Lesley Henderson has been a landlord all her adult life and now runs a family business. She is also the author of the Landlord's Survival Guide.
The problem with property maintenance is two-fold. It costs a good deal – and spending only gets you back to where you started.
Don’t forget – before you buy any property that needs work, that the smallest of alterations (like chimney breast removal) can need local authority approvals. All new and replacement windows need to comply with strict new regulations which are rigorously enforced. Landlords are not the most popular of neighbours. Someone will report you. Then you’ll have the double trouble of ripping out the inadequate work and starting over again.
Initial purchases are fraught with issues, simply to make them suitable for tenants. That leaky bath seal might be fine for a careful family, but tenants won’t take care. You’ll end up with staining (or worse) on the downstairs ceiling. And insurance policies are for accidental damage, not to save your maintenance budget.
Anyone buying a rental property needs to learn to be realistic. Make rentals durable.
It’s always tempting to do things as cheaply as possible. We all try it once. But experience teaches landlords the value of foresight. Look at your building realistically. If you choose to have the whole place skimmed (plastered) that may well be a long-term investment in the building. In the vast majority of rentals, tenants won’t pay any more money for pristine plasterwork than they will for lined walls emulsioned the same colour.
Floor stripping can be an excellent idea – except where noise is an issue and never on stairways. Tenants love stripped wood floors. They like less the cost of re-sanding and re-coating them when their friends came round wearing steel-tipped shoes.
Rental property needs to be in reasonable condition and to be kept in reasonable condition. Otherwise the calibre of the tenants will fall away – along with rent levels. Tenants are increasingly sophisticated. They aren’t usually looking for the moon, but they do expect something decent in return for half their income. Shabby looking buildings simply don’t rent as easily as well maintained ones. Saving a few hundred pounds on the paintwork and fences is a false economy.
Liability for all repairs and maintenance
Landlords need to take maintenance seriously. All landlords should set aside between six and ten per cent of all the rent they receive for maintenance. It sounds like a lot – but in reality, that’s barely enough to build a sinking fund for new boilers, internal and external decorating and the odd roof repair.
Because here’s the thing. Well cared for buildings take hardly any management time. The boiler shouldn’t always be playing up. The roof shouldn’t leak. The toilet shouldn’t block or sinks overflow. Knowing that you handed over everything in good working order makes it easier to know whether it’s the building or tenant causing problems.
The roof must be watertight. It’s a management nightmare dealing with roof leaks in bleak Januarys which invariably cost more. Emergency repairs are always more expensive than routine maintenance.
Chimneys must be in decent condition – pots fall if not maintained – and they can cause immense damage. Old flashings can deteriorate and allow water penetration. Let property is a stitch-in-time kind of business.
Windows must work and have easy to operate mechanisms – tenants won’t take the kind of care required to limp a rotten window frame through the winter. Plastic windows might be maintenance-free but slash the resale value of older buildings. French windows, glazed doors, etc must be safe and fitted with the appropriate glass. Tenants will hold you liable if they open up a well-loved artery as their hand goes through the front door because you hadn’t ensured that the glass was toughened/safety type glazing. Exterior paintwork should be done every three to five years and many buildings require the extra expense of scaffolding.
Brick built buildings do require infrequent (but costly) re-pointing. This keeps the building watertight – otherwise expect problems with damp and damaged interior finishes. And cut back that ivy. It can penetrate and take water with it.
Most stucco work requires specialists to repair. Badly maintained, it can blister and fall with a gentle thump onto pavements (and heads). Don’t do it yourself – all you’ll achieve is a devaluation of the property.
Make regular checks on rainwater goods and guttering. Most need an annual clear out as they fill with autumn leaves. This needn’t be an expensive job – most window cleaners will happily do this for a small charge – but it is an essential one. Congested guttering results in overflowing which causes long-term damage to the building. And this is an investment, remember?
Water pipes – the bane of every landlord’s life. Obviously, the main soil stacks are exterior and, in many cases, still cast iron. Check them for leaks on a fairly regular basis. If they begin to deteriorate, have them replaced properly. And find yourself a decent plumber.
Interior plumbing should not be lead – environmental health will have a fit! And it must work well. Hot and cold water is a vital facility. Problems with these should be an emergency status for landlords. Same-day repairs (or within 48 hours as an absolute maximum) is essential.
Power showers are not essentials in anything but the highest specification units. In fact, they are a well-known industry problem. A standard showerhead connected to a good source of hot water is perfectly adequate.
Make sure that all water is well contained. Seals and gaskets must be top notch – and floor coverings in kitchens and bathrooms really do need to be waterproof/slip-proof.
Wiring must be safe. Get any new purchases checked over by a well-qualified electrician and certified as safe. If you use the NICEIC and they’re happy with the installation, they’ll provide a Landlord’s Certificate. Make sure that an electrician makes regular (say every two years) checks on the supply. And install a circuit breaker.
Tenants need a reasonable number of electrical sockets per room. Not providing what people are likely to need doesn’t mean tenants won’t use their TV/VCR, while simultaneously surfing the internet and printing documents, it means instead that your investment will be a spaghetti-like tangle of dangerous extensions and multi-plug adaptors.
Heating systems must work well and be safe. Gas systems must have current Gas Safety Certificates and it’s a reasonable precaution to buy a carbon monoxide detector. In Central London (and presumably elsewhere) some areas have real trouble with mains water pressure – especially above the ground floor. This should be checked out before installing a modern combi-boiler system. Landlords should be wary about individual space heating, which can be precarious.
Kitchens need adequate food preparation surfaces, tiled splash backs, a decent fridge, a cooker, plus hot and cold water. Make sure there’s a smoke alarm, a small fire extinguisher and a fire blanket as minimum fire safety standards. Those facilities can be placed within a very modest arrangement from any DIY store to a granite topped cherry wood masterpiece. What I would positively avoid are wooden work-tops – of whatever quality. They are far too high maintenance for the average tenant. Who wants to rent a flat then spend their evenings oiling wood?
Keep it simple. Easy maintenance emulsioned walls are undoubtedly ideal. Always keep enough spare paint so that you can touch up between tenancies without redecorating the entire room.
Yet again, if there is an outside area, keep things simple. Tenants don’t like gardening. Charge enough rent to cover garden maintenance and forget about it.
Where landlords have long leases, pay ground rent and
Flats have to be leasehold/shared freehold to work. This means that landlords have to worry less about the overall condition of the building itself as – theoretically - a management company somewhere will be organising all this for you. As a leaseholder, you’re not only not responsible for the structure, you’re positively discouraged from impacting on it.
Service charges are pricey – and often don’t include major works at all. If the management decides that a new roof is required, it will divide the cost between the units and issue a bill to each of its leaseholders.
Whys and wherefores
I’ve deliberately kept this lesson short. It’s one of the few topics that you will find a great deal of advice about. Your building has a twofold income stream. One is the rent. Two is the ultimate sale price. How you decide to juggle each is one of the benefits of being your own boss. You’ll find the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ website valuable on this topic: www.rics.co.uk. They sometimes have free factsheets on building maintenance to order online. Be wary of taking advice on costly finishes from agents – it’s not their money being spent. Alternatively, you may decide to do the bare minimum to the building and rent as is. It’s another of those judgement calls you can make for yourself. Whichever way you decide to go, the advice given here is a minimum to protect your investment and your tenants, which together, constitute your precious income stream. Not looking after either is a mistake – and often downright illegal.
This lesson is so straightforward I haven’t included a summary.