Repairs, maintenance and sometimes improvements can be a real source of problems between landlords and tenants in rental properties.
Many of these problems can easily be avoided if:
- The letting agreement spells out ALL the issues
- The tenant is able to easily contact the landlord (or her agent) when necessary, particularly in emergencies.
- The tenant notifies the landlord of defects in a timely manner.
- Both parties keep dated written evidence of all communications, even when initially notified by telephone.
- Both parties fully understand their obligations.
- Landlords/Agents respond quickly, especially for emergency repairs.
- Tenants appreciate that landlord/agents cannot always get tradesmen to come quickly, especially if the situation is non-urgent.
Repair or Improvement?
Tenants sometimes sign their letting agreement on the understanding that certain repairs or improvements will be carried out by the landlord, either prior to entry or soon after.
Undertakings such as this should be written into the agreement (contract) so that there’s no miss-understanding later as to what was promised and agreed to.
Whilst the landlord is under a legal obligation to carry out repairs, this obligation does not apply to improvements, so it’s doubly important for tenants to have it in writing if a promise or undertaking involves improvements.
The law is quite strict on prohibiting damage to the property deliberately caused by a tenant, but the law does not prevent a tenant from making “improvements” or alterations of some kind.
However, what is an improvement in the tenant’s eyes, may in fact be deliberate damage to the property in the landlord’s. Therefore most letting agreements strictly prohibit the tenant making any improvements or alterations.
The Landlord’s Obligations:
The landlord is under a direct statutory obligation (Landlord & Tenant Act 1985 – Section 11) to:
- maintain the structure and exterior of the property in a safe and watertight condition.
- to keep in good an safe condition any internal installations for water, gas, electrical services, sanitation, heating and hot water.
Section 11 of the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985 applies to all periodic and fixed term tenancies of under 7 years duration commencing after October 1961.
The Environmental Health departments of all local authorities have the powers to inspect private rental properties and serve enforcement notices on landlords where repairs are deemed necessary.
Although the contractual obligations stated in any letting agreement can strengthen the tenant’s rights, they cannot diminish them - landlords cannot pass on their legal obligations to tenants for safety (Gas Checks), repairs and maintenance.
It is important to realise that a landlord is not responsible for defects she is not aware of - for example, it might be reasonable to expect the landlord to be aware of a dangerous loose roof tile, but not a faulty heater.
The landlord will also be responsible for parts of the building or land which does not form part of the tenancy, for example common parts (particularly HiMOs – entrance halls, walkways and fire escapes etc) and parts retained for the landlord’s own use.
The landlord also has further specific responsibilities in respect of fire, gas and electrical safety.
Sometimes letting agreements will specify that tenants are responsible for certain repairs and maintenance. These clauses will only be legally binding if they are deemed to be reasonable (Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999) and they do not contravene the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985, Section 11.
Most agreements specify that tenants should maintain the property in a tenant-like manner which means not causing damage and dealing with minor defects.
Changing a light bulb, or a fuse, or un-blocking a sink might come into this category, but repairing a broken window caused by vandals would not. Windows form part of the exterior of the property, for which the landlord is wholly responsible.
Some landlords seem to forget that a major advantage to their tenants renting is the freedom from worry about unexpected repair bills - a landlord who neglects repairs or tries to foist the cost onto unsuspecting tenants does the image of landlording no favours whatsoever.
Good landlords will want to inspect the property from time to time (with a proper period of notice – usually 48 hours) and the tenant is obliged to allow entry for reasonable inspections, repairs and maintenance and gas checks etc, even if this is not specifically referred to in the agreement.
Caring for the property and its fixtures, fittings and furniture in tenant like manner includes keeping the building secure when unoccupied, locking doors and windows and also informing the landlord if the building is to be left vacant for more than 14 days.
Generally, the insurance policy will not be valid if the property is left vacant in excess of this period, so the landlord would need to know in order to inform the insurers, which would incur an increase in the insurance premium.
The tenant also needs to be aware of the risk of frozen pipes and bursts in winter - this may involve ensuring that the heating system is left on in cold weather, or having the system completely drained out.
As an occupier the tenant has a responsibility for the safety of visitors to the property. This occupiers liability is a risk that can be covered by insurance and tenants should always have this cover.