Student renters are getting scammed out of their deposits

Student renters are getting scammed out of their deposits

The great swindle — Rogue landlords are exploiting young and inexperienced renters and leaving them in mental and financial turmoil, reports Niall Hignett.

When Alice*, a then 21-year-old University of Nottingham student, moved into her accommodation and paid a £500 deposit, she never expected that that money would not be returned. “I asked for [my deposit] back, and they said I couldn’t have it due to damages to the property, but they didn’t actually explain what those damages were,” she says. Despite her claiming the property was in good shape when she left – “I was the only one living in it and took care of it,” she says – with no evidence ever being provided to the contrary, Alice was left in financial turmoil by her landlord.

Alice is not alone: according to research by the National Union of Students (NUS), 39 per cent of student renters face difficulty reclaiming their deposit from their landlords. For struggling tenants, and particularly students, who are already dealing with a cost of living crisis, having a deposit taken away can be devastating. It left Alice strapped for cash, forcing her to give up any spending which was not for essential living costs.

When students have their deposits taken away, it is often because landlords take advantage of them not knowing their rights as tenants. Landlords must put deposits into a deposit protection scheme, which arbitrates between landlords and tenants in the case of a dispute. It is up to the landlord to prove their claims are true, however, the challenge must be bought by students, and any false claims by the landlord, with falsified evidence, must be evidenced as false by tenants.

“For too long, rogue landlords have taken advantage of students who are inexperienced in the rental market and may be unsure of their rights,” an NUS spokesperson tells Huck. “According to our most recent research, 44 per cent of student tenants do not know where their deposit is held, while more than three in 10 were not given prescribed information about their deposit.”

The spokesperson adds: “It’s clear that local authorities and enforcement agencies need to do more to protect the rights of student tenants. Students are paying more and more every year while poor standards continue to pervade the sector.”

Alice believes that not knowing her rights was how her landlord was able to swindle her. “I assumed [the landlord] must be right and that I had done damage that I didn’t realise (even though I left it in better condition than I got it) or that they just didn’t want to give it back and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she explains. “I was very mentally unwell at that time, and I just didn’t have it in me to argue with the landlord.” According to research by the NUS, 24 per cent of student renters who face deposit deductions disagree with the charges, yet never challenge them, while 27 per cent unsuccessfully launch challenges. 

Withholding deposits is having a greater impact on students’ finances than ever before. “[Students should] expect the landlord/agent to try and charge you for any pre-existing issues in the property when you move out,” says Matthew Boulton, who runs the campaign Get My Deposit Back. “There is an understandable knowledge gap between an experienced landlord (often backed by a professional letting agent) and a student renting for the first time.”

Tom*, a 20-year-old Durham University student, sought advice from Get My Deposit Back when he was charged a £270 cleaning deduction, and a £40 rubbish charge, from his deposit this year. “[The landlord] didn’t provide any details on where the charges had actually come from beyond the vague titles of ‘cleaning’ and ‘rubbish’, and it took several emails to get anything from them,” he says. He eventually managed to get some deductions, telling Huck, “After another email I sent asking about the ‘rubbish’ charge […] they just said ‘The rubbish charge has been dropped’.”

However, Tom is still pursuing the £270 cleaning fee, which the landlord insists is a valid charge. The Tenant Fees Act 2019 bans any cleaning charges if the property has been cleaned prior to the tenancy expiring. Tom tells Huck his house was tidied, and the evidence supplied by the landlord has not contradicted this.

“[Landlords are] emboldened by past success,” says Boulton, “some landlords/agents will try it on with unjustified deductions they know have little prospect of success. We see agents feigning shock and outrage at uncleanliness or damage that has been there for years.”

This willingness to target students inflicts huge strain both psychologically and financially. “I really needed the deposit in order to pay for rent and food this summer,” says Tom. “I’m working full time over the summer and I’ve had to juggle sorting this unnecessary situation out with everything else; it’s been another layer of stress.”

According to research by Shelter, two thirds of university students are behind or struggling to pay their rent or accommodation costs, while nearly three quarters are borrowing from family to pay for essentials such as food and rent, and more than one in five students know someone who has become homeless within the last year. This makes them even more vulnerable should their deposits be taken away. 

On top of the obvious financial concerns, the long, drawn out process to dispute claims is also taking its toll on student renters’ mental health. Jak Todd, a 21-year-old University of Newcastle student, tells Huck that he and his housemates each faced an £267 deduction from their deposit. “[My housemates] had to dispute the claim through the DPS [Deposit Protection Service], with them asking for increasing amounts of evidence from me to counter all the landlords’ claims over the course of a few months,” he says.

Despite being found not to have caused the damages, Jak says the process to challenge his landlord was “drawn out”, which came with immense mental strain. “This took place during an exam period at university,” he says. “It was very stressful to have to make this dispute my priority as I was in quite desperate need of that money; especially since I wasn’t due my next student loan instalment until the start of the next uni year.”

Matthew Boulton urges students to read up on their rights. “The circumstances under which a landlord can take money from your deposit are, to the surprise of many students, quite restrictive,” he says. “Take 30 minutes when you first move in to take time-stamped photographs of all uncleanliness, wear or damage in the property – including the oven, hob, microwave, behind/under furniture, the shower area and any outside space. Pull back the mattress cover and photograph any mattress stains. Then email these photos to yourself and the other tenants on the day you move in.”

He continues: “If you are given an inventory, amend it until you are 100 percent sure it is accurate (briefly record any issues you have photographed) and return it promptly to the landlord/agent by email, copying in the other tenants. Download an electronic copy of the amended inventory if it’s completed online as the landlord/agent can withdraw access at any time.”

Post move-out, Boulton says, “the day after you move out, send the landlord/agent a short email asking for your deposit back. That starts a clock and gives the landlord at most 14 calendar days to return your deposit or confirm their claim. They can’t delay matters if proof of utility bills in the tenant’s name hasn’t been provided or if they are waiting for invoices from their tradesperson. If they miss the 14-day deadline, you can go straight to the deposit scheme who will force a response or repay the deposit in full to you.”

The fact such precautionary measures have to be taken to ensure a deposit isn’t stolen is a indication that our predatory housing system needs an overhaul. With ten percent of students now using foodbanks, and one in seven worried about facing homelessness, unfair deductions and exhausting systems are only going to force more students into a cycle of poverty.

*Name changed to protect identity

Follow Niall Hignett on Twitter.

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