David Alexander: Avoid starring in a landlord horror movie

DJ Alexander boss David Alexander argues that tenure laws have not moved with the times. Picture: Ian Georgeson
DJ Alexander boss David Alexander argues that tenure laws have not moved with the times. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Reality television seems to be more common than ever and two of the most popular programmes relate, or part-relate, to the residential rental market.

Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords frequently feature tenants being evicted for non-payment of rent after, in most cases, having used every loophole in the law to live cost-free for as long as is legally possible – causing their landlords considerable financial loss, not to say a great deal of stress.

Tenure laws have not moved with the times and in some ways have even regressed

As far as I am aware there has never been any scientific survey carried out on the mental and physical effects of this worry and hassle but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few cases it has led to serious illness.

Not that this would have any effect on those tenants (admittedly a small minority) who abuse the housing tenure system for their own ends. What comes over from the television programmes – and directly dealing with the issue in real life – is their overwhelming sense of entitlement, even if at great cost to other people.

• READ MORE: Jeff Salway: New tenancy laws not enough, claim critics

It could be argued that, in any sphere of life, there will always be those who expect a “free ride” and that the residential rental sector is no different. Unfortunately this is made worse by the fact that tenure laws have not moved with the times and in some ways have even regressed.

Residential lettings began to lose their Rising Damp typecasting with the introduction of short-assured tenancies by the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, during the 1980s. The purpose of the legislation was not to make life easier for landlords per se, but to make the sector more appealing for investors and by doing so raise both the choice and standard of rented accommodation.

However, the law only worked fully as intended when tenants abided by the regulations and were prepared to move (or enter into a new lease) when the tenancy period ended; it remains open to that small minority who use the letter of the law to stretch out their stay for as long as possible (having stopped paying rent, of course) until ordered by a court to vacate the premises; and even then the landlord may have to resort to employing sheriff officers to gain physical repossession.

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Unfortunately, there is scope for people to take advantage of recent laws passed by Holyrood. One piece of regulation means that a landlord will no longer be in a position to automatically regain repossession of a rental property at the end of a lease – no matter how fairly he or she treated the tenant throughout the lease period.

So how can a landlord minimise the chances of being unfortunate enough to take on the “barrack room lawyer” type of tenant, especially if new to lettings?

Not surprisingly, my contention is that using a bona fide letting agent is the most sensible option. No agent can ever guarantee that a tenant will not default on rent or behave irresponsibly but an efficient tenant-vetting system operated by the agent will minimise the risk. Incidentally, tenant vetting is not just about weeding out “bad eggs” – it also identifies reputable tenants who, nevertheless, may be tempted to take on a higher quality rental than they can really afford.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent a landlord carrying out DIY lettings, but those who decide to do so need to act with caution. Unlike the unfortunates in the aforementioned television programmes, they should not let a property to someone on the basis that he or she “seemed like a nice person”.

Clearly having a “nice” tenant is an advantage but that in itself will not a guarantee rental income. As for letting out to a “friend”, I’ve seen more than a few long-standing friendships crash and burn thanks to a tenancy that went wrong.

When letting a property, new landlords need a little of bit of the healthy scepticism that comes with buying a used car. It is not negativity but simple common sense – something those landlords on our television screens seemed to singularly lack.

• David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander

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