Property special - Rental guide

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Can't afford to buy but keen to find your dream home? Anna Millar provides a guide to getting a good rental deal

Knowing your rights is half the battle for any tenant. While many owners will go out of their way to ensure tenants treat the house as their own, less savoury investors can use it as a means to make as much money as possible, with minimal hassle, so it pays to be prepared.

Know what you want

Where do you want to live and who with, if anyone? What are your expectations? Be realistic but don’t settle for something which, in a few weeks, won’t make the grade.

Go it alone or agent

Consider if you want to scour the property papers and websites on your own or use an agent. Although agents usually charge a fee, they will tell you about the newest properties on the market and offer legal guidance.

Set a budget

Decide how much you can afford to spend. Factor in whether the place is well-furnished and how much you are likely to have to spend on basics, like linen, kettles and a microwave, should these items not come with the property. Check council tax costs and ask for an approximate figure on how much gas and electricity might be a month. You will be asked to pay a deposit with your first month’s rent, plus fees if you have gone through an agent. Make sure you have some savings put aside.

Get the lie of the land

Whether you are hoping to rent a whole flat to yourself or just a room, it is vital to feel safe and happy there. Visit the area during the day and in the hours of darkness. Make sure you feel comfortable and look out for potential problem areas, such as a busy bus route outside your window or noisy neighbours. Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to inspect the place thoroughly; ignoring damp in the bathroom will cause problems later.

Check out the amenities

Remember you may end up living in the property indefinitely, so treat the process of selection with as much care as you would buying the place. How good is the local transport? Do you have to pay to park? Is it close to a cinema, good bars and friends?

Be prepared

Landlords will often demand that potential tenants provide references, so have your bank details, a letter from your previous employer and/or landlord and an additional character reference in place. If you are taking on a tenancy for the first time, a landlord might accept a reference from a parent or guardian.

Always sign a lease and know its implications

If the rent on the property is less than £25,000 per year and the landlord does not live-in, the tenancy automatically becomes an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST), normally lasting from 6-12 months. Fixed term agreements are also an option but are entirely dependent on the feelings of the owner, so do not be afraid to negotiate. By law, at the end of the agreement, the landlord can gain back possession of the property, as long as two months’ written notice is given.

Before you move in

Insure your belongings and get important information from the owner or agent, such as the location of manuals for the washer/dryer, the cooker etc. Find out if there is a particular plumber you should call in an emergency or whether that will all be dealt with through the agent. If you are dealing with Council Tax, contact your local authority and let them know your date of entry.

Safety first

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggests you should check that the property complies with the following regulations: Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, amended in 1993; Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998; Smoke Detectors Act 1991 (if the property doesn’t have smoke alarms ask if they can be installed); and the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994. Electrical appliances should have been PAT tested (Portable Appliance Testing) by the landlord so ask to see the paperwork.

Know your liabilities

As a tenant you are liable for any damage while the house is under your care, so if you want to get your full deposit back, keep that in mind.

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