Thousands of people in the UK live rent free in return for providing services and sometimes, just companionship. But the sector is unregulated and such tenancies are a huge risk for both tenant and landlord alike.

An investigation by LandlordZONE into the grey area of ‘in exchange for’ renting has revealed an unreported and unregulated sector of the private rental market.

Our research among websites such as SpareRoom and Gumtree has revealed hundreds of adverts from landlords offering a variety of non-standard tenancies in return for a range of services in lieu of rent.

Matt Hutchinson, director of SpareRoom, says: “We always review these ads on their individual merits. Our key focus is on what the help would entail for the person taking the room. We generally advise the person offering the room to seek professional advice to make sure any and all legal requirements are met. The most common ‘help’ we see advertised for is housework and helping out with children – for a lot of tenants this set up works really well.”

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While these may be a convenient arrangement for the property owners and tenants involved, many of them are outside the current tenancy laws and expose both sides to considerable risks.

The types of services requested by home owners and landlords in return for free accommodation include property management, au pair work, companionship, carer services, house cleaning, dog sitting and, in a few recent cases, sex or ‘modelling work’.

Citizens’ Advice warns anyone considering renting a room ‘in exchange for services’ from a landlord that they could be left without protection from eviction.

It also urges both landlord and ‘tenant’ to agree a clear statement of terms in writing in the event of a dispute, because sharing living accommodation with, or living in the same building as their landlord or not paying rent can leave these people unprotected

Amy Hughes, from the Expert Advice Team at Citizens Advice, told LandlordZONE: “These ‘excluded occupiers’ are only required to get ‘reasonable’ notice in the absence of a contract and that landlords don’t need a court order to evict them.”

But someone who lives in the same building as their landlord but doesn’t share living accommodation is likely to have a bit more security; these ‘occupiers with basic protection’ are entitled to at least 28 days written notice and a court order, but not the two months’ notice under the Housing Act 1988.

Statutory protection

Someone who doesn’t share any accommodation with, or live in the same building as their landlord, could still lose statutory protection if they don’t pay rent, unless they can demonstrate the tenancy was granted for the performance of services.

Says Hughes: “This may be a grey area, for example a person providing cleaning or childcare for 15 hours a week in return for a room is on more certain ground than a person who agrees to provide more general ‘companionship’ without any particular identified tasks or hours.

“It’s important to be clear about exactly what services are required, and the extent, frequency and manner in which it is expected these will be performed.”

Hughes points out that there is far more potential for dispute over whether sufficient ‘companionship’ has been provided than there is over whether an agreed amount of rent has been paid.”

One issues that Shelter has been campaigning on is the ‘sex for rent’ scandal in Scotland. It believes there is a vast amount of under-reporting of cases where tenants are asked by landlords for sex in exchange for rent.

And in another case of property listings being illegitimately used to abuse people looking to rent, a young woman in Whitstable this week tweeted her messages exchanged with a ‘landlord’ who offered to lower her rent in exchange for nude photos. The man told Georgia Linehan she could get £200 off her £695 monthly rent – but it transpired he had used photos of a two-bedroom house which was up for sale on Zoopla to trick her.

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