The nature of the landlord-tenant relationship

Lorraine DindiLorraine Dindi
Last updated on:
February 3, 2022
Published on:
November 9, 2021

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A history of the landlord-tenant relationship and how it is shaped today

The relationship between a landlord and a tenant is important not only for them, but also for the other participants in the housing market. The modern landlord-tenant relationship is governed by certain legal instruments and principles, which we will discuss here. However, to properly understand this relationship, we must first study its historical origins.

What is the origin of land ownership?

The concepts of land ownership and private property evolved significantly in Europe over the last millennium. Due to the expansive reach of colonisation, a relatively similar view of these concepts is shared by most of the world today. Social and economic life in medieval Europe was governed by feudalism which was a system whereby a monarch granted title to land to the nobility (“lords”) in exchange for military service. The lords then rented this land to the aristocracy (“vassals” or “knights”) in exchange for military service and payment. The knights then sublet parts of this land to the peasantry class (“villeins” or “serfs”) in exchange for labour and loyalty. As land was transferred, so was the feudal right to exploit the serfs’ labour and collect rent from its tenants. This practise is the legal foundation of the modern residential tenancy.

The serf-lord relationship may bear many similarities with the landlord-tenant relationship, however, things have clearly changed a lot since the middle ages. Let us see what influences the modern landlord-tenant relationship.

What are the three laws which define the modern landlord-tenant relationship?

Contract law

At its very core, a landlord and a tenant have one thing connecting them to each other: an agreement. The landlord agrees to let the tenant live in the property, and the tenant agrees to pay rent and follow certain rules. Whether or not this agreement is written down in a tenancy agreement, it is binding since both parties promise to do and refrain from doing specific things in return for something else. The agreement between landlord and tenant amounts to a contract, and a lease is therefore a type of a contractual arrangement. This shows that the landlord-tenant relationship can be analysed as a contractual one.

Land law

In addition to being a contract, a lease is also a legal interest in the land law. It is defined in the Law of Property Act 1925 as an estate in land for a “term of years absolute”. This means that a lease is a proprietary right capable of binding third parties, not just the landlord and tenant. In practise this means that a tenant has a right to exclusive possession, and can exclude just about everyone in the world (including the landlord) from the property. A landlord will also have a legal interest in the property, either in the form of a fee simple (basically, complete ownership) or a leasehold under a head lease. Since a lease is established by granting and retaining property rights, the landlord-tenant relationship can thus be defined according to the principles of land law.

Statutory law 

In the 20th century, it became apparent that many properties being leased were of a low standard and tenants were being exploited. This led to a lot of legislation to protect vulnerable tenants, especially from evictions and random rent increases. Such legislation include the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 and Rent Act 1957, both of which have been replaced several times. The housing sector is now heavily regulated, with several parameters of the landlord-tenant relationship set out in the statute books. The Housing Act 2004 is a recent act worth mentioning here. Parliament makes laws with the aim of keeping the landlord-tenant relationship non-exploitative and mutually beneficial. This relationship is therefore largely influenced by statute and regulations.

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How should landlords and tenants formalise their agreements?

Landlords should put their tenancy agreements in writing to clearly define the rights and obligations of the landlord and tenant. Whilst templates such as the Government's model tenancy agreement exist, they are not suited to all rentals and can be difficult to tailor to your custom requirements. A more efficient solution is to use a platform like Legislate which can tailor custom tenancy agreements for you by asking you simple questions.

If you would like to start legislating, book a demo, sign up or receive an invitation from an existing member. You can also read our tutorial to learn how to create tenancy agreements in minutes with Legislate.

‍The opinions on this page are for general information purposes only and do not constitute legal advice on which you should rely.

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