What happens if you fall into rent arrears?

Please note, this advice relates to the court system in England and Wales. The process is similar, but slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It's unlikely you'll have to hand the keys back straightaway

Falling into rent arrears rarely means having to hand over the keys to your home straight away.

There are so many reasons people fall behind on rent payments and we know it’s a growing problem.

What do I do about a missed rent payment?

Maybe you couldn’t pay your rent because  your hours were reduced at work, or the washing machine broke, or there was another unexpected expense.

Most commonly we hear from clients who have missed rent payments to be able to pay unsecured debts, such as credit cards.

We know creditors can be quick to chase you for missed payments but not paying your rent is much more serious than not paying your credit card. If you’ve ever missed a rent payment, it’s important you find a way to repay what you owe. We explain the process for dealing with rent arrears, court proceeding and making payment arrangements.

I can’t pay my rent, please help

In the worst case scenario if you fall into rent arrears, and can’t afford to get back up to date, you could end up being evicted. That is the worst case scenario.

We’ve already told you what you should do to avoid eviction but what actually happens if you fall into rent arrears? How do you avoid court proceedings.

What type of tenancy do you have?

The first step is to determine what type of tenancy agreement you have. This is really important as it can affect your rights.

Shelter can advice you about the council rent arrears protocol as well as what to do if you rent privately.

In the first instance the landlord is likely to send you a letter asking for you to repay the missed rent payment, or payments. If they don’t hear back from you they can send a second letter (sometimes sent from a solicitor).

Before they can take any court action they must issue you with a formal letter.

If you’re a council or housing association tenant this is called a ‘notice of seeking possession’ and if you’re a private tenant it’s a ‘notice to quit’. It will give you a time limit in which you should respond – usually 28 days.

At any point during the process it’s important to offer whatever you can afford to pay towards your rent arrears.

Council and housing association landlords must follow a council rent arrears protocol that came into effect in 2006. If they don’t follow this procedure, the court can adjourn or strike out the landlord’s claim and give an order for loss.

When reclaiming rent landlords should:

  • Contact the tenant and try to agree a payment towards the rent arrears
  • Arrange for rent arrears to be paid through direct payments, if the tenant is on benefits
  • Help with any claim for housing benefit
  • Not take possession action if the tenant keeps to the agreement to pay rent and an amount to start paying off the arrears

I still can’t pay my rent, what do I do?

If you still don’t make an agreement with the landlord at this stage and the time limit on the notice has run out, the landlord can ask the court to send a claim form. This will give the date and time for a hearing in the county court.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically lose your house, or that you’ll be evicted on the date of the hearing, but it’s important to continuing paying whatever you can.

After all there’s still time to come to an arrangement and adjourn the court proceedings if you can stick to it.

You’ll receive a claim form and a defence form from the courts which need to be filled in and returned within 14 days. We can help you to do this.

And a reminder: At any point during the process it’s important to offer whatever you can afford to pay towards your rent arrears.

Once you get a court hearing it’s important that you attend (even if an agreement has been made). The landlord and a district judge will be present and it’s their job to come to a fair decision for both parties. They’re not there to pressurise you into making payments that you can’t afford.

The district judge can make one of the following orders:

  • An order to dismiss the action if the arrears have already been paid in full
  • An order for the case to be adjourned, to give you time to provide extra information to support your case or to pay the arrears in full
  • A postponed possession order. This means you can’t be evicted provided you stick to the arrangement that’s agreed
  • An order for outright possession of the property at the end of a set period (usually 28 days but you can ask for more time to find alternative accommodation if needed).

What if I can’t afford to pay off my rent arrears?

If the amount becomes unaffordable you can go back to the court at any time and ask for the order to be changed. You’d need to fill out an N244 form, which will cost a fee (unless you’re on certain benefits or low income).

The very last stage of recovering rent owed

If an arrangement to clear the rent arrears can’t be made the landlord can apply to the court for a possession date and then for a warrant of possession. This is a letter from the court bailiffs which will state a date and time when eviction will take place.

Even at this stage it’s not too late to make an arrangement to pay. 

Our final reminder: At any point during the process it’s important to offer whatever you can afford to pay towards your rent arrears.

You can apply to have the warrant suspended using the N244 form, which can also be used if you need more time to find somewhere to live.

If all efforts fail to maintain an agreement, an eviction date is given. It’s best to move out before this date, as bailiffs can force their way into the property if needed.

Once you’ve been evicted, any outstanding arrears can still be chased using the standard debt collection process.

As you’ve read, it’s quite a lengthy course of action which can be stopped at any time if a reasonable arrangement to pay is agreed. It’s important to stay in contact with your landlord and make them aware of your situation – usually they will want to help.

If you’re struggling with rent arrears, or any other form of bill, please get in touch with us so we can give you some free and impartial debt advice and help to get rid of some of your money and rent worries.

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