Home for life: Should tenants be given an automatic right to keep pets in rental properties?

Current laws within England and Wales already place restrictions upon landlords, preventing them from refusing tenants to keep pets. Clauses within tenancy agreements preventing this are referred to as being unfair terms of the contract, as detailed in the Consumer Rights Act 2015[1]. However, many landlords continue to enter clauses within tenancy agreements preventing the ownership of pets within their properties.

The use of these types of clauses bypasses the issue of unfair terms by tenants having the ability to request permission, often met with what is referred to as ‘reasonable refusal’. Landlords often express concerns about the damage pets may cause to their properties, resulting in extensive (and often expensive) work being carried out to rectify the damage, and any negative impact they may have upon future lettings, which can be sufficient to allow a landlord to refuse consent.

Landlords also have the right to refuse dependent upon the pet and the circumstances surrounding it. For instance, a landlord would have the right to refuse a tenant from keeping a horse in an apartment, a large dog in a small house or a cat, where there is not sufficient space to allow for outside access. However, it is not seen as reasonable to refuse permission for a tenant to keep a fish or a rabbit, provided there is sufficient outdoor space allowing for a hutch and other necessary items. Shared housing may also allow for refusal of pets, particularly if another tenant has a severe allergy to a specific type of animal, or all types of pets.

This ultimately leaves the tenant in a position where they are unable to have a pet within the property. They would otherwise breach the terms of their tenancy by acquiring a pet, leading to the landlord ending the tenancy at the end of the term and eviction of the tenant through the section 21 procedure[2].

Recently, the media reported on Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to fully develop a policy giving tenants the automatic right to keep pets within rented homes, requiring evidence of the animal being a nuisance for permission to be refused. This has been met with debate ranging from the positive impact this will have on the lives of tenants to the extensive issues this could cause for landlords.

At the end of 2016, 35% of UK households[3] rented their homes, with 17% of these renting from a private landlord. The vast majority of these tenants will currently not be able to keep a pet, however, policy plans would enable most, if not all, of these tenants to have a default right to keep a pet.

Socially, allowing tenants the right to keep pets would potentially have a range of positive benefits. The keeping of pets would allow tenants to a family life that includes the companionship of animals, also aiding with the issue of loneliness, something that is prevalent within society today. Additionally, as identified by the National Landlord’s Association’s chief executive Richard Lambert and charity Shelter, tenants who are granted permission for pets tend to stay within the rental property for a longer period of time. This mitigates part of the housing crisis, providing people with a permanent home for longer as the likelihood of them moving decreases. Furthermore, the ability to keep a pet may encourage people to adopt pets, particularly from places such as the RSPCA or Dogs Trust. In turn, this reduces the number of animals currently awaiting adoption or being given up for adoption, purely because rental housing does not permit the animal to live there.

When looking at a range of case studies, it’s easy to see that many landlords are already accepting tenants with pets, with some actively encouraging tenants to keep pets. Harry Downes, the founder and managing director of Fizzy Living, develops property that is pet friendly, catering to what he describes a ‘surprisingly large portion of the market’.[4] Within Harry’s developments, he caters specifically to the needs of pets, particularly as he believes pets are an integral part of our communities. This is reflected through the inclusion of pet grooming areas as well as a pet welcome pack when the tenant moves in.

However, not all landlords feel the same. Should Corbyn’s plans of a default right to keep pets be enforced, it would be necessary to implement ways of encouraging landlords to follow the policy and also protect them as a landlord, along with their property. Some landlords may be worried about the potential damage that may be caused to their property, and in turn, may increase rents to cover necessary costs in expectancy of damage or as a result of previous damage. This could also filter down to deposits, with a rise in the initial cost causing some prospective tenants unable to afford it.

Preventative measures should be taken to stop tenants allowing their pets to damage the property. If, for example, a pet residing in a property causes an issue, slight damage or the requirement of cleaning to either the inside or outside of the property, it should not be left entirely to the landlord to rectify this.

It is also reasonable to expect a tenant to pay towards cleaning costs, particularly removal of pet hair from carpet, or to compensate the landlord for damage, usually through forfeiture of a proportion of their deposit when vacating. However, this is not always the case, with tenants often not losing out on much, if any, of their deposits. When looking at disputes dealt with by the Tenancy Deposits Scheme,[5] the majority of landlords do not win their case and lose out on the deposit money paid to them in case of any damages. Often, this is due to lack of evidence of the damage caused by the pet, and it may be difficult for the landlord to actually prove the damage has been caused by the pet in question. The Tenancy Deposits Scheme reported on a dispute in April 2015, in which the landlord did receive the deposit, covering some, but not all of the costs to repair damage made by a cat to couches and door frames.[6] As a result of this case, it was suggested that the landlord should provide documentation and evidence to prove the condition before and the resulting condition after the damage had occurred, something which may not be possible for all landlords to provide.

Further, the Scheme can only utilise the full amount of the deposit paid, and any further costs will not be recoverable under the deposit, leaving the landlord in a costly position, dependent upon the degree of damage caused to the property. Despite this, the Scheme has recommended that a clause should be entered into tenancy contracts, stipulating that tenants should be responsible for professional cleaning at the end of the tenancy, returning the property back to the landlord in the state they received it. A landlord could require this to be paid as an upfront non-returnable fee or leave it at the discretion of the tenant as to what service they use and the value of this. This would potentially lead to more landlords accepting tenants with pets, as they would not be apprehensive about the state in which the property will be left. However, it’s unlikely that all tenants would want or be able to pay for the costs of professional cleaning, particularly if they believe the landlord is charging extortionate amounts.

Advice from Dogs Trust [7] suggests that landlords take out an insurance policy, covering accidental pet damage. This seems like a fairly straightforward solution, allowing the tenant to keep a pet and the landlord to have peace of mind if there should be any damage at the end of the tenancy. However, insurance policies may not cover the type of damage caused or extend to the total value, leaving the landlord to pay for the repairs. Additionally, not all insurances offer this cover, or it may be proportionately more expensive than the standard policy the landlord wishes to take out, raising questions of whether this cost will be paid by the landlord or passed on to the tenant. A solution to this could be to request the tenant takes out a separate insurance cover to protect the property in the event of pet damage, however, again some tenants may not be willing or able to pay for this cost.

The current proposal to enforce this default right is rather vague and doesn’t clearly set out the full extent to which tenants would have this right and the options available to the landlord. Furthermore, there are issues currently being faced by both tenants and landlords, all of which can be seen as being more important than the right to keep pets.

Housing Minister Heather Wheeler recently published a consultation, recommending new standards in relation to electrical safety within the private rented sector, requiring mandatory five-yearly electrical installation safety checks to be carried out.[8] This not only protects the tenant from injury, but also allows the landlord to keep their property safe and in good repair, preventing costly repairs or damage further down the line, particularly in the event of a fire. It is also suggested that landlords should carry out this test at the change of tenancy, something that is already carried out by the majority of landlords. This would be a much more important requirement to implement, preventing dangers to anyone who may enter the property and would be fairly easy to implement, simply because most landlords already carry out regular testing as part of standard practice anyway.

Further issues include the high levels of refusal of ‘DSS’ tenants, with many landlords preferring tenants to not be in receipt of housing benefit.[9] This poses the question of why this is not seen as a higher priority than a tenant’s default right to keep a pet, particularly when there is a lack of housing for more ‘DSS’ tenants than tenants with pets.

Corbyn’s policy not only fails to address this, but also lacks any mention of remedies available to landlords should a tenant leave debts connected to the property, whether this be in the form of rent arrears or otherwise. Currently, there appears to be a lack of protection for the landlord, with the inability to ‘blacklist’ a tenant for non-payment of rent or affect their credit rating in any way. Whilst the ability to do so may lead to some abuse of a system, it may be useful for ‘serial-offender’ tenants who continue to not pay rent or move to avoid payment. Furthermore, there is little a landlord can do to recover debts, particularly if the tenant is still in possession of the property, requiring a time consuming and often costly procedure to regain the property.

Additionally, the policy fails to recognise the possibility for disputes and how these will be dealt with and rectified. The current government has proposed a strengthening of the disputes process, including a single ombudsman service,[10] allowing both tenants and landlords to bring disputes. This would enable both parties to quickly identify the aid they require and deal with the issue in a cost-effective and time saving manner, something that would be required in the event of a default right to pets.

A default right to pets is something that would allow tenants more rights and freedom, not to mention the likely societal benefits it would bring. However, there needs to be much more clarity in relation to the obligations that will be placed on both the landlord and the tenant, especially with the increase in ‘generation rent’ and the increasing percentage of pet ownership. In response to the policy, there should be a great deal of reflection, considering similar models such as Germany, where the cost of such freedom is often passed on to the tenant.[11] This includes discussion as to the extent that tenants will be given more freedom and rights, whilst remembering that the property belongs to the landlord, resulting in the landlord being able to make final decisions. Additionally, it should be considered where the availability of private housing will decrease, with some landlords seeing this a being less financially viable in expectance of damage and repair costs. It may be beneficial for other rights to be considered first, giving people in receipt of housing benefit the right to have a home, and protecting tenants from possible injuries, alongside protection to landlords from damage and rent arrears.

The notion of allowing tenants to keep pets is something that could be a positive move, giving the tenant more freedom, but would also give rise to numerous other issues. As such, it requires much more reflection and thought before anything is brought into action.

 

[1] Schedule 2, Consumer Rights Act 2015, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/15/schedule/2/enacted

[2] Section 21, Housing Act 1988, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/50/section/21

[3] Home ownership and renting: demographics, House of Commons, 2017, http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7706

[4] Harry Downes Quote, Landlord Case Studies, Lets with Pets, Dogs Trust, 2018, http://www.letswithpets.org.uk/landlords/landlord-case-studies

[5] Tenancy Deposits Scheme https://www.tenancydepositscheme.com/case-studies.html

[6] “Here, kitty kitty…”, Adjudication Digest, April 2015, Tenancy Deposit Scheme, https://www.tenancydepositscheme.com/resources/files/Adjudication%20Digest%20April%202015.pdf

[7] Landlord insurance, Lets with Pets, Dogs Trust, 2018, http://www.letswithpets.org.uk/landlord-and-letting-agency-resources/landlord-insurance

[8] New tougher electrical safety standards to protect private tenants, February 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-tougher-electrical-safety-standards-to-protect-private-tenants

[9] Landlords who say ‘no DSS’ breaking equality laws, Hannah Richardson, 26th February 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42979242

[10] Strengthening consumer redress in housing, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 18th February 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/strengthening-consumer-redress-in-housing

[11] Reality Check: How does renting a home in the UK compare? Reality Check Team, BBC News, 19th February 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43075176

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