In recent years the government has introduced a number of pieces of legislation with the goal of safeguarding tenants and driving out the minority of rogue operators who frequently bring the lettings industry into disrepute.
The most high-profile of these have been tougher energy efficiency regulations, changes to the rules on HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) and the upcoming ban on tenant fees, set to come into force on June 1 this year.
Equally high-profile has been the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which was implemented on March 20 2019. Its journey through Parliament was propelled by Labour MP Karen Buck, who introduced the original bill to the House of Commons in July 2017.
Here, using our experience of working in the Essex, Kent and East London lettings markets, we take a closer look at what the Act is and what landlords need to know to ensure they are compliant.
The Act, which amended the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, effectively obliges all landlords to ensure that their properties (including any common parts of the building) are fit for human habitation at the start of the tenancy and for its duration.
While it's designed to make sure that all privately rented accommodation is fit for human habitation, it's also there to strengthen the ability of tenants to take action against the minority of landlords who fail to carry through their legal obligations in keeping their properties safe.
Landlords have no new responsibilities now the Act is in play, but you must ensure that your homes meet the required standards when it comes to safety and the condition of your property.
You should also know that the legislation is being implemented in two stages, with tenants who signed a tenancy agreement on or after March 20 2019 able to use the Act straightaway if they have grounds to believe their rental property is unsafe. And they will no longer have to rely on their local authority if they want to hold their landlord to account.
For those tenants who signed a tenancy agreement before March 20 2019, though, they will have to wait until March 20 2020 (the first anniversary of the legislation). This relates to those on secure or assured tenancies, statutory tenancies or private periodic tenancies, while those on fixed-term tenancies which started before March 20 2019 will have to wait until the end of the tenancy until they can use the new Act.
There are a number of factors that could mean a home fails to make the grade in terms of being fit for human habitation. This includes issues such as overcrowding, damp and a lack of ventilation, as well as problems with the supply of hot and cold water and drainage troubles. A building that is structurally unsafe would also be unfit for tenants.
Homes with unsafe layouts or ones that have been left in a state of neglect will also fail to pass the fitness for human habitation test, while a home also needs to provide enough natural light and adequate space for tenants to prepare/cook food and wash up to be deemed fit for renters.
In addition, if your home contains any of the 29 hazards laid out in the Housing Health and Safety (England) Regulations 2005, then the courts are more likely than not to decide it’s not fit for human habitation.
That said, there are occasions when you will not be deemed responsible for a home that is unfit for human habitation. This includes situations where it's the tenants' own possessions which are causing the issues, scenarios where it's the tenant who has caused the home to be unfit, and times where the problem is caused by events known as ‘acts of God’ (such as fires, storms and floods) which are completely beyond a landlord’s control.
Furthermore, you have no obligations to fix a home's unfitness if you have been unable to get consent to carry out works. This will often mean a failure to secure planning permission or permission from the freeholders to conduct the necessary remedies. In these cases, however, you must be able to prove that you have made reasonable efforts to gain permission.
The consequences of not complying with the Act can be serious, from both a financial and reputational viewpoint.
If you don't adhere, tenants could have the right to take you to court for a breach of contract. If the court then rules in the tenant's favour, deciding that you have not provided a home fit for habitation, you could be made to pay compensation to your tenant. You could also be forced to carry out the necessary works to improve your property.
It's important to remember, too, that you can still face action from your local authority even if the tenant has headed to the courts to seek redress. This means you could be penalised on two fronts if you rent out a home that does not meet the required standards.
If a tenant believes their home is not fit for human habitation, the first thing they should do is get in touch with their landlord or the letting agent managing the home. Once you have been made aware of the issue or hazard, you are now considered responsible for addressing it. If it's an HMO, you are considered liable as soon as a hazard or potential hazard arises.
Once you're aware of the issue, you're afforded a reasonable amount of time in which to fix it. If you fail to address the hazard in a reasonable amount of time, or ignore the issue completely, tenants will then have the right to take you to court. There, it will be the court's decision as to whether the hazard was your responsibility and whether you dealt with it in a reasonable amount of time.
To swerve the chances of costly and stressful court action being taken, it's recommended that you deal with any problems you are responsible for as soon as possible.
As you can see, there is quite a lot to be aware of and compliant with, which is where partnering with an experienced, reliable letting agent becomes so important. To find out how we can help you to remain compliant, provide a home fit for human habitation and get the most from your rental properties, please get in touch with the Balgores Property Group team at one of our many branches.
To find out how much your property could be worth on the current local rental market, you can request a free and instant online valuation today.