Rental law changes: What is a 'minor change', and what does the law say?

One of the biggest changes to tenancy laws this week has both tenants and landlords scratching their heads - what exactly constitutes a "minor change"? 

From Thursday, if a tenant asks their landlord if they can make a "minor change" to the property, the latter cannot unreasonably say no.

The law outlines seven requirements a change must meet to be considered minor:

  • they have to pose no more than a low-risk of damage to the property
  • must be easily reversible
  • must not pose a health and safety risk (including during installation and removal)
  • must not compromise the building's structural integrity or weathertightness
  • must not need regulatory consent
  • must not negatively affect third parties
  • and can't be in breach of bylaws, covenants or body corporate rules.

Aside from that, it's up to tenants and landlords to figure it out for themselves - or if they can't agree, go head-to-head at the Tenancy Tribunal. 

"There's certainly a lot of uncertainty for landlords around how it's going to be interpreted in the tribunal," Kristin Sutherland, president of the Auckland Property Investors' Association, told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"At the moment it feels like all the balls are in the air and we're waiting for them to fall and see where they lie," added Penny Arthur, spokesperson for the Tenants Protection Association (Christchurch).

Helpfully, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development has a list of examples of minor changes that a landlord can't turn down, including (but not limited to): 

  • installing minor changes that improve safety for disabled people, such as visual alerts for fire, security alarms and doorbells
  • securing furniture or appliances to protect against earthquake risk or to make a property child-safe
  • installing dishwashers and washing machines
  • installing a baby gate
  • affixing child safe latches to cupboards
  • installing shelving
  • installing television aerials
  • installing gardens when these can be returned to the original state at the conclusion of the tenancy
  • installing curtains and window coverings
  • installing internal locks provided they are compliant with relevant fire safety laws
  • and installing picture hooks.

The cost of minor changes - and any resulting damage that may occur - is the responsibility of the tenant. 

Property law specialist Tracy Yarrell of Duncan Cotterill says the key is that any changes made have to be reversed at the end of the tenancy, unless the landlord agrees to keep them on. 

"Everything is negotiable at the end of the day - the landlord might go, 'You know actually, these curtains have improved the property and they're far better than what was there. Let's work out an arrangement.' 

"Perhaps reimburse [the tenant] and keep them for the next tenant. What's good for the current tenant, there's quite a high chance they're going to be good for the next tenant too." 

Curtains are a good example. If a tenant decides to put up some more to their liking, as long as the landlord has been made aware and the tenant swaps them back at the end of their tenancy, that's fine. 

"They're a low-risk of damage to the property, particularly if there are already curtain tracks there," said Yarrell. "And the nature of that change makes it pretty easy to rectify at the end of a tenancy."

The ministry says "minor and unimportant differences" caused by minor changes left behind at the end of a tenancy are acceptable.

Strings attached 

Tenants still need to ask the landlord for permission to make the changes, so don't go wild just yet - the law simply makes it so the landlord can't unreasonably say no if the change is minor.

"There are some situations where a landlord can impose some conditions - for example if a wall had wiring behind it and it's possibly not safe to be pinning something to that wall," said Yarrell. "it's all about discussion, I think. You just need to be sensible about it."

The landlord has 21 days to respond to a tenant's request to make a minor change. If they don't, that doesn't mean the tenant can just go ahead and do it - they'll need to apply to the Tenancy Tribunal. The landlord can face a fine of up to $1500 if they ignore their tenant's request, however. 

If a landlord unreasonably declines a tenant's request, they can also be fined up to $1500. The ministry says before declining or accepting a request, they should weigh up the impact the change would have on the property, whether the tenant has "any immediate and pressing need" for the change, and whether the tenant has "provided reasonable assurance that the change will be carried out to a satisfactory standard". 

If a tenant fails to reverse a minor change or fails to meet the conditions set by the landlord in making the change, they also face a fine of up to $1500. 

But all this can be avoided if the landlord and tenant communicate in good faith and meet their legal obligations.

"I personally had tenants who said, 'I love gardening - would you mind if I made a garden in the back corner?'" said Yarrell. "I said, 'Go for your life.' Because it actually enhances the property significantly... And a happy tenant is a good tenant."