, it’s recommended that student tenants negotiate a break clause into their agreement.

This will allow them to end the tenancy agreement after a set period of time (typically halfway through), to allow greater flexibility to respond to changing circumstances with their university courses. 

Remember that during the negotiation stage, a landlord may refuse to adopt a break clause into the tenancy agreement. If this is the case, it’ll be up to the student tenant to proceed and if they do, they may be liable for the entire duration of the agreement irrespective of changes to their circumstances.

 

When moving in: health and safety

The government has issued guidance for landlords and tenants on the moving in process in order to ensure that steps are taken to reduce the spread of the virus. 

During the moving in process, landlords should: 

  • deep clean the property before allowing new tenants to move in
  • clean keys thoroughly before they are exchanged
  • socially distance themselves from tenants

During the moving in process, student tenants should:

  • be aware that when multiple students enter into the same household, they form their own household and don’t need to socially distance from one another.
  • be aware that in areas with local lockdowns, students are still allowed to move into their accommodation.
  • continue to follow government guidance when allowing visitors entry into their accommodation in accordance with the rule of 6 (in place at the time of writing).
  • be aware that they should socially distance themselves from any visitors including those from their previous household (eg parents or carers).

 

During the tenancy: what if one tenant has symptoms of Coronavirus?

Where one tenant develops one or more of the COVID-19 symptoms, the whole household must self-isolate for 14 days. For up to date advice on the symptoms to look out for, please see the NHS website

Tenants who have symptoms should try to stay in one room with the door closed and avoid using shared facilities as much as possible. If there is more than one bathroom, tenants should designate one bathroom for those with symptoms, and one to those without. 

Surfaces should be wiped clean with a strong household disinfectant regularly and windows left open as much as possible. Tenants could consider wearing facemasks in shared spaces. 

No tenant can be removed from the property on the basis that they are ill. 

Landlords are not obliged to provide alternative accommodation for the other tenants where one has symptoms.

 

During the tenancy: who else can enter the property?

By law, tenants have exclusive possession of the property for the duration of their tenancy. This means that they  have the right to reject anyone else from entering the property – including their landlord. 

This is subject to the terms of the tenancy agreement, which may allow access for viewings, inspections or repairs. Landlords should never forcibly try to access the property, or enter without the tenant’s permission.

During the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that landlords respect the exclusive possession of their tenants, to avoid unnecessary transmission of the virus. 

If the landlord must carry out viewings and has permission to do so, they should respect social distancing, wear facemasks and ensure hand sanitiser is used by all parties entering the property. Viewings should not take place when tenants have symptoms or the household is self-isolating. 

Landlords should continue to carry out repairs and gas safety checks when required, but only with permission from the tenants to access to property. Good communication between the landlord and tenant is essential, as tenants who are self-isolating or shielding should inform the landlord and delay access until the period of isolation ends. Tenants should be made aware of the risks to their health that refusing repairs and gas safety checks could present further down the line. 

 

Ending the tenancy early

Many students are anxious to enter into long tenancy agreements. Tenants should be made aware that if they sign a tenancy agreement for a fixed period of time (eg 12 months), they may have to pay rent for the entire duration of the tenancy, even if they decide not to move in.

The student tenant could invoke a break clause. This can only be triggered if all tenants are willing to end the tenancy. Student tenants are advised to check the notice period required and other requirements to correctly trigger a break clause. This can be found in their tenancy agreement.

Where no break clause exists but a tenant wants to terminate the tenancy early, the departing tenant and/or their guarantor and/or the remaining tenants may be liable for the outstanding rent payments until the end of the tenancy. Even if they’ve moved out.

Student tenants should remember that landlords often rely on rent repayment as sole sources of income and so it may be difficult to request permission from a landlord to waive the remainder of the rent payments where no break clause exists. 

An alternative would be to find a replacement tenant to move into the property and take on the rent obligations of the departing tenant. Typically this arrangement would be prohibited in the tenancy agreement, however, tenants can request that their landlord waives this restriction with written permission. It may be in the landlord’s interest to replace a tenant to ensure easy and on time payment of rent without having to raise a dispute. 

The government has issued the following advice on the matter of rent release: “We encourage landlords, letting agencies and tenants to adopt an understanding, common-sense approach to issues that may arise in the current circumstances.” 

The government has a wide range of financial support, including support for tenants with their rent and landlords with mortgage payments. 

 

Evictions

Many students may find their financial situations have changed as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic, making them temporarily unable to pay rent. To protect them, the government has introduced a 6 month minimum notice period on most evictions, which is expected to remain in place until at least March 2021. This form of eviction requires a Section 21 notice, where the landlord wants to regain possession of their property. The 6 month notice period applies to student tenancies and some licences, but does not apply to lodgers of live-in landlords. 

Only in some special cases can landlords give a shorter notice period before eviction. This includes where the tenant is in rent arrears for more than 6 months or there is evidence of property damage/antisocial behaviour. Where these situations apply, the landlord can serve a Section 8 notice to evict the tenant within 4 weeks. It should be noted that due to the pandemic, there is a much greater delay to tenancy court proceedings than usual, meaning that the eviction process may take longer. 

Instead, landlords could consider a temporary rent reduction or making a Rent repayment plan if their tenants are temporarily unable to pay rent.

 

For more information on Student Tenancies, please find our quick guides on Student Letting in England and Wales, and Student Letting in Scotland on the Rocket Lawyer website. 

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