How to defend your rights as a tenant (legally)

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Once you’re renting, you will have no choice but become as bit of a hobby lawyer, casually quoting from the Residential Privacy Act. Especially as most real estate agents seem to have never read it, although it forms the legal framework on the contract.

When you’re looking at a rental property, you look for the number of rooms, location, rent per week etc. You’ve got 10 minutes to view the property whilst trying to leave your best impression with the agent. After all, it’s a competitive game (although that’s likely to change now post COVID-19). This short walk through the property forms the legal basis of signing the contract – rent as seen (if you request changes, you won’t get the property. Happened to us twice. People are very attached to their dolphin decorations and Coco Chanel stickers). Then you move in and the trouble starts.

Rent as seen and the trouble starts

While everything is recorded as being in perfect working condition in the condition report, you quickly notice that things are not as they seemed on the surface. Leaky taps, hot water not working, air con not working, missing keys, defect smoke alarms etc. All urgent repairs under the Tenancies Act, so shouldn’t be a problem.

You contact your agent and then the ‘song and dance’ begins. “We have to check with the owner” is the usual line of query to buy time. After all, the agent’s job is to “protect” the owner from pesky and demanding tenants, and boy, they do it well. Daily phone calls and emails are not enough. “The owner hasn’t responded”, “the owners want to do this later”, “the owner thinks it’s fine the way it is” and the list goes on.

Of course, it would be in the interest of the owner to carry out repairs. Many faults translate to bigger issues. E.g. a leaky dishwasher can lead to significant damage to kitchen cabinets and flooring. In that case, after ignoring emails and calls from the tenant for many months, the owner will suddenly feel a great sense of urgency, to be conveyed through their agents. They will blame the tenant for the damage and try to charge them for the repairs.

Keep written records

My best tip is to keep records of EVERYTHING. Don’t talk over the phone, put everything in writing. The email thread is valuable evidence in the courts of law.

Don’t waste your time with Fair Trading NSW, best described as a toothless tiger. Their remediation process is non-binding and you lose valuable time as certain complaints need to be brought before the tribunal within a defined period of time.

NCAT Tribunal your first point of call for Sydney renters

Instead, you need to lodge an application with the NSW Administrative and Legislative (NCAT) Tribunal ASAP. Although designed to be the enforcer for both owners (e.g. evictions) and tenants’ rights, the tribunal is an authority much feared by agents for allegedly siding with the tenant and making them look bad with their clients.

We’ve been to the Tribunal, and many of our renting friends have, and it’s good to know that there is somewhere to turn. Sadly, only the best prepared and educated tenants would ever bother in fighting the just fight. Most tenants don’t know about the tribunal or don’t have the means to prepare for a drawn out legal process similar to a court hearing.

The financial return is meager, considering the hours required to prepare. It’s really just for that smug feeling of justice. Then back in the trenches of renting.

Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert and solely speaking from my own experience as a tenant. If your agent or owner is giving you a hard time, please seek advice from tenants unions and possibly a lawyer.

>> Website: Tenants Union of New South Wales

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