Both renters and landlords have legal rights. As a renter do you know all your rights?

Re: News spoke with Renters United’s president Geordie Rogers to identify five rights you have but may not know about.

1: The rights of renters vs flatmates

It’s quite common for renters in New Zealand to believe that they have access to all of the rights under the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA).

Unfortunately, it’s not the same for every renter in New Zealand. It depends on what agreement you're in, whether that’s a boarding house agreement, a residential tenancy agreement, or a flatmate agreement. 

The most common ones we have in New Zealand are fixed-term tenancy agreements, that's where a group of people come together, all put their names on the lease with the landlord, or a property manager who's acting on behalf of the landlord, and you're all collectively responsible for the tenancy. That's what would be considered a tenant under the act.

One that I guess is more common among younger people, and people who traditionally experience more transience in their housing is the flatmate agreement, that's where there are some people living in the house, they might be the owner, they might be people who are renting from the owner, and they create an agreement. In this case, you don't have access to any of the rights under the RTA. 

The only way you could go through mediation would be through the Small Claims Tribunal or the Disputes Tribunal.

What can you do when your landlord doesn't comply?

The best thing to do in all of those situations is to get things in writing. It is the strongest piece of evidence you can have if you're gonna go to the tribunal, or if you have to go to the Small Claims or Disputes Tribunal. 

Having an agreement that is in writing that stipulates what one party is providing, and another party is receiving is the foundation to make your claim.

For flatmates, there are some great templates, just one page, they're short, they're not full of super legal jargon, just about the fact that you get to live in this room, and you pay this much for a week for it, and if you want to move out and give notice.

2: The Healthy Homes standards

All private rentals have to comply with the Healthy Homes standard by July 2025, regardless of whether someone started renting them 20 years ago.

If you're in a private rental, it gets slightly more complicated in the sense that if you signed your latest tenancy agreement after the 1st of July 2021, your landlord has 120 days from the day you sign that to comply. So basically, if you're in a new rental property the landlord has 120 days to be fully compliant with the Healthy Homes standards.

All boarding houses must have complied by the first of July 2021. Regardless of when you sign the tenancy agreement.

How do you qualify for Healthy Homes?

There are three aspects of the standards that I think are quite easy to check.

The first is moisture, is there water getting into your house somewhere? If there is, it's likely a breach of the Healthy Homes standards.

The second one is around draft-stopping, are there large gaps under your doors? Are your windows able to close fully? The test to see if your windows close fully is to close the window, put the latches on and if a $2 coin can fit between the window and the windowsill then it's probably not compliant with the Healthy Homes standards.

The last aspect is the heating standard, which is perhaps the more complex one but a good rule of thumb is if it's fixed in some way, so whether it's permanently on the wall or it’s a fireplace that has a chimney or a gas heater that has a flue then it probably is compliant.

3: You can make minor alterations to your home with the landlord's permission

An alteration is slightly changing the building so that it suits your requirements. 

That might mean affixing a bookshelf to the wall, or a TV to the wall, so that if there was an earthquake it doesn't fall over. It might mean, if you have accessibility requirements you might need to install a handrail or a ramp, those sorts of things are also minor alterations.

You don't have to repair something beyond reasonable wear and tear.

For example, attaching a bookshelf to the wall, or a TV to the wall, that's probably going to leave one small hole that you use to put a screw in, you wouldn't have to putty that up or paint over it. It would just be expected, reasonable wear and tear which is part of your tenancy.

How can renters ensure these rights are enforced? 

Your landlord can't refuse it if your request is reasonable. You do have to ask your landlord for permission. They can't unreasonably withhold that permission. If they do, you can take them to the Tribunal or just point to the section on the Aratohu Tenant Advocacy website where it says these are my rights. 

4: Providing notice after experiencing domestic violence

It is a new provision to the act, it's not commonly known about and I think it is incredibly important that more people know about it regardless of whether you are a renter, a tenant, in a boarding house, or a Kāinga Ora tenancy.

If you experience domestic violence, you can give two days' notice to withdraw from the tenancy, which means you can pretty much immediately vacate those properties, and remove yourself from the unsafe situation, you do not have to tell other people in the tenancy why you withdrew from it, you only need to tell the landlord.

And in terms of what evidence you have to provide, it just has to be your name, the address, and the date that it will take effect. 

[Editor’s note: The Ministry for Housing and Urban Development says a tenant using a family violence withdrawal notice must provide qualifying evidence of family violence in addition to their name, address, and the date that the withdrawal will take effect.

One type of permitted evidence is a statutory declaration by the tenant. Statutory declarations must be completed in front of an authorised witness, for example a Justice of the Peace. It is not enough for the tenant to write a statement if their statement is not witnessed by an authorised person.

There are several types of qualifying evidence that are permitted, and guidance is available on the Tenancy Services website.]

Are landlords obliged to keep it confidential?

Yep. When the tenant provides notice, the landlord must treat that as confidential. They can't disclose any of their evidence and they can't disclose any of that information to the other tenants. 

The other aspect is that the landlord can't challenge whether family violence did or did not take place. So the landlord has no right to say you're lying. They can only say whether you have or haven't provided the documentation in the correct format. 

Landlords are eligible to be fined if they disclose any of the information or if they deny any domestic violence claims.

5: Make sure you get your whole bond back

The first thing I think is important is that the bond is your money as a renter until proven otherwise. 

And in a lot of colloquial conversations, it's like, ‘Oh, that bond is held and it's owned by both parties’. No, it's held by the renter, and the landlord must prove that you have done something wrong to get access to that bond.

It's very common for landlords to say that they had to get a professional cleaner in or they had to professionally clean the carpets, they had to fill holes in the wall, to repaint the wall. All of those things a landlord can’t claim against your bond for.

If you've lived in a property for 10 years, the landlord should be expecting 10 years' worth of wear and tear that occurred on the property.

If the carpet is incredibly worn down after 20 years, that's not your responsibility to fix it. That's ultimately what you paid rent for, was for them to maintain the property. 

Have you got some examples of when the landlord has been in the wrong?

Someone I know who moved out of a tenancy was told they were going to have $500 deducted from their bond for a single dog poo that was left on the lawn. 

One of the other common ones is landlords who say, okay, I'm charging you a bond of $500 for professional cleaning, and this is an example of mine. 

Then you say to the people who actually moved in because you happen to know them, just wanted to check that the place looked like it had been professionally cleaned. And they say no, it does not. So, if they want to deduct money from your bond, ask for receipts, what evidence do you have to show it cost you this much to repair? 

What are some ways to ensure you get your bond back?

The best thing you can do in that situation is set yourself up as well as possible for your next tenancy so when you're moving in, take photos of as much as possible. 

I guess a handy tip is if you have to do lots of cleaning when you move in, that can actually be charged back to the landlord. If it's not in a reasonable state of cleanliness, you don't have to get it back to be more clean than when you received it. 

Take lots of photos, you don't necessarily need to take photos of lots of little pieces of wear and tear, but you might want to take photos of damage. 

A good property manager should be giving you the information of all the damage that they're aware of when you move. And you could also ask for a copy of that.

10 November: This article was edited to correct the number of days landlords have to comply with Healthy Homes standards, and provide further detail around providing notice after experiencing domestic violence.

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