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. 

Government to boost access to EV charging points – but ignores leaseholders

Poor air quality and the spectre of climate change are driving a push towards electric vehicles. The Government recently doubled funding for on-street EV charging and is proposing changes to the Building Regulations to make it easier to provide them. The aim is to give every new residential building with a parking space, an EV charging point. The changes would also apply to buildings undergoing a material change of use to create a dwelling.

So far, so good. But if you read the Department of Transport consultation paper, you might spot a gap: it makes no mention of existing residential property and doesn’t talk about blocks of flats. Most flat owners won’t benefit from extra on-street charging, especially in areas where parking is at a premium – which is virtually all our major towns and cities.

The consultation does propose that all residential buildings undergoing major renovation with more than 10 car parking spaces should have cables for electric charge points routed to every space. But if you live in an older block, no solutions are offered to the many questions raised by leasehold property. Problems such as how to get around restrictions on development or modifications spelled out in lease covenants, who pays for new charging points and how should costs be allocated among residents, are completely ignored. They appear to have been put on the “too difficult” pile.

Jamie Willsdon, director of EV charging solutions provider Future Fuel, has raised these issues with the Department of Transport. He hopes the residential block sector will take up the cause for leaseholders and help put pressure on the government. “I was hoping the latest publication from the Department of Transport may have some positive content that covered existing multi-dwelling residential blocks. Sadly… it doesn’t. This is a huge sector and something installers/designers working in the residential block market will need assistance with. I’ll be working hard to engage leading players in the block sector to lobby government on this issue on behalf of flat owners,” he says.

This is a problem that won’t go away. We support Jamie’s call to the DoT not to ignore the needs of the millions of flat owners around the country, who should be able to access EV charging points as easily as someone living in a house. For landlords, adding charging points could also add value and (literally) improve the kerb appeal of their blocks – and for residents it would make the prospect of buying a hybrid or electric vehicle far more appealing.

We will be making our voice heard on this and we urge you to contribute to the debate. You can download the consultation here. Don’t forget to respond by 7 October.

Want to make money from short-term lets? Check your lease!

Many of us now use short-term lets to pay for our holidays or to make a regular income.  As we’re right in the middle of the holiday season you might be tempted to give it a go. But before you do – think again. Here’s a cautionary tale for renters or leaseholders thinking of using Airbnb or another online platform to make a bit of extra cash.

Want to make money from your flat? Always check the small print before you let it out.

Toby Harman was taken to court in July and was hit with a whopping £100,000 fine for renting out his London flat on Airbnb. He had been renting out his ‘cosy studio apartment with a hot tub’ on the short-term lettings website since 2013. Sounds great if you fancy a bijou London base for a spot of sightseeing. Unfortunately for Toby, he was caught out when Westminster City Council discovered the host masquerading on Airbnb as ‘Lara’  was in fact one of their tenants. It turned out that Toby was sub-letting his flat in strict breach of his social housing tenancy agreement. After a failed appeal he was evicted and told to pay back £100,974 in unlawful profits.

This case revolves around the dos and don’ts of social housing but the same rules are likely to apply to any homeowner who doesn’t own their freehold.

f you are renting, it goes without saying that your landlord may not be thrilled to find you are sub-letting his property. Eviction is the likely outcome if you’re caught out and you could end up in court.

And if you are a leaseholder, don’t even think about going down the Airbnb route without first checking your lease. Read the small print – the devil is always in the detail.

Most leases state that a flat can only be used as a private dwelling and short-term lets are very unlikely to fit the bill. This is clear from the widely reported 2016 case of Nemcova v Fairfield Rents Ltd – now known as ‘the Airbnb ruling’. Well worth a closer look if you’re in any doubt.

Another important point was highlighted last year in the case of Bermondsey Exchange Freeholders Limited v Ninos Koumetto. This case drew attention to the fact that most residential leases don’t allow owners to share possession or occupation of their flat or to use it for a commercial purpose (which includes AirBnB lettings) without consent of the freeholder. So by all means talk to your landlord but don’t be surprised if you get a negative reaction.

What all these court cases clearly show is that short term lets are a minefield for leaseholders. So tread carefully!

Leasehold reform – there’s more to come!

Yet more reform is on the table and is set to affect anyone with a leasehold home. Yesterday, the government responded to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s report on Leasehold Reform, and has come out largely in favour of the measures it is recommending.

More leasehold reform is on the way – but how long will it take?

Proposals include:

  • giving clearer information to consumers on how to buy and sell leasehold properties
  • Looking again at commonhold in light of the Law Commission’s recent report
  • working with developers on a standard ‘key features’ document so consumers have clear details of a lease before they buy
  • removing any financial value from future ground rent
  • ensuring the Law Commission is able to properly consider the use of unfair terms
  • updating planning guidance to ensure clear and transparent agreement between developers and local authorities on public areas and utilities to be adopted
  • considering recommendations on permission fees, major works (including a code of practice) and other charges.
  • exploring the best way to challenge unjustifiable legal costs, including looking again at legislation
  • exploring legal changes to forfeiture
  • extending compulsory membership of a redress scheme to all freeholders of leasehold properties
  • implementing improvements to the enfranchisement system as soon as possible

How long will these recommendations take –  and will some end up being watered down along the way? Nothing is certain. But what is clear is that there is now the will at policy level to make life easier for leaseholders. And that has to be good news.

If you are interested in reading the response document in full, you can donwload it here.