Last year, I ran into financial difficulty. The landlord served me a Section 21 and I left in August of 2019. I think I was about two months in arrears. The damage deposit held was around six weeks, which, all in, was about £3,000. The letting agent emailed me a week after checkout, saying the landlord wanted £5,000 in rent arrears, plus a cleaning fee, which could be deducted in part from the deposit.
I didn’t hear back with any firm figures, and I didn’t follow up. I just assumed they would have deducted unpaid rent from the deposit, but honestly I was unable to look or think about this because it was so stressful. I just left on the date that was on the S21 notice and didn’t check my emails afterwards, as my priority was making sure that my business didn’t go under.
I want to find out what happened, but wonder if they might chase me for any outstanding unpaid rent – are they in their rights to do that? I’m only just getting back on my feet now. I fear this is something a few people might start experiencing, given everything that’s going on.
At least 230,000 people are now behind on their rent because of the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment is rising and the benefits system is creaking. The government doesn’t yet have a plan for the COVID-related rent debt people are raking up. And so, sadly, reading about your situation is likely to make other people’s stomachs lurch because they, too, owe a landlord somewhere some money.
You probably already know that a landlord can make deductions from your deposit to cover rent arrears but if you don’t, this is important information. They can also charge you for cleaning costs if they’re required to “restore the property to its original condition”. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.
Andy Parnell is one of the charity Shelter’s housing advisors. He notes that “the costs for any cleaning should be reasonable, and they should be able to provide receipts for the work carried out”, so you should have been sent these. However, he adds that “given the amounts of money involved in your situation, it’s unlikely that you’re entitled to any money back”.
As for whether you owe your former landlord anything: in theory, yes. Tenants have a legal obligation to pay back rent arrears, even when they moved out some time ago. The only circumstances in which this would not be the case, Andy explains, are when the tenant “has agreed with the landlord that the debt will be written off”.
“But,” he adds, “if you’ve not heard from them for the last year, I can understand that it’s probably difficult to decide whether to contact the landlord or agent in case they’re reminded of what you owe.”
Your ex-landlord still exists, whether you email or not. And, as Andy warns, “they may decide to pursue you anyway, as the terms of your agreement can still be enforced later. In fact, you can be pursued for any money you owe for six years, and the landlord could apply to make a money claim against you. They could even obtain an order against you, without you knowing. If they don’t have your forwarding address, you may never have received their letters or correspondence from the court.”
He adds: “If you left plenty of forwarding information with the landlord or agent and they haven’t tried to contact you for some time, it’s possible that they’ve decided not to pursue the debt. The problem is you won’t know this unless you get in touch with them. So it’s a good idea to seek specialist debt advice so you can talk through the implications of having arrears, and what to expect if the landlord does pursue you.”
This is no joke. If a money claim results in a court order against you and you don’t pay the money you owe within a certain amount of time, this may result in a CCJ (County Court Judgement). CCJs usually affect your credit rating and can count against you for up to six years.
There’s some really good free advice out there, please use it. National Debtline is one place you could turn, The Debt Advice Foundation is another. After that, do what you need to do to rest easy. But, I’d say, the fact you’ve written to me about this suggests you already know what needs to happen now. Ignoring this – putting the bills under the metaphorical floorboard – won’t make it go away.
What should I do about the fact that my landlord has thrown away my letters just days after I moved out? When we moved, our neighbour asked if we wanted him to keep our post, as he saw medical letters from my labour ward had arrived for me. When I said yes, he said that the post had actually disappeared from the shared hallway. I contacted my landlord, as I thought he might have kindly taken the letters himself, as I gave him a forwarding address. He never replied. I felt bad and a bit violated, as the letters from the NHS – especially the labour ward – were so important to me. Is there anything I can do?
Oh, cool. Very cool. People shock me, constantly. Most (but not all) of them are landlords. Who behaves like this? Who actually looks at a letter from the NHS, addressed to someone they have received vast sums of money from, and chucks it in the bin? Everyone has time to send a text. Everyone has time to reply to an email. All the more so if they have the time to collect important documents and throw them away.
Sadly, Shelter’s housing advisor Andy confirms that “there’s very little in law that sets out exactly what your landlord should do with your mail when you leave. If you gave him a forwarding address, it would be good for him to send your post on. But if you haven’t come to a specific agreement, legally speaking he doesn’t have to do this. Having said that, simply throwing away your letters is obviously not the right thing to do.”
This is a moral compass issue, and your ex-landlord’s is definitely faulty. You might not know (don’t ask me how I do) that, according to the Postal Services Act, it’s an offence if someone “intentionally delays or opens a postal packet in the course of its transmission by post”. Punishment can include imprisonment (yes, really) or a substantial fine (yep!) – so, in a nutshell, be really careful with other people’s mail. Don’t open it.
Andy reckons “you may be able to argue that the landlord throwing your post away is a form of delay”, but cautions that, practically speaking, “taking action under this legislation might be very tricky. You’d need to be able to prove that your landlord is definitely throwing away your mail – rather than returning them to the sender, for example, which is a reasonable thing to do.” And I’m sure you don’t have the time or the resources to do this.
So what can you do? Keep trying to reach the landlord to find out what’s happened here. Hope that the letters aren’t actually in the bin. If you haven’t already, I’d also suggest having your post redirected (I know this is a pain, because, as a renter, you move often). You can do this via Royal Mail. It’s not free, but if you’re waiting on important documents then it’s probably worth doing.