More needs to be done to tackle landlords unfairly targeting students with deposit deductions at the end of their tenancies, the National Union of Students (NUS) has said. For some renters, amounts can total hundreds of pounds.
"I think landlords look at us and think we're just these dumb kids who don't know what we're doing," Jessica Hickey tells the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme. "It's not fair, it's not OK."
The University of Lincoln graduate has been challenging her deposit deduction - amounting to £1,600 between four housemates - for two months.
Strictly speaking, landlords and letting agents can make deductions only up to the total amount of a tenant's deposit but Jessica's have added an additional £400 fee to the £1,200 they have held back.
"They decided we've not left the property in a fit state," Jessica says. "Even though we've been there for two years, they've not allowed for wear and tear.
"We've been charged for weeding, we've apparently left the garden in not a fit state even though we had the next-door neighbour come over with his strimmer."
Jessica says they have also been charged for issues they themselves reported to the landlord earlier in the tenancy, asking for them to be fixed.
She says not having their deposits returned has had a serious impact on some of her housemates. One was relying on the money to go towards the deposit on a house he was purchasing. Another has been unable to put a down payment on a car.
"The £300 was a stepping stone to leave university with... and it's all been put on hold," she says.
There are legitimate reasons for landlords and letting agents to deduct deposits - such as unpaid rent or direct damage to property - but the Victoria Derbyshire programme has heard from dozens of students who say they are being penalised beyond this.
The Tenant Fees Act was introduced earlier this year to protect renters from unfair agency fees but it does not cover the issue of deposit deductions.
Landlords are obliged to put deposits into the government-backed Tenancy Deposit Scheme at the beginning of a tenancy, which helps resolve any future disputes.
But students say this requirement is often ignored or the procedure for challenging a decision leads to a long delay - during which time their entire deposit is withheld- and many challenges end with them losing out anyway.
Benjamin McNeil, in Cardiff, also has a battle to recover his deposit.
His letting agents deducted £900 of his and his housemates' £1,400 deposit.
- £150 for cleaning the property, even though, he says: "It was far cleaner when we left than when [we] moved in"
- £30 for rubbish removal, even though, he says, they ensured nothing was left behind
- £100 "essentially to paint over mould" in one of the bedrooms, which, he says, the housemates had repeatedly asked the letting agents to do throughout their tenancy
The case has now been resolved, with the housemates receiving £500 of the disputed amount - but Benjamin says it has caused unnecessary stress.
"After you graduate, you don't want to spend the next two months contesting to get every penny back," he says.
According to NUS's 2019 Homes Fit For Study report, just 61% of surveyed students who paid a deposit said they had received it back in full at the end of their tenancy:
- 27% said they had challenged the deductions formally but ended up paying them anyway
- 24% said they had not formally challenged the deductions but had disagreed with them
The NUS is now calling for a tightening of legislation in this area.
"What we're seeing more and more is unfair contracts," says the organisation's vice-president, Eva Crossan Jory, "landlords charging for things that are the result of wear-and-tear or where students have complained about something not working, the landlord doesn't fix it and then at the end of the tenancy tries to charge them for the breaking of said appliance.
"The government should be doing more to penalise landlords when they do break the law."
Currently, the government advises tenants to check their deposit is:
- not more than five weeks' rent
- paid into the Tenancy Deposit Scheme
Meera Chindooroy from the National Landlords Association told the BBC: "Most landlords do not take unreasonable deductions from deposits, with an NUS survey last year showing that the majority of students [61%] who pay a deposit have it returned in full.
"It's important that students understand their responsibilities in looking after the property - and that if they disagree with the landlord on damage, they can raise a dispute."
Some students are now fighting back.
In Lincoln, graduate Natasha Hopewell was threatened with deductions amounting to almost all of her deposit and is now creating a forum for students in the city to warn others about bad practice.
"We got together and we made a website where students can review their student accommodation providers," the founder of CribAdviser says.
"It's all anonymous but it means students can warn one another of difficult letting agents and take control of our own tenancy by taking an informed decision."
For those who feel mistreated, like Jessica and Benjamin, such initiatives may be a welcome start.
"It seems to be part of the process that landlords will try and get money out of you because they know most people won't fight it," Benjamin says.