I moved out for lockdown. Can I get my rent reduced?

Dear Iona,

I'm a recent graduate and I'd moved to London for my first job in October and started renting a room in a house full of people I don't know all that well.

The company I work for quickly implemented a work from home (WFH) policy as soon as the pandemic struck, and so I decided to relocate to my family home instead of waiting out lockdown confined to a bedroom in the city.

For the past two months, I've been paying my rent as normal but now that social distancing is here to stay and it's unlikely that I'll need my room in London at least for a couple of months, I'm wondering whether I would be in my rights to ask for a rent reduction.

I'm also paying rent at home as members of my family can't work and are not eligible for any government support.

My stuff is still in my room so it wouldn't be possible for the rent to be leased to anybody else, but I also think it's unlikely that the landlord would find another renter in the current climate.

There is the additional worry that the contract for my current job is due to end in July, and I haven't had confirmation as to whether it'll be renewed or not.
Rebecca*, 22

Dear Rebecca*,

This is a difficult one. In theory, there’s no harm asking your landlord if you can pay lower rent on the basis that you are not living in the property, that you had to relocate to WFH properly and that your job is at risk. In practice, it’s up to your landlord to decide – and they have every right to say ‘no’.

You can definitely make the argument that the flat was never meant to accommodate X number of people WFH and/or in lockdown for months on end. You could say, therefore, that this is a huge change of circumstances outside your control and that you needed to move somewhere more conducive to working. Your landlord may be a fair-minded person who understands your position and can afford to give you a rent reduction.

Or maybe not! In fact, your landlord might be on the ropes right now and need all the income they can get. Or they could argue that you should have remained in the flat, in line with government advice (though I totally get why you relocated, and you’re far from alone).

Your landlord could argue that you should have remained in the flat, in line with  government advice – though I get why you relocated

Your landlord might also say that if you are still earning the same salary as before and can continue to pay your rent, then it’s business as usual.

Whichever way, your landlord is within their rights to refuse your request. If you have a fixed term contract, requiring you to pay full rent until a certain date, I’m afraid you haven’t got much wiggleroom.

But all is not lost. See if you have a break clause in your contract that allows you or your landlord to end the fixed term early, or if there’s a clause that allows for mutual agreement to ‘surrender’ the contract early.

See if you have a break clause in your contract that allows you or your landlord to end the fixed term early

If your work contract is not renewed in July, that might also change the dynamic. Your landlord could still say no but it will be harder for them to do so and you will have a stronger moral case.

I would advise you to start talking to your landlord now. Make them aware that your contract is coming up for renewal and that you may not be in a position to pay rent at the same level in the near future.

Try to be as polite and constructive as possible. As you mention, the landlord may decide it’s better to offer you a reduced rent now then lose you as a good tenant altogether should you need to come back to London in the future.

The last resort would be joining the London Renters Union campaign: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. This will give you the collective support to stand up to your landlord and refuse to pay rent, should it really come to that.

But as much as I support the campaign to treat renters more fairly, I would be very wary about joining a rent strike. If you refuse to pay up, your landlord could take you to court and you could end up with a County Court Judgement against your name, which would damage your credit rating. It’s an extreme strategy, only to be adopted when all others have failed.

I would be wary about joining a rent strike – it’s an extreme strategy to be adopted when all others have failed

It’s far better to try and reach a mutual, amicable agreement with your landlord. Chances are that they aren’t a two-headed monster just out to screw you over, but someone trying to balance their own income needs with treating tenants reasonably. If you appeal to their sense of fair play in these extraordinary times, they may realise it’s in their interests, as well as yours, to be compassionate.

Good luck Rebecca – I will try my hardest to stick up for renters like you.

*We’ve changed Rebecca’s name to protect her identity.

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