Know what is legal and what isn’t
When your landlord screws you over
Legal consultants Frently, the Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten, and the Kamerbewoners Adviesburo know all the tricks in the dodgy landlord book. Every week, they hear from dozens of students who are worried about the legality of their rent – and they’re right to be worried. A lot of them are paying too much.
Frently, which specifically aims to help students, currently has nearly one thousand open cases. The KAB is smaller, but still gets several calls, e-mails, and visitors a week.
Stay alert. Your landlord might just be trying to screw you over.
1. Read your rental contract!
It all starts with the rental contract. You’re just one signature away from finally having your very own room. No longer will you have to leave drinks early to catch the train to go back to your parents’ house or sleep on your friends’ lumpy couch. Of course you’re itching to sign!
But, says Frently founder Denise Zonnebeld, signing might be your first mistake. ‘You have to make sure you read the contract before you sign it’, she says. ‘Especially when it comes to how long you’ll be allowed to rent your room.’
If you’re lucky, you’re signing a standard contract for a permanent (ongoing) lease that requires at least a month’s notice cancellation notice from either party. But sometimes your contract will specify a rental period – and that’s when you have to pay close attention.
Old and new
In this case, there are two kinds of rental contracts, says Zonnebeld: ‘old’ and ‘new’. If you’re presented with the old version, it means you have to stay for a minimum number of months (twelve, for example), but you can continue living there after the minimum lease requirement, and your lease becomes permanent. The new version also specifies a rental period but you can cancel at any time without notice. The only drawback is that you have to leave when the specified rental period is over – no permanent lease for you.
‘It’s important to check whether your contract says something along the lines of “cancellation possible at any time”’, says Zonnebeld. ‘This is that new type of contract. Sure, you can cancel if you don’t like your room. But this contract also means you’ll have to vacate it after a year. A lot of students don’t read that fine print.’
2. Make sure you don’t overpay!
Your rent covers your room and your utilities. Your landlord can fleece you on both.
Let’s start with the basic cost of your room. This part of the rent covers the square footage of your room and any other facilities such as a shared living room, a bike shed, or a garden. There are laws that determine how much landlords are allowed to charge you for this.
Even so, Frently has found that 75 percent of people participating in a recent ‘rent check’ survey are overpaying for their residence. ‘Many tenants don’t know there’s a limit to what they can be charged’, says Zonnebeld. ‘Since there are often a lot of candidates for a single room, many students agree to rental prices out of desperation.’
Zonnebeld gets it. ‘What else can you do? Even I, a legal expert in rental law, have been a victim. I had no place to stay and couldn’t find anything else, so I signed a contract for an overpriced studio. But I did challenge the price once I moved in. That’s the best way to fight this. Shut up, sign the contract, and fight back later. And don’t be afraid. Landlords need a really good reason to kick you out.’
Aside from basic rent, you also have to pay utilities.
‘But very few tenants are actually given an overview of the utilities at the end of the year’, says Sylvia, board member at the Kamerbewoners Adviesburo. ‘So often they can’t confirm whether they’re being overcharged. We advise tenants to write their landlords and request this overview within a certain period. Landlords have to provide this service to their tenants.’
Zonnebeld agrees: ‘the average Groningen student room will generate 70 euros in utilities. But many students pay up to 150 euros a month; if they don’t ask for an overview, landlords simply make off with the extra cash.’
Very few students know to ask for this overview, though. ‘There are too many urban legends scaring students’, says Zonnebeld. ‘About junkies being moved into houses, or tenants being kicked out. A lot of students are afraid to take action because they think it will hurt their relationship with their landlord. But don’t forget that it’s a business relationship, first. Many landlords are perfectly aware that they’re taking your money.’
3. Ask for your brokerage fees back!
If you hire someone else to find a room for you, like a real estate agent, you will be charged brokerage fees. ‘But these agents are only allowed to serve a single master, and that means they can only charge one person for their services.’ That is, if the agent is charging the homeowner to advertise the rooms, they can’t also charge potential tenants to get access to the rooms. But if the agent is working only for you – the potential tenant – they can charge you additional fees on top of your rent and security deposit.
Nevertheless, many students pay brokerage fees they shouldn’t be paying. There are several reasons for this, says Simone Hooijer, chairperson for the Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten Groningen. ‘Many students don’t even know it’s illegal. Or they’re not even aware that they even paid any brokerage fees. Agents tend to fudge things by renaming the brokerage fees as rental fees, commission, a key fee, or administrative fees.’
The scarcity of rooms in Groningen also plays a role in students being taken advantage of. ‘Every year, there are too many students and not enough rooms’, says Hooijer. ‘That means that students simply can’t afford to refuse a room.’
But taking action against your landlord can pay off, as student Josine Rawee discovered. She saw a television programme about how brokerage fees were illegal and went to the Steunpunt for help. ‘A friend and I found a room on a real estate agent’s website’, she says. ‘When we moved in, we were charged a commission fee.’
The Steunpunt Bemiddelingskosten put together a file on the real estate company, went to court, and won. ‘Make sure you know what you’re paying for’, Josine advises. ‘Even if you’re paying because you don’t want to miss out on the room, you can always challenge the costs later. I got my money back in the end.’