The New Daily

Why are renters treated like second-class citizens?

Don’t hang a painting. Don’t get a pet. Australians are renting more often and for longer – but at what personal cost?

Australian tenants don't enjoy the same rights as in other countries. Photo: ShutterStock

While more young people and families are renting, making their house a home is not always easy.

The one in four Australian households now renting must ask their landlord’s permission to spruce up the property in any way if it will impact on existing structures such as walls or floors.

While this can work well for both parties, in some cases tenants who decorate or update, improving the property’s amenity, are rewarded with a rent increase.

As house prices continue to soar, renting and its associated issues are on the rise.

An October 2013 Grattan Institute report found the proportion of renting households rose from 18.4 per cent in 1994-95 to 25.1 per cent in 2011-12.

Home ownership also fell from about 72 per cent in 1961 to 68 per cent now. The biggest drop was in the 25-44 age group, down from almost 80 per cent to about 75 per cent.

Tenants are also renting for longer. The report found 57 per cent of renting households in 2007-08 had been doing so for more than five years and a third for more than ten years.

State and territory laws vary slightly, but Australian tenants generally must ask their landlord if they want to make any changes that will mark a surface or install a fixture inside or outside the building.

Strictly speaking, this includes things as simple as hanging pictures if it puts a hole in the wall. Pets are usually prohibited unless you have a landlord who will make an exception.

Tenants’ Union of Queensland co-ordinator Penny Carr said tenants also needed permission to add things like wall mounted air conditioners.

Ms Carr said they could install curtains without permission if existing fixtures did not need modification, but had to ask if it involved new attachments.

She recommends written agreements covering all aspects, including what would happen to installed items when the tenant left.

“You really should ask about everything and put it in writing,” she said.

In some cases, the landlord may agree to the tenant not paying rent for a few weeks in exchange for home improvements, or pay for the materials. In others, tenants are not so lucky.

“The flip side we’ve heard from tenants who have put a lot of time and energy into the property is they get a rent increase because they’ve actually increased the amenity,” Ms Carr said.

Ms Carr said rental periods had increased slightly but in Queensland the most common term of a lease was just six months, compared with 12 months in southern states.

She said tenants would invest more in their properties if they knew they would be there longer or if there had to be a reason expressed in law for their eviction, rather than landlords being able to evict without any grounds.

“People don’t necessarily want to invest the time and energy if they’re not sure what’s going to happen,” she said.

In Victoria, Section 64 of the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) prohibits tenants from installing any fixtures or making alterations without the landlord’s consent.

Tenants Union of Victoria (TUV) policy and liaison worker James Bennett agreed tenants should get such consent in writing.

The RTA does not mention pets so Mr Bennett said if a Victorian tenant had a pet or intended to get one they should make sure the landlord agrees in writing before the lease started.

“Once the landlord agrees to you having a pet, they cannot simply change their mind,” he said.

Mr Bennett does hear about disputes regarding fixtures and alterations, but they are not the major source of inquiries. In 2012-13 the union helped more than 16,000 clients. The top three issues were repairs, lease breaking and bonds, which accounted for more than 5000 cases.

“Many tenants do feel powerless and unfortunately the market conditions, particularly for low–income tenants, generally dissuade them from exercising the limited rights that they have,” he said.

The Grattan Institute’s Renovating Housing Policy found renters did not enjoy the same capacity to “make a home” as owners and typically could only make minor alterations at the discretion of the landlord.

“There are few rewards for tenants who improve their housing or devote time and money to keeping it in good condition,” the report said. “Renters often say they would like to be able to personalise their housing to make it a longer term ‘home’, and to have more flexibility to have pets.

“Many renters express a desire to keep pets for companionship. But many landlords and property managers have blanket rules against pet ownership, even in circumstances where it presents little or no risk.

“Other countries do not so severely restrict tenants’ capacity to make a home. For instance, in Germany renters can ordinarily keep small animals and make small holes in the wall to hang pictures.”

In Queensland renters must:

• Pay the rent according to your agreement.

• Keep the premises clean, having regard to their condition at the start of the tenancy.

• Repair any damage you or your visitors cause.

• If you live in a moveable dwelling park, keep your premises in a manner that does not detract from the standards of the park.

• Not cause a nuisance to neighbours or disturb other tenants or residents.

• Be responsible for the behaviour of your visitors.

• Get written permission if you wish to install fixtures or make changes to the premises.

• Get written permission if you wish to sub-let to another tenant.

Source: Tenants’ Union of Queensland

Victorian tenants must:

• Not cause damage

• Notify your landlord of any damage as soon as possible

• Ensure you and your visitors respect your neighbours’ rights to privacy, peace and comfort

• Ensure the property is not used for any illegal purpose

• Obtain consent from the landlord before installing any fixtures, or making any alterations/renovations.

Source: Renting a home; A guide for tenants. Consumer Affairs Victoria

NSW tenant responsibilities

Alterations to premises

The residential tenancy agreement sets out the tenant’s rights and responsibilities in relation to adding fixtures, or making any renova­tion, alteration or addition to the residential premises.

A fixture is something like a built-in bookcase or air-conditioning unit, which is attached to the land or building and does not function independently.

If a tenant wants to add a fixture or make changes to the residential premises

A tenant requires either the prior written consent of the landlord, or ensure that this is covered by an additional term in the residen­tial tenancy agreement. A landlord must not unreasonably withhold consent to a fixture, or to an alteration, addition or renovation that is of a minor nature. The tenant bears the cost of such improvements, unless the landlord agrees to cover the cost themselves.

If a tenant wants to remove a fixture

A tenant may, at their own cost and before they give vacant possession, remove any fixture that was installed in accordance with the Act or the residential tenancy agreement.

A tenant must notify the landlord of any damage caused by removing a fixture and must repair the damage, or compensate the landlord for the landlord’s reasonable expenses of repair­ing the damage.

A tenant may not remove a fixture without the consent of the landlord if the fixture was installed at the landlord’s expense or the landlord provided the tenant with a benefit equivalent to the cost of the fixture.

If there is a dispute over fixture and changes

If the landlord refuses to let a tenant install a fixture or make a renovation, alteration or addition, or remove a fixture installed by the tenant as provided for in the Act, then the tenant can apply to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal for the appropriate order.

A landlord can also apply to the Tribunal for an order prohibiting the tenant from removing a fixture, or compensation for the cost of rectify­ing work done, regardless of whether the landlord consented to the carrying out of that work.

Source: The Law Handbook; Your Practical guide to the law in New South Wales 12th edtion. Redfern Legal Centre publishing

  • JennSM

    Of course tenants should not remove and add fixtures. The landlord has an investment to protect. The tenant I free to find another place to rent with fixtures they want.
    Landlords must accept pets in Victoria. I rented out my house two years ago because I am working overseas. When I came home unexpectedly I found that the tenants have aacquired a dog which they had kept hidden from the Estate agent on inspection. The dog has dug huge holes in the garden and is in the processor wrecking the lawn. I could not break the lease to evict the tenants because this does not constitute damagehttp://www.dailylife.com.au/life-and-love/real-life/without-warning-he-king-hit-me-in-the-face-20130606-2nsfe.htmlhttp://www.dailylife.com.au/life-and-love/real-life/without-warning-he-king-hit-me-in-the-face-20130606-2nsfe.html

  • Claire

    As the gap between the rich and poor gets wider it is sad to see so many people priced out of housing affordabily, in the first instance, and then the ability to rent in a reasonable area. I know of families who would dearly love to access particular government schools or services but they can’t afford what used to be reasonable rent. The result is that their kids miss out and their parents are doomed to countless hours of mindless commuting that takes them away from their family. Share houses? Well, having endured my fair share of living next to feral ones, who think it is ok to sit out the back under my bedroom window all night yelling and screaming, they need to learn some manners.

  • Ross

    There is another complication in the case of body corporate by-laws, my friend obtained the owners permission to have a pet, bought the pet, then was informed by the managers of the block of units that pets were not permitted an she had to re-home it despite having permission from the owner.
    Trap for young players.

  • John of Melbourne

    Home ownership and the rising emergence of a powerless (underemployed) class is just one of the many disasters that is increasing everyday. A few decades ago the average working Australian could easily afford their own house. This is no longer the case. The emergence of the “landlord” class buying and selling property among the themselves to increase their personal wealth at the expense of the young and less well off is a disgrace. Average people who basically can’t get a start. Years ago houses were cheaper and manufactured goods (cars, household appliances etc.) were more expensive because way back then Australians could manufacture just about anything. It has sadly gone in the opposite direction. The “lazy financial class” (with the aid of useless weak governments and negative gearing) have let us all down. Let’s open up our markets and import everything they said. It’s obvious that our manufacturing industries just can’t compete with low cost countries, everyday we lose manufacturers and the skills of the workers who worked in these industries. The only way left to make money is mining and property speculation. Meanwhile the haves sit back and watche their wealth grow and the new underclass who don’t own property ruefully watche themselves going backwards. We’ve all been conned. Welcome to the new “Fuedal” society that is gaining ground every day.

    • Michael of Sydney

      Yes, I completely agree. Australia used to be a far more egalitarian society where hard work, initiative and education were rewarded by a relatively high standard of living for most people (certainly when compared to most other parts of the world). Our laws, rules, customs and institutions were generally geared to enable this. Unfortunately, the “lazy (self-absorbed, narcissistic, greedy) financial class”, aided and abetted by an equally lazy and self-interested political class, have undermined it, sold it and offshored it all for their own personal short-term benefit. The capitalist system requires a certain “tension” to operate hence we can never all achieve economic parity but whatever happened to the concept of “the lucky country” where most people had it good most of the time?

  • vanessay

    I think something comes over people when they become landlords. I rent a house at present (it was the only one I could find that would permit a pet, which I already owned). The house is on a farming property, the house is not properly finished and the rodent problem is enormous,we have done our best to block the numerous entrances for rodents but they always find a way. The property owner has done little if any maintenance on the property, my partner has spent hours fixing up the outside walkways and verandah which were actually dangerous. However, last Xmas, they decided to paint the inside of the property with eight hours notice. For every bad tenant story you hear, there are people killing rats the size of small cats in their laundry. (and yes we bait). Bad landlord stories are just not as popular with the media as bad tenant stories.

  • Michaela

    It is against the law for landlords to discriminate – telling someone you can’t move in because of your pet is a form of discrimination.
    The number one reason people dump pets in Australia is due to landlords saying ‘no pets’ and renters just accepting that. Don’t! If you want, offer an extra ‘pet bond’ but don’t just accept that.
    I speak as a landlord, daughter of a real estate agent and chair of an animal rescue service. The Australian figures for animals dumped due to tenancy issues alone would be a hundred thousand odd a year, yet it’s never talked about.

    • Jack

      It is unlawful for a landlord to ask for, or even to accept, a rental bond in excess of four weeks rent: s 159 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 (NSW). I’m not so confident in your understanding of discrimination law either.

      • Michaela

        I’m in Vic. You sound like part of the problem Jack.

  • Bob

    As a former Licensed Estate Agent in Victoria, I can tell your readers that despite what Michaela says, it is illegal for an agent or landlord to take a security deposit (bond) that is greater than 1 month’s rent. Firstly, lets acknowledge that most tenants are temporary occupants of the property, yet I have seen considerable damage caused in a short space of time by some tenants. As for criticising landlords for not allowing pets, apart from the usual damage to carpet and curtains by cats sharpening their claws, I have seen tenants lock their dog in the house while they go to work and in frustration, the animal has gnawed the wooden frame of a bay window to the point where the window needed replacing. Naturally the security deposit didn’t cover such a high cost repair and despite the tribunal awarding repair costs to the landlord, the tenants vacated and disappeared leaving the landlord with the expense of the hearing as well as the cost of clean-up and repairs. Do you think that this landlord allowed his tenants to keep pets in his property after that? Yet tenants and others still complain about not being allowed to keep pets in rented premises.

    • Michaela

      Yet again, those causing the problem trying to belittle those cleaning up the mess caused by property managers/ agents who don’t know what they’re talking about.
      Honestly, when was the last time a dog or cat caused damage to a property? Most property owners aren’t even asked if they’ll allow pets or not. The straight out of high school property management staff just assume that to be the case. Maybe if rental staff managed properties better and vetted prospective owners better, they wouldn’t end up with the damage they complain about!
      I’ve had dream tenants in two properties for a total of 24 years, most of whom are pet owners. Then I get daily phone calls from people saying ‘I have to get rid of the dog/cat as the agent won’t allow it.’ I quickly inform them of their rights. We don’t need to add to the enormous number of animals killed annually directly thanks to ill informed property managers.

  • Michael

    It is not all one way. Look at the notice required to repossess a rented property. In Queensland the tenant need only give 2 weeks notice to vacate but the landlord must give 2 months to repossess. At the end of a tenancy the tenant decides whether to continue and can go to a periodic arrangement irrespective as to what the landlord wants. As a landlord I want satisfied tenants who accept responsibility to keep the property in a satisfactory condition and I am prompt regarding maintenance. What it is stated in the article re Queensland is reasonable and properly interpreted acceptable to most reasonable tenants and landlords. Re pets this should be discussed with the tenant and reasonable arrangements should be possible: I have had a number of tenants with pets.

    • Not2ndclass

      I have been on and on requesting for the stairs and rail to be made safe where I rent. I don’t know if the hold up is with the agent, who you can never trust anyway, or the landlord. When I enquired from the RTA what were my rights, they more or less said I could put in a formal complaint but then the landlord could evict me or end the lease and they would get away with it!! I don’t think I’m asking much – a safe entry into the property, but looks like I’ll have to wait until I or a visitor, puts their leg through a stair before anything is done! Seems to be tenants have no rights at all.

  • Steve from Queensland

    Just listen to all the bleeding hearts out there in rental land!
    When are you winging tenants going to realize that the reason your living in somebody else s house is usually because you can’t afford to buy one for yourself. By and large the main reason most of you cant afford your own house is as a result of poor decisions you made at some point in your life. Maybe you decided that it would be cost effective to rent and invest the balance of what would be a mortgage payment on booze or drugs or shiny toys like fast cars or the latest electronic gadgets or maybe you couldn’t keep your legs together long enough to save for a deposit.
    In any case you’ve wound up living in somebody else s house and now have to put up with the ‘rental merry-go-round’.

    Here is some free advise from a land lord. Observe the 3 golden rules
    1. Pay the rent on time, every time.
    2. Don’t destroy the place (in other words look after the place) and
    3. Don’t piss your neighbors off (I don’t want to have all & sundry whinging at me about your poor behavior)

    And you’re right vanessay, something does come over people when they become landlords. They get sick to the back teeth cleaning up after some low life, who has skipped town owing rent and leaving a huge mess behind. One small way of preventing some of this is by not allowing pets.
    I can see why so many landlords say no to pets (by the way, I say yes to people having pets in my properties). I once had a tenant that wanted to keep a duck. An unusual sort of pet but not a problem animal. So I said that she could have a duck. That is until I found out that she had 13 of them in a duplex with a back yard of about 100 square meters. She had the audacity to complain to me that animal management (local council) had “stolen” her pets and wanted me to help her recover them. This tenant was subsequently evicted for among other things diging an escape tunnel under the house from the back to the front, destroying a new bathroom vanity, destroying a toilet cistern, and certainly not last or least running a ‘pharmacy’ from the property.
    Last ‘poor me, sob story’ I listen to.

  • amelinixon

    I placed blue tac on my pictures to avoid damage. The pictures fell off and so did the plaster, the walls being so damp. The Residential Tenancies Tribunal judged this to be my fault. What do readers think?

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