UK renters politicise fast amidst financial anxiety epidemic

11 October 2018

Posted in Product

  • Turnout among private renters would rise to 69 per cent if a snap election were called
  • Greater political engagement driven by financial anxiety ‘epidemic’ focused on savings
  • Introduction of rental caps is the legislation most sought by tenants; little interest in landlord taxes
  • Enthusiasm is low for proposed multi-year leases too, but Tenants' Fees Bill looks set to benefit many

Future elections are set to be influenced much more powerfully by the UK's growing contingent of private renters than ever before, suggests new research from AXA Insurance1. While 53 per cent of private renters voted in 2017 - a noticeable jump on previous elections, that would rise further to a 69 per cent turnout if a snap election were called this year.

An epidemic of financial anxiety amongst renters is likely to be fuelling this greater political engagement. Seventy-two per cent of private renters suffer from financial anxiety (defined as affecting their sleep, relationships or health), which exceeds the already high British average of 68 per cent.

The single biggest trigger is the inability to save for a deposit for their own home (for 59 per cent of renters). Debts, bills and insecurity of tenure all carry far less urgency, each cited by half as many tenants.

As of this August, the average amount someone renting privately can save is £102 per month; a quarter of renters say they can't save anything. The main differentiator is gender, as female renters save a third less per month on average than men. Wales and Scotland are also hotspots for lower saving ability, as the monthly figures fall to £84 and £60 respectively.

As a result, two thirds of tenants aged under 35 say they are considering cheaper alternatives to renting, chiefly moving back in with their parents (28 per cent). Caretaking a property and moving to a non-traditional property (motor home, outhouse) and sub-letting were the other emerging solutions.

Measures that help tenants keep more money in their own pockets are likely to have the biggest resonance at the ballot boxes in the future. Rent controls, indexed to inflation or average incomes, are the single most popular proposal for fixing Britain's housing crisis amongst tenants - cited by 69 per cent of those surveyed. By contrast, raising taxes for private landlords was favoured most by just eight per cent.

Multi-year lets

While there are no plans to reintroduce rent controls, the government has consulted on the introduction of three-year minimum tenancies. AXA found a muted response to the plan: when asked the length of tenancy agreement they would prefer, most tenants still opted for a period of one year or less (62 per cent).

The proposal is most likely to find favour with tenants who have children: but even in this group the preferred tenancy length is just two years. The five- or ten-year leases as seen in Germany and other continental countries are attractive to a quarter of renting families.

One explanation for this low appetite among British renters for longer leases is that most expect to own their own home eventually, with just 12 per cent of renters saying it is not likely. For the interim, while still renting, the priority for most is very much on agility and mobility rather than being tied to one property.

In the coming year, half of private renters anticipate making a big life change that will affect their housing - having a baby, moving in with partners, divorcing, or relocating to a different part of the country. One in ten tenants expect to move to a different part of the UK by this time next year (a figure which triples among London renters), while a similar number expect to move overseas within three years.

Improving rental standards

Given the high mobility among renters, the Tenants' Fees Bill (currently making its way through parliament) is likely to prove more popular than multi-year leases.

Six in ten renters say they have had to pay the types of fees to landlords and letting agents that the Bill seeks to outlaw. These are mostly fees for starting, ending or renewing a tenancy agreement. A quarter of tenants say they have had to pay for the pleasure of having a credit or reference check done against them too.

Less relevant may prove to be the proposal to ban landlords from demanding deposits in excess of six months' rent - only a small minority of tenants (8 per cent) say they have ever had to pay such a large deposit.

Another question is how aware tenants are of legislation designed to help them. Research from AXA released earlier this month revealed yawning gaps in awareness amongst tenants of new legislation on energy efficiency and conditions in rental properties - despite evidence that these regulations are significantly driving up standards.

With 49 per cent of tenants saying that they believe failings in their property adversely affect their health and safety - chiefly cold hazards, damp, poor plumbing, unsafe flooring and electrics. Ensuring tenants know new rights to see things like EPCs or demand upgrades will be crucial to how they view housing policy.

“We've recently seen a flurry of legislation aimed at the private rental market. Landlords are responding to it, as our research over the past four years shows rapid improvements in energy efficiency and some (but far from enough) raising of safety standards. Our research over the past two years shows a very low awareness among tenants of this legislation and their new rights. Few are interested in punishing landlords, but do need mechanisms for building their own assets. Tenants are set to be an increasingly powerful voice in our society, making finding innovative financial solutions a political imperative in future years.”

Gareth Howell, Executive Managing Director, AXA Insurance

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1 Research from AXA Insurance: surveys of UK tenants conducted in August 2018. Sample size: 2,000.