Housing law expert Guido Zijlstra offers an easy guide to Dutch accommodation laws and gives advice on how to get your rent reduced in the Netherlands.
At one time or another, all residents of Dutch cities – especially expats – will have been involved in heated discussions about the seemingly impossible task of finding reasonable and affordable accommodation. For some, the solution is to buy their own apartment, but at the housing market’s current inflated price levels, this option isn’t viable for all. For students, short-term residents and those on average salaries or below, to rent is the only option. As a member of Amsterdam Wijksteunpunt Wonen (District Housing Support Group) and manager of his own legal office, Guido Zijlstra advises tenants on a daily basis about their rights and entitlements. He provides some invaluable guidelines for expats.
Expats often tend to compare rental prices in the Netherlands with those in their home countries. They consider a monthly rent of EUR 800, or more, for a two- or three-room apartment in the city ‘reasonable’ and are not aware that their Dutch neighbours probably pay no more than EUR 300. This is why all the housing rental agencies love expats so much: they are ignorant of the local laws and some of them think that those laws only apply to locals or to apartments that belong to the city council.
As a tenant in the Netherlands, you are protected by the law in several ways. First of all, once you agree to rent an apartment (either verbally or through a written contract), this agreement can only be terminated by the tenant; not by the landlord, except in extreme circumstances–such as failure to pay the rent–in which case, the landlord must start a court case against the tenant. A contract that states ‘temporary’ or ‘one-year lease’ does not automatically end after the expiry date. A temporary contract is only allowed in very rare and specific situations. So if you think you have a temporary contract, you most likely don’t!
A tenant should also know that the landlord cannot simply charge what he likes for an apartment. Every apartment has a maximum rent, which is calculated using a points system. Every square metre and all the facilities in the apartment score points, and the total number of points equates to a certain maximum rent. If you are living in Amsterdam you can ask a huurteam (via www.wswonen.nl) to visit your apartment and perform the calculation at no cost.
If you pay more than the maximum rent according to this points system, you are entitled to have your rent reduced by the Huurcommissie. This is like a civil court that deals solely with housing rental cases. It is very easy to start a re-evaluation process and the costs for a process are only EUR 25.
There are only two situations in which your rent cannot be reduced. The first is if your apartment has more than 141 points. In that case the apartment belongs to the ‘free sector’ and the rent is not controlled by the points system–however, there are still rules that apply to the service charges and these can still be reduced. Also, if you pay more than EUR 652 a month kale huur (flat rent) and you have paid that amount for more than six months, you cannot reduce the rent further. In such cases, the law considers that the protection it has offered for six months is not required. So, always start a process within the first six months of the contract.
The exception to the rule is all-inclusive rents, for which you can start a process at any time.
Taking on the agencies
Many apartments that are rented out to expats are found via agencies. Some of these agencies will try to make you pay as much as possible, because they normally receive one month’s rent as a fee. This is illegal. Recently the highest civil court in the country decided that agencies must work in tenants’ interests.
This means that if you pay too much and you have rented the apartment through an agency, you can start a process against the agency. I know of one tenant who successfully sued the agency for not informing her about the rental laws. The agency not only had to pay back her fee, but also had to compensate her for financial damages. The agency and the tenant came to an agreement shortly after the court decision.
Additional rental costs
On top of the basic rent, many tenants pay additional costs that are not covered by the basic rent. Such costs, often indicated as ‘service costs’, can include furniture, fixtures plus gas, water, electricity or other services. These costs are also strictly regulated in the Netherlands, even if the apartment belongs to the ‘free sector’. Many tenants are not aware of this and therefore get overcharged for these items.
Service costs are legally considered as advance payments. This means that at the end of the year these advance payments should be balanced with the actual costs. For instance, tenants can only be charged annually a maximum of 20 percent of the purchase price of furniture. Furthermore, tenants only need to pay this amount for goods which are not older than five years. For goods over five years, the maximum charge is 20 percent of their second-hand value.
At the end of each year, the landlord must provide an annual final calculation of the service costs. This should include an itemised list of the actual costs and the advance payments made by the tenant. Every item, such as electricity, gas, furnishings and cleaning services must be clearly listed. Costs and payments are then balanced and the tenant should receive back any excessive costs that he or she has paid over the year.
If the property owner doesn’t provide such an annual final calculation (or provides one that the tenants don’t agree with), the tenant can go to the Huurcommissie (or the district court if the apartment belongs to the free sector) to have the service costs lowered to the right amount and have any excess costs refunded.
Many expats that I have spoken to consider using the system to get their rent reduced unfairly, and in doing so obviously don’t understand the Dutch politics behind the legislation. Rental prices in the Netherlands are regulated precisely because the authorities do not want the inner city of cities like Amsterdam and the surrounding area to be turned into ‘yuppie’ zones – even more than they already have already become – ratherlike what has happened in London, Paris or New York. If the rental system had been liberalised, as the government proposed around two years ago, most locals would have already left the inner cities, and the apartments of popular areas would have been rented out solely to expats, who are willing to spend half, or more, of their income on rent. The Netherlands’ rental laws are intended to keep cities and their inhabitants diverse, lively, colourful and cosmopolitan. Surely these are exactly the reasons why most expats chose the Netherlands as their new home in the first place!
So, consider your circumstances and, if possible, get your rent reduced. It’s your duty as a resident and it makes perfect economic sense.
What tenants need to know
- There is no such thing as a temporary contract (except in very rare and/or particular circumstances).
- Only a tenant (not a landlord) can terminate a contract (except in very rare and/or particular circumstances).
- Anyone can start a process at the Huurcommissie, for just EUR 25.
- Make sure you start a process within the first six months of your rental contract.
- Try to get your rent reduced, if possible – it’s your duty to the city.
By Guido Zijlstra
Photos credit: Michele Carloni