Law guide: Property

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Rent arrears

Rent arrears

You're strongly advised to ask for payment of rent by standing order (rather than by cheque); this can be more reliable for ensuring that the rent arrives when it's due, and checking that you've received it.

You can't rule out that your tenant might miss a rent payment or not pay the full amount, or not pay the rent. You should act promptly if this happens; you don't want to let arrears get out of hand (or give the impression that you're willing to overlook a missed or partial payment).

Initial action will usually be sufficient, such as writing to the tenant to ask for the rent to be paid; most tenants will respond and remedy the situation when reminded.

You mustn't treat the tenant's deposit as a rent payment – it's a security against rent arrears and any other breaches by the tenants, such as damage to the property.

Keeping records

The burden of proving rent arrears is on the landlord. You're advised to:

  • Check your bank account regularly to make sure that payment has been made (via online banking rather than printed bank statements so that you can quickly spot a missed or partial payment)
  • Keep a full and accurate record of the rent payments due and received from the tenant, including a running balance of any arrears

You're advised to keep records in a form a court would be able to understand (in the event that you need to prove rent arrears to a court). You should also keep a record of any communication you have with the tenant about the rent arrears.

Rent arrears and financial hardship

If the rent arrears cause you financial hardship, you should keep a record, including any documents that could help prove this to a court. For example, letters from your mortgage provider about arrears of mortgage payments or threats to repossess the property, or bank statements showing an overdraft or other financial measures to cover the arrears.

Communication with the tenant

A first step is to find out why the tenant hasn't paid the rent due. It could be something simple, such as switching bank accounts (or forgetting to post a cheque).

If you have any conversations with the tenant about the rent arrears, you should make a record of what was discussed/agreed as soon as possible after the conversation takes place, including:

  • Time and date, and where the conversation took place
  • Names of everyone involved in the conversation
  • A summary of what was said and/or agreed

You're recommended to conduct all communication with the tenant in writing, if possible; you may need to show proof to a court of steps you've taken to remedy the arrears, including copies of letters and records of conversations.

Initial letter to the tenant

Your letter to the tenant should:

  • State the amount of rent owed (giving dates of missed or partial payments if more than one payment has been missed)
  • Ask the tenant to pay the amount due to remedy the rent arrears as soon as possible

You should make a note of the date the letter was sent and how it was sent (for example, by hand or by first-class post), or who the letter was given to (if delivered by hand).

Depending on the level of rent arrears and the reason for them, you could consider making an arrangement to help the tenant, such as weekly or monthly instalments to pay off the arrears. If the tenant is having genuine difficulties (for example, because of a redundancy or divorce), making such an arrangement may help them to pay the rent, and avoid further arrears. If you do have to take court action, showing that you've offered help in this way may also help you in court.

Mediation and other efforts

You could consider mediation if the tenant has a genuine reason for not being able to pay the rent (for example, debt problems or personal problems, such as a redundancy or divorce). Depending on the reason, you could suggest that the tenant seeks help from agencies such as the Housing Advice Centre, Shelter, Citizens Advice Bureau; for help with housing benefit, the tenant should contact their local authority's housing department (or the local Housing Executive office in Northern Ireland).

If you make an arrangement over payment timescales and back payments that the tenant is able to meet, you should set out any agreed course of action in writing so that the terms are clear.

You're recommended to retain good relations with the tenant as far as possible. You must not do anything to harass the tenant or evict the tenant yourself, for example, by changing the locks. Doing so is a criminal offence and the penalties are severe.

If the tenant ignores letters and mediation efforts

If the tenant ignores letters and other efforts to mediate or remedy the rent arrears, the next step is to serve a legal notice on the tenant demanding payment of the rent arrears. You must serve this notice before you can apply for a court order for possession of the property (to evict the tenant).

The steps to take to serve this notice depend on where the property is located.

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