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RPI: Water, water everywhere

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RLA
Written by RLA
From our Residential Property Investor (RPI) members’ magazine an outline of rights and responsibilities concerning condensation: Condensation leads to mould and then to expensive repair work, and even health problems for tenants. Condensation, damp and mould are perennial problems. But what can be done to bring tenants in from the cold?

Private landlords wring their hands every time tenants complain they are cold and that the place runs with condensation.

Experience tells them that it is often a combination of (usually) older housing stock and tenants’ lifestyles that are the cause.

They reason that it does not matter much what a landlord does to improve the property if tenants fail to heat it properly and dry their washing indoors.

But this winter, damp, condensation and mould problems have worsened – judging, at least, by reports of increasing fuel poverty from the social housing sector.

Social landlords say they have seen a big rise in the number of calls from tenants right across the UK, asking them to deal with damp.

The reason? Rising energy costs mean tenants are being forced into a choice between heating and eating, and an inadequately heated home means a damp one.

In a survey of 30 social landlords, a consultancy firm called Direct Works Forum found that almost all (90%) had found an increase in condensation problems.

Some landlords have reported a doubling or even tripling of problems, while Southampton Council has set up a specialist team to reduce damp in its housing stock.

The team, which will give tenants advice about the causes and prevention of damp, was set up after the cold winter of 2012/2013 when the council spent £195,000 putting right 1,760 cases of damp and mould.

Dampness and condensation in properties are not easy problems to deal with – partly because you cannot simply tell a tenant who may not have much money to spend more on heating.

You can, of course, put it into the tenancy agreement that the property must be adequately heated and ventilated. In practice, that can be hard to enforce.

One problem is that although tenants see dampness and condensation as a problem that concerns them on an everyday basis, they do not see it as one that is also an issue for landlords.

Dampness, condensation and mould do, however, affect the physical condition of a property. They can be expensive problems to put right, and are sometimes virtually intractable. Nor should it always be assumed that the tenant’s lifestyle is the main problem, even if it is contributory – or even that upgrading a property will necessarily solve everything.

This year, a study is taking place at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

This is a joint project with lettings agency Mistoria Group and will specifically look into the reduction of damp and mould in renovated properties.

The study will monitor seven properties in Salford and Liverpool, and will look to see how damp and mould can be prevented through better construction detailing and methods as well as management.

The study will be led by Dr Arman Hashemi who says: “It is estimated that 35% of families in UK rented houses suffer problems with dampness and mould growth.

“It is also estimated that 11% of the indoor air quality associated illnesses in Europe are due to building dampness.

“Our aim is to improve the living standards, health and wellbeing of the UK population as a whole by improving indoor air quality in their homes.”

The Mistoria Group is interested in the project because of its own experience with damp in refurbished properties.

Health risks

A damp and mouldy property poses health risks. Again, landlords should be careful not to assume that these are the tenant’s own fault – and be aware of possible legal ramifications and costs.

Landlords could even face criminal charges and fines of up to £5,000.

A single mother whose son developed asthma after living in their damp council flat for four years was told the problem was condensation and not the responsibility of the landlord: in fact it was a caused by a leak from a flat above.

Last summer, Jennine Morally, 24, successfully sued Lambeth Council after it failed to fix the problem.

A district judge at Camberwell Green magistrates court fined the council more than £1,300 after it admitted breaching Section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act. He also told the council to pay Ms Morally £500 compensation and undertake full repairs.

The Environmental Protection Act covers ‘statutory nuisances’ which means premises that are prejudicial to health, such as being damp and mouldy, infested with pests, have inadequate heating systems or dangerous electrics.

Ms Morally was represented by lawyers  Anthony Gold, where partner Timothy Waitt said: “Ms Morally and her son Malachi have suffered in their damp flat due to Lambeth Council’s criminal failure to carry out repairs.

“Damp and mould ruins homes and blights lives. It is horrible to live with and it causes all sorts of health problems.

“I am so pleased that Lambeth Council has been held to account for their ongoing failure to fix this problem, by a fine from the criminal courts.”

Nor is the court case the end of the matter: a personal injury claim on behalf of the little boy is ongoing.

Role of ventilation

Landlords often think that tenants should simply open their windows more often.

Unfortunately, this is the wrong advice when the temperature falls below 10°C.

If a tenant opens a window in very cold weather, all that happens is that cold, damp air gets into the property, adding to the moisture already there and creating cold spots around the window.

The same is true of trickle vents and air bricks – in cold weather they add to the problem, which explains why so many tenants block them up.

That is not to say that ventilation does not have a part to play: circulation of dry, fresh air is important, but it needs to come into the property at above 10°C in order to break down humidity, and rooms in the building itself should be heated to a minimum of 10°C.

So, opening a window in a kitchen or bathroom for steam to escape is sensible for much of the year, but in the depths of winter it will exacerbate any problems.

Condensation occurs when the moisture content in the air is too high. As it cools, it finds the nearest cool, flat surface to form water droplets on, and these can end up as black mould.

The problem is worsened when warm moist air generated in kitchens and bathrooms penetrates to colder parts of the property.

Here, the cold air cannot hold on to the moisture which against appears as small droplets of water – most noticeable as condensation on windows, and where there is little movement of air.

Mould spores lead to growth which can, in the worst cases, be widespread – in shower cubicles, on walls and tiles, furniture, window frames and clothes.

Mould spores need a moist environment in which to germinate.

Although inadequate heating and ventilation and the drying of laundry can all add to the problem, so can poor property maintenance, such as the failure to attend to leaks, or damp which is caused by missing or damaged damp-proof membranes.

Professional opinion

It can be well worth getting a professional opinion as to the causes of dampness and condensation, especially where there are differences of opinion between landlord and tenant.

An independent surveyor’s report will remove the blame culture. It will set you back somewhere between £120 and £300 but should identify whether or not the building is at fault, and measures that can be taken, whether by yourself or the tenant, or by both of you.

You can also get free surveys done from firms such as EnviroVent that specialise in damp solutions.

Are your tenants on the best tariff?

Tenants struggling with fuel bills may be paying more than they need to. Savings can be significant – over £400 in a threebedroom home could be the difference between a standard tariff and a new deal.

Let tenants know that they do not have to stick with the supplier they have on moving in, have a right to switch and that plenty of information is available online.

For example, Uswitch can work out whether there are better deals available, based on simple questions. Comparison sites can also produce estimates.

A good service to new tenants is to give them some idea of utility bills they can expect. You should be able to get this from previous tenants or by looking at meter readings. Also give them their gas and electric meter reference numbers and the name of the supplier.

Landlords in Portsmouth are following this advice using standard emails and forms provided by their local Portsmouth and District Private Landlords Association, to help their tenants ensure they are on the best tariff for their own situation.

Lifestyle advice

There is plenty of advice available that landlords could pass on to tenants – but much of it, it must be said, is not advice that landlords themselves would follow and so they should not be surprised if it raises tenants’ hackles.

Who, for example, puts cold water into the bath first? Yet this advice is often given to tenants because it prevents 90% of steam forming, so it’s sensible – but on the whole, people just don’t do it. And who on earth puts a tea towel over a boiling kettle until the steam subsides?

Nor, realistically, will tenants who are out at work all day and who do not have much money, keep their central heating ticking over at a minimum when they are out – again, advice that is regularly given.

There are routes that are more practical for landlords, and more acceptable to tenants.

For example, you could offer a slightly reduced rent in the winter months on the basis that this is being done to help with fuel bills and to ensure that the property will be kept adequately warm and aired.

A reduction in rent may cost you, say, £200 – the same as a pensioner’s winter allowance – but could be worth many more times that if you had to face repair and redecoration bills.

You could also ask the tenant to notify you or the agent promptly if there are signs of damp, compensation or mould. You can then at least investigate the likely causes and possible solutions before the situation deteriorates.

Landlords’ Energy Saving Allowance

This enables landlords to reduce their tax bill by up to £1,500 per property a year. It is a straightforward process with expenditure offset against tax through annual tax return forms.

Landlords can claim for the costs of buying and installing energy-saving products including cavity wall and loft insulation, solid wall insulation, draughtproofing, hot water system insulation and floor insulation.

It is important to understand, however, that landlords installing these measures can only claim LESA for the cost of buying them but not for the installation cost.

Dealing with damp
  • Don’t ignore the problem – if a tenant complains about mould or condensation, visit the property quickly and assess the problem.
  • Blaming the problem on the tenant may not solve it. The cause may be the tenant’s behaviour, but don’t rule out anything more serious.
  • Check for leaks both inside and outside. Also check the gutters.
  • Ensure that bathrooms and kitchens can be well ventilated and check that windows can be easily opened.
  • Ensure that any extractor fans are working efficiently and quietly. Noisy extractors will encourage tenants to leave them turned off. If an extractor cannot hold a postcard to the vent when switched on, it is not efficient enough.
  • Ensure tumble dryers are vented outside.
  • Give the tenants a dehumidifier. These are inexpensive to run, and although a shortterm solution rather than a fix, will remedy condensation caused by lifestyle issues, including drying washing indoors.
  • If you can’t fix a mould problem, call in help. Don’t leave it to get worse as your property will deteriorate and could even land you in court with a criminal charge and with a personal claim for compensation lodged against you.
  • If your property has a low EPC rating, bear in mind that from April 2018, it will be illegal to let out a property with a rating of worse than E.

From April 2016, landlords will not be able to refuse ‘reasonable’ requests from tenants, or local authorities acting on behalf of tenants, to improve their property.

Carbon Monoxide detectors compulsory

The installation of carbon monoxide detectors and of smoke alarms could be made compulsory in all new and rental properties.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has announced a review into the condition of homes in the private rented sector, which will look into the proposal.

The review will look generally at standards of health and safety, including hygiene and sanitation, in privately rented homes.

 

About the author

RLA

RLA

The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) represents the interests of landlords in the private rented sector (PRS) across England and Wales. With over 23,000 subscribing members, and an additional 16,000 registered guests who engage regularly with the association, we are the leading voice of private landlords. Combined, they manage almost half a million properties.

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