By Tom Joyner
With the dream of owning a house slipping further out of reach for many Australians, the rental market is almost unavoidable.
And with one third of all renters using websites like Gumtree, Flatmates.com.au and Facebook to find somewhere to live, many renters are leaving themselves open to disaster.
Here’s how you can avoid some of the traps.
What is the definition of a private rental?
They cut out the middle-man, a real estate agent or letting agent, and go directly through either the owner of the property, landlord or another tenant.
According to consumer group Choice, 35 per cent of Australian renters get into accommodation this way.
It’s most popular among students, first-time renters and recent migrants who have little rental history to back up an application for a property and are often looking to get into a property in a short timeframe.
So, what’s the problem with private rentals?
While real estate agents can be hard to deal with and come with increased competition for properties, they offer the security of a formal lease agreement between the landlord and tenant.
That agreement guarantees some legal protections if things go wrong.
It’s why the majority of Australians rent through a real estate agent, but it’s not a option for everyone.
What could go wrong?
Unfortunately in private rentals, quite a bit.
Firstly, without Residential Tenancies Authority paperwork, you have little backup in case of a dispute.
The countless forms and documentation might seem like a lot of stress at the time, but filling out an application form, entry notice and bond form helps protect you from losing your bond and being handed unexpected costs.
Private renter Justyna shared her story
As a university student in 2014, she shared the rent for a home in Sydney’s pricy inner west with two of her friends after finding a listing on Gumtree.
Without any real rental history or a full-time job, she had been rejected from countless rental applications through agents.
After moving in, her landlord tried to up the rent.
“He tried to get away with putting the rent up, but I showed him the Gumtree ad that said $680, but he tried to do it for $780,” she said.
Justyna’s landlord then tried to charge her for basic repairs to the house, including her missing bedroom door.
“Before we moved in he said he’d put a door on your doorframe, but then he didn’t,” she said.
She said the landlord lowered her rent slightly and asked her it organise for it to be fixed, but a quote for a new door turned out to be much more than expected.
“I said ‘You’re the landlord, I’m not paying for the door, you’re installing it’.
“Eventually he got someone to do it, but it was still falling off the hinges.”
When it came to paying a bond, Justyna said she wasn’t aware her landlord was legally obliged to lodge it with the NSW Rental Bond Board.
“He didn’t explain the procedure properly because we were all young and it was our first proper place,” she said.
“We didn’t do it by the Bond Board because we were dumb and young and he just took cash off us.”
It was only after insistent messages that she got her bond back.
“He’d always have a different mobile number so it was very hard to get in contact sometimes,” Justyna said.
“It took us forever to get our bond back.”
How can you avoid the private rental traps?
Keep a paper trail
Ned Cutcher from the NSW Tenants Union said the first thing you should do is make sure there’s some sort of written agreement.
“If you don’t have that written agreement, the chances you have rights under any kind of legislation is pretty slim,” he said.
“We’ve actually just done a short survey on this, and of the 300 people who responded to it, almost all of them had either moved into a house without getting a written agreement, or had had somebody move into their house without getting a written agreement.”
Mr Cutcher said most people didn’t think to ask for an agreement or preferred the perceived flexibility of going without, but said doing so can forgo important tenancy rights.
“It’s about how much notice you get when being asked leave, whether or not you can get a bond back if you’d paid a bond, and basically how you go about resolving disputes.”
Make sure the agreement includes the basics
The agreement should include the address, the time-frame of the lease, the weekly rental amount, details of what bills you are expected to contribute to (internet, electricity) and whether a bond amount has been taken by the landlord.
Renters can use a form from the Residential Tenancy Authority within the state.
Take note of the condition of the property, with dated photos if needed
That way you can prove the state of a room or property before exiting it, and avoid being asked to pay for broken or damaged items that you’re not responsible for.
Know your rights
Read up on the rules covering tenants in your state.
Most state’s have easy-to-read online factsheets which explain your rights as well as the rights of your landlord, co-tenant or owner.
Mr Cutcher said there was low awareness of what the tenant has a right to, particularly in private rentals.
“People generally don’t stop to think about it until they find themselves in a situation where they’ve got a problem that needs to be solved,” he said.
“Then they look around for what their solutions might be and realise that they don’t have that written agreement therefore they don’t have a ready solution.
“By that stage it’s too late, your relationship’s broken down, you can’t go to your head tenant and say ‘can you give me a written agreement so we can then sort this out’.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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