One of your main priorities as a landlord is maintaining your rental property and keeping it free from hazards.
This has become more important than ever in recent years in light of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 and the recently announced proposals for a Decent Homes Standard applying to the Private Rented Sector (PRS).
You don't just have a duty of care and a moral (and legal) obligation to ensure your tenants are safe, but it will also help you protect the long-term condition – and with it, value – of your rental homes.
Most rental properties are already well-maintained and free from any potential hazards. However, there is a minority which aren't. Even those homes which are maintained to a very high standard might occasionally have maintenance problems or safety hazards to face up to – ranging from pest infestation and roof damage to more everyday issues such as damp and mould. In the latter case, prevention is better than cure, and the longer you leave it to take action, the greater your chances of costlier remedial action to fix it.
In situations such as mould appearing in the property, it's crucial that as the landlord, you take steps to resolve the problem as quickly as you can.
Hazards are measured, in the PRS, by what is known as the Housing Health & Safety Rating Assessment (HHSRS), which was introduced in 2006 as part of the Housing Act 2004. Its goal is to offer local authorities the resources to check health and safety in residential properties. It's also there to recover costs from landlords for repair works or order them to carry out improvements.
In total, the HHSRS lists 29 hazards. This includes things like damp, overcrowding and fire risks, with issues ranked in terms of categories. A 'category 1' hazard is the most dangerous.
Back in October 2018, the then-Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - announced a scoping review of the HHSRS to consider if it should be updated and, if so, to what extent.
In July 2019, then Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Heather Wheeler, announced that there would be a comprehensive overhaul of the HHSRS to begin later in 2019.
Despite this, and regular calls to reform the HHSRS – often criticised for being overly complex, out of date (it hasn't been changed or updated in well over 15 years), and complicated for landlords and tenants to understand – no concrete action has been taken to transform this system.
The MHCLG conducted a two-year review of HHSRS in the form of four different surveys – which closed on Wednesday, 31 March 2021. Since then, little has been heard about the outcome of these reviews.
In the recent White Paper on Rental Reform – titled 'A Fairer Private Rented Sector' – it was revealed that, as part of the pathway to applying the Decent Homes Standard to the PRS, the Government would complete its review of the HHSRS, with the review due to conclude in autumn 2022.
What are the most common hazards in rental properties?
Between 2018 and 2019, VeriSmart – a property inventory and compliance specialist – carried out more than 60,000 rental property reports and inspections. Out of these, 4,521 resulted in HHSRS assessments with at least one issue being identified (while some properties had over three).
VeriSmart used this dataset to work out some of the most common hazards in rental properties, with the most common issue being smoke detectors (40% of all HHSRS assessments flagged either a missing or non-functional smoke detector, the research found).
This was followed by stairs, with just over a quarter of assessments (26%) pointing to a danger of falling on stairs between or on separate property storeys.
In third place were electrical hazards, responsible for 11% of issues found during health and safety assessments. In comparison, other common problems included damp and mould (4%), water hazards in uncovered ponds or swimming pools (2%) and the threat of structural collapse or falling elements (also 2%).
Additionally, the research unveiled several other hazards found in a minority of properties, including fire hazards, domestic hygiene and excess cold.
Furthermore, the findings outlined the most common category 1 and category 2 hazards that were ignored or neglected in rental homes. For category 1, these were smoke alarms missing or not working, carbon monoxide detectors missing or not working, and falls on stairs between and on the same storeys.
Meanwhile, category 2 hazards included structural collapse and falling elements, domestic hygiene, pests and refuse.
According to Government figures, Category 1 hazards – which present the highest risk of serious harm or death – exist in 12% of properties in the PRS, 'posing an immediate risk to tenants' health and safety'. In addition, 21% of homes in the PRS are considered non-decent at present.
What should you do if these hazards arise?
If you spot any of these hazards in your rental home, you must act quickly and aim to resolve them swiftly.
It may be the case that your tenants will report the issues to you – it can be handy to ask them to be on the lookout for things like damp or mould or structural issues - or you may discover them when carrying out a regular property inspection.
If you've reached the stage where council officers have uncovered issues during an HHSRS assessment, as the landlord, you will be under pressure to fix the problems quickly or face the prospect of further enforcement action.
You may feel comfortable fixing some hazards yourself, but for anything more significant, complex or large-scale, it's strongly recommended that you call in the experts. There are plenty of sites where you can find reputable tradespeople or your letting agent may be able to help out with this (they are highly likely to have a long list of helpful and trusted contacts). You may also want to use someone who has done a good job for friends or family in the past.
Depending on the issue, you also have a certain amount of time to be able to fix it once it's been identified and acknowledged. Your tenant will need to give you access/permission to enter the property for you or a professional hired on your behalf to carry out the work.
It's within your interests, as much as your tenants, to resolve issues as quickly as you can, as they are only likely to worsen over time if left unattended. This could not only put the safety of your tenants at greater risk but also hurt your bank balance in terms of repair costs. It's lose-lose, in other words.
There's also the fact that a local authority is more likely to get involved the longer you leave a hazard, which could eventually see you being issued with a fine or enforcement order – something no landlord wants.
Swiftly fixing problems can help protect your home's condition and keep your tenants happy and content. This can increase the chances of them seeing the property as their own and renting for the long term. Long-term tenants mean a steady stream of rental income and a lack of void periods, which is what every landlord is searching for.
It's also crucial that you and your tenants have good levels of communication so they can report any issues as and when they happen - and ensure that any maintenance problems or hazards aren't neglected.
Your tenant is also responsible for keeping the home in a good state of repair and reporting repairs or hazards to you as the landlord, or to the letting agent or property management company if you don't self-manage.
The importance of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act
In March 2019, new legislation - the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 – was implemented to ensure that rented houses and flats are 'fit for human habitation'. This means they must be safe, healthy and free from things (such as hazards) that could cause serious harm.
The Act made several changes to the existing Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. This required landlords to ensure that 'all rental accommodation (including common parts of buildings) is suitable for human habitation at the beginning and throughout a tenancy'.
The hazards that could make a property unfit for human habitation follow the same line as the HHSRS, including overcrowding, damp, structural issues, drainage problems and pest infestation.
In addition, the Act includes homes that have unsafe layouts, have been neglected, don't provide enough natural light, or have minimal space to prepare or cook food.
If the tenant causes the issue, or if it was caused by what is known as an 'act of God – like a storm or flooding – a home cannot be deemed unfit for human habitation.
Perhaps the key aspect of the Act is that it offers tenants the chance to sue their landlord for breach of contract if the home isn't up to standard.
Should the court rule in the tenant's favour, you may be ordered to pay compensation and complete the necessary improvement works. You could still be pursued by your local authority and issued a fine separate from this, meaning a double whammy of problems.
As the above sets out, and as is frequently referenced in the White Paper on Rental Reform, the government is eager to ensure that all rental properties are let to a minimum standard. Consequently, as a landlord, it's more vital than ever that you ensure your home is up to scratch. Equally, you should aim to deal with any maintenance issues or safety hazards as quickly as possible.