So you are renting out a property to a tenant in a twelve month fixed term tenancy agreement and at month four, they stop paying the rent. Upon doing a ‘drive by’ past the property, you notice the property looks empty. You think perhaps they are just away, and drive past two weeks later to discover the same scene. What to do you do? Do you go to the property with your spare keys and a locksmith and ask him to change the locks? Do you place a notice on the door explaining you have been trying to contact your tenant and if you dont hear back within a certain amount of days you will consider the property abandoned and then change the locks? I’m afraid the answer is a big fat NO to both actions.
Unfortunately, once you think a property is abandoned, the process of legally regaining possession is a slow and expensive one regardless of how sure you are the tenant is not living there. The reason you couldn’t do either of the above actions is because 5 months down the line, when you have shiny new tenants in the property, your old tenant could resurface demanding their home back and leaving you open to prosecution of a criminal offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. The penalties for such a conviction are a £5,000 fine and a possible 6-month prison sentence. Many agents still wrongly utilise ‘abandonment’ notices but regardless of any notice you place on the door, until your tenant gives you the keys back and therefore ‘surrenders’ their tenancy, they still legally have possession of that property.
The correct way for you to regain possession is utilising the Section 8 Housing Act 1988 procedure for obtaining possession and/or unpaid rent or other breach of the Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement terms. However, this can be a lengthy and arduous process with no guarantee of achieving the desired possession. The section 21 Housing Act 1988 procedure is slightly faster for achieving possession of the property, however this can only be visited as the term comes to an end. As Assured Shorthold terms can vary up to three years in length, this can be too long to wait for a landlord whose tenants appear to have abandoned the property.
Nonetheless, help is on the horizon! A section of The Housing and Planning Act 2016 relates to the abandonment procedure. The Bill will allow a private landlord to regain possession of a property they believe to have been abandoned without a court order. They will be able to do this by first sending two notices at different times requesting a written response from the tenant. Before they can send the second notice rent arrears must have been accrued. Finally, a third notice must be affixed to the property (the front door) at least 5 days before the landlord repossesses. Happily, these changes should be coming into force in late 2017.
However, for the moment the old rules apply so be sure you are seeking legal advice and following the correct steps to obtain possession of your property to ensure you are not one of those landlords that leaves themselves open to prosecution.
Angharad Trueman - Operations Manager