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Comment: the condensation and mould crisis hits the headlines again

insulation epc

The tragedy of the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a Rochdale social housing flat rests heavily on the minds of landlords across the country: could this happen in one of my own properties they might well ask?

The answer is probably, yes it easily could. In a winter with rising energy costs the likelihood of a condensation problem leading to black mould appearing in rental properties, a recognised and serious heath hazard, is considerably enhanced.

Landlords are worried

Naturally landlords across the country are worried. They are concerned about their own tenants and the way the media circus has alighted on this Rochdale housing association case, an organisation tasked with caring for its tenants embroiled in a major scandal, its embattled boss now no longer employed.

Gareth Swarbrick has been removed from his post as chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. His sacking comes just four days after an inquest into the death of two-year-old Awaab who died from a respiratory condition said to be caused by exposure to mould growth in his parents'� flat.

I'�ve written at length about condensation and mould in rental properties in the past as readers of these pages will know, and a quick site search will attest. Regrettably it is a common problem and more so in rentals, but thankfully few cases lead to a tragedy so serious as this, though a lot of hidden health issues must lie just beneath the surface '� the NHS has recognised the long-term health issues stemming from poor housing conditions.

My interest in the subject stems from my own experience as a landlord, experience with this very issue and the learning curve I went through myself '� this is a complex problem which is not readily understood, certainly by the media, the legal profession and also by some 'experts'� who should know better.

There are two primary causes of condensation in a property: the prevailing housing conditions and the way that the occupants are living, or more often a combination of these two factors.

Easy to point the finger, not so easy to get it right

Landlords have a responsibility under current legislation, the Housing Health and Safety Rating System and these criteria are likely to get far more stringer under the Decent Housing Standard due to be introduced for rentals, for the first time, very soon, through the Renters Reform Bill.

Landlords are obliged to provide a property that is free from damp and condensation, not just under these laws but also the Homes, (Fitness for Human Habitation Act) 2018 in England, the Scottish Housing Quality Standard and in Wales, the equivalent Welsh Housing Quality Standard.

A report from the Housing Ombudsman following its investigation into damp and mould concluded that it'�s no longer acceptable to simply blame these conditions on the lifestyles of tenants living in a landlord'�s property '� all parties, it said, must work together to find the primary cause.

The elephants in the room

In my experience condensation and mould can occur in any property - even a new house - but is more likely to become an issue in any property that is too cold. Where the temperature is allowed to drop below a minimum of around 18 degrees C for extended periods, usually when people living there are producing lots of moisture, which is not evacuated at source. Cooking, washing and indoor drying of clothes are the main culprits here.

A property whose walls are warm, when the building fabric, in cold winter weather, is receiving a steady but not necessarily an over-hot flow of warmth, black mould almost never forms. Secondly, when steam produced by the above processes is extracted at source, and there is a minimum form of circulated fresh air, say from trickle-vents, then the causes of condensation are minimised if not eliminated entirely.

Poverty is a major issue right now, one in which we are becoming increasingly familiar this winter. It sets up a vicious cycle of trying to save on energy costs, leading to a building that becomes thoroughly cold, while every gap, window and vent is sealed like a box, trapping every bit of steam and moist air inside. Even breathing produces steam. A family can easily produce up to three or four gallons of water moisture every 24 hours, just through breathing.

So these are the elephants the media chooses to ignore. When we see those dramatic black mouldy images on our TV screens and in newspapers we know the blame is immediately attributed to the landlord, weather they are at fault or not. The one report I saw from the BBC on Awaab'�s case even pointed out the presence of drying clothes on radiators, a red flag in my experience.

Older rentals

We are all very well aware however that there are many properties in the private rented sector, and it would seem also in the social housing sector, that fall well be low safe housing standards. With older properties, especially stone built and solid wall brick housing, insulating them is problematic, therefore heat loss and consequently heating costs are very high.

It'�s unfair to expect tenants to spend a disproportionately high amount of their hard earned income to feed an inefficient heating system, or a poorly insulated and draughty home, where warmth simply dissipates itself far too quickly.

With around 20 per cent of the PRS rental housing stock, according to the English Housing Survey, being below standard, and a high proportion of those with attics with no insulation at all, is it any wonder that tenants in these properties cannot afford to maintain their homes in a condition that would prevent condensation and mould.

Additionally, how many rental homes are fitted with modern high efficiency heating boilers or with automatic extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms? These are two pre-requisites for combating condensation but far too many rental homes simply do not have them.

With property management professionals employed by the likes of housing associations falling foul of this nightmare, what chance for the small-scale private landlord - you may well ask?

The way I read this: it'�s no longer a game for the casual amateur, or the accidental landlord who lets property on a wing and a prayer, or indeed the rogue landlord intent on bleeding the system for all it's worth, no more aware of the property laws and required conditions than the ordinary man in the street.

Letting property calls for investment. It calls for investing in your rentals to make sure they come up to modern and safe standards which will meet the coming Decent Homes Standard and the higher energy efficiency standard. This is likely to be a minimum of an EPC rating of 'C'� in the not too distant future.

If you are serious about letting out property, in the future you need to think very carefully about how you provide and manage your housing, otherwise you could suffer a similar fate to that of Boroughwide Housing'�s Gareth Swarbrick.

Home Inspections

A good starting point to safeguard yourself and your tenants is to tackle this issue head on. Take the initiative and carry out a documented risk assessment inspection on all your rental properties now.

Identify any hazards and commit to tackling the worst examples of heath hazards. For example, fitting cooker hoods, and automatic extractor fans in those rooms where steam is likely to be generated most '� kitchens and bathrooms. Upgrade old boilers and make sure the insulation is up to modern standards.

Secondly, put some effort into educating your tenants into understanding the root causes of condensation and how to minimise the risk; no wet clothes on radiators; extract all steam at source and keep the heating on at a low level, even when out of the house. This keeps the whole fabric of the building warm, preventing condensation and pipes freezing up and bursting in the freezing winter weather. It actually costs less overall to keep a heating system on at a low level, than it does booting up the heating system up every time one returns home to a cold house.

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