Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: Tenants’ rights in Australia explained

Source: AAP/Dan Himbrechts

When renting a property, tenants have key rights and responsibilities. However a new survey says many renters experience anxiety and discrimination, with new migrants particularly vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation in the housing market.

Renting can be a tough process in Australia’s booming property market.

A survey by Choice, National Shelter and the National Association of Tenant Organisations shows many renters experience anxiety, insecurity and discrimination.

The survey found over 80 per cent of renters had a lease shorter than 12 months or don’t have a fixed term. Choice C-E-O Alan Kirkland says this leaves renters at risk.

"The rules make it really easy for people to suffer discrimination at the moment, because people have very little security of tenure. Many people are on rolling leases that go from month to month and can be really easily cancelled. When you get to the end of a lease, if you've got one, your rights are really limited."

The survey found one in four people needing urgent repairs to their rental property, waited more than a week for a response. And one in seven renters didn’t want to complain or request repairs, fearing a rent hike, blacklisting or eviction.

Head of the housing organisation National Shelters, Adrian Pisarski says renters often avoid making complaints.  

"The longer people have been tenants, the less likely they are to make a complaint. It says to me that tenants who have been in the rental market for a long time have a bitter experience of making complaints."

NSW Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe says they’re working closely with community organisations in protecting tenants' rights.

"We particularly recognise how difficult it is for new arrivals, because one of the very first things you need to do is to find somewhere where you can live, and we also recognise that in their countries of origin they may not have the same laws and requirements, so we're, you know, anxious to make sure that we can assist those communities better understand their responsibilities and their rights."

They’ve produced a video resource called Renting a home: a tenant's guide to rights and responsibilities.

When starting a tenancy, there are checks renters should make. You should be given a new tenant checklist by your real estate agent or landlord.

"So, that's a copy of the checklist, a copy of the lease or a copy of the tenancy agreement as it is known and two copies of the premise's condition report. So that's the report that says what condition the property is in when you move in. You'll also be given a bond lodgement form for you to sign, so you can get that lodged with Fair Trading and of course you'll get the keys to your new home."

Rod Stowe says before signing, people should read their lease closely.

"So you need to read it through very thoroughly. One of the things you need to check for instance is, how long will the lease be for. Will it be six months, will it be for twelve months? You need to know how the rent is to be paid. What intervals. You also need to make sure that you understand if there are repairs to be done. That the repairs will be done before you move in. Or if the landlord or the real estate agent is promising to make repairs; you need to make sure you get that in writing. So that you know it's very clear what's been agreed to between the parties."

When moving in, it's the tenants' responsibility to fill in a condition report and return it to the agent or the landlord within seven days. Renters also have certain rights during their tenancy.

Rod Stowe says renters should be able to continue to live in a way which doesn't disturb their normal activities.

"You are entitled for instance to have repairs undertaken. Similarly, you're entitled during that period of time to ask for additional things. So if you wanted to do some minor alterations to the property or if you wanted to keep a pet you have to ask permission. It's also a right of the tenant if the owner decides to sell the house, then there's a restriction on the number of times people can be shown through the house. You're also entitled to be given 60 days’ notice of any increase in the rents that you are paying to the landlord."

In NSW tenants have the right to dispute rent increases or address a landlord who has been negligent in maintaining a property, by going to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

However if tenants don’t pay their rent, landlords can ask tenants to leave with 14 days' notice. NSW Fair Trading commissioner Rod Stowe says tenants can dispute that if they think it's unfair.

"You need to lodge an application with the tribunal. And the tribunal will then determine whether or not you are able to make up the money that hasn't been paid. Usually if you can make up the amount of money that you owe, the tenancy can continue on. But if you frequently get behind with your rent, then it's likely that the tribunal will agree to your tenancy be terminated. Another reason for termination might be that the owner wants to sell the property. And in those circumstances they got to give you 90 days' notice that they intend doing that. Then again, if you so wish, you could also dispute that at the tribunal."

Housing support organisation National Shelters’ Head Adrian Pisarski says many new arrivals also experience difficulties recovering their bonds and are reluctant to challenge decisions of landlords through tenancy tribunals.

He says the law isn’t always on the side of renters.

"There is a real definite and very significant power imbalance between tenants and landlords, and, unfortunately, landlords have the whip hand (power) when it comes to tenancy law."

NSW Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe says the most important thing is putting any request in writing when dealing with real estate agents or landlords.

"Because if there's a dispute at some stage or another, it's much easy to work those things out. So make sure you put things in writing, whether it's an email or a letter. Make sure you pay your rent. Even if there's a dispute or a problem, continue to pay your rent during that period of time and then try to work out the problem in some other way. And also make sure you get permission of the landlord for any additional people you want to stay in the house, or any alterations you want to make."

Fact sheets and more information about tenants’ rights and responsibilities are available in each state and territories in several languages.

For NSW visit www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au and for Victoria visit www.consumer.vic.gov.au