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Deposit disputes: the battle between students and their landlords

The end of your tenancy is nigh. With bleach-stained jeans and a new appreciation for rubber gloves, you waltz out into sunny Leamington, confident in the knowledge that before the week is out, your deposit will have landed safe in your depleted bank account.

Well, perhaps you’ll be lucky. For too many Warwick students, summers are spent wrangling and warring with letting agencies and landlords over deposit returns. 

A deposit is a payment you make when you rent a student property privately, usually amounting to one months rent. If there is any maintenance work or cleaning to be carried out when your tenancy is over, some of this money will be withheld to cover those costs. If you leave the property in the same condition in which you found it, taking into account any natural wear and tear, you should expect to get the full sum back. But it appears that this is not always the case: twelve students talk to The Boar about their experiences with deposit deductions. 

The most common reason cited for deductions is cleaning. One student tells us that “the deductions proposed were for small routine operations such as cleaning the bathroom tiles and light hoovering”. They argue that “the cost they wanted to deduct was wildly out of the realm of consideration” for such minor tasks. 

Another says that “the audacity of them demanding they keep our money for “deep cleaning” [was] outrageous, since we left the place cleaner than when we had arrived.” But this student’s letting agent “managed to catch us out with the small print in the contract by quoting that the property must be cleaned to a ‘professional standard’”. 

A different student reasons that “the kitchen we got charged extra for cleaning was honestly in a pretty horrible state…I would say we got treated very fairly”. 

“It was great to have a positive experience, but I feel like the reality is unfortunately a bit grimmer. A lot of my friends had massive issues, such as being charged fifty pounds specifically for leaving trash in the bins.” 

Another comments: “Some [deductions] were justified, others were clear attempts to exploit students who didn’t know their rights. For example, being charged for black mould in the bathroom, when this is legally the landlords responsibility. Or being accused of stabbing the sofa with a knife. Why on earth would we stab a sofa with a knife? I’d say the worst was being fined for breaking the hoover – it was broken when we moved in.” 

From these accounts, a sense of injustice is universal, whether for themselves or on behalf of less fortunate friends. With deductions varying from reasonable, to tolerable, to exploitative and obscure, they appear to be part and parcel of renting a student property. 

For some students, the withholding of their deposit is merely the culmination of tense relationships with landlords who they describe as unresponsive and negligent: “We’ve had loads of problems in our tenancy that I had to fight them to deal with. [We had] rats caused by the shop tenant on the ground floor and birds nesting in our kitchen twice, even after we reported the fact that the windows didn’t lock six or seven times.” 

A different student recalls: “Throughout the year we had slow responses from the estate agent when asked to fix various problems with the house. For example, when I moved in, my bed was broken and there was no backdoor key. We didn’t get a key for weeks. Fixing the boiler was the exception – that was quick. No one ever came to sort out the slug infestation.” 

This student is one of many tormented by hindsight: “Unfortunately, because we didn’t take photos of the property at the start of the rental period, we didn’t have enough evidence to begin a formal dispute process… I was kicking myself for not initially taking photos of the grime and slugs in the house.” Their experience reflects how students can be ill-equipped to defend themselves due to a lack of knowledge concerning the precautionary methods they should take. 

Warwick Students’ Union provides a detailed webpage outlining how deposits work, the law surrounding them, how to ensure you get them returned, and how to raise a dispute. The information is out there, but it’s not necessarily something students know to look for until it is too late and they find themselves facing deposit deductions they feel are unfair, with no grounds on which to challenge them. 

Even with photographic evidence, the negotiation procedure can be complicated. Students report this taking from as quick as a few days to as long as several months to resolve. 

Slow replies, antagonism and mystifying delays drag out the process: one student highlights how some landlords “employ a really aggressive tone with you which is completely unnecessary… they are annoyed that they are being challenged”. Another emphasises the frustration that comes with taking “a lot of time and effort corresponding with them over email, and getting no response”. 

One student suggests that these are deliberate tactics, intended to deter students from disputing deductions, or coerce them into giving up. Indeed, despite feeling their deductions were unjust, a different student “didn’t challenge them because they delayed giving the deposit back to us for several months anyway…we didn’t want it to continue for longer”. 

These are deliberate tactics, intended to deter students from disputing deductions, or coerce them into giving up

One student summarises the process as “stressful and difficult – we felt like we were left in the lurch, unprotected and unsupported by our agency”. 

“It definitely put me in a precarious position…I could not afford to pay my deposit and rent without my deposit money from this property.” 

“It also caused some rifts between us as tenants as to who was to blame for it all.” 

As well as describing difficulties financing their next properties, students listed heightened stress levels and deteriorating mental health as knock-on effects of drawn out negotiations. 

The narrative of landlords and letting agencies preying on the vulnerability of students is hardly new. But this year especially, the impact is felt keenly: “I lost my job due to Covid, so it’s just worsened the poor financial situation I’m already in.” 

The narrative of landlords and letting agencies preying on the vulnerability of students is hardly new

Three students reference the rent predicament faced by students in term three, where tenants found themselves unable to travel back to the student houses they were paying to live in. Unjustified deductions struck an exceptionally bitter note considering some landlords “did not even consider reducing the rent throughout the year when Covid-19 happened”. 

Another student felt: “The entire affair came across as incredibly exploitative and deceptive. We’re out of pocket £1200 as a collective now. Particularly during Covid, it just comes across as cruel.” 

And although students are the immediate victims, deductions affect others indirectly. Two students tell us that unreasonable deductions meant they were compelled to borrow from family in order to afford the fees for their next student property. This raises the question of how students might cope if they have parents who can’t afford to help them out. 

Since fair treatment from student landlords seems to be the exception, the responsibility falls on students to inform one another and protect themselves. This is the ethos behind CribAdvisor, a student-led initiative that began at the University of Lincoln. It was created as an online platform “for the student community to share their experiences with the student accommodation providers (good and bad!) to allow other students to make an informed choice before they sign their tenancy agreement”. 

A quick search reveals that Leamington Spa has no reviews of accommodation providers published on the site, while Coventry has two. Perhaps this is a service Warwick students could take more advantage of. 

So long as students remain unworldly and ill informed, they are easy targets for certain unscrupulous landlords and letting agencies. There are laws in place to protect us, but if we fail to take pictures of our houses when we move in, there is nothing we can do to challenge unwarranted deductions at the end of our tenancies. 

Your phone camera is great for documenting your time at university, but it may also be your lifeline. 

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