Q & A: Rent and the problem with pets
As society has had to come to terms with isolation and an empty social calendar, many have taken in a furry friend to fill the void – and a pandemic puppy boom has emerged.
The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association reported that approximately 3.2m households in the UK have welcomed a new fluffy or furry addition to their homes since the outbreak of Covid-19, with the majority falling in the prime renting demographic of the under-35s age bracket. Meanwhile, the government reports that only 7% of private landlords advertise pet-friendly properties. This creates an obvious tension, leaving many renters struggling to find a new home that would welcome their pets.
When it comes to pet ownership in rented accommodation, tenants are, to a large extent, at the mercy of their landlords.
Many tenancy agreements contain covenants absolutely preventing a tenant from keeping a pet at the property. Others might allow for pets on the condition of the landlord’s prior consent having been granted. Of those, a landlord might reserve a right to withdraw its consent at any time and for any reason. This is a perilous position for a tenant – often having to make an unpalatable choice between their home or their pet, and with the knowledge that pet-friendly rental properties are hard to come by.
There are some limitations to landlords’ power. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 prohibits “unfair terms” within a contract. This means that, if a provision within a contract (for instance, a tenancy agreement) contains a term that is considered to be unfair, it will be struck out. In this context, this effectively means that a clause that provides a blanket ban on a pet living in the property is at risk of being struck out entirely, which would mean that a tenant would be free to keep a pet at the tenanted property.
Therefore, landlords should think carefully about their pet clauses. To avoid falling into this trap, it may be safer to allow pets with landlord’s prior consent, and any requests for a pet should not be unreasonably refused.
What constitutes an unreasonable refusal is not an exact science. For example, it might well be reasonable for a landlord to refuse a request for a wild Rottweiler in a small flat in a tower block, but it might not be reasonable to refuse consent for a docile Dachshund in a detached freehold house. Equally, it might be reasonable for landlords to refuse pets in furnished accommodation where there is a risk of items belonging to the landlord being ruined. With tenancy deposit limits imposed by the Tenant Fees Act 2019 (capped at five weeks’ rent in most cases), such an argument is more sustainable.
Irrespective of these limitations, in practice many tenants will inevitably consider that it would be easier to find a pet-friendly property than raise such arguments.
The government is alive to the rising tension. On 28 January 2021, it released its newly revised model tenancy agreement.
With this release, housing minister Christopher Pincher said: “We are a nation of animal lovers, and over the last year more people than ever before have welcomed pets into their lives and homes. But it can’t be right that only a tiny fraction of landlords advertise pet-friendly properties, and in some cases people have had to give up their beloved pets in order to find somewhere to live.
“Through the changes to the tenancy agreement we are making today, we are bringing an end to the unfair blanket ban on pets introduced by some landlords. This strikes the right balance between helping more people find a home that’s right for them and their pet while ensuring landlords’ properties are safeguarded against inappropriate or badly behaved pets.”
While this statement may be welcomed by many pet-owning tenants, the devil is in the detail. The model tenancy agreement is voluntary, and many landlords will have their own form of tenancy agreement which will be drafted – in most cases – with their own requirements in mind. Landlords will only be compelled to follow the clauses in the model tenancy agreement if they enter into an agreement containing them. The pertinent clause of the model tenancy agreement reads as follows:
“A Tenant must seek the prior written consent of the Landlord should they wish to keep pets or other animals at the Property. A Landlord must not unreasonably withhold or delay a written request from a Tenant without considering the request on its own merits. The Landlord should accept such a request where they are satisfied the Tenant is a responsible pet owner and the pet is of a kind that is suitable in relation to the nature of the premises at which it will be kept. Consent is deemed to be granted unless the written request is turned down by a Landlord with good reason in writing within 28 days of receiving the request. A Landlord is prohibited from charging a fee to a Tenant who wishes to keep pets or other animals at the Property. Permission may be given on the condition that the Tenant pays an additional reasonable amount towards the deposit, but the deposit must not breach the deposit cap requirements under the Tenant Fees Act 2019.”
However, parliament is contemplating adding some bite in addition to the government’s bark. A short eight-page Dogs and Domestic Animals (Accommodation and Protection) Bill was introduced on 9 February 2021 and has been proposed by a cross-party selection of MPs. Its stated aim is “to establish rights to keep dogs and other animals in domestic accommodation; to make provision about the protection of the welfare of dogs and other domestic animals; and for connected purposes”.
The Bill provides a general right to keep a dog or other domestic animal in rented or temporary domestic accommodation in England, and this right is notwithstanding any agreement or contract to the contrary. Although this would appear to be a bold step in the right direction from a tenant’s perspective, the Bill does attempt to strike a balance with the interests of the landlord.
For instance, this right is subject to the pet owner holding a “certificate of responsible animal guardianship” or the landlord holding a “certificate of exemption”. Some detail is provided within the Bill as to how these certificates can be obtained:
l In the case of pet owners, it is likely that they will have to demonstrate that they are a “responsible animal guardian”, that they have taken measures necessary for the welfare of their pet, and that their pet is healthy and well-trained. In the case of dogs and cats, they will need to be microchipped. In the case of dogs only, they will need to be appropriately vaccinated and be responsive to basic commands.
l In the case of landlords, they might be able to apply for an exemption on the grounds of religious or medical reasons or because the property is unsuitable for that pet.
At the time of writing, the Bill is awaiting its second reading in the House of Commons and the detail remains light. It is also true that many such Bills do not end up becoming law – some commentators have suggested a similar fate awaits this one. What these latest events do show is that there is movement towards redressing the balance on pet ownership in rented accommodation towards tenants.
Landlords should be prepared
As things stand, tenants still have few means of redress in cases where landlords are not willing to allow them to keep their pets at the rented property. However, with cross-party support for a change in approach, landlords might be best advised to ensure that they take a reasonable case-by-case approach to such requests and have this reflected in the terms of any contractual agreement.
This might be in the form of compiling a list of reasonable requirements that have to be met, which might broadly follow those suggested in the Bill. Not only would such an approach reduce the possibility of any terms falling foul of the existing legislation, it could potentially open up a broader market as pet ownership continues to rise.
This article first appeared in Estates Gazette. For more information please contact Samuel Lear or your usual Charles Russell Speechlys contact.