The Serious Responsibilities
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.
Taking your responsibilities seriously isn’t a matter of luck. It’s down to knowledge and application. Although this lesson is vital, it’s also one that requires little explanation, making it relatively short. Ignore any of these rules at your peril.
The letting rules
In any form of business, there are rules that govern safety. You don’t expect a trip to Tesco to result in death or injury – and tenants shouldn’t have to dice with death to live in your property either. Check all or any in particular with Trading Standards.
Not following the rules can invalidate your insurance cover
Something vital that many reckless landlords forget is that their own insurance is likely to be void if they don’t ensure that the property has been let in full compliance within the law. Keeping abreast of the new Housing in Multiple Occupation rules is now a must for every modern landlord.
The principles of safety
Landlords are responsible for safety. Where specific rules haven’t been drawn up, common law protects tenants from injury or negligence caused by actions (or their lack) by landlords.
A routine building and contents policy with public liability cover is not sufficient for private landlords. Landlords really should contact an independent insurance broker. Modern landlords should always protect themselves by purchasing ‘property owner’s liability insurance’. Without it, an individual landlord may find themselves personally liable for any claims against them. Not a good place to be.
Being insured isn’t an excuse to forget about routine safety either. Certainly, insurance will cover a landlord’s accidents. But not, say, if no effort is made to tack down a dangerous stair carpet. It may cover slipping on wet leaves – but not if they fell three months ago. Getting rent means accepting responsibility. Landlords forget that simple equation at their financial peril.
To furnish or not
More and more landlords are being advised to offer ‘part furnished’ property in order to offset the furniture liabilities. But markets always win and very few tenants own furniture. Furnish properly (which doesn’t mean expensively) and you’ll have peace of mind.
Be careful how you interpret ‘furnished’. ‘Furnished’ has the basics ‘bed, carpets, sofas, curtains, fridges, table and chairs, cooker, etc’. Keep it simple. Keep it safe.
Don’t over-provide. It’s unnecessary to provide irons/boards, kettles, cutlery, televisions, bedding, etc. Indeed the more you provide, the more cluttered the contract and the greater your own liabilities, increasing both management time and responsibilities.
Look at your unit dispassionately. Will half a dozen knives and forks really clinch a deal or put up the rent? If not – leave them out. Provide enough basic furniture that enables tenants to live in comfort, provide extras only where they’re going to up the rent.
The more you provide – the wider your liability
That abused iron can become just as lethal as a faulty boiler – but much harder to remember and repair bills for superfluous items can exceed the values they ever added. Furnish safely – never unnecessarily.
All furniture in tenanted property must comply with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988, as announced.
The Regulations apply to:
- Three-piece suites.
- Sofa beds, futons and other convertible items.
- Beds – bases and headboards, mattresses divans and pillows must all meet BS 117.
- All nursery furniture.
- Garden furniture where it may be used indoors.
- Fitted covers, stretch covers, cushions and seat pads.
Furniture which does comply carries an obvious manufacturer’s label and this label must be permanent and non-detachable. This label assures the purchaser that upholstered items have fire-resistant filling, and have passed the prescribed ‘match resistance’ and ‘cigarette’ tests.
Items which are exempt from the Regulations are:
- Furniture manufactured before 1950.
- Mattress covers.
The penalties for ignoring the law (which is rigorously enforced by Trading Standards departments) are:
- Six months’ imprisonment.
- Potential manslaughter charges.
- A fine of £5,000.
- Civil damages claimed by tenants.
- Invalid insurance.
- A criminal record.
The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 affect every single landlord in the country and are very clear.
- All gas appliance fitting and maintenance must be carried out by Corgi registered installers and only by Corgi registered installers.
- All gas appliances provided by landlords must be certified safe by a Corgi registered gas engineer at least once every year.
- Once inspected, the engineer will provide landlords with a certificate often referred to as a Gas Safety Certificate, which must be dated. All landlords are obliged to make sure that a valid certificate is available for all appliances and to make this available for their tenants.
- Don’t just assume that anyone who claims to be Corgi registered is. Always check the credentials of new tradespersons by calling The Corgi association, Tel: 01256 372 300.
The consequences of failing to comply with gas safety
Failure to comply with this basic safety requirement is a criminal offence. Regulation is enforced by the Health and Safety Executive who has extensive powers to fine or imprison landlords who flout this rule. And no wonder. This industry still experiences dozens of deaths every year to say nothing of the countless cases of brain damage associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. Where landlords use agents, it becomes the agent’s liability to ensure certificates are kept up to date. Landlords must make certain that their agent is complying with this rule.
Words fail me that I’m still hearing stories like this in the second millennium and after all that legislation.
Always keep records
Landlords should keep copies of old Gas Safety Certificates for at least five years to be on the safe side.
Make sure that your tenants never touch or try repairing gas appliances. To make sure this doesn’t happen, inform your tenants that any issues to do with gas appliances (for example, repairs) must be reported to you immediately. Tenants must know where the cut off lever is situated and should contact Transco immediately if they smell gas – even if they can’t contact their landlord.
Note: the Gas Service with 3* cover is not a substitute for a Gas Safety Certificate – which is a specific range of safety tests, and requires a separate order and fee.
Carbon monoxide is widely known as the silent killer and it doesn’t only affect gas. Anything that burns can produce carbon monoxide. It’s caused by the incomplete combustion of a variety of fuels – including coal fires. If you’re the slightest bit concerned about your unit’s facilities, switch off and call in a registered/accredited installer.
Many landlords (and householders) have a cheap yet effective carbon monoxide monitor in rooms where gas appliances are used.
Some newer restrictions
January 1996 saw the introduction of further restrictions particularly on gas appliances in bathrooms and bedrooms. Appliances used in these rooms must be of the room sealed type (check with your local Corgi installer). Some exceptions can be made for non-room sealed heaters but only if they have automatic cut-off devices (but again – check with your local Corgi installer).
In October 1998 the installation of instant water heaters (the old geysers) which don’t have automatic cut out devices and which aren’t the room-sealed type were made illegal. Installation of any appliances must be completed by an authorised Corgi installer.
Landlords who flout these gas safety requirements do so at their – to say nothing of their tenants’ – peril.
Lives are at stake and, because the legislation is clear-cut – so are the penalties. Which include:
- A criminal conviction.
- The invalidation of your property insurance.
- Unlimited fines.
- Civil cases for damages.
Electrical safety is governed by the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994.
Unfortunately, safety matters are not so clear cut with electricity; unless offering large shared houses where the House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) specific regulations come into play – along with very specific electrical qualifications. For HMO information, read Lesson 13: Houses in multiple occupation – new rules for sharers.
However, for the majority of landlords with one or two tenants, the law on electrical safety is not so prescriptive. At present, the guidelines ask for an inspection by a certified electrician at least every five years. This is likely to change for many landlords who will now find themselves within the scope of environmental health officers since the new classifications of shared housing came into force in April 2006 (see Lesson 13).
Wise landlords have, at the very least, a certified electrician examine any building before letting out to tenants. Landlords should undertake a check-up between tenancies for general issues and arrange for a qualified electrician to test the circuits at least every two years.
Note: by landlord check-ups I mean between every tenancy. Tenants can be surprisingly heavy handed with electrical sockets – many come loose and need securing regularly.
The contact breaker
A contact breaker system is an invaluable boon for private landlords. Once installed, it will simply fuse the circuit if tenants bring along a faulty iron or hairdryer – and it’s so much cheaper than the average excess on a fire claim. Landlords need to assess their responsibilities under ‘due diligence’ in common law.
Carry out regular checks on electrical circuits
Ask a qualified certified electrician to check out your services regularly and keep the receipt for this check. Landlords running HMOs are currently required to have a landlord’s electrical check annually by an NICEIC accredited electrician who will supply you with the appropriate certification.
- Ensure that earth tags are in place.
- Ensure that sockets comply with current regulations and are securely fixed to walls.
- Make sure that your tenant knows where the main fuse box is for emergencies and how to use the fuse box/contact breakers.
- Ensure that tenants telephone you or your agent as soon as an electrical fault develops.
- Make certain that repairs are carried out immediately – tenants may be tempted to use faulty sockets etc if they have no alternative and you could find yourself liable for accidents.
Provide adequate, safe, space heating for your unit
Tenants won’t shiver if the central heating is inadequate – they’ll buy a cheap fire and plug it in. This is a dangerous situation, one that could damage your property, injure tenants or even cause fires. One landlord I know is rebuilding an entire property because tenants dried their clothes on storage heaters once too often, went out and managed to burn down the building.
Smoke Detectors Act 1991
Buildings built after 1992 must have smoke detectors on every floor. This is the legal position. But responsible landlords put smoke detectors in halls and kitchens of every rental unit – no matter what age they are.
Heat detectors can be legal requirements in HMOs and the scope of these HMOs may be about to widen as the 2004 Act beds in. Be aware that fire detection in all its forms is an investment not a penalty.
Often a legal requirement in HMOs, fire doors are a sensible idea for landlords of all persuasions on means of escape. Your local fire officer will advise you – fire doors usually offer a half-hour fire resistance, an intumescent strip, which, when exposed to heat expands to contain smoke – and a permanently sprung ‘self-closer’ which makes sure that fire doors always spring closed. Landlords who need to install any or all of these measures to comply with HMO regulations should avoid cheap self-closers. They tend to bang rather than glide shut and cause endless tenant-to-tenant rows – another management issue you can live without.
Fire extinguishers and blankets
Every landlord needs to protect their building and tenants with these basic facilities. In larger, multiply-occupied buildings, environmental health officers will specify large fire extinguishers, usually located on the means of escape. Landlords often rent these from a large company, who service them regularly. On a smaller scale, all rentals would benefit from a domestic sized extinguisher which is located in kitchens. Available from any DIY store, they often come with a wall fixing (which I personally discard as removing the extinguisher can be very awkward). They cost just over £10. Fire blankets are another cheap but useful tool – again, they cost around £10.
The 1992 Building Regulations
These Regulations have, in new build and extensions to properties, increased attention to safety considerably. But landlords with old buildings can’t just claim that they didn’t know. You’re in business and are expected to know.
Glass safety isn’t covered specifically in rentals (except where you need to replace glass). But landlords need to make sure that the glass in French windows, in doors of any type – and in any vulnerable point in the building is toughened or safety, whichever applies. Any landlord with queries should contact their local environmental health officer for advice.
Lead pipes/water supplies
All landlords should ensure that old-fashioned lead water pipes are replaced with copper or a modern plastic system. It’s the responsible thing to do with such a long-term investment.
As a landlord, you remain responsible for everything that you provide within the building – and legally liable. Tenants are now protected under consumer legislation, by health and safety and by Trading Standards – as well as the usual common law available to anyone – quite simply because action was needed to cut the death and accident rate in rented accommodation which has been historically dangerous.
Floors in kitchens and bathrooms should be non-slip. Latches and catches need to operate smoothly. Cookers shouldn’t be installed right next to kitchen doors (making it impossible to escape).
There’s only one rule – if you supply it, make sure it’s safe.
Modern tenants are also entitled to take civil actions for damage and injury – and with the explosion of no-win no-fee – it’s getting easier and easier to sue your landlord.
Take stock for general safety. Look inside the building and then beyond to the pathways and garden. Check that things are secure and that pathways don’t become slippery. Anything which overhangs should be checked to make sure it is safe and cannot fall down (eg loose slates).
Don’t let this put you off
You’re expected to take reasonable care, not (despite what some of the landlord websites claim) to wrap tenants in bubble wrap – nor can you protect them from their own actions, or be responsible for freakish accidents. Nor can you be held liable for dangerous items that tenants bring into your unit without your knowledge.
How to check the building during a tenancy
And, finally, any halfway decent lease reserves any landlord’s right to enter the property with 24 hours’ written advance notice, which more than covers things like gas safety and a regular safety/ maintenance audit.
Whys and wherefores
This short lesson shouldn’t take long to read through. Contact your local authority and ask for Trading Standards if you require any further help. Beyond that, provide the basic safe furniture, keep the services safe, and get your landlord’s Gas Safety Certificate.
This particular section doesn’t require a checklist/summary as each short section is easy to follow.