Property News: What's the latest?

Strong support for an extension to the stamp duty holiday

The ongoing stamp duty holiday is due to end on 31 March, and calls to extend it are getting ever louder. A petition with nearly 142,000 signatures was debated in Parliament on 1 February, but it still seems likely that the holiday will end as planned.

If this is truly the case then many people currently buying a property won’t manage to complete before the deadline and will miss out on the saving. Industry commentators have claimed that this ‘cliff edge’ could cause large numbers of sales to fall through, or could herald a price crash when April rolls around.

Some have also flagged up the fact that standard processes like conveyancing are taking much longer than usual at the moment, meaning that even those who thought they were leaving themselves plenty of time to complete before the deadline may end up losing out. With this in mind, it’s been suggested that the Treasury could at least offer an extension for transactions that are already well advanced.

We’ll need to wait until the spring budget is unveiled on 3 March to see whether these pleas have been heeded, but chancellor Rishi Sunak has so far given no indication that he intends to extend the stamp duty holiday. An official response to the petition in December stated that ‘the Government does not plan to extend this temporary relief’, and Treasury representatives echoed this during the debate.

Of course everyone would like to pay less tax, but in many ways the stamp duty holiday has achieved what it set out to do, which was to kick-start the property industry after it was shut down during the first lockdown. With so many other sectors really struggling, it’s difficult to imagine that the booming property sector will be top of Mr Sunak’s list for another hand-out.  

Students up in arms about rent charges

The most recent lockdown has meant that universities are teaching their courses online, and students were told at the beginning of January not to travel to university if they weren’t already there. This has led many universities to temporarily cancel or refund rent charges for students who aren’t able to use their accommodation.

However, this has by no means been uniform across the board, and many students have reported getting derisory ‘goodwill’ payments that only cover a fraction of their losses on accommodation that the government has explicitly told them not to use. A loose network of organised ‘rent strike’ campaigns have seen thousands of students across more than 40 different universities refusing to pay their rent. 

Part of the problem is that a lot of university accommodation isn’t owned by the universities themselves, but by big private companies specialising in purpose-built student accommodation – often backed by investment firms looking for impressive returns. These private providers are less likely to offer rent rebates, and in their public statements they have tended to focus on the fact that they are still open and providing their services to the small number of students living in them. In some cases the universities have stepped in to offer payments to students, but these have ranged widely between universities.

Students say they feel cheated, and in some ways they do have a point. The way student halls are run is often more akin to hotel accommodation than the private rented sector, and indeed planning rules place them in this category – meaning they are exempt from some of the rules around light and privacy that govern normal new-builds. Coupled with high prices, short-term tenancies and a regular guaranteed intake of first-years to fill the rooms, this can make student accommodation some of the most lucrative in the rental market.

That said, those operating private sector student halls will be under considerable pressure from their investors (including pension funds), and should they really be footing the bill when it was the universities and the government that initially encouraged first-year students to travel to university in the first place? There are no easy answers, but it’s easy to sympathise with young people who now find themselves paying thousands of pounds for rooms and facilities that they can’t use.

No more blanket bans on pets in rented accommodation

The government has recently updated its model tenancy agreement for the private rented sector. One notable change is that landlords are now no longer allowed to impose blanket bans on pets. Instead, they have to object within 28 days of receiving a written pet request from a tenant, and must give a good reason. 

The official announcement noted that ‘we are a nation of animal lovers’ but that very few properties advertise themselves as pet-friendly. The issue has presumably become more pressing thanks to the pandemic puppy craze that saw prices for dogs skyrocket, apparently leading some organised crime outfits to switch from drugs to puppies. Every year, many people are forced to give up their pets because landlords have blanket pet bans in place, and this could aggravate what some rescue charities fear will be an impending animal welfare crisis as people find themselves unable to care for their lockdown pups in the longer-term.

Equally, you can see why landlords are nervous about this. Pets – particularly young dogs and cats – increase the risk of damage to the property and contents. The tenant fees ban has meant landlords are no longer able to take larger deposits from pet owners to protect themselves against this, nor are they allowed to insist on mandatory deep cleans – thus making their property less marketable to the ever-increasing numbers of tenants with animal mite allergies. There’s also the potential for anti-social behaviour, and if a dog barks all day because it’s left on its own, the council and neighbours will often look to the landlord to solve this. 

Ultimately, though, having a pet does not make the tenant exempt from the requirement to return the property and contents in the condition they received them in. A landlord might not be able to impose a deep cleaning fee, but the tenant still has to carry one out if the property reeks of cats without it. Likewise, teeth or claw marks all over the sofa will not count as standard wear and tear. 

It’s also worth pointing out that a landlord can withhold permission to keep a pet if they have a decent reason. The actual wording of the contract is that the landlord must ‘consider the request on its own merits’ and ‘should accept such a request where they are satisfied the Tenant is a responsible pet owner and the pet is of a kind that is suitable in relation to the nature of the premises at which it will be kept’. Clearly this is tremendously vague and there is plenty of wiggle room for landlords whose tenants ask for permission to keep a great Dane in a newly-renovated 14th-floor studio flat.