When you have found a house it may be tempting to sign a contract straight away so that you do not lose the house. Once you have signed a contract however, you are legally bound by it.

It is vital that you understand what you are signing before you sign.

A housing contract will give you 'tenancy' to occupy a property. This gives you (the tenant) exclusive possession of the property for a certain period in return for payment of rent to the landlord. This means you have control over who enters the property. The document, that is legally binding, is referred to as a 'tenancy agreement'.

Types of Tenancy

1) Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST)
This is the most common type for students guaranteeing six months in the property. Landlords have to follow strict procedures before ending the tenancy and evicting you from the property. An Assurured Shorthold Tenancy can be written or oral, periodic or fixed, joint or sole.

Periodic and Fixed Term Tenancies

A periodic tenancy needs to be continually renewed e.g. every week or month. This can by done by paying rent and remaining in the property. A periodic tenancy can be ended by the service of appropriate notice on or by the landlord.

A fixed term tenancy is for a specified period of time. A fixed term tenancy cannot be broughgt to an end before the expiry of this period of time (unless there is a special 'break clause' in the agreement). If you leave early you will remain liable for unpaid rent.

Joint and Sole Tenancies

A joint tenancy occurs when more than one person in a property shares a tenancy. Joint tenants are equally entitled to joint exclusive possession of the whole of the property. A sole tenancy occurs where, even if living with others, you alone have right to exclusive possession of any accomodation you occupy.

If you are a joint tenant you are jointly and severally liable for the whole rent due on the property, breakages and disrepair.

2) Assured Tenancy

This fives greater security than an Assured Shorthold. To be 'assured' the agreement must specifically state this.

3). Licence

This is merely a licence to occupy. i.e. You (licensee) have permission to live in a room but do not have exclusive possession of it, e.g. lodging with a landlord who cleans and cooks for you. This means you have fewer rights than a tenant and offers no legal security - you can be asked to leave at any time upon 4 weeks notice from a landlord.

Terms of a tenancy agreement

Terms will vary between one agreement to another but most are standard. Be sure that you understand and are happy with each term. If you are concerned about a particular issue, negotiate with the landlord to get an appropriate term included if not already.

Some key minimum terms, which you should try and get stated in any agreement are:

  • Type of agreement (e.g. Assured Shorthold).
  • Date of agreement.
  • Parties to the agreement.
  • Address of property being rented.
  • Length of fixed term.
  • Amount of rent and what is included (e.g. water bill).
  • Details of when and how rent is payable.
  • Name, address and contact details of landlord.

Aslo try to have terms covering:

  • Rights and responsibilities of landlord.
  • Rights and responsibilities of tenant.
  • Details of ways in which an agreement may be broken.

Also get an inventory attached to the contract.

If a landlord won't provide you with a written agreement you are entitled to a written statement of the basis tenancy terms covering:

  • amount of rent payable and when it should be paid
  • any arrangements for increasing the rent
  • the date your tenancy began and the length of any fixed term

A landlord must by law provide these within 28 days of your written request.