Managing residential lettings can be a nightmare for the uninitiated landlord, particularly those new to the buy to let market. At the start of any tenancy, landlords are required to carry out identity checks for prospective tenants and also ensure that any rent deposits are properly registered.

But what happens if tenants abandon the property or disappear at the end of the tenancy?

In those circumstances some landlords either change the locks against the risk of a prosecution under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 or they take the safer course of applying to the local County Court for a possession order.

If landlords take the court route, they can make use of the accelerated procedure for recovering possession of shorthold tenancies provided no claim is made for rent. On the face of it, these applications should be straightforward, being dealt with on the basis of the papers and without the need for a court hearing. However, because the accelerated process cannot be used to recover rent arrears, this may not be an attractive option. A residential landlord may also want to secure an order for the release of the rent deposit. If there are any matters which are not clear to the court from the application papers, the case will be adjourned to a later date for a hearing. This can significantly delay the process of obtaining a final order for possession.

For all these reasons, many residential landlords issue a standard claim for possession with a hearing to be set aside to determine the application. However, matters may still not be straightforward if the tenants respond late in the day. Because only five minutes will be set aside for the first hearing, if there is any whiff of a defence, say a dispute over the figures or disrepair, the risk is that the court will not make an order for possession. Instead the court may issue procedural directions and adjourn the case to a later hearing. It pays therefore to be fully prepared for the hearing and be ready to answer any questions from the judge at that first hearing.

Even when tenants abandon properties, third party rent deposit holders will not release any retained deposit in the absence of a court order or the agreement of the parties. This will create a problem if a residential landlord has not obtained an order for release of the deposit. Residential landlords may also face practical problems where they have no contact details for the former tenant and/or the former tenant refuses to engage. Although most deposit schemes provide for simple adjudication of any dispute, as an alternative to court proceedings, adjudication can only be initiated with the agreement of both parties.

Under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, landlords now have an alternative where tenants have abandoned the premises. This will involve the service of three sets of warning notices on the tenant, the named occupiers and any third party deposit payers. The notices must be given over a minimum period of two months before taking possession without a court order. This will be achieved if two consecutive months’ rent is unpaid and no response is forthcoming after service of the notices. However, the former tenant has a right of challenge within six months of the date of the final notice. In practice, the uncertainty this creates is likely to make it an unattractive alternative for residential landlords who may also want to obtain a court order for payment of any rent arrears and the release of the rent deposit.

Practical tips

For landlords

  • Landlords should ensure that they have up-to-date contact details for their tenants; otherwise they may need to instruct a tracing agent.

  • If there are problems at the end of the tenancy, a landlord should think about getting a court order that deals with possession, recovery of any rent arrears and release of the deposit.

For tenants 

  • Tenants should remember to notify the council and utility providers that they have moved out to avoid claims being pursued long after they have vacated.