Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS)
This is possibly a piece of legislation that is borne in mind by us most often, but for which there is little or any recognition by anyone but local council enforcment officers.
Local authorities use this, when appropriate, in order to censure landlords who are not providing safe accommodation for their tenants. We effectively have to risk-assess every property, highlight areas of concern and have the necessary remedial action carried out. However, simply saying that a property is risk-assessed is possibly to devalue the efforts involved. There are a variety of sub-sections of the assessment:
Physiological - damp, mould, property temperature, Asbestos, biocides, Carbon Monoxide and combustion products, lead, radiation, uncombusted fuels, gas and volatile organic compounds fall into this category.
Mould, and property temperature are probably the issues most often investigated by us with mould being perhaps the biggest single problem we encounter regularly in our properties.
At check-in all our tenants are provided with information to assist in the identification of mould and how to rectify any problem. They also have to sign an acknowledgement of its receipt. We also provide reminders and more detailed advice when required.
Sometimes despite our best endeavours, mould becomes a problem. A tenant invariably blames the property and a landlord often suggests that it is the tenant's lifestyle which is the root cause. Very often, it turns out to be a combination of the two, with loft-space ventilation or insulation and other similar property issues playing a part. We have a very good contractor who we call upon when we need definitive proof and by following his advice we invariably eliminate the problem, but finding a resolution is often a very labour intensive process.
Psychological - Crowding / space, possible entry by intruders, lighting and noise fall into this category. Window locks, patio door locks and entrance or hallway lighting are the areas we are most often concerned with.
Infection - Domestic hygeine, pests and refuse, food safety, personal hygeine, sanitation and drainage and the water supply are among the issues covered by this category.
Accidents - Falls associated with baths/showers, falling on level surfaces, falling on steps, falling between levels, electrical hazards, fire, flame, hot surfaces, collision and entrapment, explosions, position and operability of amenities and structural collapse/failings are covered in this section.
We spend a lot of time advising landlords about the need for stair banisters in particular and their correct spacing to adhere to building regulations.
Even where we are assessing for issues we do not come across, we need to be aware of the areas of concern. Such awareness requires continual ongoing training, in order to keep abreast of legislation.
A property is obviously assessed at the point in which we list it, but continual assessment is required since a property may deteriorate, or a tenant's behaviour my affect the safety at a property. As a result, all staff involved in taking on, conducting viewings and carrying out periodic visits need to be aware of all the various issues.
Full details may be found here.
General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
This was 2018's hot topic, but after May when it came into force, most seem to have forgotten about it. The ramifications to us, however, have been considerable and are on-going. We are now committed to turning ourselves into a paperless environment. Owing to the size of our archives and the need to retain much information for up to 6 years, this is a task which will take a number of years to fully complete. The alternative, would be the immediate scanning of all archived documents and this is clearly an exercise fraught with problems and would be very costly.
Simply arriving at Privacy Policies and procedures involved seminars, webinars, training and many man-hours to ensure compliance. But there were even physical changes that were required at our premises; we have always had a key-pad lock on our key cupboard, but we have now also had to install a door and key-pad to our archive storage area, as well as ensure that all our filing cabinets are lockable.
Landlords should be registered with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) Details here.
Dispute handling with The DPS.
The number of tenancy dilapidation disputes has more than doubled in the last 10 years. This isn’t so much because tenants are leaving properties in a worse state than they were, so much as a better understanding by tenants of their rights and a belief that they can argue their case regarding any claim. It costs a tenant absolutely nothing to disagree with a proposed deduction from his deposit and, since tenants consider that they have nothing to lose by arguing over deductions, an ever-increasing number do so, either to be bloody-minded, or in the vain hope that they might be successful, despite the condition in which they left the property. All such claims and counter claims are time-sensitive. There are strict timescales within which we need to collate everything and this means allocating staff solely to this task.
Quite rightly, a deposit is deemed to be the tenant’s and there is an increasing burden of proof required in order to successfully make a claim against a deposit. We conduct all our inventories, periodic checks and check-outs in house to maintain standards, in order that we are in the strongest possible position when it comes to arguing the landlord's case. Elsewhere, you might read that independent inventories are best, since nobody is then deemed to be biased towards the landlord. In a perfect world, this might be true, but in our experience, inventory sub-contractors simply want to finish a task and get paid for it; they aren't financially tied to the outcome of a dispute and don't really take proper ownership of a property and its potential problems. SInce we are intrinsically linked to the whole process, it is in our interests to ensure that reports are as accurate as possible and if very occasionally we get it wrong, we are prepared to rectify things at our own expense. We might not be pleased and we would certainly seek to learn from the problem, but we have far more chance of preventing future repetition when it is caused by a report made by our own member of staff.
Every single claim no matter how small involves collating much of this information; copies of the tenancy agreement, copies of the inventory, periodic visit reports, check-out report, estimates and invoices, photographic evidence and whatever else may be required, including correspondence between the parties, to build a case for submission to the Alternative Dispute Resolution Service (ADR),or when necessary, the courts. The actual submission requires written statements and can run to many pages and in complex cases, can take in excess of an entire day’s effort. In the past year, it has cost us many thousands of pounds in pursuing claims on behalf of our landlords. Check-outs, deposit deductions and negotiations account for nearly one and a half members of staff. Quite apart from the time and effort, there are considerable printing and postage costs to be taken into consideration.
All Belvoir staff involved in inventory preparation, periodic visits and check-outs attend regular training with The DPS and other external bodies, to ensure that they are kept up to date with the often complex changes as they take place. We have a particularly good track record of providing evidence which results in claims being upheld. In November 2018, we were successful in claiming an entire deposit in excess of £1600. Without our systems, training and detailed application, we would be far less successful in defending claims on behalf of our landlords. It is worth noting that many agents use sub-contractors to compile their reports and the deposit is often then dealt with by a call-centre. We know that their success rate is significantly less than ours, since landlords often come to us as a result of their disenchantment with such an agent.
You may find DPS dispute details here.
Legionella Risk Assessments.
Since 2013, these have been necessary for properties that are let out. They involve administration in the initial assessment and continued periodic monitoring through both tenant feedback and visual inspection. These have often resulted in rectification works needing to be arranged, once again at the cost of much time and man-power.
There was, and to a lesser extent continues to be some controversy over these assessments. An industry has grown out of these regulations and many sub-contractors and agents have made money through insisting on entirely unnecessary testing of the water supply. Following adverse press coverage of these tests, we found ourselves involved in lengthy telephone calls and email exchanges to concerned landlords in order to demostrate that we were doing only what is clearly required in law.
In fact, we have gone to great lengths to take a pragmatic approach to these assessments and now have a pro-forma assessment which we make available to landlords free of charge so that they can make their own assessment where their property is of low risk and as such has a lesser requirement in terms of the detail required for an assessment.
It is possibly worth noting that these inspections revealed a number of defective water tank installations which, had they not been attended to, would likely have resulted in significant water damage to the properties. Sometimes, legislation proves to be a blessing in disguise!
Landlord guidance may be found here.
Smoke alarm and Carbon Monoxide detector regulations.
Whilst only minor, yet more systems have been introduced to ensure adherence to legislation. This involves ensuring and getting a tenant to witness (and sign for the fact at check-in) that detectors are in place where applicable and working and ensuring that they are tested on periodic visits. It also means changes to our systems, such that these checks may be accurately logged. Failure to comply with this legislation carries a potential fine of £5,000.
The Immigration Act 2014 and 2016.
We now need to prove that every tenant and occupier over the age of 18 is a resident of the EU or Switzerland, or has a valid visa. We also then need procedures in place to check their on-going validity and there are rules to adhere to in the event that such visas are not renewed which involve reporting to The Home Office. We now need to monitor the coming of age of occupants. Failure to comply with this Act carries a potential fine of up to £3,000 per occupant.
In addition to monitoring those who have the right to live in the property, it is important that during a periodic visit, our staff are alert to the identity of the tenants and permitted occupiers, since once aware of an unauthorised individual living at a property who may not have the right to be in the country, we are obliged to act, or face legal action. With a single lady as the sole occupier in a property, for example, we wouldn't expect to see a further bedroom obviously occupied, or a number of pairs of size 12 working boots neatly lined up beside the front door. Whilst we need to be alert to this anyway, this act serves to concentrate our minds on the task.
The issue of the “How-to-Rent” guides.
This guide now needs to be supplied at the earliest possible opportunity to all applicants. Failure to do so invalidates any subsequent Section 21 Notice (The Notice required when a landlord is seeking to end an Assured Shorthold Tenancy). The issuing of these guides must be recorded in case evidence is required at a later date. There is also a need to monitor government changes to this publication. There were two changes in one month in the summer of 2018, so it is vitally important that a weather eye is kept on this matter.
The Deregulation Act 2015.
This has implications for deposits, the issuing of Section 21 Notices and “retaliatory eviction.” This is designed to protect a tenant against unfair eviction where they have raised a legitimate complaint about the condition of their home.
In direct response to The Deregulation Act, we introduced the "Fix-Flo" maintenance reporting app. This reporting system is designed for tenants to report issues through their mobile phone, tablet or computer. It has led to us having to introduce a variety of new systems and procedures. There are many benefits to this system and Belvoir has welcomed it, but it is a system which has a significant financial cost and one which has involved a lot of on-going staff training and alterations to our basic infrastructure. Whereas it is possible to use the system without too much effort, we elected to spend many days personalising it. We wrote guidance notes designed to help the tenant and manage their expectations. These guidance notes have served to eliminate many calls entirely.
The use of this system not only protects the landlord from possible action by the tenant, but it also makes the handling of maintenance more efficient. Through the software, a tenant is made aware of what constitutes an emergency and therefore warrants a call-out which the landlord will cover and, more to the point, a call-out which will be for the tenant's own account. They need to include photos, model numbers, serail numbers and a description of the issue, enabling us to ensure the correct contractor is called out. We had a report recently of a defective shower and were it not for this system, would possibly have sent a plumber when, in fact it was an electrician who needed to attend. The system enables a tenant to report in languages other than English and informs the tenant of a likely time-scale to expect for the repair.
The system also educates the tenant with regard to the sort of issue he should accept responsibility for in order to minimise the occasions where we are engaged in debate with a tenant over exactly who should pay for a particular task. Our aim is obviously to look after the landlord's interests and keep his costs to a minimum.
Electrical Safety Regulations. Changes were introduced in December 2016 which have added another layer of checks which need to be implemented between tenancies for white goods provided since December 2016. And, we believe that 5 yearly mandatory safety checks will shortly be required. This is creating a further two layers of monitoring and auditing that have to be accommodated.
New Prescribed Information.
In addition to the Prescribed Information regarding deposits, we now need to issue a separate raft of Prescribed Information to tenants in order to ensure that Section 21 Notices may be correctly served. These documents need to be issued to the applicant at specific stages of the application process and evidence obtained to be able to prove their receipt and acceptance.
The cost of doing this properly cannot be over-emphasised. It is not simply a case of realising that this wasn't done in a timely manner and serving the information prior to serving the notice. If it isn't dealt with correctly, then a tenant cannot be evicted unless he is in breach of the tenancy agreement, or until such time as he elects to leave of his own volition. And a breach isn't necessarily sufficient; some grounds for eviction remain discretionary and attempting to regain possession on some grounds is reliant upon the opinion of the court on any particular day.
Here are details of a case where part of the prescribed information was not provided prior to the start of a tenancy. On this occasion, it was a gas safety certificate, but it could just as easily have been any of the prescribed information required. Caridon Property Ltd v Monty Shooltz (Feb 2018)
Energy Performance Certificates. (EPC's)
These are required whenever a property is advertised to let. Whilst they are valid for 10 years, many are now coming up for renewal. We do not carry out the checks ourselves and landlords pay for the checks, but we have to both monitor those becoming due and make the necessary arrangements to ensure they are carried out.
Details may be found here:
Minimum Energy Efficient Standards (MEES)
Closely associated with the EPC, this is something which is just beginning to affect the running of our portfolio. Properties with lower ratings need attention and tenants now have the right to request improvements under certain circumstances. Even if we are not currently involved in this with a particular property, it is an area where training has been necessary and where we are expected to be able to advise both landlords and tenants alike.
Since many of the tenancies we manage are in properties let prior to the legislation, we are having to carry out an audit of all our portfolio. Those without EPC’s need to have them arranged and then any of those, or indeed any of those already having an EPC rated at F or worse, need to have works carried out in order to bring them up to the minimum accepted E rating before they are able to be advertised for re-let. This is an arduous task and is not limited simply to very old dilapidated buildings. There are very many relatively new properties which fall short and as legislation is further tightened, there will be additional burdens on agents and landlords.
Details may be found here.
This year, we have spent nearly £13,000 on training for our staff and we have committed to a similar sum for 2019. Whilst not yet mandatory, our intention is to have all staff trained externally to a level beyond that which we believe will become mandatory in the forseeable future.
Some of the training is out of necessity general in nature and all our staff will take part in such on-going tuition. Some of it is specific to particular tasks or roles and this training will be provided only to those involved in that particular area. Even those members of staff not involved in a specialised area will, however, be sufficiently trained that they are able to recognise the need to pass the issue on to someone who is trained.
We're hosting another of our landlord's evenings in The New Year.. There will be a half-hour presentation on changes in legislation, a half-hour presentation by a specialist insurance company and a half-hour presentation on important issues such as why it is so important in tax terms to own your property in the right way and how you might mitigate the effects of Section 24 which removes your ability to offset interest costs against income tax. We'll also have a mortgage broker in attendance to answer any questions you have regardiing mortgages.
Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone us on 01256 830800 to register your interest.