The COVID-19 pandemic has affected landlords in various ways and to different degrees. Luckier landlords may have seen minimal effects, but others have had to deal with loss of income, delayed repossessions and logistical challenges related to social distancing and self-isolation. And possibly cockapoos.
Delays regaining possession
For some landlords, a significant aspect of the emergency coronavirus measures introduced in March was the change to eviction rules. Notice periods were extended (and still are), and the courts stopped hearing any repossession cases, effectively putting the whole process on hold for half a year. There was sound logic behind the so-called ‘eviction ban’ in that the government didn’t want people becoming homeless during a pandemic, but hastily introduced blanket rules like these will always see some people lose out particularly hard. In this case, landlords whose tenants were already significantly in arrears when the pandemic hit now found themselves looking into a much deeper hole.
The eviction ban has now been lifted, but there is a large backlog to work through, and the courts are trying to process the worst cases first. In an interesting example of the vague messaging that has characterised this year, the government has also said that bailiffs should not be enforcing evictions in areas where there are local lockdowns – and this presumably applies to national lockdowns too.
Tenants in financial difficulties
This is likely to have been the most common issue landlords and tenants have faced during the pandemic. Though the government has pumped vast amounts of cash into the economy – notably through the furlough scheme – many people have still fallen through the cracks, particularly in hard-hit sectors like hospitality and events. Businesses both small and large are struggling, and each week seems to bring announcements of sweeping redundancies from major chains.
Inevitably, many of the people finding themselves out of a job or on reduced incomes have been private renters, and there has been a good deal of negotiation between landlords and tenants. The government was pushing the idea of rent holidays (where a tenant pays reduced rent on the understanding that they will make up the difference in a repayment plan when things improve), but research from the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) suggests that many landlords have just agreed a temporary or permanent rent reduction and soaked up the loss out of their own pocket – particularly for longer-standing tenants where there’s a good relationship. The ability to negotiate mortgage holidays on buy-to-let properties will have been very helpful to some landlords in this situation.
Potential changes to rent levels
While the sales market experienced a sort of mini-boom following the last lockdown, lettings haven’t bounced back quite so robustly. Landlords whose properties have come up for rent again since coronavirus hit may have found themselves having to settle for reduced amounts, and there have also been shifts in what sorts of properties and areas are desirable. As home working becomes very much more common, some tenants are deciding to ditch their city centre flats in favour of larger places in the suburbs – and there’s been a particular surge of interest in coastal communities and country villages.
Maintenance, at least, is one area where things haven’t changed all that much. The rules on maintenance responsibilities for landlords never altered even at the height of the first lockdown, and while some of the government guidance has implied that enforcement might be a bit more lenient in cases where there are problems getting access (see below), essential maintenance has generally gone ahead as usual. That said, some landlords may have chosen to postpone non-essential works for the time being, particularly in cases where they’ve lost income.
Working around social distancing and self-isolation
Landlords, tenants, agents and contractors have all had to adapt to the realities of social distancing, hand hygiene and masks. This has applied not only to maintenance work, but also to property viewings by prospective tenants – and agencies have been working hard to try and make their online offerings as good as possible.
Things like maintenance and viewings have been even trickier in cases where a tenant is self-isolating – for example after they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, had a positive test result or visited a country with a mandatory quarantine period on their return. In cases like these, landlords and tenants have usually agreed to delay maintenance or viewings until the prescribed isolation period is over, but other solutions have included rigorous hygiene precautions and making sure that the isolating person is in a separate room from any visitors.
2020 has been a year of fads, and as winter arrives, lofts and garages are now full of paddle boards, road bikes and camping gear that will probably never see the light of day again. However, the single must-have accessory of the year has been the puppy. Anecdotal evidence suggests loads of landlords have found their tenants asking for permission to keep a dog – usually a cockapoo – and this presents an interesting dilemma. While it seems mean-spirited to refuse, a new puppy and an inexperienced owner are a good recipe for damage to a property, and the tenant fees ban means you can’t impose any mandatory carpet cleaning or de-fleaing treatments at the end of the tenancy. Some landlords get round this by charging ‘pet rent’, but actually a decent tenancy agreement should be sufficient. Though you can’t impose mandatory fees, the tenant still has to return the property and contents in the same shape they got them in, and chewed chair legs/suspicious discoloured patches on the carpet are not standard wear and tear.
What’s still to come?
With most of the UK now back under lockdown, it’s difficult to know what else the pandemic still has in store for us. The furlough extension will be a lifeline to many renters (and, in turn, their landlords), but it’s also possible that the eviction ban may come back in again. Another lockdown could do a good deal of damage to some businesses that still haven’t really recovered after the last one, and we also don’t know what effect the ongoing pandemic might have on the usual consumer bonanza of the Christmas season. In this context, it’s more important than ever that landlords and tenants work together to try and solve any issues that come up.