A contract can be a verbal or written agreement. However, it is much better to have a written than a verbal agreement as this way both parties know what is expected of them. This clarity helps to avoid disputes that might otherwise arise.

Types of Contracts in Use: What to Look Out For

The type of contract you sign will depend on where you’ll be living:

  • A house, flat or bedsit rented directly from a landlord/agent;
  • A room or flat rented from a university or college or;
  • In the home of an owner to whom you pay rent.

Renting from a Landlord or Agent

Most landlords or agents use an Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement. This is usually for a fixed term of 6 or 12 months; in other words, it has a start date and an end date.

If you sign a fixed term contract, you are responsible for paying rent for the full period, regardless of your circumstances. This type of agreement means that you are a tenant and have exclusive possession of the property. The landlord or agent can have access to the property (e.g. for repairs/inspections), but you should be given notice and they should only call during reasonable working hours.

Living with an Owner

Normally, if you live with the owner of the property and share the accommodation, you will either be:

  • A licensee (if the owner of the property has unrestricted access to your room);
  • Or, an excluded tenant (if you can lock your individual room/s).

The length of the agreement will vary depending on whether the owner wants you to stay for a specified period of time, or if they are happy for you to stay on a periodic basis (for example, month to month). You will have a bedroom and probably share the rest of the property with the owner and possibly other students. This can be a complex area if problems occur and you should always seek advice.

Living in University Accommodation

You will normally sign a fixed-term agreement covering the full academic year unless this is a short-term let. Like with the Shorthold Tenancy Agreement, you are liable to pay rent for the full period regardless of your circumstances and will be unable to leave (give notice to quit) within the period of the contract.

You will be an unprotected tenant and will have the right to occupy a specific room and common areas (i.e. bathroom/kitchen). The accommodation services or contractors they enlist can have access to the common parts, for example for cleaning purposes.

Contract Liability

If you are planning on moving into a shared property, you need to be aware that your contract will make you responsible and accountable to your landlord (for example, for rent arrears and damage to the property) in one of two ways:

  • Joint liability;
  • Individual liability

Joint Liability

If you have signed a single contract with all of your housemates and you all agree to rent the property at the same time, you will be jointly liable with each of your housemates for any rent arrears and/or damage to the property - even if you are not responsible for it. So, if one tenant moves out, the landlord/agent can pursue the remaining tenants (as well as the tenant who has left) for any monies due. It is important to think very carefully about entering into a contract like this.

Individual Liability

If you have signed a separate agreement with the landlord or agent, you would be liable for any damage to your own room. If another tenant leaves, the landlord or agent cannot ask that you cover their rent. The landlord or agent can make a charge for any damage to the communal areas but they have to try and find out who was responsible first.

What Should be in a Contract?

The contract should include the full contact details of the landlord/agent. If you are renting via an agency make sure you also have the landlord's full contact details. You are legally entitled to this information. If you have just a name and telephone number, it could be very difficult to pursue the landlord/agent should a dispute arise. The contract should also make clear what rent payments are due and when. In addition to this, it should be clear who is responsible for the bills, e.g. water rates.

Before you sign a contract, check that the advertised rent is what is stated on the contract. Errors do occur and if you sign the contract, it may be difficult to argue later, especially if you do not have the original advert.

Once a contract has been signed the terms and conditions cannot be altered unless both parties agree.

It is important to never sign a contract on behalf of your housemates. If they do not sign the agreement and decide not to move in, you could be held liable for the rent of the whole house, even if their name is on the contract.

Guarantees and Parents' Financial Liability

As part of the agreement, some landlords or agents will present you with a guaranteeand ask you to get (usually) a parent or guardian to guarantee your payments to the landlord if you are unable or unwilling to pay. It is very important that any such guarantee specifically limits your parents' financial liability to just their offspring's rent/damages. If you enter into a contract with joint liability and your guardian signs a general guarantee, there is a significant financial risk to your guardian. If another tenant moves out or fails to pay the rent, your parents could be taken to court under the terms of the guarantee, even if you have paid your rent. 

The advice is: don't ask your parents to enter into any guarantee which does not specify the limit of financial liability being guaranteed.

Before anyone signs, it is important that both you and your guardian understand that if you default on rent or do not pay for the cost of damage, they will be responsible for making payment.

If you have no obvious guarantee, you should raise this with the landlord concerned. Many will be willing to accept that, for you, a guarantee may not be necessary and other arrangements may be more appropriate. If you are an international student, a parent or guardian who is outside of the UK is also unlikely to be appropriate because legal proceedings to enforce any arrangement outside the UK can be difficult.

How can the SU help? 

We are able to check through contracts before they are signed and offer advice on this area. If you find yourself in a dispute over a contract, then we might also be able to help outline your rights, and in some cases mediate on your behalf.