Ask the expert: Top 10 FAQs on landlord-tenant disputes

10 min read

For the month of October 2017, is collaborating with Asia Law Network to bring great property-related legal content to readers written by Asia Law Network Premium Lawyers. In the second topic of the series, we bring you the top 10 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about landlord-tenant disputes. 

As with most things in life, it pays to be slightly paranoid in tenancy matters, whether you are the landlord or the tenant. While most transactions between landlord and tenant are amicable, they can frequently become the source of dispute and distress for both sides.

In this article, I’d like to share the top most frequently asked questions (FAQs) and share practical and useful tips to assist you so you know how to avoid these situations and navigate your way through them if tenant-landlord disputes cannot be avoided.

Do note that the answers to these FAQ largely depend on the terms agreed and set out in the tenancy agreement and each situation depends on its facts.

Here are the top 10 questions that we hear about landlord-tenant disputes as lawyers.

Questions from tenants

Question #1: What happens to my good faith deposit if I do not wish to enter into the Tenancy Agreement after signing the Letter of Intent?”

A Letter of Intent (“LOI”) is an agreement to enter into a tenancy agreement later on. Whether the deposit can be recovered depends on the terms of the LOI.  Unless otherwise drafted, most LOIs state that the deposit will be forfeited by the landlord if the deal falls through.  It is therefore pertinent for you (or your agent) to negotiate that this term be amended.

Question #2: Can my landlord enter my apartment when I am not at home?”

A landlord cannot enter an apartment without the tenant’s permission or a court order.  Most tenancy agreements allow for landlords and/or their authorised representatives to enter into the premises for the following reasons:

  • By prior appointment to view the condition of the premises and to conduct repairs
  • By prior appointment, to show the property to prospective tenants and/or purchasers

Question #3: “I’m encountering problems with the property, the water heater is leaking and the appliances are breaking down. The landlord claims he will get it fixed but it never gets done and I don’t want to pay for it since it should be the landlord’s duty to make sure this is working. What should I do?”

Depending on the terms of the tenancy agreement, the tenant is usually responsible to pay the expenses of any minor repairs or replacements to the premises or furniture up to a certain limit.  Currently, we see the limit is usually between $150 to $300 depending on the fixtures, furnishings and furniture.  The landlord will cover the remaining expense above the limit.

Repairs that cost above the specified limit will usually require the landlord’s approval.  The landlord will typically reserve the right not to pay to repair the damage which arose out of the tenant’s own negligence.  Some agreements will also include the landlord’s preferred contractors.

In the above situation, assuming that the landlord is expected to pay a portion of the cost of the repairs, the tenant would require the landlord’s approval for the repairs.  The tenant should give the landlord written notice of the fact that the water heater is not working and provide a quotation for the repair works.

If the landlord does not respond within a reasonable period, you have given the landlord notice and it is an emergency situation, you can engage a contractor to perform the repairs and claim for the expenses incurred provided these expenses are reasonable.

Question #4: Can I withhold rent if the landlord is not maintaining the premises?”

Generally, you cannot withhold rent.  Most tenancy agreements provide that tenants are to pay the rent without any deduction whatsoever and this would usually be a technical breach of the tenancy agreement.

Question #5: What if I want to terminate my tenancy before the end of the term? I have a legitimate reason and need to break my lease early.”

The tenancy can only be terminated as provided in the tenancy agreement.  In the absence of a diplomatic clause, you would have no right to early termination.  You would have to negotiate with your landlord to determine how best to proceed.

The landlord can claim against you rental for the months in which the landlord is unable to find a tenant at the same rate.

If you negotiated a diplomatic clause, you will be able to terminate your tenancy before the end of the term without penalty.A diplomatic clause is a clause in tenancy agreements where the tenant is a company and the occupier is an employee and parties agree that the tenant can terminate the tenancy agreement with notice if the tenant is posted overseas or if the intended occupier is no longer an employee of the tenant company. You should, therefore, try to negotiate to include this clause into your tenancy agreement should you expect any possibility that you might have to break your lease early (e.g. to move to another country for a job assignment).

Question #6: I have completed the term of the tenancy and have moved out of the premises. The landlord is withholding my security deposit and is citing reasons that I think are unreasonable. Now that it’s happening, what can I do to get my security deposit back?”

Depending on the terms of the tenancy agreement, the landlord must usually return the balance deposit to the tenant within 14 days after the expiry or termination of the tenancy agreement.

The security deposit serves to protect a landlord against breaches of the tenancy agreement.  If the landlord refuses to return the security deposit, the landlord must justify why. A tenant should write to his/her landlord to ask why the security deposit is being withheld.

If the landlord does not state why he/she is withholding the security deposit, the landlord will be in breach of the tenancy agreement.  If the landlord informs you that he/she is using the security deposit to cover the cost of some repairs or to compensate for some breach of the tenancy agreement, the landlord has to account for the sums used in a reasonable manner.  If the reasons and costs cited by the landlord are unreasonable, the landlord may be in breach of the tenancy agreement

If there is a disagreement between yourself and your landlord over the deposit, you can sue your landlord in the small claims tribunal if the following criteria are met:

  • The premises are residential premises
  • The contract is for a lease/ rental of the premises
  • The contract is for a maximum term of 2 years
  • The claim is up to $10,000 (if your landlord agrees, claims for up to $20,000 may be brought in the small claims tribunal)
  • Your claim arose less than 1 year ago

Question #7: How can I avoid the situation where the landlord withholds my deposit?”

The security deposit protects a landlord from breaches to the tenancy agreement.  To reduce the risk of problems arising from the security deposit, you should comply with the tenancy agreement and keep records of the following:

  • Regular payment of rent;
  • Pictures/ videos of the premises, fixtures and appliances before the commencement of the term of tenancy;
  • Pictures/ videos of the premises, fixtures and appliances after the end of the term of tenancy; and
  • Any correspondence between the tenant and the landlord in which parties have agreed to vary their rights under the tenancy agreement (i.e. if your landlord allowed alteration of the premises or the furniture or if your landlord allowed early termination of the lease)

It would be ideal to conduct a joint inspection with the landlord to check if there are any valid issues that the landlord may have regarding the state of the premises at the time of handing over.

Question #8: Can I withhold payment of my last month of rental to set-off against my security deposit?”

Unless negotiated otherwise, most tenancy agreements will prevent you from using your deposit to set-off against the rental.  The landlord would then have a claim against you for late payment of rental.

Questions from landlords

Question #9: What checks should I do before renting out my property to a prospective tenant?”

At the very least, you need to carry out a background check on your prospective tenant (and the people whom you know will be occupying the premises) before renting your house to him/her to check they have valid immigration passes/work passes.  For further information on the requisite checks, please refer to this link.

If the tenant or occupiers do not have valid immigration passes/work passes and/or has overstayed the duration of the said passes, a landlord may be charged with the criminal offence of harbouring if he/she did not perform the full background checks.   Depending on the severity of the offence, the landlord can be punished with a fine, a jail imprisonment term or both.

Given the severe consequences, it is crucial to perform the necessary checks.  It will also be useful for you to make and keep copies of the documents referred to in performing the requisite checks so that you can prove that you made the necessary checks.

Question #10: My tenant is always late in paying the rent and has even missed payments. What should I do?

You should send your tenant written reminders for the late and missed payments of rent. You may also consider negotiating with your tenant on the terms of payment of the late and missed rent payments.

If your tenant continues to breach the terms relating to the payment of rent in the tenancy agreement despite your reminders, you can claim for your rental and the late payment interest (if allowed in the tenancy agreement) against your tenant in court.  If your case meets the following criteria, you can pursue a claim in the Small Claims Tribunal:

  • The premises are residential premises
  • The contract is for a lease/ rental of the premises
  • The contract is for a maximum term of 2 years
  • The claim is up to $10,000 (if your tenant agrees, claims for up to $20,000 may be brought in the small claims tribunal)
  • Your claim arose less than 1 year ago

If your claim does not meet the above criteria, you can speak to lawyers to commence a Writ of Summons or a Writ of Distress.

In addition, depending on the terms of the tenancy agreement, you can utilize the security deposit.

Speak to Raina about tenancy disputes

If you have questions on tenancy disputes, you can request a quote from Raina. You can also get a quick consult with one of the practicing lawyers on Asia Law Network. With Quick Consult, you can check out in minutes and for a transparent, flat fee of S$49, the lawyers will call you back on the phone within 1-2 days to answer your questions and give you legal advice.

This article is written by Raina Chugani from Lalwani Law Chambers

The information contained in this article is provided for general information only. Nothing contained in this article is intended to constitute or substitute legal advice, nor does it create a solicitor-client relationship.  We urge you to always seek professional legal advice even if the information in our article appears to address your queries and questions.  If in doubt, seek professional legal advice at the earliest. 

Check out other rental related articles here: Calculate rental yield in Singapore: a quick and simple guide and [2018 Update] 9 common mistakes of first-time HDB flat buyers

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