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In February, my relative agreed to rent a house. She paid a holding deposit, and after numerous credit checks the move was agreed - to begin on 1st April 2020. She paid the deposit and first month's rent.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has meant that she has been unable to move in to the property due to the lockdown, as she's in one of the 'at risk' groups. I phoned the estate agent to explain the situation in late March, and the person (a director) told me that they'd handle the situation.

Then, on 7th April I received an email from the estate agents. It was from a different person, also a director. They offered 2 options: (a) to pay the rent as if the tenancy had commenced, making my relative responsible for all further rent, or (b) to consider the tenancy didn't go ahead, lose the deposit but they'd return the rent. They would then re-let the property.

I emailed them back, saying that my discussion in March suggested they would hold the property until it was possible to move in. I added that I understood the nature of this things was far from ideal, and suggested that the first month's rent be paid along with the deposit, in return for holding the property until lockdown measures had been eased. The person in question replied saying that she'd ask the landlady.

Today I've noticed that the property has been advertised for rent both on a sign outside and over the internet. They haven't contacted either me or the relative since the last contact on 7th April.

Of course, this is a matter for a lawyer if we were to take it up. However, what legal position would my mother be in? Surely they can't take the rent and offer to re-let the property at the same time? Would they even be entitled to retain the deposit under these circumstances? Finally, I'd rather not go down this route but is there any protection for my relative for not being forcefully 'evicted' - since she's paid the deposit, rent - and those haven't been returned?

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Unfortunately, your relative is more in the wrong here

First, the COVID situation does not change anyone's rights and obligations under a contract (see What effect does an event like the current Covid-19 pandemic have on contractural obligations?). So the landlord (through their agent) is obliged to provide the property and your relative is obliged to pay the rent and to occupy the premises (most residential leases contain a requirement for the tenant to live in the premises and not leave it empty).

Your relative (through you) has indicated that she will be in breach of her contract. The agent has considered her position and has offered two (IMO generous) alternatives:

  1. Allow her to continue with the lease without taking possession providing the rent is paid.

  2. To release her from her obligations under the contract and return the rent.

To put it in perspective, if your relative simply "walked away", she would be liable for the rent until a new tenant was found and, if that new tenant was paying less rent than she was, the difference for the duration of the lease plus the costs of finding a new tenant - advertising, agent's fees (usually 1 month's rent) etc.

Now, the landlord has an obligation to minimise your costs so advertising the property could just be prudent. However, if they lease it when your relative's contract has not been properly terminated then it is they who are in breach.

Surely they can't take the rent and offer to re-let the property at the same time?

Surely they can. What they can't do is relet the property without properly terminating your relative's lease.

Would they even be entitled to retain the deposit under these circumstances?

Absolutely. The deposit is to cover their losses if your relative breaks the lease - as she has indicated she is going to do (this is called anticipatory breach).

Finally, I'd rather not go down this route but is there any protection for my relative for not being forcefully 'evicted' - since she's paid the deposit, rent - and those haven't been returned?

Having never taken possession, she is not being evicted.

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  • Agreed. The Tenant Fees Act is still sufficiently new that it's unclear whether the landlord could reasonably charge the outgoing tenant for any costs associated with reletting. But as a minimum, as you say, they can charge the tenant rent up until a new tenancy begins. – Steve Melnikoff Apr 23 at 8:00
  • Re eviction: rather than talking about possession, I'd suggest that what's happening here is that the tenant is offering to surrender the tenancy, and the landlord is accepting that offer (subject to terms). – Steve Melnikoff Apr 23 at 8:01

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