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Are you a renter? What you need to know about your rights

The pandemic has had a big impact on the property market for renters, and changes to Victorian rental laws add another layer of complexity to the often onerous task of keeping a roof over your head.

Understanding your rental rights and responsibilities can be especially tricky if you’re a young or first-time renter, explains Dr Ameeta Jain from Deakin University’s Faculty of Business and Law.

Here’s what you need to know about changes to the rental market and what to do if you run into trouble with a dodgy agent, a poorly maintained property or finding a home for a much-loved pet.

Tracking the impact of the pandemic on rental markets

The pandemic has had a topsy-turvy impact on the rental market in Victoria.

One the one hand, there’s been a noticeable increase in rental applications for properties outside of Melbourne. People are looking further into regional areas than ever before.

‘There was an increase in migration from capital cities to regional areas during lockdowns,’ Dr Jain says, largely driven by a perception of reduced risk of pandemic-related restrictions.

Regional cities in Victoria saw a large population increase, with the City of Greater Geelong reporting the highest growth in migration across Victoria.

Yet Dr Jain says following the easing of lockdowns in Melbourne, rental applications have rebounded, with people returning to city living and vacancy rates returning to  pre-pandemic levels.

‘The loosening of restrictions in Melbourne has led to a resurgence in people applying for rental properties in metropolitan Melbourne,’ she says.

Searching for a home as a first-time renter

When you’re inspecting a potential rental property, Dr Jain says safety and the condition of the property are key areas of concern.

‘The rental should be safe, with electricity, water and internet connectivity, appropriate lockable doors and windows, adequate ventilation, in good repair, and with the contact methods for the landlord at hand,’ she says.

New rental laws also help to protect you from poorly-maintained properties and improve comfort. Landlords must inform renters if they’ve received a repair notice in the last three years about mould or damp, and all windows in bedrooms and living areas must have coverings that block light and provide privacy.

Thankfully, ‘rent bidding’ – the practice of inviting offers higher than the advertised price – is banned in Victoria. The landlord also can’t ask you to pay a bond more than one month’s rent if your rent is $900 or less per week.

Your rental must contain a fixed heater, and you’re allowed to make minor modifications like fitting picture hooks and installing low-flow shower heads.

Finding a home for you and your pet

Even though new laws require landlords to have a good reason to refuse a request to keep a pet, renting with a four-legged friend isn’t always easy. Dr Jain says many landlords turn down people with pets.

If you’re looking to keep a pet you’ll need to complete a pet request form. The landlord then has 14 days to make a decision. Crucially, the only way they can refuse your request is if they get an order from the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), which helps to resolve disputes.

Thinking about keeping a pet without consent? Don’t, says Dr Jain. If you’re found out you won’t be evicted, but your pet will.

‘If the landlord reasonably believes that the renter is keeping a pet without their consent, they may apply to VCAT for an order to exclude the pet from the property,’ Dr Jain says.

Navigating the nitty-gritty of a rental agreement

Dr Jain says it’s vital to read your rental agreement before signing on the dotted line. While it may sound obvious, a lot of people don’t read the fine print – which contains information about things like breaking the lease and rental increases – and end up getting caught out.

‘Read your rental agreement carefully and make note of contact details of the landlord or agent who will be your point of contact for any concerns and complaints,’ Dr Jain says.

When it comes to rental increases, the law is on your side. ‘The landlord is not allowed to increase the rent during a fixed-term agreement unless the rental agreement says this is okay,’ Dr Jain says. In most cases, ‘rent can’t be increased more than once every 12 months.’

But there’s very little wriggle room if you make a habit of paying your rent late. ‘If you don’t pay overdue rent within 14 days of the due date five times within a 12-month period, the landlord may give notice to vacate and apply to VCAT for a possession order,’ Dr Jain explains.

If you run into trouble while you’re renting, or you’re confused about your rights as a renter, Dr Jain recommends contacting Tenants Victoria or Consumer Affairs for information and advice.

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Dr Ameeta Jain
Dr Ameeta Jain

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Business and Law

Deakin University

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