“It all happened so fast. We were both leaving our jobs, organising ourselves … and we got married, too. I can’t remember if we even thought about renting before we left,” recalls Camila.
The 32-year-old is talking about her move from Colombia to Melbourne in 2014. She and husband Ricardo, 35, decided to travel to Australia to pursue English language and culinary studies, respectively. But their first experience of Australia was soured when they found themselves ripped off by the unscrupulous operator of an illegal rooming house.
Being tied up with everyday tasks before they left Colombia, the couple eagerly accepted an offer from Ricardo’s cousin to stay at her place when they arrived in Melbourne. Arriving in Melbourne, they spent their first night with Ricardo’s cousin. “We had to go to a backpacker’s hostel the next night. It was very uncomfortable for us,” Camila explains. The couple urgently needed a proper place to stay. A tip from a local friend alerted them to a Facebook page set up for the Colombian community which advertised rooms for rent.
A post caught their attention, advertising a room for a couple in a fully furnished, spacious house, complete with two bathrooms and amenities, for $345 per week. The couple excitedly arranged to view the room.
“When we went to inspect the house we realised that it wasn’t the prettiest, but we were willing to try it. We had never lived in a share house before so it was something different for us,” Camila recalls. The couple paid $1,045 as bond as well as one week of rent in advance and moved in. “That’s when we realised we weren’t sharing with two other couples. Instead, we were sharing with nine other people.” The living room had been sectioned off into two bedrooms sandwiched between a makeshift dry wall.
“During the inspection none of the others had been around, so we had no idea.” “Pretty quickly we saw the dishwasher wasn’t working, one of the bathrooms was completely out of order and the other bathroom had mould growing. During winter we begged the ‘landlord’ – more on this later – to fix the heater for weeks, because we were freezing! It took about a month before they did finally fix it.”
Nights were spent in complete darkness as the burnt-out light globe in their room was too high for the couple to be able to change it without a ladder. Again, pleas for assistance went unanswered. “We wanted to leave but the landlord said that if we did, there was no way we would receive our bond back. It meant we had no choice but to stay.”
Soon after, a letter arrived in the mail informing all the tenants that they had to leave the property as it was being demolished. Instructions noted all tenants had to be out at least one month before the demolishment date. Worried, Camila and Ricardo called the landlord and told her about the letter. She coolly dismissed the letter’s advice and explained they were entitled to stay in the house up until one day before it was due to be demolished.
“It’s then that we started researching renting and realised we were actually living in an unlicensed rooming house without a proper lease Our landlord was not actually the owner of the property, but had been renting the house from the owner and illegally subletting it to all eleven of us without the knowledge of the owner.
“We were entitled to have our bond back if we wanted to leave. Of course the bond hadn’t been lodged with the Residential Tenancies Board Authority at the start of our tenancy – by law, this should have been the case. This is something we had no idea about because in Colombia they don’t have bonds,’’ Camila explains.
“We truly had this thought that this sort of dishonest behaviour did not happen in Australia. We now know that while most people do the right thing, there are still some that try to take advantage of international students who don’t know the renting rules here.”
On a quest to retrieve their bond, the couple sought assistance from a collective of organisations: the Salvation Army, Study Melbourne, the Tenants Union of Victoria and Consumer Affairs Victoria.
It was after they took the landlord to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal that they finally managed to get their bond back.
It seems really obvious now that one of the tenants should have spoken out against the landlord. Though Camila notes it wasn’t as simple: “at the time we were scared that if we complained it would cause an issue with our visa.”
Camila believes they could have avoided the stressful experience by doing their research on renting laws in Australia before they arrived. “My advice to other international students is to read the information provided by the Tenants Union of Victoria and Consumer Affairs Victoria on your renting rights and responsibilities. Make sure you receive a bond receipt after your landlord lodges your bond, otherwise it may not have been done legally.”
This article was supplied by Consumer Affairs Victoria
Their website contains more information on renting rights and responsibilities.
Download the free RentRight app, the go-to app for renters in Victoria