When you first move out of home, you might move into a share house with flatmates where you all pay a share of the rent. While it’s an exciting time, you can do yourself a favour by getting on top of all the ins and outs of officially being a tenant.
1. Know your rights!
It’s super important to have a basic grasp of your rights as a tenant. While you don’t have to memorise the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (Victoria) or the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act 2008 (Queensland), you should have a couple of basics down pat.
The first thing is that the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords vary from state to state. While there will be similarities across borders, don’t get caught out on a technicality because you just assume being a tenant in Newcastle is going to be the same as in Fremantle.
Do your homework on your state or territory’s laws in regards to tenancy and homeowner rights. There’s no need to become a full-blown expert in rental law, but as Joel says, “renters don’t need to be afraid, they just need to be aware. It pays to know your rights.”
2. Read (and understand) the tenancy agreement
Your tenancy agreement, also known as the lease, is the legally binding contract between the tenant and the landlord. Make sure you read and understand every section of the agreement. It is the most important document you have as a tenant.
Joel says the tenancy agreement, “outlines your obligations but also your entitlements. It goes both ways, knowing what landlords can and can’t do is really going to help when looking out for your own interests.”
3. Don’t be slack with your bond
At the start of a tenancy, your landlord can require you to pay a bond up front. This is a monetary deposit usually worth four weeks rent. The bond is kind of like insurance for the owner that the tenant won’t destroy the property. If you haven’t damaged the property, and you’ve left it clean, you should get your bond back at the end of the lease.
The bond can be a lot of money upfront, so it’s not something you want to just pay and forget about. Make sure you do all the right steps in order to get it back in full at the end of your lease.
“Have a record of paying your bond. Avoid paying in cash and make sure you’ve got evidence that it’s been lodged with the bond office. I’d also recommend submitting your bond refund form yourself at the end of the tenancy, instead of waiting for your lessor to do so. Integrity at the start of the bond is great, but it’s also important to be proactive at the end of the process,” says Joel.
4. Get it in writing!
“I can’t stress enough the importance of having things in writing,” says Joel. As a tenant, whenever you communicate with the landlord, make sure you record it all in writing. “Avoid verbal agreements. If you can’t prove that your landlord said something, they can easily say it never happened.”
Even if you have a phone conversation with your landlord, make sure you create what’s called a contemporaneous record. That is, sending an email to the landlord summarising the things you discussed.
Getting things in writing is important for two major reasons. One is that written documentation acts as a legal backstop. If everything is logged in writing, it can act as evidence if anything gets legally prickly later.
The second reason is less legally serious, but still important, especially if you live with other housemates. Writing things down ensures you can easily share any discussions you or your housemates have had with the landlord with everyone else at the property. This keeps everyone up to date and on the same page.
5. Handle conflict with your housemates
Joel says the key point here is around communication. “Before you move into a place, have a sense of what you’re like as a housemate and what you want others to be like. Be open about that. Once you’re in, if there are issues, find a way to talk about them.”
Depending on the number of people in your house, it may be useful to set up a dedicated way to communicate. Perhaps you have fortnightly meetings, a group chat, or just a space where issues can be raised as required.
“At Better Renting, I don’t see too many people complaining about conflict with housemates, but I do think it comes up commonly in share houses,” says Joel. “And it can get tricky, quickly. It takes effort to navigate conflict, but it’s better than the alternative. Negotiation is a central part of renting with other people,” he adds.
Generally, if there are any issues between you, your housemates and the landlord, the first thing you should try and do is work out a solution with them first.
If this fails, Joel suggests getting in touch with the relevant state-based tenancy agency for additional advice:
- Tenants Victoria
- Tenants ACT
- Tenants NSW
- South Australian Tenants’ Information and Advisory Service
- Tenants QLD
- NT Tenants Advice Service
- Tenancy WA
- Tenants Union of Tasmania
If all else fails, the final step is to take your dispute to your state or territory’s civil and administrative tribunal. Through negotiations, mediations and hearings, these tribunals are the places where final legal decisions will be made about your rental or tenancy dispute, with actions provided to each party at its conclusion.
Joel Dignam is the founder of Better Renting, a community of renters working together for stable, affordable, and livable homes across Australia.
He’s one of Australia’s leading community organisers with broad experience in non-profits, unions, and electoral politics in Australia and the UK. Most recently he worked as Network Organiser for Climate Action Network Australia, and he has also worked with United Voice, the Greens, and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Joel’s been renting for years.