When you're renting, some things are accepted as a given. You'll have four walls and a roof, hot water, electricity, a phone line and a TV aerial.
Only, not all of those things are always true.
Here's something funny: in Victoria, landlords are not legally obligated to provide electricity. If it's already installed, then landlords have specific obligations to maintain it, but they're not legally required to provide it in the first instance.
The good news is that most rental properties will have electricity installed, and it's pretty easy to verify this with a quick property inspection. (Pro tip: always, always perform a property inspection.)
According to Mark O'Brien, CEO of the Tenancy Union Victoria, "If there is electricity there, the landlord's obliged to maintain the wires on the house side of the switchboard." (And the switchboard itself.) Anything on the other side is the government's responsibility.
Chris Martin, senior policy officer at Tenants' Union NSW, said, "Landlords are obligated to provide premises that are habitable and in a reasonable state of repair." He added that the supply of electricity may be part of the obligation to provide habitable premises. The unspoken implication is that they also may not.
However, it is clear that if electricity is provided, the landlord has to maintain it — which means keeping wiring safe and attending to any repairs as soon as possible.
According to the Tenants' Union of Tasmania, "A landlord or agent is required to maintain the rental premises in nearly the same condition as they existed at the beginning of the tenancy. This means that a landlord/agent may not be obliged to carry out repairs to any problems that existed before the tenancy commenced."
Check with your local tenancy advice centre (see the links at the bottom of this article) to find out what your recourse is if the landlord doesn't respond within a reasonable timeframe or if your house becomes unliveable. You may be eligible for a rent reduction or refund, or to be compensated for money spent on a hotel stay.
Under this umbrella also falls the internet connection, and the long and short of it is: landlords are not required to provide one.
It can be a bit tricky, though; you may spy phone-connection ports during the house inspection, but that doesn't mean they're operational.
O'Brien said it comes down to asking questions.
"Ask questions like, 'Did the previous tenant have the phone connected?' or 'Is the phone connection operational?'" he advises.
If they're not, you could be in for a hefty sum — the cost of getting the phone line installed or repaired falls to you — and then you have to pay your phone provider an initial connection fee. Telstra charges AU$299 for the first time a phone is connected to a new line, which is on top of the electrician costs.
Interestingly, this rarely happens in Queensland. Under the previous tribunal, a phone line was considered as being an essential part of a liveable home; therefore, very few homes are without a working phone line, even though under the current tribunal the landlord is not required to provide one.
Now, it has been noted that getting a phone line installed does add value to a property (you can't exactly take it with you when you leave), so you may be able to work out an agreement with your landlord for them to wear part or all of the cost — but this is ultimately at the landlord's discretion, and is in no way reliable.
(Side note: if you wind up in a house without a working phone port, there are options available, such as Vivid Wireless, which has a plan that includes a VoIP phone and unlimited broadband connection. If you want to access services such as IPTV, you will possibly also need a set of wireless range extenders, but it can be made to work.)
If the phone line is in working condition when you move in, and reaches a state where it requires repairs, you need to contact your landlord in writing. Unfortunately, the phone line falls under the "non-urgent" umbrella of repairs, which means that you should absolutely not arrange to have it repaired yourself unless the landlord gives you the go-ahead. The good news is that there's still a window of time in which the landlord must complete repairs.
The landlord is responsible for maintaining the phone line if it was in working order when the tenant signed the lease.
Television aerial and other installations
Actually, this is pretty much the same as a telephone line. If there's one in place, or a satellite dish, that's awesome! Even better, if it works, your landlord has to fix it if it breaks.
According to Martin, "Anything provided with the premises, the landlord is obliged to keep in a state of repair. If there's a working aerial, you should expect it to work."
If there's not one ... guess what? Yep, it's all on you. But you can't just start installing satellite dishes and 2-metre aerials willy-nilly; any alterations that you wish to make to the existing premises you need to get permission to perform.
This stands true for all alterations, actually: if you want safety switches installed; if you want a wall mount for your television; if you want to install a server rack; if you want to install an air conditioner. When you sign a lease, you sign it for the existing property as is, and any improvements must be approved by the property owner.
It should be noted that if your equipment makes no impact on the property — for example, a window-mounted air conditioner or a portable server rack — you don't need permission.
"If it's a fixture," according to Penny Carr, state-wide coordinator of the Tenants' Union of Queensland, "the tenants need to put a request in writing; and have in writing what will happen at the end of the tenancy, whether they'll leave it in, take it with them and fix any damages." Carr warns that without a written stipulation, damages may be taken out of the tenant's bond.
If you're in NSW, there's good news: legally, a landlord can't refuse you any reasonable requests for alteration. The bad news is that what's considered as being "reasonable" varies from case to case. If you're in any of the other states, the landlord is allowed to refuse on any grounds.
For Victorians, the good news is that if your rent is going to increase, and you have made alterations to the property, you can petition Consumer Affairs for an assessment, which will take those alterations into account. However, if the price of your rent is still a fair market price after the increase, you're going to be out of luck.
Know the rules
Really, there are only a few things that we can tell you for certain.
• Always perform a house inspection before renting a property
• Write down a list of questions for the landlord or estate agent. These can be about the working order of the fittings and about your recourse for repairs
• If you want repairs, the landlord is responsible. If you want installations, you are responsible
• If you want to make alterations, you have to ask the landlord. There is no guarantee they will say yes
• Read your tenants' handbook to find out what your rights are
If you are unsure about anything, or feel that you are being treated unfairly, the tenants' union is on your side, and there to help. Each state is different and has different rules. You can find your local help centre in the list below.
Good luck, and happy renting.
New Lundby Stockholm at night image by The Shopping Sherpa, CC BY-ND 2.0