The Landlord Advice NI service has received lots of calls and messages from landlords who are worried about the coronavirus pandemic. Landlords who need advice can contact Landlord Advice on 028 9024 5640, option 5. Make sure to read the government guidance for private landlords.
Helping tenants who can't afford rent
This crisis is affecting all of us. Many tenants may have lost their jobs or seen a significant reduction in earnings as a result which will make it hard for them to pay rent. Some of the ways that landlords can help affected tenants at this time include:
- reducing the rent for a period of time, if they can afford to do so
- applying for a mortgage holiday and sharing the benefit of this with tenants
- using the deposit to cover the immediate rent and allowing the tenant to build this back up again once their situation improves
- helping tenants to apply for benefits by working with Universal Credit and Land & Property Services and giving the tenant any information they need in order to claim benefits.
If you are struggling with payments, because your tenants aren't paying or because you have your own financial difficulties you can request a mortgage holiday. You can also request a payment holiday to give your tenants some breathing space. This "holiday" is actually a deferral of payments and the payments you missed are added on to your mortgage.
Your loan will still attract interest during this time and this interest, will be added to your future payments. To collect the missed payments, your lender will either
- ask you to pay a lump sum at the end of the holiday period or
- slightly increase your monthly payments after the holiday for the remainder of the mortgage
Each lender has different policies and procedures in place for approving and managing mortgage holidays. Mortgage holidays taken as a result of coronavirus should not affect your credit rating, but make sure to confirm this with your lender. You have until the end of March 2021 to request a mortgage payment holiday.
Passing a mortgage holiday to tenants
Government guidance says that landlords should pass the benefit of a mortgage holiday to tenants. You should agree with your tenant how this will happen in writing.
Make sure you understand how your mortgage payments will change once the payment "holiday" ends. In some cases, there may just be a small increase in your monthly payments. Other lenders may add extra months on to your mortgage term or may expect a lump sum.
The Housing Mediation Service can help landlords reach agreement with tenants on many issues, including how to pass on a mortgage "holiday".
Early release from tenancy agreements
Tenants don't usually have a legal right to leave a property before the contract ends unless the contract includes a break clause or consumer rights to unwind a contract apply. But, many tenants may now struggle to pay rents as a result of job losses and changes in circumstances, while others may want to move back with family.
If you can afford to release your tenants from the agreement, you can do so. You should
- confirm in writing that the tenant's responsibility to pay rent has ended
- arrange for normal check out procedures so you can assess any damage and make deductions from the deposit if necessary
- check with your insurer to see if your insurance policy covers you for any rental voids in these circumstances.
- talk to your lender about a mortgage payment holiday if this will help you deal with voids.
Dealing with missed rent payments
If your property is vacant or your tenants are struggling to pay the rent, speak to your lender to see if you can get a mortgage holiday.
Encourage existing tenants to apply for Universal Credit or Housing Benefit to help pay the rent. You will need to supply bank details and other information to help with the application process.
Tenants who don't get enough benefits to cover their rent can apply for extra help, called a Discretionary Housing Payment. In certain cases, this will cover all of the rent not paid by benefits for a 13 week period.
The Housing Mediation Service can help landlords reach agreement with tenants on many issues, including dealing with unpaid rent.
Evicting tenants during the pandemic
From 5 May 2020 landlords are required to give tenants a minimum of 12 weeks' notice of the date they have to leave the property. There are no exceptions to this rule. You will have to give 12 weeks notice even if the tenant is behaving anti-socially or you need to live in the property yourself.
You have to go to court if the tenant is still in the property once the notice period ends. Speak to a solicitor if you've served proper notice and your tenant hasn't left. It is against the law to evict a tenant without going to court. It is both a criminal and a civil offence and anyone involved in an illegal eviction could end up with a prison sentence, fines and a court order to compensate the tenant.
Evicting a tenant through the courts
Your solicitor can help you to apply for a court order. Courts began listing eviction hearings again in September 2020. There is likely to be a backlog of cases, so it may take some time before you are given a hearing date.
Negotiating with your tenant may be the best option if you have served notice properly and the tenant is refusing to leave. The Housing Mediation Service may be able to help.
Tenants with symptoms
Make sure that you inform any other tenants in the property or anyone who will need to access the building if any of the occupants is sick or self-isolating.
Some landlords have helped tenants by providing cleaning supplies and essentials, particularly if the tenants are living alone and do not have anyone else to ask for these items.
You should postpone any inspections until the tenant is cleared of the need to isolate. Follow the Public Health Agency’s guidance on when and for how long people should isolate.
There is a higher risk of coronavirus spreading in HMO properties because different households are sharing facilities. There is no change to the laws or codes of practice surrounding HMO management, but you should make sure that your tenants understand the risks and the importance of good hygiene. You may want to provide extra hygiene equipment, such as sanitiser.
Dealing with repairs
You always need to get permission before you enter a tenanted property. When you are getting this permission, you should also ask if any of the residents in the property is sick or self-isolating.
You will need to notify your contractors if anyone is self-isolating or symptomatic. It will be up to the contractor whether to proceed with the repair, but they should abide by the Public Health Agency’s advice.
If there is a delay in finding a suitably qualified tradesperson out to carry out work, try to think of anything else you can do to make the situation better for the tenant. Can you provide alternative accommodation? Can you provide electric heaters or pay the costs of electricity to heat water if the boiler isn’t working?
Viewings of properties
You should only market properties as available to rent if these are vacant or if the tenants in the properties have issued notice to quit and are preparing to move out.
You can schedule viewings of vacant properties and of properties where the sitting tenants are preparing to move. You can only hold a viewing in a tenanted property with the tenant's permission and government guidance says you should not attempt to encourage or force a sitting tenant to facilitate a viewing if they are uncomfortable doing so.
The onus to ensure a viewing is carried out safely is on the landlord or agent marketing the property. You should ensure that all parties involved are free from symptoms of COVID-19. You must provide access to handwashing facilities and sanitiser and towels that are separate from those used by the property's current occupiers. You must arrange for sanitisation of door handles and surfaces after the viewing.