Moving into a new home or need to refresh your knowledge on renting in Victoria? As an international student, it’s helpful to know that you have certain rights.

We’ve put together some tips to help you protect yourself against some of the most common rental issues among international students.

International students have all the rights of every other renter in Victoria and I encourage you to be confident to take action if any problems arise, says Dr Heather Holst, the Commissioner for Residential Tenancies.

Starting your tenancy

When you’re renting an apartment or house, you’ll usually have one contact – the property manager (who works for a real estate agency) or the landlord. If you’re in a shared house, you might report to a head tenant who acts as the middleman between other tenants and the property manager or landlord.

Signing a rental agreement

If you’re starting a new tenancy through a property manager or landlord, you’ll need to sign a rental agreement. This will include all the terms and conditions of your arrangement. If you’re moving into an existing share house, you might be added to the rental agreement (this is known as a ‘co-tenancy’), or you may lease through the head tenant (this is known as ‘sub-letting’).

It’s worth getting familiar with your tenancy agreement, as this will form the basis of your tenancy and will help you understand your rights and responsibilities. The rental agreement will include things like:

  • Your rental amount
  • How often to pay rent and where to pay it
  • How long you’ll be renting the property (usually six or 12 months for fixed-term agreements)
  • Your rights and responsibilities as a tenant
  • The landlord’s rights and responsibilities

Bonds

When you start your lease, you’ll be required to pay a bond – this is basically a type of insurance against damage to the property or if you unfairly end a lease agreement. It is paid to the Residential Tenancy Bond Authority (RTBA).

Make sure you’re asked to sign the correct RTBA form and that you receive confirmation that the payment has been made. This is to ensure you get the money back when you leave (as long as no damage has been caused and you’re ending the agreement on the correct terms set out in your lease) and that your landlord or property manager isn’t keeping the money for themselves.

Paying rent

You may also be required to pay rent in advance to secure the rental. In Victoria, if the rent is less than $350 per week, you are not required to pay more than one month's rent as a rental bond or more than one month's rent in advance.

You should be offered at least one way to pay the rent that does not involve paying a fee to a third party. You also shouldn’t be required to pay a fee for preparing the lease or receiving your keys.

Your landlord is not allowed to increase the rent during a fixed-term agreement and then never more than once in a twelve-month period (for leases that started after 19 June 2019).

If you’re in a sublet arrangement, generally you’ll pay rent to the head tenant who is then responsible for paying the property manager or landlord. You may also pay the bond to the head tenant when you first move in.

Note that if you are continually late paying your rent at the agreed intervals (weekly, fortnightly or monthly), you may be charged a penalty fee to cover the admin required to follow up on these payments. You can easily set up a direct debit from your bank account so that you never miss a payment.

Property maintenance

As a tenant, you’ll be expected to keep your rental in good shape. This means making sure it’s clean, notifying the property manager or landlord about repairs as soon as possible, and doing your best to ensure the property is in much the same condition as when you moved in (although, fair wear and tear is acceptable). If the property has a garden, make sure to ask if gardening is covered in the rental price or whether you’re expected to maintain lawns and garden beds. Often this is the responsibility of the tenant and will need your ongoing attention.

Repairs

When it comes to repairs, your landlord is usually responsible for having them taken care of.  There are different rules for urgent and non-urgent repairs. If the repair is urgent – such as a broken toilet or gas leak – your landlord will need to respond immediately. Non-urgent repairs should be addressed within 14 days. When you notify your landlord or property manager, make sure to do so in writing – this ensures you have a paper trail should any issues arise.

Read more about urgent and non-urgent repairs on the Consumer Affairs Victoria website.

Knowing your rights

Be aware that no one should hold any of your important personal documents, especially your passport, or possessions while you are renting living space from them or with them.

If anyone refuses to give you your own key or passcode to enter the building or asks you not to answer the door, these are warning signs that the situation you’re in is unsafe, illegal or unfairly controlling and you should immediately contact Consumer Affairs Victoria for advice. You won’t get in trouble for doing so and you will have someone to help you navigate the situation.

If you’re in a sub-let, know that you’re also entitled to certain rights – even if you’re not listed on the rental agreement.

Renters who sublet do still have rights and protections,” says Dr Holst. “Instead of taking action against the owner of the property, you can take action against the head tenant, even if you do not have a written contract or lease. These disputes can be harder and I encourage you to get advice from Tenants Victoria or WEstjustice to understand your options.

Trusting your instincts

Sometimes, though, it pays to simply trust your instincts. If something seems wrong, it may very well be.

Dr Holst encourages all international students to take precautions.

It can be hard to know what you should expect when you are first living in a new place with different laws and ways of finding housing than you might be used to, but if it doesn’t feel right to you, there could well be something wrong with what you are being asked to do.

"My advice is to check in with Study Melbourne or Consumer Affairs Victoria before you sign a contract and at any point where you are worried that something is not right."

Rental support during COVID-19

During this unprecedented time, the Victorian Government has changed a few rules in order to help renters deal with difficult circumstances.

Rental reductions

If you’re struggling to pay your rent due to COVID-19, you should speak with your property manager or landlord to try and negotiate a rent reduction. International students are eligible to seek a rent reduction and there are translated materials to help guide you through the process on the Consumer Affairs Victoria website. Consumer Affairs Victoria can also provide assistance if you’re struggling to reach an agreement with your landlord or property manager.

Financial support for renters

If you’re having difficulty paying rent, you can apply for the rent relief grant, which provides you with up to $3,000 towards your rent. You don’t need permission from your landlord or property manager to submit your application, and if you’re in a shared house and listed on the lease, you may also apply.

The application process is really straightforward.

  1. Check your eligibility on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) website.
  2. Register your rent reduction agreement with Consumer Affairs Victoria (this is a prerequisite if you want to apply for the rent relief grant). Even if you can’t get a rent reduction you may still be eligible for the Rent Relief Grant
  3. Gather important things like your financial and employment records (you’ll need to provide proof that your employment has been affected by COVID-19), contact details for your landlord or property manager, and information on your tenancy. Even if your name is not on the lease you may still be eligible for the Rent Relief Grant
  4. Fill out the electronic form on the DHHS website and submit your application.
  5. A DHHS representative will be in touch regarding the outcome of your application. If your application is successful, the rent relief grant will be paid directly to your real estate agent or landlord.

Evictions

Currently, there is a moratorium in Victoria on evicting tenants, which is in place until the end of the year. This means the property manager or landlord cannot force you to move out of your home if you’re unable to pay rent due to the impact of COVID-19. They’re also not allowed to increase the rent during this time.

Where to go for support

All of these services have interpreters available.