Common garden maintenance disputes and how to avoid them

Coronavirus: Everything landlords need to know - guide linkGarden maintenance is a common cause of dispute between landlords and their tenants – more often than not this is due to confusion over who is responsible for upkeep, or poor communication between the two parties relating to damage or changes tenants would like to make. Ultimately the tenant is responsible for leaving the garden in exactly the same condition as it was in on moving in.

High tensions caused by the current Coronavirus crisis could exacerbate these issues, especially since it prevents landlords from carrying out property visits, except for emergency maintenance.

We take a look at the three most common garden-related deposit claims and how to reduce the likelihood of these and similar disputes happening in the first place.

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Shrub, lawn and border upkeep

Common garden maintenance disputes and how to avoid them

It’s reasonable for landlords to expect tenants to regularly mow the lawn, water plants where necessary, keep shrubs and borders tidy, as well as keeping pathways and patio areas free of moss and weeds.

Many tenants will enjoy having a garden and want to make sure it’s a pleasant place for adults to relax and safe for children to play. But others may have busy schedules or not consider their outside space particularly important. Confusion over what tenants are ultimately responsible is  often the cause of disputes.

“This can be a surprisingly complicated issue, a tenant’s perspective on what constitutes ‘seasonal growth’ can often differ from what their landlord thinks.”

– Suzy Hershman, Head of Dispute Resolution at mydeposits

Putting a crystal clear garden maintenance clause in the  tenancy  agreement is essential, and will make it easier to negotiate with the tenant. Make sure the tenant can see exactly what they are responsible for – this generally extends to mowing the lawn, keeping borders healthy, pruning shrubs and keeping them at a reasonable size.

Think about what greenery your garden contains exactly and what upkeep it might need over the longer term. Is there a particularly quick-growing shrub that could die off or take over the garden if not pruned properly?

Keep expectations reasonable and only ask tenants to take on work that is safe.

“We take a view that if the tenant would have to get a ladder to look after something like a climbing plant, tree or large shrub from day one, responsibility falls to the landlord,” says Suzy.

Incorporating the garden into any inventories included with moving in documentation will also make tenant responsibilities clearer and allow landlords to prove the tenant hasn’t kept to their side of the bargain. Good quality time stamped photos are essential here.

“Photographs need to be comparable, and ideally taken from the same angle each time,” says Suzy.

Landlords also need to manage their own expectations and remember plants are perishable, Suzy notes. “If a tenant moved them or pruned them too hard,  they might be responsible for any deterioration. But the landlord has to take into consideration and understand that if there has been a heat wave, for example, plants could die.”

Making it clear where tenant responsibility stops and starts is key when it comes to general garden maintenance.

“As a landlord, maintaining a good relationship with your tenants and  carrying out regular property inspections will also help make sure your gardens are well looked after all year round”

– Suzy Hershman, Head of Dispute Resolution at mydeposits 

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Damage to garden structures

mydeposits has seen a number of claims around damage to garden structures like fencing and greenhouses (see mydeposits’ recent case study).

“Without knowing that the tenant has caused the problem we can’t make any awards, if we can see that the greenhouse windows have been smashed and all the glass is on the inside, then the chances are nobody else has done the damage; however if the damage is only on a side facing an alley or street, it may be more difficult to find the tenant responsible. On occasion we also have to consider if the damage was caused by extreme weather and was reported by the tenant as soon as it happened.”

Suzy Hershman, Head of Dispute Resolution at mydeposits

While damage like this can be frustrating for landlords, it’s important to give tenants the benefit of the doubt in order to maintain a good relationship and avoid unnecessary or unfair disputes.

“These kinds of disputes can be very difficult, especially when it comes to garden fences. We accept that the damage has happened, but if the tenant is not proven to have caused the damage we cannot find them responsible for repairs.” Says Suzy.

When managing their own expectations, landlords must remember they are running a business by having a tenant in their buy to let property.

Maintaining a good relationship with your tenants is key.

Encourage them to report problems, as and when they happen, rather than leaving them to the end of the tenancy when confusion over responsibility for damage may occur.

Keeping the relationship happy, and lines of communication open, will encourage both parties to negotiate around any deterioration and damage, rather than taking it through the prolonged formal adjudication route.

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Major garden alterations and re-landscaping

Common garden maintenance disputes and how to avoid them

On occasion, tenants to make changes to their rental garden without consulting the landlord – such as switching paving for a lawn – or vice versa – or laying astroturf for children to play football on. Tenants are required by law to ask the landlord for permission to make any changes.

If permission is not requested, or has been refused, and the tenant still does the work, the landlord will be able to charge the tenant the cost of returning the garden to its original state.

It’s important to highlight the tenancy agreement clause to your tenants making it clear that they should not alter the property without notifying and receiving consent from their landlord. It is vital that tenants understand that this clause applies not only to inside the property but the garden as well.

Keeping an open line of communication between you and your tenants will also help tenants feel comfortable discussing any changes they would ideally like to make before doing so. Being open minded to suggested change may also be of benefit to you, as a landlord, and allow improvements to your property that both you and your tenants can enjoy. For example, landscaping your garden, planting some new shrubs or refreshing a tired lawn.

“Ultimately, this approach – alongside a clear garden maintenance clause and a well-organised check-in and check-out process – will reduce the chance of gardens being damaged or falling into disrepair, maintaining a good relationship and making sure you do regular visits will help make sure your gardens are well looked after. If your tenant wants to alter it, maybe you can agree something together.”

Suzy Hershman, Head of Dispute Resolution at mydeposits

Check out our full guide on managing garden maintenance in a rental property.

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