Every so often, the media picks up a rental story so terrible that it makes headlines for days, like the instance of the couple whose front door was cemented shut, or videos of landlords physically assaulting their tenants.
Flying under the media’s radar are dozens of stories, mainly relayed in Facebook groups, of abusive rental relationships, unlawful agreements, and overcharging.
Despite attempts to control the market, there is little by way of enforcement when things go wrong.
The fact that the rental market mainly populated by foreign nationals means that many tenants are not familiar with local laws, oftentimes assuming that the way rent works in their home countries is the way it works in Malta – an assumption that, as many eventually find out, could not be further from the truth.
As one tenant posted on social media: “Renting in Malta is completely different to renting in any other country. I don’t believe there is a way for tenants to be fully informed, as much is kept quiet, and only learned when something goes wrong.”
There are a lot of things that existing and prospective tenants can do to reduce the chances of problems down the line, but this information is not necessarily communicated well enough to new arrivals to Malta.
After delving into what landlords can do to avoid living through such horror stories, BusinessNow.mt reached out to Patricia Graham to see what tenants should be looking out for.
A pillar of support for non-Maltese who find themselves in a pickle, Ms Graham is a familiar name on groups like Expats Malta and Landlords to Avoid.
Here are her top tips for tenants in Malta.
It is dangerous to compare Malta to other countries and cities you’ve lived in. The laws, customs, sector and people are different, and you should never assume that just because something is done in one way in the last place you lived, it will be done in the same way in Malta.
For example, some tenants might expect the utility bills to start arriving in their name once they move in, but this is not standard in Malta. The price of utilities also changes significantly depending on whether (or how many) people live in a property, so tenants should always make sure that they are registered, through Form H, correctly and in time.
For many years, real estate consultancy was a bit of a wild west, with the boom in property sales and rentals attracting many looking to make a quick buck – with client satisfaction and ethics sometimes treated as optional. Agents now require a licence, although doubts remain as to whether this improved the industry at all.
“It is essential that a tenant finds a licensed real estate agent who can explain in detail the differences between renting in Malta and renting in their home country,” says Ms Graham. “On the other hand, they should stay away from agents who don’t know or have never viewed the property. A good agent knows inside out what they are selling.”
A surprisingly common mistake is not reading the contract in detail. “Remember that this is a legally binding agreement,” urges Ms Graham, noting that many headaches can be avoided if everyone only paid due attention before putting their signature down on the contract. Tellingly, a key point of advice for landlords is to make sure their tenants have read and understood the contract – a clear sign that too many tenants just put their name on the dotted line without a second thought.
“The lease registration is an absolute must,” says Ms Graham, “as should you hit an issue without that lease registration, the tenant is not able to submit a dispute.”
If the contract is not registered, then, the tenant is effectively giving up legal protections to help the landlord avoid tax. On paper, this is a remarkably bad idea, and as becomes clear from even a cursory look at social media complaints, the effects are just as bad in practice.
Similarly, tenants should never sign two contracts – a strategy employed by some landlords to have their cake and eat it by submitting a contract to the Housing Authority with a lowball price to minimise their tax exposure, while having a separate contract, at a higher price – with the difference often paid in cash – with the tenant.
“If possible,” adds Ms Graham, “make all rent payments via a bank to retain a clear record of all transactions.”
Among others, potential red flags include a landlord who does not actually meet you (“Will they be responsive when needed?”, promises that defects will be righted as soon as the tenant moves in (Get that written on the contract!”, and patch painted ceilings (“A sure sign of mould”).
Many landlords (abusively) withhold security deposits for little to no reason, so tenants should be ready to present all the evidence needed to get a ruling in their favour.
“Every tenant should take detailed videos and pictures on the date they move in,” says Ms Graham, “along with a concise inventory (required by the Housing Authority). This includes pictures of the details of all appliances, taking care to note their serial and model number as well.
Other tips to avoid getting scammed include:
While tenants should safeguard their interests against greedy landlords, they should not do anything that makes them bad tenants.
A good rule of thumb is to treat the property as if it were your own.
“If you don’t have a sharp knife, or the bedding is not to your taste supply your own. This is not a hotel, it’s your home – make it comfortable.”
If something is damaged, let the landlord know and offer to replace it immediately. If it’s something like a leaky pipe , inform the landlord, who will appreciate being able to get their property maintained in time.
“Also, never be late with your rent,” says Ms Graham. “Wear a landlord’s hat for a month. They too have expenses.”
The key to a hassle-free tenancy, ultimately, is to always be respectful, do everything above board, and always get everything in writing.
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