Who pays for safer blocks?

Our homes should be safe as houses – but who pays?

 It may be the start of a new year, but the same old arguments are being fought over building safety – and who should foot the bill.

Last week Wandsworth Council’s bid to force leaseholders in high rise blocks to pay for retrofitting sprinklers was rejected by a tribunal. If the ruling had gone Wandsworth’s way, the council could have entered flats regardless of leaseholders’ wishes and allowed the local authority to recoup some of the costs via the service charge. Inside Housing estimates the cost to residents at £3,000 – £4,000 over four years.

 Similarly, London housing association Network Homes has warned their 4,000 leaseholders face having to pay a share of £200M of improvement works to bring their homes up to a safe standard, unless the government brings forward funding to meet the costs. The HA has already spent around £2M in investigations and interim measures to keep residents safe but told The Times yesterday that it can’t take “blanket responsibility” for costs that are legally payable by the leaseholders.

An article published in December by the Institute of Residential Property Management (IRPM) points to the possibility, for residents in new build blocks, of claiming for remedial works via the Building Warranty, which commonly runs for 10 years after completion. However, those living in older blocks don’t have that option to fall back on and may find themselves obliged to stump up the money for improvement works, whether they can afford it or not if the building owner either cannot be identified or made to pay. In fact, even for newer blocks the warranty is often subject to an excess of £850 – £1000 per unit, which means tens of thousands of pounds would fall to the owner under this route anyway.

This situation is untenable. The complexities of leasehold mean that it is often difficult to lay the responsibility for upgrading buildings at the original owner’s door. While the government is keen to demonstrate its commitment to ‘left behind’ communities in deprived areas of the country, it would do well to consider the 5M plus households living in leasehold homes who constitute a community in their own right. They do not deserve to be ignored.

Don’t panic! Ringley can help!

Download our booklet today – it could save you and your residents a lot of time and money!

Everyone faces a problem in their flat from time to time. Generally, these issues are minor and easily dealt with. But what about emergencies like water pouring through the ceiling from the flat upstairs, the central heating breaking down in the middle of winter, or a sudden infestation of flies or mice? Would your residents know what to do?

To make sure building managers can give leaseholders all the information they need – and hopefully avoid having to get out of bed at 2.00am to find a stopcock – Ringley has produced an easy-to-read guide that can be downloaded here. It’s designed to give you peace of mind that you have all the bases covered – and so do your residents.

Our Emergency Booklet is really comprehensive. It tackles everything from gas and roof leaks to finding someone sleeping the hallway. It explains clearly which emergencies can be dealt with by Ringley and which issues must be dealt with by residents themselves. It details when to call Ringley’s 24-hour emergency line (and includes the telephone number) and explains when to call the plumber, the local authority or the police instead. Gas and electricity problems – probably the most common issues we deal with – are discussed in detail and contact numbers provided.

Individual situations are clearly explained and the booklet lists what is and what isn’t an emergency. A blown light bulb is rarely life-threatening. It is important that residents realise this and don’t waste time and money on problems that can easily wait a few hours.

Our booklet also sets out clearly another important point that is often misunderstood. The service charges that residents pay are not for spending on work inside theirs or other people’s properties. Leases require the owner to maintain and repair what’s inside their property.  That includes contents, carpets, fixtures and fittings, pipes and wires.  These cannot be repaired/replaced/maintained using service charges.

We recommend that you download the booklet today and make sure all your residents have a copy. It could save a lot of time, reduce costly call-outs – and give managers fewer sleepless nights!

New year, brand new services!

Welcome back to the Ringley Blog after what, we hope, was a happy and relaxing Christmas break. We now have a new year and a new decade to look forward to and we will continue to share thought leadership and new developments at Ringley with you in the months ahead.

First, we’d like to blow our own trumpet and let you know about a few changes we’ve made in response to our customers’ requests.

Top of our customers’ wish list in 2019 was the ability to e-sign on budgets and cover letters so that you can incorporate things you might want to add. This is now standard practice and your feedback shows it’s proving popular. You’re now telling us that this is leading to more interaction around budgets as directors nudge each other to sign them off. In fact, every customer budget that was e-signed in time has now gone out

You also told us that to make direct debits easier to understand, customers want to see the ACTUAL CALCULATION that we use to decide what needs to be collected in charges each month.  So we created a secure page and put customers in control by opening this all up for you to see.

We’ve also been working with clients on a number of sites to help stop AirBNB style lettings.  So if you are troubled by problem short-term lettings on your estate, simply email support-team@ringleylaw.co.uk  and we will do our best to help.

While our job is to manage your buildings, what really matters most is the people who live in them.  We realise that for many of our customers we are almost the fourth emergency service. Our role often includes signposting on issues that may be outside our control, but we can often direct you to the right person to solve the problem.  So in one of our internal workshops our people supported re-orienting what we call ourselves to “Relationship Managers” and “Relationship Assistants”. We hope this will really help underline that all our staff at Ringley are always here to help you in any way we can.

Here’s some more good news to start the year. We are delighted to report that in 2019 we achieved a new record low in service charge arrears. This means we have plenty of funds to pay contractors, ensuring they are happy to attend to your next emergency. 

And finally, on the subject of emergencies, in tomorrow’s blog we will be sharing a new booklet with you that we’ve just produced for residents. This means that should the worst happen, they will always know exactly what to do and who to contact across a whole range of nasty situations from water leaks to mice!

Will your new home meet the ‘green standard’?

Last week, the Government set out plans to cut the carbon footprint of new homes. As Extinction Rebellion take to the streets, disrupting cities around the country to draw attention to climate change, this seems a timely move.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has revealed plans to change the building regulations and develop a ‘Future Homes Standard’. This could ban gas boilers and oil heating from all homes built after 2025, replacing them with cleaner technology such as air source heat pumps and solar panels. Local authorities are also being asked to play their part in demanding better energy standards from developers.

To get a wide range of views on these proposals,  a consultation has been published looking at ways to drive down the carbon footprint of houses, including changes to ventilation and energy efficiency requirements. If you would like to put your views forward, you can download the consultation paper, which will run until January 2020, here.

Ahead of an Accelerated Planning Green Paper, to be published in November, Robert Jenrick also confirmed his aim to speed up the planning system. Proposals include:

  • fees to be refunded by councils if planning departments take too long to pass applications;
  • simplified planning guidance; and
  • a review of application fees to ensure that planning departments are properly resourced.

There are also moves to reduce the raft of planning conditions by a third and to promote the idea of building homes above existing buildings as well as demolishing old commercial buildings for new housing.

And that’s not all. Design is also in the spotlight.  New research from FJP Investment has revealed that homebuyers are less-than-impressed by new-builds. The independent survey of 1,000 homebuyers and property investors found that 50% of us feel UK new-builds are unattractive –  and 63% think they are “devoid of character”.

Plans for a new national design guide that aims to ensure delivery of “beautifully designed homes” could help. The new 64-page guide will identify ways to achieve good design, and will set out what developers need to do to get that all-important buy-in from local communities. There are also calls on for local authorities to develop their own design codes in line with their region’s character.

This all sounds like good news. Identikit boxes that attempt a vague nod at the local vernacular are all too common around the country. No wonder potential buyers aren’t impressed. Developers must work harder to build affordable, energy-efficient homes with genuine kerb appeal. If the new ‘green standard’ and (hopefully) streamlined planning rules go some way to achieving this then they must surely be a step in the right direction.

Cash replaced by mortgages as housing market holds up

A big change in the mix of buyers purchasing homes across UK cities is causing conflicting signals on the strength of the UK housing market. But there is no sign of any sudden weakening in market conditions as the Brexit debate takes centre stage.

This is the view from the latest Zoopla cities house price index, which shows that the number of cash buyers in the market is down, while mortgage applications are up. In 2013, 29% of purchases were made by cash buyers (a mix of homeowners and investors). Today, they make up just 1 in 4 buyers. Meanwhile, demand for new mortgages is at its highest since 2008, indicating there are still plenty of people out there who want to buy or sell their homes.

Zoopla thinks the London market may be bottoming out. The online agent reports signs of life returning to the capital as sellers start to take a more realistic attitude to pricing. There are also modest increases in market activity. Both demand and sales volumes indicate the market is picking up..

Leicester is the fastest growing location in the 20 city index, at +4.8% — this is the first time the city with the highest growth rate has dropped below 5% price inflation since 2012. While prices in southern cities are up to 56% higher than their 2007 peak, the reality is that values have stagnated, tracking sideways for much of the last 4 years and drifting lower more recently.  Some good news for buyers here then. Levels of sales will now depend on vendors continuing to price sensibly, which in turn will further drive demand.

Against this varied performance in price growth, UK Finance data shows that new mortgages for home purchase are at an 11-year high, with 723,000 new loans completed in the 12 months to July 2019. So despite weaker price growth and Brexit uncertainty, the underlying demand for housing from home-owners using a mortgage is holding up.

Zoopla thinks market trends are being dictated by the fundamentals of local economies and the affordability of housing across cities. A change in the macro economic environment remains the greatest risk but households aren’t changing their behaviours yet.

Flooding: is your flat at risk?

Is your flat at risk of flooding? Dozens of flood warnings are in place across England today, with the Environment Agency issuing 60 flood warnings and nearly 160 alerts for coastal areas from Mount’s Bay in Cornwall to Seahouses in Northumberland.

With many rivers already swollen to bursting point after days of heavy rain, block managers in these areas should already be preparing for the worst-case-scenario, delivering on-site protection such as sandbags or flood barriers to at-risk properties.

If flood warnings are broadcast, residents should be advised to move their cars to higher ground and belongings should be removed from ground floor flats and stored further up the building wherever possible. If residents have pets, they should try and make arrangements for them to be looked after by friends or relations and they should also try and find suitable overnight accommodation for themselves in advance should the worst happen. Some insurance cover will allow for emergency accommodation but not all, so check the small print.

It is important for block managers to talk to residents, particularly elderly or vulnerable flat owners, to make sure they know what to do and where to go should they find flood water coming into their homes. Checklists of what to take – such as medical supplies, mobile phones and bank cards – if residents are forced to evacuate, will help people plan in advance and leave the building calmly in an emergency.

If you are renting a flat, check your lease to find out what insurance cover is in place if you are flooded out. Also, make sure you have contents insurance, particularly if you live on the lower floors of your block. Don’t be scared to ask your property manager/letting agent/landlord what, if any, flood protection measures they have in place. There should be a flood emergency and evacuation plan for your building. If you don’t have one, you and your neighbours can request one is drawn up. The Environment Agency runs a free flood warning service so anyone living in a flat can find out quickly if their block is at risk from potential flooding. And if you live in a ground floor flat, again, don’t be afraid to ask for sandbags to be provided so you can keep them on hand in case of emergency.

Longer term, flat owners and leaseholders are well-advised to ask their block manager to obtain a flood risk screening report. This gives an expert risk assessment that helps make decisions on any flood protection measures that may be needed.  These range from installing door barriers and fitting airbrick covers to raising electrical wiring to ensure utilities are not disrupted throughout communal properties.

And finally, if you are worried about your level of flood insurance cover, talk to us at Ringley. One of our specialist staff will be happy to advise you.

How to make you – and your home – healthier

Many of us start each New Year in need of a boost. Its easy to get through too much food and drink over the Christmas holiday and on 1 January, while we’re still dealing with bottle fatigue, our thoughts turn to health and fitness.

We all know that gym memberships and online diet subscriptions peak at the beginning of the year, so why are we talking about it now – it’s only September! But, as Rightmove points out on its website, why not think about future-proofing your home now so that you can tackle your wellbeing goals head-on in 2020.

So here are some of their tips to help you create a healthier home.

More natural light

The right amount of light during the day and darkness at night are vital for our wellbeing. Light can impact on melatonin and hormone levels in our bodies, so Rightmove recommends re-arranging your home to maximise efficient use of natural light. Open-plan living lends itself to this, so think about whether you could open up your home to let the light in. This doesn’t have to mean knocking down walls. Moving large pieces of furniture, carefully placed mirrors and lighter window treatments can all have a major impact. Over-exposure to certain types of artificial light are also linked to headaches and poor sleep patterns, so making room for a screen-free relaxation space in your home may also pay dividends.

Improve your air quality

Dust, paint, and other particles can lurk in your home and float through the air, with the potential to cause breathing problems. Installing a whole-house air purifier can clean your air of pollutants such as bacteria, mould, pollen, pet dander, and other allergy triggers. And a portable house humidifier adds moisture to the air. This can improve dry skin complaints, keeps your hair healthy and is even good for your pets and houseplants! Moist air could also help your wooden floors and furniture last longer.

How do I connect my home with the outdoors?

We are all waking up to the importance of eco-friendly living and many of us are trying to introduce greener products and ways of life into our homes. When it comes to creating a healthy environment, houseplants are king. They turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is hugely beneficial not only for the planet but in our homes too. Potting a leafy Ficus or Dracaena is a good start.

Should I invest in a home gym?

We all know how expensive gym memberships can be – especially outside major cities. So unless you’re addicted to classes and the social aspect of health clubs, having a home gym can be great for convenience. It is quite possible to build a fully functioning home gym for less than £1,000 – and there are plenty of bargains on websites such as eBay, or even on local online marketplaces. Spare rooms and garages are ideal spaces but before you rush out and buy equipment you’ll never use, first focus on what motivates you and what you enjoy. Tailor your environment to your personality, says Rightmove, so that as soon as you walk into the gym you’ll want to work hard.

The cheapest – and quickest – way to build a home gym is to focus on free weights. Dumbbells, pull-up bars, skipping ropes, medicine balls and barbells are ideal for effective workouts, especially if space is at a premium. And even if the initial outlay is more than a gym membership, if investing in a home gym gets you working out on a regular basis, it’s got to be worthwhile.

Start now and who knows, you might even get through this year’s festive period without over-indulging…

Brexit sees off ‘Autumn bounce’ in house prices

Sales are down but could you grab a bargain?

Autumn. Now is the time when estate agents expect to see a bounce in market activity and prices. Children are back at school and buyers and sellers come into the market ahead of Christmas. But not this year. According to the latest Housing Price Index from Rightmove, the number of sales agreed is down in all regions compared to a year ago, with a reported 5.5% drop showing a marked reversal from the +6.1% sales-agreed flurry that the market was seeing a month ago.

The number of properties coming to market is also down by 7.8% this month compared to the same period a year ago, again with all regions down on this time last year. And we are now seeing a 0.2% fall in prices for the first time since 2010, so what’s going on?

Rightmove’s housing market analyst Miles Shipside thinks Brexit is largely to blame. “Many have got used to living in the jaws of uncertainty since the referendum over three years ago, and have been getting on with their lives and housing moves. However, as we approach yet another Brexit deadline, there are signs that the increasing gnashing of teeth is causing some to hesitate,” he says. This year, any pick-up in the market is a late starter at best and if uncertainty persists, Miles reckons the activity we normally associate with the autumn could be delayed until the New Year.

Lack of consumer confidence is also driving up the recent increase in the number of residential property sales that are now falling through before completion. Sales progression specialist mio, told the press this week that the problem is likely to continue short term due to political and economic uncertainty. And figures from Quick Move Now back this up, revealing that almost a third of all failed transactions were a result of a chain collapsing.

The good news though, is that there may be a silver lining for anyone planning to buy or trade up. If potential buyers can hold their nerve they could find themselves in a strong negotiating position. They may even be able to grab a bargain – something that has become all-too-rare in most parts of the country in recent years. Are we seeing the start of a readjustment in house prices? Only time – and the outcome of Brexit will tell.

Sprinklers: could new proposals be a life saver?

Could one of these save your life?

Earlier this summer, the London Tenants Federation (LTF) urged the government to put an end to the ‘stay put’ policy used when there is a fire in a high-rise block. Following a recent spate of fires, the London Fire Brigade seems to agree and has apparently ditched stay put in favour of immediate evacuation. According to a report in Building this week, residents in Worcester Park, where a fire destroyed a six-storey block a few weeks ago, have now been advised by the LFB to leave their homes immediately if another fire breaks out.

The LTF is also calling for sprinklers and communal fire alarms to be fitted in all new and existing blocks and it seems the government is listening. A call for evidence published at the end of last year looked at Approved Document B of the Building Regulations, which includes rules on sprinklers in high rise blocks.

The government is now considering introducing sprinkler systems in more blocks. At the moment developers have to fit sprinklers in buildings more than 30 metres high. This is around 10 storeys – approximately the height that can be reached by a fire engine’s ladder. Anything above that and firefighters have to rely on dry risers to connect hoses and push water up to the higher floors. As witnessed at Grenfell Tower, this doesn’t always work effectively. The thinking now is that the height for fitting sprinklers should be lowered and a new consultation (click here to take part) asks whether the trigger height for sprinkler installation in new build blocks should be reduced to 6-storeys and above.

This sounds like a step in the right direction but the consultation only tackles new build. So what about existing blocks? Back in March, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Danny Cotton said: “As well as covering new builds, we want the Government to look urgently at new regulations to require sprinklers to be retrofitted in older residential blocks and any building housing vulnerable people”.

This poses a number of questions around accidental activation, vandalism and misuse as well as the sheer difficulty of retro-fitting systems into older buildings. But as ever, the biggest issue is cost – and more to the point, who pays: landlords or residents?

Fire and life safety expert Bradley Parker from Future Fire Systems tells us that early warning fire alarms can be installed more easily and cheaply than sprinkler systems. “Alarms can be set to sound at very early smoke stage, warning residents who can either tackle the fire (if it’s small) or escape,” he explains. “However, sprinkler systems will only activate when the room exceeds a particular temperature, by which time the fire will have already taken hold and could lead to loss of life due to smoke/fume inhalation if the occupants are sleeping.”  Bradley thinks the best case scenario would be a combined fire alarm and sprinkler system to act as an early warning system and an extinguishant.

This debate that will now rumble on until the government decides on next steps but at least the issue is now being widely discussed.  

In the meantime, if you live in an older block, make sure the issue of fire safety is raised at residents meetings. Talk to your block manager to make sure your flat front doors and fire doors are fit for purpose and regularly checked and maintained. And encourage your neighbours not to store bikes, prams or other bulky items in landings, stairwells or corridors. Best advice now appears to be ‘evacuate’ rather than ‘staying put’ so be safety- aware and make sure your escape routes are kept clear.

New legislation: two to watch

There are two bills now going through Parliament, that propose sweeping changes to freehold estate charges.  First, MP Helen Goodman awaits a second reading of her Freehold Properties (Management Charges and Shared Facilities) Bill which was proposed in November 2018.  This Bill makes express provision for a cap on charges and also seeks to empower freehold homeowners to be able to self-manage should they wish to do so.  This would improve on the government’s stated ambition of granting ‘fleecehold’ sites the right to a court-appointed manager.

Second, on 5 June, Parliament heard a private members bill (tabled by Preet Kaur Gill MP) which seeks to legislate that service or estate charges  for freehold owners on  housing estates will be subject to some of the same accountability that leasehold apartment owners benefit from.

The Freehold Properties (Management Charges) Bill, if passed, would oblige landlords to provide accounts of management charges payable under Section 19 of the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 to freehold property owners.

At Ringley, we treat freehold house owners no differently from leasehold apartment owners. Sadly for many, this is not the norm.  We often hear stories of residents who own their own homes as freeholders but are left feeling helpless as they try to find out what monies are in the scheme.  Residents who are rightly aggrieved that, despite paying into the said fund, they are powerless to try and enforce the responsibilities of the landlord or manager.  

Ms Gill correctly asserts that the existing law requires urgent reform and that Section 19 expects more from the consumer homeowner, who pays the fees, than the landlord or scheme manager who is expected to provide a service.