The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world, impacting the way we work, the way we live and even the way we learn. With A-level students finally having been awarded their grades after a worrying period of uncertainty for many, the numbers heading to the top universities this year could be higher than originally anticipated at the start of the pandemic. This is because more students achieved top grades following the decision to award whichever was higher – the teacher predicted grade or the Ofqual calculated grade. To address this, the Government has lifted the cap on some courses, agreed targeted extra funding, and universities in England will offer all students with the grades places on their first choice courses (although some will have to start next year).
Whilst attending university this year is going to look very different for students, with adaptations to the usual university experience to secure their safety including household social bubbles, socially distanced freshers’ events and online learning, it is not just students that face a large-scale change. For many student landlords and agents, the situation also presents a challenge when it comes to issues such as carrying out maintenance, monitoring rental payments and moving students in and out of their new university ‘home from home’.
According to statistics compiled by the Officeforstudents.org.uk, in the 2018-2019 academic year, only 19.4 per cent of undergraduates and 15.5 per cent of postgraduates lived in university/college halls or provider-maintained properties. The vast majority of students (29 per cent) instead lived in private rented accommodation. The 2020 university landscape may look different, but student housing is still a priority for those attending, providing an opportunity, and a newfound challenge, for student landlords and letting agents.
In years gone by, students offered a stable and reliable income tied to regular and predictable university term times. Landlords and letting agents in student towns and cities could be reasonably assured that properties in these areas, so long as they met the needs of student tenants, would not face void periods or rent arrears. Not to mention the fact that students provide high rental yields and more flexible short term lets. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things more difficult for students, limiting travel, increasing uncertainty over housing requirements and potentially changing the property requirements that students are looking for.
The initial uncertainty surrounding A-level grades as a result of coronavirus further complicated the situation for students, and their landlords and agents. Several universities have put in place special social distancing measures such as ‘housing bubbles’ and could see fewer international students attending, limited by travel restrictions. It is currently unclear if students will face difficulty in finding suitable housing due to university subscription rates, or in fact have an easier time finding housing if some students decide to attend virtually, stay at home or defer their place. The housing demand and supply may therefore vary area to area, however the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that, as a result of the Government’s U-turn on A-level grades, top universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge, could see around 500 extra students that may now have achieved their offers. In addition, a survey conducted by UCAS previously found that nine out of ten undergraduates said they still intended on going to university despite COVID-19.
Despite widespread uncertainty, there are a number of key points that student landlords and agents should take note of to ensure that they carry out their obligations as well as providing a safe living environment for tenants.
So, what should student agents be aware of when renting to students during COVID-19? What does a COVID-19 proof tenancy lifecycle look like? And how do you best advise your landlords?
The COVID-19 proof tenancy lifecycle
Between mid-November and mid-May this year the number of listings on property portal Rightmove, including videos, increased by 280 per cent as the number of people seeking virtual viewings soared as a result of coronavirus. Property viewings are now permitted providing they follow set COVID-secure criteria, including being by appointment only, involving members of a single household, and delaying physical viewings where either the household being viewed or the household undertaking the viewing have coronavirus symptoms. The current guidance, however, is that virtual viewings should be used before visiting properties in person, where possible, to minimise public health risks.
As a result, many students this year will take their housing search virtually rather than in person. Agents should therefore consider virtual viewings as the ‘norm’ for the foreseeable and advise their landlords accordingly. You can read more about conducting virtual property viewings here.
Tom Walker, Co-Founder of student property portal, StuRents, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the student market, and the adoption of virtual property tours as a result;
“The COVID-19 pandemic has touched many, if not all, aspects of the rental cycle. There is still a great deal of uncertainty around higher education students returning to their institutions, how universities will adapt and the impact this will all have on the next lettings cycle in the student rental sector, with many property managers still left with an unprecedented number of properties to fill for the 20/21 cycle.
Following the national lockdown in March, many students returned home to stay with parents, with a significant minority challenging their rental obligations with their property managers. Whilst a small number of large operators in the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector accommodated refunds or rental discounts, most PBSA and HMO providers could not. Some of these challenges to rental obligations turned out to be half-hearted and opportunistic, but many arose from legitimate financial issues experienced by students who lost crucial part-time jobs during lockdown.
Public debate around how universities could justify fees whilst still delivering lectures and seminars in the new academic year 20/21 (most ultimately opting for a blended form of virtual and in-person) unsurprisingly hit the search market. With travel restrictions also enforced, international students were also hesitant to book properties, which translated into a somewhat muted demand for higher-end PBSA stock.
To accommodate a growing appetite from both property managers and prospective tenants to perform property viewings remotely, we accelerated the introduction of virtual tours into our property listings. Virtual tours have historically been seen as an expensive luxury confined to early adopters in the PBSA space, however this year has seen an explosion in the number of property managers willing to adopt this technology.”
Student landlords and agents should also be mindful of students who still have belongings in their rented accommodation which they may not have been able to collect yet due to COVID-19 restrictions. Most recently, a landlord in Brighton got themselves into hot water after clearing tenants’ rooms of their belongings before they had been able to return to collect them. Students are now able to return to accommodation (according to guidance published on 21 May 2020 – continue to check regularly for the most up to date guidance) to collect their belongings providing it is safe to do so and the correct social distancing guidelines are observed. Agents should work closely with their landlords and tenants to ensure that they can safely retrieve their belongings and arrange a suitable time for collection before any new tenants move into the property.
Inventories have always been, and remain, an integral part of the rental process and exist to specify the condition of items within the rental property. The inventory is a vital piece of evidence that can be used to avoid deposit disputes at the end of the tenancy. Current guidance on GOV.UK suggests that letting agents may consider obtaining landlord and tenant consent for inventory appointments to occur before they move in or during vacant periods if possible.
Jamie Wilson, North of England Area Director from property inspection and compliance supplier, VeriSmart Inventories, answers three important questions on how COVID-19 has impacted inventories and what is now considered best practice for landlords and agents in the sector.
Question one: How did lockdown affect inventory checks?
Lockdown affected different parts of the country in different ways in terms of inventories as it depended on the individual completing it and their personal health. As long as we adhered to the guidelines, used PPE and avoided any contact with any other person, we continued to complete inventories and check out reports. We made sure to leave properties completely empty for 72 hours so that there was no trace of the virus, which also helped us to complete inventories.
Question two: How have things changed now, if at all?
At the end of lockdown when we started being able to meet tenants again, we insisted on non-contact handovers, keys were sanitised and we reduced a check in handover time from 10 to 15 minutes to a verbal handover which only lasts two to three minutes. Tenants have also been advised that they cannot join us during a check out report but we can meet them outside the property after it is completed for a five minute debriefing. This saves people from different households being in the property at the same time and possibly breaking the social distancing rules but gives the tenant the heads up they need regarding their check out.
Question three: What is now considered best practice?
I consider best practice to currently be – keys being sanitised before we pick them up from the agent, picking keys up from the office using a mask for protection (if chosen by the individual / stated by the office), completing the report within the property using PPE (if chosen by the individual) and sanitising the keys before handing back to the agent. This, in my opinion, reduces the risk of A – catching the virus and B – spreading it if the person is a carrier of the virus.
Deposits and tenancy contracts
A tenancy agreement is a binding contract and therefore if a student has already signed an Assured Shorthold Tenancy agreement then they will be bound by those terms and financially liable for the rent payments. Most student tenancies don’t include break clauses or allow them to give notice to the landlord, and agents are encouraged to check tenancy agreement contracts to best advise their landlords.
Unfortunately, due to the current uncertainty created by COVID-19, some students may have signed a contract for a rental home in a university town that they are now not able to occupy for a number of reasons. This is a source of worry for both the tenant and the landlord. In some cases over the COVID-19 crisis, landlords and agents negotiated rent reductions or early release with their students, but they are not under any obligation to do this.
It is advised that all agents discuss the individual circumstances with their tenants and aim to agree on a solution that works for both parties to avoid a dispute. Agents should advise their landlords to do the same. Showing understanding and empathy for tenants goes a long way. In the event that it is not possible to resolve a dispute with tenants then mediation, such as that provided by the Property Redress Scheme, can be useful to come to a mutual and prompt decision.
As a landlord or agent, you may also consider offering your tenants the option of using a deposit replacement scheme to aid their cash flow and rental options, such as the one offered by our partner, Ome. Ome is a deposit replacement membership designed for modern renters and perfect for students who are looking for flexibility and choice. Tenants benefit from no large upfront costs and flexible payments to suit their financial preferences whilst landlords keep the same five weeks’ financial protection. Agents could save £2,000 in deposit protection fees. You can find out more about the scheme here.
Agents and landlords should however remember that if they take a traditional cash deposit from their tenant then they are required to follow the regional deposit protection laws. Find out more information on deposit protection here.
Student move ins are a big step in a student’s university experience, with student landlords and agents being a vital part of this process. This year many students will be faced with a different process as move-ins are required to follow social distancing rules for the first time ever.
Some universities will be requesting that students travelling to UK universities from abroad, or UK students returning from countries with COVID restrictions, will face a 14 day quarantine in designated “quarantine accommodation” within its existing university housing.
Once at university, many have also implemented household ‘bubbles’, allowing students to interact with their housemates as one ‘student household’, however outside of this, students will be required to maintain social distancing. Private landlords and agents may also consider adopting the same guidance as the university to ensure the continued safety of tenants and encourage tenants to seek additional support and advice from their university throughout the duration of their stay to ensure that they remain safe.
In addition, GOV.UK provides information for HMO landlords and students on how to keep safe and well whilst living in this accommodation, including sources of support and information for wellbeing services for young people. Agents should consider signposting landlords and tenants to this resource in order to ensure they have access to the latest guidance. Read more here.
Cleanliness is always an extremely important part of property maintenance, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to ensure that all properties are clean for move in. Whilst it is the tenant’s responsibility to keep the property clean during their tenancy, landlords and agents will need to ensure that on move in, and out, the property is appropriately clean. Coronavirus can remain infectious on some surfaces (such as stainless steel and plastic) for up to three days so cleanliness is imperative.
HF Assist, a helpline providing property support and guidance to letting agents and property managers (part of the Hamilton Fraser family), provides additional detailed guidance on student move-ins and COVID-19 including answering questions on:
- – The special steps landlords should take when moving in
- – If students are permitted visitors
- – What happens to previous tenants’ belongings?
- – Tenants who are worried about the future and want to pull out of the tenancy
There are several steps you can take to help your student tenants feel comfortable in their new home. For many, this may be their first experience living away from home and, coupled with the uncertainty of coronavirus, it is potentially a nerve-wracking transition.
Why not help your new tenants feel at home by making them up a move in ‘welcome pack’ to help them settle in, or encourage your landlords to do the same. This could include some basic provisions (including hand soap, hand sanitiser and cleaning supplies), important contact details, general housing advice (such as the location of the stopcock and heating), instruction manuals for appliances (including the microwave and oven) and important tenancy related documentation. You may also want to provide the latest government guidance on what your tenants should do if a member of their student household falls ill with coronavirus symptoms.
Starting off with, and maintaining, a good relationship with your tenants is vitally important for a smooth tenancy. By making yourself easily accessible, tenants are more likely to approach you early to let you know of any potential issues in the property, and also during these uncertain times to alert you to any rent payment issues they may be experiencing. Being open and understanding with your tenants can help avoid any potential issues during the tenancy and could even help you to avoid a dispute at the end of the tenancy too.
Inspections are still an important element of property maintenance and landlords are now able to visit properties for repairs or routine inspections. However, the health and safety of the tenants must be of the upmost priority and social distancing must be observed.
GOV.UK state that if possible, any “necessary repairs, gas and electrical safety checks should be conducted in the period between a property being vacated and a new tenant moving in. If this is not possible and visits are needed to an occupied property, this should be done by appointment with measures put in place to ensure physical contact is minimised, for example with residents staying in another room during the visit”.
You can find more information on inspections in Hamilton Fraser’s guide ‘Coronavirus: Everything landlords need to know’ here.
Moving out of the property
At the end of the tenancy landlords, agents and tenants should follow the latest government guidance to ensure a COVID-secure move out. With coronavirus cases and guidance changing on an almost weekly basis, agents and landlords should ensure that, like move in guidance, moving out of the property is also safe, secure and coordinated to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
For student landlords, agents and tenants this may vary dependent on term times, although this information is easily obtained directly from your student tenants or the university for forward planning. A full clean of the property is advised after tenants leave the property and before new tenants move in.
The future of student letting
The future of student letting is subject to further change much like the rest of the industry, and indeed world, as a result of COVID-19. And it is likely that many of the new processes and lettings procedures will form a ‘new normal’ in a post-COVID student rental sector. While the university landscape may look very different this year, what is clear is that many students will still be returning or starting university this September and will rely on the private rented sector and it’s student landlords and letting agents for their university home.
As a landlord or letting agent, keeping up to date with the latest guidance is therefore the best way to ensure a safe, secure and smooth tenancy. The guidance is regularly updated by the Government on GOV.UK under ‘COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities’. The guide provides further advice on possession proceedings, repairs, maintenance and health and safety applicable to the private rented sector.