The colder weather is here again, it’s that time of year coming; you feel that cold chill in the air, the snow and ice will soon arrive, and you know its time to get out that winter coat, scarf and gloves.

You also know that cold wet weather on the way will test your rental properties and tenants to the limit. The last thing you want is a phone call from your tenants telling you there’s a dire emergency.

It’s not a bad idea to write* to your tenants just to remind them that freezing temperatures can lead to water leaks and floods in the property, if they don’t maintain a minimum amount of heat in the building.

  • Make sure that your tenants know how the boiler works, the location of the water stop tap and how to adjust the thermostat in their properties. They should have a full set of instructions for this.
  • Make sure your tenants have emergency contact numbers, in case there are problems.
  • Remind your tenants that if they intend to go away for any length of time in winter, heating precautions must be taken, and that your insurance may be invalid if the stay away is longer than a certain period of time – check with your insurance for this.

A few other pre-winter precautions can help avoid this situation, or at the very least reduce the possibility of such a scenario playing out, to the absolute minimum.

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First off, make sure your landlord’s insurance policy is up to date and that it covers you for the most common winter risks: storm damage, flood damage, water leaks and of course the biggest risk of all: third parity liability for injuries to your tenants, visitors and the general public.

If a slate or tile blows off your roof in a gale, and it injures a passer-by, your liabilities can be horrendous. You will find a selection of tried and trusted landlord insurance providers here: https://www.landlordzone.co.uk/suppliers-directory/insurance

Next is the all important heating system. For tenants, the efficiency of the heating system has the most significant impact on their overall perception, enjoyment and cost of the house in winter.

Whatever type of heating is provided it should be efficient, safely designed with a frost thermostat, and economical to run. As a landlord it is in your interests in the long term, and it is now a legal requirement, that energy efficiency in rental properties meets a minimum standard.

Individual gas or electric fires, storage heaters and even coal fires are still widely used in rental properties, particularly older houses. These are usually far from best methods of heating in terms of cost and efficiency and are also in need of constant maintenance to ensure safety. Open fires need a regular chimney sweep.

Whole-house central heating systems provided by gas or oil boilers are by far the most efficient, effective and the best safeguard against frozen pipes. For example, a modern condensing boiler is at least 90% efficient, meaning that they turn 90% of the fuel they use into heat. In comparison, older gas boilers can be as low as 30 to 40% efficient.

It is a legal requirement in the UK to have gas systems, including boilers and flues, cookers, fires and any other gas and solid fuel appliances that are supplied by the landlord serviced and checked for safety annually by a qualified person, in the case of gas, a Gas Safe Registered Engineer.

Having the gas check done does not necessarily mean the boiler has been served, so it’s a good idea to arrange for the boiler to be serviced at the same time as the gas checks to avoid disruption for your tenants, and coming up to winter is a good time to do it. Also, although it’s not a legal requirement just yet, it soon will be, so checking over the electrical system, if the same engineer can do the job, is very worthwhile as well.

Coal fires or wood burning stoves need attention, so make sure the chimnies are swept annually, and test your carbon monoxide alarm. The Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 make it a legal requirement that landlords provide a carbon monoxide alarm in any room containing a solid fuel appliance.

For peace of mind many landlords like to arrange a contract with a maintenance company where regular maintenance and emergency call outs are all covered with a form of insurance. British Gas and Homeserve are two leading companies in this field, but there are others who operate locally and may charge a lower premium or fee.

What if the worst happens and pipes freeze?

If pipes freeze-up, copper pipes are more likely to split than the more modern plastic pipes, and they both need to be thawed out very carefully. The water stop tap should be turned off, the boiler switched off, and a slow thaw-out with warmth applied to the pipes. Don’t apply a direct flame. Open all the taps to allow the system to fully drain out.

When fully thawed out and drained, check for any pipe splitting and repair as necessary before carefully turning the water pressure back on and thoroughly checking for leaks. Any water damage in the property will need to be fully dried out to prevent mould formation.

Insulation

Having an efficient heating system without good insulation is like pouring money down the drain: your tenant’s are not going to appreciate a rental property where drafts and poor insulation lose all the heat they are paying for.

If you own older rental properties, especially those with solid walls, where it’s not possible to put in cavity wall insulation, you should think about ways of insulating which will bring up the energy rating to meet the current minimum EPC energy rating for new tenancies of “E”. From April 2020, all existing residential tenancies will also be affected – The Private Rented Property minimum standard – landlord guidance documents

The Energy Savings Trust is also a good source of information for energy savings in rental homes.

The Winter Checks

There are lots of common sense straightforward things you can do to a property to improve its energy saving qualities and make sure your property is fit for winter. You need not tackle all these points at once but you can build them into a longer term maintenance programme.

Internal

  • Insulate lofts and roof spaces – this is really inexpensive to do and one of the most effective ways of improving heat retention in a home.
  • If the property has old and draughty ill fitting windows and doors you need to consider replacing them. This will increase the security of the property at the same time.
  • Draught proof all existing external doors and windows, but remember open-flue gas appliances need an air flow, which should by preference be under floor.
  • Make sure that water pipes likely to be exposed to frost, particularly those outside the insulated envelope, such as outside stand pipes, roof space and crawlspace piping are properly insulated so as to prevent busts in really could weather.
  • If there is a water tank in the loft, make sure that it is inside the insulated envelope by removing an insulation material underneath it and preferably by building an insulated box around it. This allows heat from below to rise reaching the tank, which will stop the water freezing in cold weather.
  • If there is a hot water cylinder in the property make sure is has a good insulating jacket fitted.
  • Bleed all radiators from time to time to ensure they can work efficiently when any air has been removed from them. It’s also a good idea to have all radiators fitted with thermostatic values (not too expensive these days) so that individual room’s temperatures can be independently controlled.
  • Make sure any gas flues and outlets cannot block with snow and freeze over which could cause a health hazard with carbon monoxide. Think about fitting a carbon monoxide sensor in the property for your tenant’s safety.
  • Boiler overflow pipes have a habit of freezing-up on some models which will prevent the boiler functioning just when it’s needed in really cold weather.
  • Be sure to tell your tenants the location of water and gas stop taps, plus the electrical system isolation switches. If there are any busts and leaks a lot of damage can be prevented if the flow is stopped quickly. This information and much more should be included in a tenant’s information pack which you provide to all your tenants.
  • Think about cavity wall insulation, or where there are solid stone or brick walls, consider internal or external insulated cladding. Treating external masonry with silicon waterproofing not only prevents water penetration and damp, it reduces energy loss in solid wall by preventing heat loss through latent heat water evaporation.

External

  • Check the roof, walls and chimney stacks for any signs of missing or loose slates, tiles or pointing and any damp patches. A loose stretch of pointing on the ridge for example, can result in a whole section of your roof disappearing in high winds, resulting in expensive internal damage and severe disruption for your tenants. A damp patch on an external wall will result in decaying masonry and will eventually penetrate to inside, so investigate and get the cause put right.
  • Check all outside guttering, downspouts and surface drains for leaks, blockages and debris – clear out any leaves or other debris before the heavy rain comes. This will reduce the risks of leaks and blockages and ice forming on walkways during freezing weather.
  • Check external walkways for obstructions, leaves and debris where people could fall over them and clear them away. If necessary provide automatic external lighting to make walkways safe.
  • Make sure outbuildings and external doors and gates are secure and safe from blowing open in high winds.
  • Provide gritting where surfaces may be slippy and people could fall.

Condensation and Mould

Condensation is a big problem in many homes, even new ones, particularly in the winter months. It’s inevitable though that older properties will suffer most, especially those with solid masonry walls.

Over time any condensation present will result in black mould patches on walls, particularly in the colder and highest rooms in the house like bedrooms and bathrooms where mould will start to form.

Mouldy smelling clothes in the bedroom wardrobes are often a first sign.

Condensation is a complex systemic problem which many people confuse with dampness. More often than not condensation is caused by the lifestyle of the occupants rather than anything that’s fundamentally wrong with the property, though poor insulation, inadequate heating systems and poor ventilation at the source of steam, kitchens and bathrooms, will contribute to it.

There are three main causes of condensation in rented properties:

1 – Inadequate heating – particularly common in rented properties where occupants often try to save money by having little or no heating on during most of the day time, especially if they are out all day working. Not only is this false economy, as it costs more to get the place up to temperature from scratch than it does to leave the heating on low, it results in very cold surfaces where water condenses on contact.

2 – Lack of ventilation – production of lots of steam from cooking, bathing and washing / drying clothes without ventilating it at source results in hot steam laden air rising and condensing on any could surface. Bathrooms and kitchens should have good extractors to remove steam at source.

What can you do to reduce Condensation?

Providing you have taken the necessary precautions with your property and brought it up to a reasonable standard of energy efficiency this should take care of most eventualities. However, you may need to educate your tenants – see our Condensation Letter – https://www.landlordzone.co.uk/documents

Educate your tenants to provide enough heating

  • Keep the heating on low during the day time to maintain a minimum temperature. Overall it costs far less to leave the heating at a low temperature rather than having to bring the temperature up from cold when you need it on.
  • When tenants leave a property unoccupied over the winter period a minimum level of heating should be provided to prevent freezing of pipes etc. Most insurance policies will specify that the insurer must be informed if the property is left vacant for more than 14 to 30 days.
  • If the heating cannot be left on in cold winter spells the main heating and water systems should be turned off and drained down. Remember to install new inhibitor in the heating system when it is refilled – this protects the internals of boilers and radiators from rusting and scaling.
  • Maintaining a minimum temperature throughout the property will ensure that walls, clothes and fabrics will always be warm and will not absorb moisture from the air causing condensation and mould.

Ventilate a source to remove moisture

  • When a room is in use, keep a trickle vent open – moisture enters the air from people breathing.
  • If necessary provide ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens to vent steam at source. Automatic extractor fans are best which will prevent cold through excessive ventilation and will only operate when the air moisture content reached a pre-determined level.
  • Keep the doors to bathrooms and kitchens doors closed even when they have extractor fans.
  • Provide ventilation in cupboards and wardrobes. Don’t overfill wardrobes so that air can circulate around clothes. It’s a good idea to cut holes in the back panel of wardrobes and keep them a few centimetres from the wall.  When possible locate wardrobes against internal walls – outside walls are always the coldest.

It is well worth visiting or contacting your tenants before a cold spell and also sending them a letter to remind them of the importance of maintaining heat in cold weather.

Many young tenants have no experience or awareness of the importance of this or the cost and disruption a bust can cause.

Cold Weather Letter 

If you have any questions about any of the issues here, post your question to the LandlordZONE® Forums – these are the busiest Rental Property Forums in the UK – you will have an answer in no time at all.

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