Balcony fires – don’t take the risk

Is your balcony a fire risk? Following the fire in June that raced through a block in Barking via wooden-clad balconies, the government now has an advice note to block owners and residents. Balconies must not compromise resident safety by providing a means of external fire spread, it says.  Balconies must be included in fire risk assessments. If they contain combustible material then they should be removed and replaced.

Don’t try this at home…

So building owners need to understand the materials used in the construction of balconies on their blocks. This way they will be able to assess whether adequate fire protection is in place to resist a fire spreading both across and through the external wall.  But owners aren’t necessarily either fire or construction experts. So if there is any doubt over the materials used or the risk presented, they should seek professional advice from a fire safety specialist.

Revisions to the Building Regulations introduced in December address the risks posed by balconies. The new regulations require balconies on residential buildings over 18m high to be made of non-combustible materials. But balconies on existing blocks like the one in Barking, may be made from combustible materials, so it is vital for building owners to do their homework properly.

Property managers can play their part by setting out a few simple rules stating what can and cannot be stored and used on balconies by residents. Here’s our advice:

  • Don’t use balconies as storage areas – particularly for anything that might be flammable.
  • If balconies are used as smoking areas, make sure that cigarettes are properly extinguished and disposed of. The same goes for candles.
  • And most important of all, never barbeque on your balcony. A significant number of fires in flats start this way. Not only is it clearly dangerous but your block insurer will take a very dim view of any claim for fire damage resulting from an out-of-control barbeque.

Make sure residents know what is and isn’t acceptable – and why. Use the block newsletter, website, the AGM or a social get-together to drive this message home. And don’t forget anyone sub-letting. It could save a life.

Landlords and tenants – you need each other!

Fixed-term tenancies for private renters should be scrapped. Landlords should also stop evicting tenants just because they want to sell their homes. These are just two of the reforms called for by leading thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in a recent report.

Landlord and tenant: PRS reform must consider the needs of both
Landlord and tenant: PRS reform must consider the needs of both

Under the law as it stands, without giving a reason, private landlords can issue a ‘Section 21’ eviction notice to tenants whose assured shorthold tenancy has ended. This puts millions of private renters in the UK in a precarious position, says the IPPR, as they never know when they may be forced out of their home. The thinktank is calling for increasing security for tenants through an ‘open tenancy’ and wants to prevent landlords from selling in the first three years of a tenancy agreement, giving renters greater peace of mind .

There is no doubt that for many renters, the PRS is insecure. Around one in 10 tenancies comes to an end because the landlord has terminated them through a no-fault eviction. Tenancies ended by landlords were the biggest cause of homelessness in England in 2017, accounting for almost a third of all local authority homelessness acceptances.

The IPPR believes tenants face unaffordable rents, poor conditions, a lack of tenure security and limited control over their rented home. In response, among other things, the thinktank wants to see changes to recent welfare reforms to help struggling tenants and a national landlord register to help drive up standards in the rental market.

Tenants undoubtedly stand to gain from these proposals. But are they fair to landlords? The majority of landlords in the UK own just one or two buy-to-let properties. Many are ‘accidental’ landlords who have inherited a property and may be renting it out simply until they can make a profit by selling it. Most take their responsibilities seriously and many are happy to offer their tenants a well-maintained home for as long as the arrangement suits both parties. The property they rent out is theirs – why shouldn’t they be able to take it back if they want to?

The IPPR agrees that landlords need to be treated fairly. It proposes that the Government should launch a review of all taxation relating to private landlords. Reforming the tax system  would promote socially responsible landlordism and a long-term, high quality and stable rented sector as well as challenging wealth inequality, says the thinktank.

There is no doubt that private renting causes hardship for many, especially those on benefits. However, the PRS has grown substantially in the last two decades. It is now home to 20% of households and many more people expect to rent for longer. If it is to continue to thrive and to provide high quality homes for more of us each year, any reforms that are put forward must take into consideration both the profitability and the rights of landlords as well as those of tenants.

Back build-to-rent, drive up quality

Build-to-rent is really gaining momentum around the UK. The number of build-to-rent homes being built across the country has increased by nearly 40% in the last 12 months, according to new figures released in January. Last month, a new build-to-rent developer, Core Living, hit the market with a target of 2500 new homes across the north of England by 2020. In Manchester, the 35-storey Angel Gardens – one of the biggest schemes outside London – is nearing completion and north of the border, planning has just been granted for some of Scotland’s first purpose-built for rent homes on Clydeside.

Over the last few months, the government has put the rental sector firmly in the spotlight. Ministers are determined to drive up standards for tenants and improve affordability and security of tenure. Locally, councils are being called on to clamp down on rogue landlords. They have been allocated funding to encourage them to do this.

This build-to-rent PLATFORM_ development in Bedford has its own yoga studio.
This build-to-rent PLATFORM_ development in Bedford has its own yoga studio.

But according to one developer, PLATFORM_, there’s a quicker and cheaper way to do this. Give more support to the build–to-rent sector, he says.  PLATFORM_ managing director Jean-Marc Vandevivare believes that another way of driving up standards – less costly for the taxpayer and less time-consuming for local authorities –  is to back the growth of the build-to-rent sector. Rather than using public money, BTR developers are using institutional funding to build thousands of quality homes. In turn this could drive improvements for renters.

Large-scale developers need to attract renters into their block rather than the one next door. They have a vested interest in excellence. The quality of build-to-rent homes varies but most are professionally managed, offer a sense of community, and provide a growing range of amenities that cater to modern day working and lifestyle trends.

The success of build-to-rent to-date pays testament to this business model. As the January figures show, build-to-rent is set to take an increasing share of the UK rental market and at Ringley we are committed to being part of this via our new brand Life by Ringley. With mandatory qualifications on the cards for property managers and a tranche of regulation on its way, as a professional property agency we are delighted to be offering management services to this exciting sector as it develops and expands.

Rent control – do we really need it?

Every so often the thorny issue of rent control raises its head. Rent control was in the Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto and it has the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan. The Mayor has now said he intends to outline a plan for stabilising and controlling rents for the 2.4 million renters now living in the capital. The London Mayor’s powers don’t extend to bringing in rent control across the city but he has said he will campaign for it and lobby the Government for his proposals to be accepted.

Rents in London are extremely high as a percentage of earnings compared to other parts of the country and private rents rose on average by a whopping 38% between 2005 and 2016. According to Mr Khan the arguments for rent control are “overwhelming” and it is vital the Government acts to improve the quality of millions of lives. Londoners seem to agree with him. A recent survey confirmed that 68% of Londoners were in favour of capping the amount private landlords could charge tenants. But is rent control really the answer to renters’ problems?

Rent control: could it be coming your way?
Rent control: could it be coming your way?

The argument against capping rental levels has always been that it will impact supply as landlords, unable to make a profit, take their properties off the market. As the majority of private landlords only own one property this is a distinct possibility, especially as higher taxes are already eating away at profitibility in the buy-to-rent market. This would certainly add to the problems tenants already have in finding a suitable home to rent. Build to rent developers may also take a step back from the London market if they can’t make the figures add up on new developments. However, the rental market’s loss could be the housebuyer’s gain if there is a sudden flood of former rental housing onto the market.

In other major cities such as New York and Berlin, rent control has been in place for decades. The lesson to learn from the experience in these markets is that in tandem with bringing in rent control, it is important to provide a supply of social housing to mop up the shortfall in private rentals when some landlords, inevitably, decide to quit the market.

Mr Khan has invited Karen Buck, the MP behind the Homes (Fitness for Habitation) Bill, to work with James Murray, the deputy mayor for housing and residential development, to work up proposals for future rent control laws. This is clearly not as straightforward as it may at first appear and the additional social housing that Sadiq Khan has also pledged to provide for London must be brought into the mix, otherwise rent control could be completely self-defeating and simply hurt the people it is intended to support.

So will London follow the lead of other major cities around the world and become the first place in the UK to enforce a rental cap? Watch this space – the next few years could be interesting.

Guaranteed for renters – a home fit to live in

The government aims to ensure a decent home for renters is guaranteed as part of the new Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act. A Private Members’ Bill allowing tenants to sue over the condition of their rental properties completed its paslawsage through Parliament just before Christmas and will become law on 21 March.

The new Act makes changes to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and the Building Act 1984. So what does it mean? Well, from the date the new Act comes into force, all landlords in the social and private sectors must ensure that their property is fit for human habitation at the beginning of the tenancy and stays that way – essentially  guaranteeing that their rented home is fit for purpose. Where this is not the case, tenants will have the right to take legal action for breach of contract on the grounds that the property is unfit to live in. The new Act only applies to tenancies in England. The Welsh Government has already included similar rights for tenants in the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016.

The Residential Landlords Association and National Association of Landlords are backing the changes set out in the new Act but some individual landlords are not so keen. They are worried that the new law could mean tenants refusing to pay rent until the freeholder carries out repairs, etc. leading to landlords getting caught up in costly litigation while rogue tenants are given free rein to cause damage.

A simple way to get around this issue is to carry out regular inspections and ensure tenants sign these off every time. Any damage caused can then be noted and a paper trail created that can be used by both sides to prove that what should have been actioned has been done and the tenant charged for repairs where appropriate.

In fact, where not carrying out repairs counts as a breach of contract, tenants have had the right to take their landlord to court since 2015 under the Consumer Rights Act, so that hasn’t really changed. What is new though, is that what defines  ‘fit for habitation’ is now enshrined in law over and above the existing ‘hazards’ that are listed in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This is already used by local authorities to ensure that rented housing is of an acceptable level. At the end of the day responsible landlords have nothing to fear from the new Act – after all, any property that is let should automatically be guaranteed to be of an acceptable standard.

As part of a bigger package of reforms that tackles housing problems, the government has also announced  a new Housing Complaint Resolution Service. This guarantees protection for homeowners as well as tenants and gives them a single point of contact to sort out disputes over repairs and maintenance. All private landlords must sign up to the new scheme. If they don’t they could face fines of up to to £5,000. A new Home Ombudsman is also on the cards, so watch this space. All good news for renters and flat owners we think.

Discover more about renting – it’s worth the effort.

informationDiscover more about renting – it could pay dividends. TotallyMoney’s Mark Moloney recently told Letting Agent Today that knowing your rights and being able to keep an eye out for warning signs means you’re well prepared in the event of an issue or a dispute.

We agree 100%. At Ringley we are fully committed to helping our clients and their residents stay as well informed as possible but we weren’t entirely surprised to read that a recent survey carried out by the credit report website revealed that tenants know a lot less than they should about the rental sector. This is also a problem among long leaseholders. In many cases, tenants and flat owners know very little about their rights and responsibilities.

According to TotallyMoney, a staggering 97% of renters do not know their full rights, while 50% don’t know if their landlord could change their rent without notifying them. Perhaps more worrying is that 38% of people renting a house or flat don’t know when the landlord is allowed to enter the property.

And it’s not just tenants who don’t have as much information at their fingertips as they need. Some landlords aren’t very well informed either. The most searched questions landlords  regularly ask online are pretty basic and include:

  • how long does a landlord have to return a deposit?
  • who pays council tax, the tenant or the landlord?
  • what does landlord insurance cover?

Our website at www.ringley.co.uk is packed with useful information. Need to know more about block management? Are you thinking of buying or extending your lease? Interested in right to manage or build to rent? Need legal or financial advice? Whether you are a tenant, a landlord or a developer, we have something for you.   We have teams of block managers, legal specialists, surveyors, engineers and finance professionals with experience of just about everything you can think of that’s related to property. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for online, one of our experts will be able to answer your questions or point you in the right direction. Just give us a call. We’re always here to help.

Right to rent: unfair to landlords and tenants?

passportShould landlords be expected to act as border control officials when renting to a new tenant? This is the question that a Judicial Review of the government’s controversial Right to Rent policy, which obliges landlords to undertake immigration checks on prospective tenants, will be asking as it gets underway today.

The Right to Rent scheme was rolled out nationwide in 2016, meaning that landlords must now check the immigration status of would-be tenants. Understandably, this initiative has proved really unpopular. Landlords are already under pressure from government (see my blog Landlords under fire, posted on 11 December) and certainly don’t want to take on responsibility for ensuring that tenants have a legitimate right to rent a home.

When the scheme came into effect, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) thought it was so potentially discriminatory that it put forward – and won – a legal challenge, gaining the right to launch a High Court case against the Home Office. As I write this blog, a full hearing is taking place before the High Court today and tomorrow.

The JCWI’s legal challenge is being supported by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) which has carried out research among landlords to find out how they feel about the scheme. The RLA found that, as a result of the Right to Rent policy, 44%  are now less likely to rent to someone without a British passport , mainly because they are scared they may be prosecuted if they get something wrong. Landlords also say that, as a result of Brexit and the continuing uncertainty around the future status of EU nationals in Britain, they are now less likely to rent property to anyone from the EU or the European Economic Area.

According to Landlord Today, the RLA is calling for Right to Rent to be scrapped, arguing that it discriminates against those unable to easily prove their identity and foreign-born nationals who have documents unfamiliar to landlords. It is also calling for urgent guidance for landlords to be issued by the government, explaining clearly the rights of EU citizens to rent property, especially in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the Windrush scandal that came to light earlier this year. Landlords are not government officials and shouldn’t be expected to act on behalf of the Home Office or to make a judgement call around who is and isn’t legally entitled to rent a property. Landlords are under enough pressure from excessive taxation and a new raft of regulations without being expected to act as immigration officers too.

Renting for life – what’s the problem?

For-rent-signLetting Agent Today claims that a third of millennials will never own their own home. The report quotes new research from interiors firm Thomas Sanderson showing why the rental market is seeing such strong demand: it reveals that 28% of people under the age of 35 have no money set aside for a deposit on a house. Of the remaining 72%, the average amount people had saved was just over £6000 – that’s under a fifth of the average deposit for a house in the UK. And 30% of Britons aged 18 to 35 years old say they have given up on the idea of owning their own home completely.

What all this adds up to, is that large numbers of us will be living in the rented sector, not only while we are young and single but once we’re married and start a family, into middle-age and beyond. Research from the Resolution Foundation and Shelter predicts that by 2025, 33% of families with children living in London will be renting.

So given that more of us will be renting for longer – or for our whole lives – should we be moving to a regime more like the European model. In Germany for example, tenants have extensive rights including security of tenure, assured rental rates and protection from hardship caused by unfair practices.

These aspects of a highly-regulated rental market are great for tenants but may be viewed less favourably by landlords the majority of whom, understandably, want to be in control of their own property. They want to be able to decide who lives in it and for how long. If tenants prove troublesome they want to be able to evict them.  Conversely, if tenants are happy in their home,  easy to deal with and pay their rent on time, most landlords will let them stay for as long as both parties are happy.

Getting the balance right by ensuring legislation works for both sides of the renting equation is the job of government – but it’s not an easy task. New legislation coming forward aims to tackle some of these issues and stronger regulation around property agency will undoubtedly help too.  Dealing with the fall-out when landlords and tenants clash is part and parcel of our role as property managers. Alongside our technical and professional role as agents we often feel we should win prizes for diplomacy too!

Vidhya Alakeson, director of research at the Resolution Foundation, said recently that families who rent need security in a regulated market. “With children attached to schools and parents to work, it is critical for households – and for society – that families can find stable and secure rented accommodation to raise their children in.” That sounds about right to us. What do you think?

 

Fire safety – someone else’s problem?

Since last year’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, fire safety in blocks of flats has been right at the top of property managers’ agendas. The issue of whether or not the front doors to people’s homes are compliant with fire safety regulations has been looked at in detail during the long-running Grenfell inquiry and the government is now carrying out an investigation into the fire door industry. Testing of fire doors to make sure they meet the standard required by the Building Regulations started in October and, so far, none of the doors has failed the tests.

fireWhile testing is ongoing, the National Fire Chiefs Council says that the additional risk to public safety is low and in the event of a fire, people should continue to follow the existing fire procedures for their building. The NFCC advises that smoke alarms should be tested regularly and the front doors to flats should ideally be fitted with a working self-closing device.

Your property manager is responsible for ensuring that the fire doors in your block are working correctly. As with any life-saving product, a fire door should be tested in the same way as emergency lighting, a smoke or fire alarm, or a fire extinguisher would be. Any slight alteration to the door or its surroundings can affect its performance. But there are also things residents can do themselves to make sure their building is safe.

First, be vigilant. Don’t leave fire doors in the common areas propped open and do alert your property manager if you think any of them is faulty – for example one is not closing properly or is damaged in some way. Here are some things to look out for:

  • The gaps around the top and sides of a closed fire door should be less than 4mm. Any more than that and it may not work properly.
  • Are there seals around the door or frame, and if so are they intact with no sign of damage? These seals are vital to the fire door’s performance, expanding if they become hot, so if your doors don’t have seals, raise this with your property manager.
  • Are the door hinges firmly fixed? There should be three or more of them, with no missing or broken screws.
  • Check the door closes properly: open it about halfway, then let go and allow it to close by itself. All fire doors should be fitted with a working self-closer unless they lead to riser cupboards or plant rooms which are visited by contractors and kept locked.

Other issues that can increase the chance of a fire spreading through a block of flats are:

  • any new holes produced by building works, such as installation of cables or pipes, that has not been sealed by the contractor.
  • existing holes that are reopened by the removal of a service and not sealed.
  • damage to external cladding or boarding.

Unless your block has on-site staff, it’s possible for problems that could impact on fire safety to be missed. So for the sake of you and your neighbours’ peace of mind it’s important to take responsibility yourself and not assume that fire safety is always someone else’s problem.

Shaking up property disputes – it’s about time

 

law reformIt really is all change in our industry at the moment as yet another consultation is unveiled by government – this time on the idea of setting up a new ‘Housing Court’.

Proposals were outlined yesterday (13 November) by Communities Secretary James Brokenshire that aim to shake up the property dispute system and find better ways of resolving legal issues between landlords and tenants.

The Government wants views and opinions on the:

  • private landlord possession process
  • user experience in both the county courts and the First-tier Tribunal for property cases
  • case for a new Housing Court
  • case for other structural changes such as an extension of the remit of the property tribunal

Other proposals include reducing the need for multiple hearings in different courts, transferring certain types of housing cases between the courts and tribunal to get quicker resolution and providing better guidance for landlords and tenants to help them access the legal system.

At the moment legal disputes that centre on housing are dealt with in a range of different ways, depending on the issue in question. This is confusing and can put people off seeking a solution to their housing problems. Some families and vulnerable tenants live in fear of being forced to move or being evicted if they complain about a housing problem. This isn’t good enough. And the problem isn’t all one-sided. Landlords may also struggle to get their property back even when they have a legitimate reason to do so.

The government hopes the proposals set out in the consultation will help sort out these problems, making it easier for tenants to pursue disputes and helping enforce their rights under the law.  Landlords could also be more confident in offering longer, more secure tenancies where appropriate.

Bodies representing landlords are particularly interested in reforming the current possession process – which can be long drawn out and costly. The National Landlords Association will be asking government in particular to look at the Section 8 possession process. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of landlord and tenant law, Section 8 requires landlords to seek a court order to gain possession of their property where a tenant has breached the terms of their agreement.

At the moment, claims the NLA, it takes about 18 weeks between a landlord making a repossession claim and getting the property back. This can cost more than £5000. The “sticking plaster” alternative to Section 8 is Section 21 which kicks in only after a fixed-term tenancy ends or during a periodic tenancy but no reason is needed for serving a tenant with an eviction notice and tenants must vacate the premises within two months. Most tenancies are ended by the tenant – but in a minority of cases landlords are within their rights to ask a tenant to leave. Reform is long overdue and this consultation may be an opportunity to swing the balance back into the landlord’s favour when a tenant is at fault.

What do you think? The government is looking for views and opinions from both landlords and tenants so to have your say, go to https://bit.ly/2DDmWl3. The consultation runs until 22 January 2019.