How to deal with a difficult tenancy

Landlords Sep 30, 2021

Most seasoned landlords are painfully aware that even the most robust referencing process won’t always spare you the nightmare of a bad tenancy. Whether your tenants are running up arrears, damaging your property, or engaging in anti-social behaviour, it’s difficult to chart a path forward while dealing with the anxiety a problematic tenancy causes.

Based on our extensive experience managing tenancies across London, we offer some tips on best practice for dealing with difficult tenants, as well as what to do when all else has failed.

The essence of diplomacy is communication

As any experienced property manager will tell you, many issues, even seemingly irreconcilable disputes, ultimately boil down to a failure of communication. Given the emotional attachment all parties have to the property, tempers often flare more easily than they might do otherwise, with issues needlessly escalating as a result.

The first time you address a problem with your renters, try to give them the benefit of the doubt before you have spoken to them directly, especially if you are following up on a report from a neighbour or other intermediary. Many tenants, particularly inexperienced renters such as students, may not understand their obligations or even realise that they are being a nuisance. If you approach your discussion with an open mind and with the assumption that your tenants aren’t deliberately setting out to make your life difficult, the conversation will likely be much smoother.

If your tenants are in arrears, talk to them to understand how serious the problem is before deciding how to proceed. Are they experiencing a temporary cash flow issue or are arrears likely to be an ongoing concern? In either event, empathy should always inform your opening discussions. It is far better to agree a sensible repayment plan amicably than it is to lead with the threat of eviction. If your tenants are in arrears then chances are they’re dealing with serious financial issues that are causing them a lot of stress, and a hostile approach may lead to communication being cut off entirely.

Arrears are obviously very stressful for landlords too, particularly if you rely on rental income to pay your mortgage or any personal living costs. However, you cannot begin to take any legal action until your tenants are at least two months in arrears, and you are more likely to recover the money owed sooner if you can work with your tenants on a manageable repayment plan than if you have to go through the courts.

Keep everything in writing

It seems an obvious tip but it can be easily forgotten when tensions are running high. Always leave a paper trail following any communication you have with your tenants if you are trying to resolve any ongoing issues.

If you speak to your tenant on the phone, follow up with an email afterwards summarising the key points discussed during your call and confirmation of any next steps that you were able to agree.

If your tenant is in arrears, send reminders with the outstanding amount due via both email and recorded mail delivery (and keep the receipts). If it proves impossible to resolve your issues with the tenant, you will need to have plenty of documentary evidence of all the steps you have to address your issues if you need to regain possession of your property through the courts.

Use the tenancy agreement to clarify obligations

Referring back to the text of the tenancy agreement is an effective and objective way of reminding wayward tenants of their legal obligations. By using the tenancy agreement as a point of reference, it demonstrates that your grievances aren’t arbitrary but are based on reasonable concerns regarding violations of your legal contract.

If your correspondence between yourself and your tenants has grown heated, using the tenancy agreement is also a good way to reset the tone of the conversation. It is a rational and objective way to establish liability, rather than relying on accusations and fruitless back and forth over who should or shouldn’t be doing what.

It’s also the case that sometimes, particularly with first-time renters such as students, your tenants simply aren’t familiar with the process of renting a property from a private landlord and do not understand their obligations (e.g. not making alterations to a property without permission, upholding their end of the bargain with property upkeep). Highlighting the relevant passages from the contract for their reference can form part of a useful educational process for inexperienced renters.

Request access for an inspection (if possible)

If you are able to gain access to the property for an inspection, take this opportunity to understand the scope of the problem you are dealing with and gather evidence of any violations of the tenancy agreement.

If you need to use a Section 8 notice (more on this shortly) to regain possession of the property, you will need to demonstrate proof of the grounds used to justify evicting your tenants. If you can negotiate access to the property, either directly or via your property manager or an inventory clerk, you can obtain photographic evidence of any property damage.

Keep in mind that your tenants are protected by the legal covenant granting them the right to ‘quiet enjoyment’ of the rental property (whether this is explicitly stated in the tenancy agreement or not). The only time your right to access the property overrides this is in the case of an emergency, e.g. if there is a flood, a fire, or you suspect that a violent crime is taking place.

Though it might be frustrating, gaining access to your property illegally will damage your case more in the long run, even if by doing so you find evidence that your tenants are in breach of the terms of your agreement. Tenants are legally entitled to at least 24 hours’ notice before you access the property, and a lack of response does not constitute consent. The only way to gain access to your property without permission from your tenants is to seek a court injunction - a costly and time-consuming process.

In the near term, diplomacy is your best chance of gaining access and this is often where an experienced property manager is invaluable. A trained professional who spends much of their working week mediating issues between landlords and tenants acts as a steadying presence to steer all parties towards an amicable resolution.

Create a detailed timeline following events since your issue began

As mentioned above, keeping everything in writing is crucial in preparing your case to regain possession after you have exhausted every other possibility.

To organise your case for regaining possession, arrange all of your evidence into a clear timeline of events ahead of serving notice to evict and going through the courts. Preparing your case in parallel while you continue to seek a positive resolution will spare you a lot of work down the line when you are at your most stressed. It’s also much easier to keep records as you go than trying to piece together all the relevant details from memory while managing the anxiety caused by court proceedings.

Due to the ongoing backlog of cases caused by the pandemic and procedural changes to the eviction process, regaining possession of a property through the courts currently takes significantly longer than it already did.

In order to avoid prolonging an already long and expensive process, it’s also essential to ensure that your notice is served correctly and that all your paperwork is in order so that you aren’t required to submit your application more than once.

It’s wise to get on the front foot to move things along as quickly as you can. As soon as you suspect there’s a chance that it won’t be possible to resolve any issues with the tenants directly, seek legal advice so that you understand your rights, responsibilities, and how to proceed with any next steps.

If you are a member of a landlord association, they usually provide members with access to a dedicated legal helpline offering assistance with any queries you might have about the law and your position. Similar services are also usually available through your landlord insurance provider if you have comprehensive cover. Alternatively, your local Citizens Advice Bureau should be able to offer free and impartial advice.

If you plan to go forward with eviction proceedings and you don’t work with a professional managing agent, you should consult with your solicitor to ensure that you are following the correct procedure and that your case is prepared properly.

Begin eviction proceedings

If extensive efforts to resolve the issue with your tenants have failed, and they continue to violate the terms of your agreement or accrue significant arrears, it might be time to activate the nuclear option and serve notice to evict. The eviction process is expensive, time consuming, emotionally draining, and incredibly difficult for all parties, so it’s important to carefully consider whether every alternative has been pursued before going ahead.

There are two types of notice landlords can serve to regain possession, depending on whether or not the fixed term of the tenancy has ended:

  • Section 21: If the fixed term has ended or it’s a periodic tenancy, the landlord can serve a Section 21 notice. This is a ‘no fault’ eviction that allows you to regain possession at the end of the fixed term without having to establish any wrongdoing on the part of the tenant. As of October 2021, as rules extending periods of notice during coronavirus expire, the notice period required for Section 21 will return to two months.
  • Section 8: If your tenants have broken terms of the tenancy agreement and you need to regain possession before the end of the tenancy, you can issue a Section 8 notice seeking a grounds-based eviction. You will need to specify which terms have been broken and use the correct statutory grounds to explain why your property should be returned to your possession. You will need to ensure that you have served the correct forms and then provide evidence validating your grounds for possession in a court hearing.

Using Section 21 notice to regain possession is a far more straightforward process than seeking grounds-based possession via Section 8. Therefore, if you are near or at the end of your fixed term it is better to proceed with this option even if you have grounds to evict under Section 8.

To serve notice, you will need to complete form 6a and send this to your renters, and afterwards confirm they have received the document. You can do this either by hand-delivering the notice or sending the document via first class recorded delivery where a signature is required.

Be mindful that your section 21 notice will only be valid if you are fully up-to-date with all of your compliance obligations, so be sure to check that you have completed all necessary safety inspections and provided the necessary documentation to your renters ahead of serving form 6a.

To serve a Section 8 notice, you need to complete a ‘Notice seeking possession of a property let on an assured tenancy or an assured agricultural occupancy’ and specify on the notice which terms of the tenancy agreement they have broken.

If your tenants do not leave by the date specified in the notice, you must seek a court order to gain possession.

If the hassle is more than you have time to handle...

Dealing with difficult tenants is a stressful experience that demands a lot of time, attention, and emotional energy. The best way to avoid the strain and hassle of chasing arrears, negotiating with bad tenants, and navigating the complex process of eviction is to instruct a trustworthy property manager to take care of everything for you. A professional property manager, trained in all the relevant compliance matters, will spare you the anxiety of confronting tenants directly, know how to serve notice correctly, and understand what evidence is needed and which steps to take to ensure notices are valid.

If you would like to outsource the trials and tribulations of managing a tenancy, Home Made offers full property management services for a monthly charge of 4% plus VAT (deductible from the monthly rent). You can learn more about our service here.  If you're ready to get started, book in your free valuation using our quick and easy online form.

If you would like to speak with us about your property needs, contact us via our website to find out how we can help.Check out more of our landlord advice here and follow us on Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram for regular updates on industry compliance standards, market insights, and Home Made company news.

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Jess Brookes

Content & Research Executive at Home Made

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