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SocietySeptember 27, 2022

The special horror of fixed term rentals

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Being forced to move again and again doesn’t just take an emotional toll, writes Ben Bradford – it’s also cost him thousands of dollars that could be going into a first home deposit.

I’ve been a resident of Tāmaki Makaurau for 10 years. In that time I have, depressingly, inhabited 13 different rentals.

Of course, some of those moves between places were expected, planned or entirely voluntary, as when I found myself living in a lousy flatting environment (I’ve had a few of those, but have learnt that Auckland is far too small to name names or detail specific crimes against fellow flatties).

However, most of the flatshares and rentals I’ve called home have come to an abrupt end due to a landlord selling up, moving a relative in, or to carry out renovations just as soon as the law or tenancy agreement allows. In the latter example, that usually means a brief period of sprucing up the place before returning it to market at a much higher rent.

Welcome to the world of fixed term rentals.

Photo: Getty Images

I’d say my flatting credentials in Auckland are typical, if there is such a thing. I’ve lived mainly on the tightrope of inner/outer-ring suburbs, developing an almost homing-pigeon-like sense of direction around the isthmus. I’ve lived in average-sized rooms in average-priced flats. Nothing high-end; less rainfall showers, more water pressure lotteries and being careful not to mistake the Exit Mould for shampoo.

That was until I moved in with my partner in 2020. We’re were edging further into our 30s, and shared the lofty ambition of being able to choose what to watch on our TV without an intense democratic process. As the lockdowns ramped up, we were grateful to share a refuge from the world during those uncertain times. So in an email to our property manager regarding some routine maintenance, and with our fixed term expiry still some months away, we asked if it was possible to renew our tenancy and stay on.

The reply was a one-line email, stating simply that the landlord had decided to sell up so unfortunately our tenancy would not be renewed at the end of the fixed term. Despite the empathy conveyed via the sad face emoji deployed at the end of that single line, we were pretty devastated – and frustrated that we’d only been told we’d be turfed out in a reply to an email about a broken hob.

Of course I understand the 12-month fixed term was the originally agreed tenancy, and that this is a very common starting contract as landlords size their tenants up. But we were reliable, took great care of their investment and always paid the rent on time, and naively hoped this might mean the fixed term would transform into some longer-lasting security.

What followed was a period of anxiety as we lived in, worked in and simultaneously started to pack up a house that we would now be living in for an indeterminate amount of time. We couldn’t even work to a moving date as the lockdown dragged on.

Every time a fixed term comes to an end with no prospect of staying on, it results in yet another move that is not only time-consuming, stressful and disruptive, but also a major drain on savings meant for that ever-intangible first house deposit.

I don’t really want to think about what I’ve spent on moving companies alone over the past decade – I’m now at an age where my one mate with a ute isn’t super buzzed about exchanging a day of manual labour for a few slices of pizza. That’s in addition to being forced to top up rental deposits raided for scuff marks that were definitely there when I moved in.

The government had the plight of fixed term tenants in mind when it amended the Residential Tenancies Act two years ago. One of the amendment’s key aims was to provide more security of rental tenure for both parties, and also included the admirable clause that tenants experiencing family violence will be able to withdraw from a tenancy without financial penalty.

In theory, the law now means that all fixed term tenancies will automatically roll over to a periodic tenancy, and landlords can no longer give a ‘no cause’ notice for tenants to move out.

But in practice, the usual exit clauses for landlords selling up, moving family members in, or renovating all remain. The measures the government have put in place will never fully prevent tenants having to move on when landlords request it. While rent increases are legally limited to only once every 12 months, there is no cap on the amount by which they can increase. Often it makes more financial sense for a landlord to end a tenancy for refurbishment and have the property vacant at the end of a fixed term, before relisting it for a clean start at a higher rent.

Of course, landlords are affected by changing circumstances too. My longest tenancy to date (only two and a half years) was a flat off Dominion Road that was warm, dry, secure and comfortable. The landlord was great, friendly and hands-off until you needed him to be hands-on. We had a good thing going, but ultimately when his daughter called time on her OE we had to make way for her to move in. Understandably, no amount of paying the rent on time and running dehumidifiers to battle mould will sway your landlord when their own flesh-and-blood needs a roof over their head.

So although it sounds obvious, and hopefully not too entitled, it’s worth restating that ultimately tenants will never entirely be immune to a tenancy coming to an abrupt end and their search for a home beginning anew. And with that comes a raft of impacts on day-to-day life and forward planning. Are we going to dip into our savings to move again this year? Can we plan to be out of town in the months around our renewal date?

As I write this now, we’re once again desperately close to the end of yet another fixed term tenancy. Despite asking several times, and signalling we’re hoping to stay on, the property manager has still not heard back from the landlord as to whether we will be be allowed to keep living in our home.

So once again we don’t know whether we should plan to be right where we are in six weeks’ time, or instead be spending our weekends packing and our lunch breaks scouring property listings.

Rental insecurity is psychologically agonising and emotionally exhausting. It’s also made a far bigger dent in our savings than the odd avocado on toast ever could.

Rent Week 2022 runs from September 27 to October 2. Read the best of our renting coverage here.

 

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