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More rights for renters: Eight changes to the Residential Tenancies Act

October 15, 2019

If you're renting a property in the ACT, good news! A raft of recently announced changes to the Residential Tenancies Act are slated to take effect in November. These are intended to:

  • make it easier for tenants to keep pets
  • make it easier for tenants to make modifications to rental properties
  • limit rental increases to a prescribed amount
  • amend provisions dealing with domestic violence and personal protection orders,
  • amend the fees you’re liable to pay if you break a fixed term tenancy agreement

But wait, haven’t you already read about these changes? No. There have been two sets of changes in recent years. Last year, the snappily titled Residential Tenancies Amendment Act Changes 2017 came into effect. You can refresh your memory on what those involved by reading our article on the subject.

Now we’re looking at a whole new set of changes, imaginatively called the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2018 (No 2). Yes, we know.

Originally scheduled to come into effect in March 2020, the government recently announced that they would be implemented in November 2019 instead. Just in time for Christmas!

We chatted to Grace Hooper, Head of Property Management Growth at Independent, about what the changes mean for you.

Rental increases 

Have you ever had a major rent rise and struggled to find the extra cash? This change is intended to smooth out rental increases and get rid of those nasty surprises.

Under the changes, landlords can’t increase the rent by more than the prescribed amount without permission from ACAT.

What is the prescribed amount? It’s 10% greater than the rents component of the housing group of the Consumer Price Index for Canberra. In simpler terms, your landlord can only increase rent by the rate of inflation in Canberra rentals, plus 10%. If the CPI is 4.2%, they can increase the rent by a maximum of 4.62%.

If you agree to a higher rent rise, or your landlord appeals to ACAT and they agree that it’s reasonable, the rise can be higher. This won’t apply in most cases - only if the property has been significantly renovated or the rental market has changed significantly.

“We look at the local market before making recommendations to owners,” says Grace. “If rents have gone up a lot, we might recommend a higher rise. Most of the time, though, rental increases stay pretty much in line with CPI.”

If your landlord does intend to raise the rent, they must give you eight weeks notice, and the notice must meet legislative requirements. If you’re not sure what these are, you can check with your property manager.

Pets

No more hiding Fluffy in the linen cupboard when it’s time for your property inspection. The new legislation states that you’re allowed to keep a pet unless ACAT upholds an objection from your landlord.

“We very rarely see problems with pets,” Grace says. “A good tenant is usually a good pet owner. They take pride in their home and look after it whether they own an animal or not. We’d much rather know that the pet is there so we can allow for it in our inspection reports.”

Reasons to refuse include:

  • That the premises are unsuitable for the pet
  • That unreasonable damage would result
  • That the pet/s would be a threat to public health
  • That the landlord would suffer financial hardship
  • That keeping the pet is contrary to ACT law

That means they can say no if you apply to have a goat in your one-bedroom apartment or refuse your exotic, venomous snake that you’re not supposed to have anyway.

Your landlord can impose conditions including cleaning and maintenance requirements and limits on the number of pets allowed.

Special modifications 

If you have a disability, you may make modifications to the property that make life easier for you in this regard. You’ll need a written recommendation from a health practitioner to do so. Modifications include physical changes as well as alterations that improve safety, security and energy efficiency or offer better access to telecommunications.

These things might include a handrail in the shower or a ramp to help you bypass stairs.

You must pay for the modifications. Your landlord may not refuse consent for the change unless they apply to ACAT and satisfy them that:

  • The landlord will suffer hardship
  • The modification is contrary to existing law
  • The modification will require changes to common areas in a strata development
  • The modification will result in additional maintenance costs for the landlord
Minor modifications 

You also have the right to make minor modifications to a property, such as hanging a picture or painting a wall, if the property can be easily restored to its pre-leased state prior to vacating the property. You must pay for the modification unless otherwise agreed with your landlord.

Your landlord can only refuse consent if it is reasonable in the circumstances. The considerations are the same as for disability modifications.

“They still need to bring the property back to its original condition at the end of the lease. That’s why it’s important to have a really thorough initial inspection so that everyone has a clear record of the property’s original condition." Grace says. "Routine inspections should also be detailed. That way, there are no arguments at the end of the lease.”

Domestic violence and personal protection

Tenants may apply to ACAT for a ‘no cause’ termination of the lease, to either leave the property or have a new lease issued in cases of domestic violence and personal protection orders. Where ACAT issues such a notice, ACAT may decide that the tenant will not be charged any advertising or letting fees, or other penalties.

No cause termination

If you are given a no cause termination of your tenancy, you can now vacate by giving three weeks notice, rather than waiting until the last two weeks of the term. If you give notice in the last two weeks of the term, you are still required to give four days’ notice.

Break lease fees

Break lease fees have been limited, making it less punitive to break your lease early. Under the changes, if you break your fixed term lease, your landlord can only charge fees in line with the actual loss they sustain. If they find a new tenant quickly, the amount you owe will be reduced by the amount that is offset by the new tenant.

Your landlord also has an obligation to find a new tenant as quickly as is reasonable. If you know someone looking for a property, why not pass their name along as a gesture of good will?

Advertising

If your landlord has had specific conditions endorsed by ACAT, they must include them in the advertisement for the property.

These include

  • a clause in your tenancy agreement which is inconsistent with standard tenancy terms
  • conditions relating to the keeping of a pet or pets

That way, you know what the conditions are before you apply, saving both parties time and money if they don’t suit your needs.

Bottom line? It might not be your name on the title, but there is growing recognition that it’s still your home. The new changes mean you now have a little more freedom to feel comfortable there.

Grace sees it as a win-win.

“In the long term, tenants want somewhere they can feel comfortable and at home. And the key objective for an owner is to keep good tenants.  Less vacancies mean less wear and tear on the property and are good for both parties. If our tenants make the home a little bit more homely for themselves, they’ll be happier and stay longer.”

If you have any questions about the upcoming changes, get in touch with your property manager. It’s their job to understand the legislation and help you stay across your obligations as a tenant.