Not strictly an accurate title but I have heard novice landlords refer to people on Housing Benefit (provided by the council) as such so many times.
So, should you accept tenants who claim benefits?
No one can make that decision for you – but there are some risks to consider, and precautions you can take.
Although it is a generalisation, many benefit claiming tenants do not have much in the way of assets or financial reserves. This can result in delayed rent, or even non payment of rent if some other financial problem arises. In the longer term, it means that if you need to pursue a claim for damages or missing rent at the end of the tenancy, there is a high chance that you will not be able to enforce the resultant court order. Linked to this, for many tenants, is an irregularity of rent payments. Most tenancy agreements reserve rent monthly in advance. Housing Benefit (LHA) is paid 4 weekly in arrears (fortnightly in some areas). This means that the dates rarely match up (monthly rent, 4 weekly LHA) and the amounts for a single payment never match up (annual rent/12, annual LHA/13). For tenants who rely solely on LHA for their rent payment this will also mean that rent is always paid late.
Rent: £500pm (£6k pa)
1st July £500 rent due £500 owed
29th July £461.54 housing benefit received £38.46 owed
1st August £500 rent due £538.46 owed
26th August £461.54 housing benefit received £76.92 owed
1st September £500 rent due £576.92 owed
23rd September £461.54 housing benefit received £115.38 owed
1st October £500 rent due £615.38 owed
Providing your tenant is entitled to sufficient housing allowance to cover their entire rent (as above) the 13 LHA payments over a 12 month period will equal the 12 rent payments.
You may be asked by your tenant to change your tenancy agreement to 13 x 4 weekly rent periods a year in an attempt to match up rent due and benefits paid. Do not do this – If you needed to evict due to unpaid rent a 4 weekly rent period would prevent you using the mandatory ground 8 in section 8 of the 1988 Housing Act.
Many providers of landlord insurance will charge an additional amount if you let to benefits claimants. If you let to benefits claimants whilst paying for non-claimants then your insurance is likely to be invalid.
Your lender may have limitations on what type of tenants you can let to.
Your tenants benefit may be stopped.
If the council decide to stop paying housing benefit to your tenant, or their situation changes and they are entitled to less, they may not be able to pay their rent. Receipt of Housing Benefit is NOT guaranteed.
What can I do to protect myself?
The first thing to do is to NOT forget to carry out full referencing and credit checks on your tenants. This is likely to show if your tenant has previously defaulted on rent, or any other recorded debt. If you do these checks yourself, it is worth questioning the ‘last but one’ landlord. The current landlord may have a vested interest in giving a good reference to get rid of non-paying tenants.
A deposit is essential in all cases. As your tenant is on benefits, they are unlikely to have a large amount available for a deposit – and yet their lack of assets is the very reason you need as large a deposit as possible. It is probably cheaper to wait for a tenant with a suitable deposit than run the risk of a tenant running up a large rent debt, and not being able to obtain a penny through the courts.
A guarantor is also highly advisable. The guarantor will be expected to cover any bills that the tenant cannot pay. In view of this, your tenants’ guarantor should be a creditworthy homeowner, preferably working full time. The guarantor should be credit checked. If the guarantor is a homeowner, they are less likely to move – making them easier to find – and they have an asset that you can place a charge on if a court order is made against them.
Guarantees are very difficult to enforce and it is important to ensure that the document is legally binding. As a rule of thumb, a guarantee that is not witnessed and executed as a deed will not be enforceable in court. This is one area where DIY or unsubstantiated internet forms are best avoided – the cost of purchasing a professionally worded deed of guarantee is minimal compared with the potential consequences of having a guarantee that cannot be enforced.
Obtain written permission from the tenant to discuss their Housing Benefit claim with the council and make sure your tenancy agreement specifically states that you can use grounds 8, 10 & 11 from schedule 2 of the 1988 Housing Act. If it doesn’t, you will not be able to gain possession before the end of the fixed term even if your tenant owes many months’ worth of rent. I would also suggest that the initial tenancy agreement is only 6 months (not 12) to give you access to section 21 earlier, and (although I dislike the idea) it may be wise to serve a section 21(1)(b) notice as soon as the deposit regulations have been complied with. Doing this means that once the tenant is in a statutory periodic tenancy you can get guaranteed possession date within around 6-8 weeks of the first hiccough in payments whereas with section 8 you ideally need to wait until the tenant owes 2 months rent and you have to give a further 14 days notice, so that means you can commence possession proceedings at least 6 weeks earlier and probably get eviction 2 months earlier.
If it is too early to apply to the Courts for possession under section 21, as soon as the tenant is even a few pounds behind on their rent, serve a section 8 notice under ground 10. You don’t have to follow it through to the court process but this simple action will demonstrate to the tenant that their omission could have serious consequences and, if they have been good tenants, hopefully jolt them back on track.
And finally, as soon as the tenant misses a rent payment, notify the council of the fact and request that their payments are made directly to you in future. Some councils will do this, however all councils are obliged to do this once the tenant has a minimum of 8 weeks rent unpaid.