Tenants doing it tough
The great Australian dream of home ownership seems to be more and more out of reach for many people. Unfortunately, that leaves people who are renting with a shortage of properties, high rents, and the possibility of being regularly displaced.
The number of renters around the country has been on the rise since the mid-1990s. And for many renters the pressures are great, with recent CHOICE research finding 37% of them are finding it difficult to get by.
"Renting can, and should, be a legitimate long-term housing option for those who want it," says Yaelle Caspi from the Tenants Union of Victoria. "Unfortunately, tenants are often unaware of their rights or are reluctant to enforce the rights they do have for fear of possible reprisal, particularly given the shortage of affordable rental properties."
So, what are these rights that many renters don't know about? We take you through eight of them (some differ between states and territories):
- By how much and how often can your rent can be increased? And what constitutes an excessive rental increase?
- Pay your rent without incurring a fee.
- When you're entitled to repairs.
- Protection against retaliatory evictions.
- When and why you can be put on a tenancy database.
- When you can get your bond back.
- Do you have to steam clean the carpets when you move out?
- When you don't have to pay for water use.
You can find out more and seek recourse by taking a look at our list of renter's resources.
Rental increases – how much and how often?
While you're on a fixed-term tenancy agreement (provided it's less than two years), your rent generally can't be increased unless it's been written into your tenancy agreement.
But once that's finished, unless you choose to sign another fixed-term agreement, you'll move onto a periodic agreement or rolling lease. On these types of agreements the rent can be increased. However, normally your rent can only be increased once every six to 12 months (depending on your state or territory). This clause is notably absent in New South Wales, where there's no limit to how often your rent can be increased. You're also entitled to a notice period of around 60 days (except in the NT where it's only 30 days).
|How often can rent be increased on a periodic lease?
|Qld, Vic, WA and NT
|Once every six months
|60 days/two months
30 days (NT)
|ACT, Tas and SA
|Once every 12 months
|60 days/eight weeks
Excessive rental increases
While there isn't a set percentage by which rent can or can't increase, a landlord cannot increase the rent excessively. If you believe the increase is excessive, you can try disputing it through your state's appropriate service – in most cases its civil and administrative tribunal. If deemed excessive, the tribunal can issue an enforceable order preventing all or part of the increase and set a period of time for which no further increases can be applied.
How can you know if the increase is excessive? There are no hard and fast rules, but the tribunal may consider things such as:
- the range of market rents charged for similar properties in the area
- the conditions of the property
- the level of repairs the landlord has done and the amount they've had to spend
- how long it's been since the last increase
- if you've paid for any work to be done
- the proposed increase compared to the current rent.
Although there's not a set amount regarded as excessive, as a guide, ACT legislation specifies that unless the landlord can justify the increase through another means, an increase of 20% more than the average increase in rents is excessive.
Fee-free rent payments
When CHOICE looked into third-party rent collection (such as rent cards) back in 2012, we found a lack of regulation leaving renters being charged fees to pay their rent. While the situation has improved, at least in some states, many renters are still unprotected.
In New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland you're entitled to be offered at least one fee-free way to pay your rent. The other states and territories don't provide such protections.
Rights to repairs
There's generally a difference between urgent or emergency repairs and those which are deemed to be non-urgent. Urgent repairs are generally specified as those which pose a danger or which are likely to cause undue inconvenience, such as a dangerous electrical fault or a blocked or broken toilet.
Beyond these types of repairs, each state and territory – in theory – requires landlords to conduct repairs to maintain the property in a reasonable condition, but in practice this doesn't always happen. In fact, recent research by Consumer Affairs Victoria as part of its review of the state's tenancy legislation found that 53% of tenants had experienced problems in getting repairs completed. In addition, only 40% of tenants who had requested non-urgent repairs reported they had them completed promptly and to an acceptable standard.
You can't stop paying your rent if your landlord doesn't do the repairs. But you may be entitled to apply to your relevant tenancy tribunal to have your rent paid into a special account until the repairs are done.
So what sort of repairs and maintenance are covered? For non-urgent repairs, the standard of repairs you can expect will differ depending on:
- the state of the property when you moved in
- the age of the property and its prospective life, and
- the price you pay for the property (potentially).
Excessive mould as a result of structural issues or broken elements on a stove top are common and non-urgent issues where tenants should be entitled to repairs, according to the Tenants' Union of Victoria.
It seems tenants are often too scared to ask for repairs for fear of being kicked out. A survey by the Tenants' Union of NSW in 2014 found 77% of respondents had put up with a problem because they were worried about adverse consequences if they asked to get it fixed.
It's essentially pointless to provide protections for tenants if they're too afraid to assert them for fear of retaliation from their landlord. If you're on a fixed-term agreement a landlord can't kick you out for no reason; however, for those renters on a periodic lease it tends to be a different story. In most states and territories (with the exception of the ACT and Tasmania), provided you're given the correct notice period, a tenant on a periodic lease can be given a 'no grounds' eviction notice. Research from the Tenants' Union of Queensland in 2012 found no-grounds evictions were the most common form of eviction, and in many of these cases tenants felt they were a means of retaliation.
Thankfully, some states and territories provide some sort of protection against retaliatory evictions or at least enable you to challenge the reason for a termination decision. In a case back in 2014, three tenants on the NSW Central Coast had each written to their estate agent requesting a review of rent increases that were for varying amounts up to $130. Two days later, the tenants each received no-grounds eviction notices. The Central Coast Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service (CCTAAS) helped the tenants apply for orders deeming the rent increase excessive, and that the eviction notice was retaliatory.
"The matter was settled before it reached the tribunal, with the notice of terminations not being acted on and the rent increases being reviewed to a more reasonable increase," says Sidonie Gnauck from CCTAAS.
Tenancy database blacklisting
Tenancy databases such as the National Tenancy Database aim to collate a list of "bad" tenants for real estate agents to look at when conducting tenant history checks. According to our research, around 50% of renters are fearful of being "blacklisted" as it would likely make future renting prospects more difficult (although only 3% of renters actually reported this happening to them). While you may think exercising your rights may tarnish your rental record, there's regulation around how these databases can be used (this differs somewhat in the NT).
There are in fact only two reasons for which your name can be put on a tenancy database. You can only be listed once your tenancy has ended and:
- your rent is in arrears by an amount in excess of the bond, or
- you've breached your tenancy agreement.
So, you can't be listed for a trivial matter or simply because you exercised your rights. The agent or landlord is also required to tell you if they intend to list you so you have time to consider and dispute the information. You must also be told if the agent finds a listing on you when they make their checks. Listings older than three years must also be removed.
Getting your bond back
When you pay your bond, in most states and territories you're required to lodge it with the relevant bond authority so that if there's a dispute at the end of your lease, the money is held with a third party. This also means you can apply for your bond back independently if the landlord doesn't sign off on the bond in a timely fashion, or if you disagree.
"The idea that your landlord won't give your bond back is a bit of a furphy," says Ned Cutcher, senior policy officer at the Tenants' Union of NSW. As soon as your tenancy is over in New South Wales, you have the right to unilaterally apply to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) to get your bond back – that is, "you don't need to wait for your landlord to sign off", Cutcher says. The landlord must then make a case to the bond board in a timely fashion if there's anything they want to complain about.
It's a similar story in Victoria. As a tenant you can apply directly to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) if you can't reach an agreement with the landlord on your application to the bond board. If the landlord intends to make a claim on the bond, they must do so within 10 days of the tenancy agreement finishing.
Do I need to steam-clean the carpets?
So you've scrubbed the house from top to toe, only to find your agent or landlord wants a receipt for carpet steam-cleaning before they'll give your bond back.
In New South Wales, the law is clear – it's prohibited to include a term in a lease requiring you to have the carpets professionally cleaned, unless you've agreed to it on the condition that you can keep pets at the property.
Elsewhere, whether you have to steam clean the carpets or not is a little hazier. Legislation generally requires you to ensure the house is "reasonably clean" (the definition of "reasonably" will depend on the condition of the house when you moved in).
While no tenancy laws specifically require that the carpets be professionally cleaned, a landlord or agent may include it as a special term on a lease. Some fair trading and consumer affairs bodies outside New South Wales say that if it's written into a lease (regardless of whether it was done prior to moving in) you need to honour it. However, some consumer affairs agencies and tenants' unions suggest that carpets should only need to be cleaned if the landlord/agent cleaned the carpets prior to you moving in (it's about leaving the house in the same condition as when you moved in). For example, Caspi argues, that in Victoria, lease provisions requiring the carpets to be cleaned aren't automatically enforceable.
"Tenants are obliged to leave the premises 'reasonably clean', and if carpets meet this standard by normal cleaning then nothing further is legally required," Caspi says. "The Tenants Union of Victoria has successfully argued these types of cases at VCAT; however many tenants continue to pay for professional cleaning even in situations where it is not required or enforceable."
If you do decide to clean the carpets, it's worth keeping the receipt, and you shouldn't be forced to use a particular company.
Paying for water use
When it comes to water bills, you're only liable for your water consumption charges, not other associated supply charges (unless you live in South Australia, where supply costs can be passed on).
But if you're on a shared meter (often in apartments) you can't be charged for your consumption either. This doesn't apply in South Australia or Western Australia, where consumption on a shared meter can be charged provided the method of calculation is spelt out on your lease.
In New South Wales and Queensland you also can't be charged for water consumption if the correct water efficiency measures aren't installed (these vary slightly in each state). This isn't a requirement in other states, although if a water fixture needs to be replaced in Victoria it must be done with a fixture with a minimum three-star water efficiency rating.
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales