Why you must avoid letting an unfit dwelling
The law says a property that a buy-to-let landlord lets to a tenant must be fit to live in. What does this really mean? What are a landlord’s obligations if their tenant reports a defect? What can a tenant do if you don’t meet your obligations?
What makes a property unfit for habitation?
There are many things that might make a property unfit to live in, though what these are and how the court might interpret them depends on many factors. Even minor defects could make a home unfit for habitation.
There are some things that a buy-to-let property must provide. These include:
- Adequate water drainage (baths, sinks, basins, etc.)
- A toilet for the sole use of the occupants
- A clean and safe water supply (for example, your obligations re Legionnaires’ disease)
- A safe structure, in proper repair
- Heating and hot water
If the property is an apartment in a block, consideration will be given to common parts of the building when considering the landlord’s duty to provide a property fit for habitation.
You should also consider the tenants themselves. The overriding concern is, of course, their health and safety. The health hazards of any minor defect, such as dampness, should be considered in relation to the tenant.
What should you do if a tenant reports a defect?
Your obligations to make a repair depends upon several factors. These are set out in Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. The areas that you are expected to keep repaired and/or in working order are the property’s:
- Structure and external elements, including gutters, drains, roof, walls and foundations
- Utility supply installations (electricity, gas, water and sanitation)
- Hot water and heating installations
If a tenant reports a defect that is detrimental to any of these areas, you must make the repair as soon as is possible and practicable. However, there is an exception that proves this rule, and this is if the defect has been caused by the tenant not behaving in a ‘tenant-like manner’.
What is a ‘tenant-like manner’?
While you may think that landlord and tenant laws are stacked in favour of tenants, they do seek to be fair toward landlords, too. The courts recognise that forcing landlords to make repairs in all circumstances can lead to tenants abusing the intent of the law.
The need for tenants to act in a ‘tenant-like manner’ was established in court in 1953. In the case of Warren v Keen, the judge Lord Denning set the legal expectation for a tenant to look after the property and carry out small repair jobs as if it were their own property.
For example, you should expect your tenant to:
- Turn off the water supply if leaving the property for an extended period of time
- Keep windows clean
- Replace bulbs in electric lights when they blow
- Unblock sinks and drainage when the blockage is caused by the tenant
Additionally, you are not liable to make repairs if damage has been wilfully caused by your tenant. In short, you’re responsible for repair needs caused by wear and tear, or other factors which are not attributable to the tenant.
What does this mean in practice?
Clearly, there are some repairs that you might consider minor but would be your responsibility to make, while in other cases the responsibility will fall on the tenant’s shoulders.
For example, if the tenant calls you to say that the windows will not open because the locks are broken, then you should make the repair unless the tenant has broken the key in the window lock and this is preventing the window from being opened.
Another example may be where you have sent a plumber to unblock a toilet, and it is found that the blockage was caused by discarded disposable nappies. In this case, you have the right to insist the tenant pays for the repair.
You should also be aware that you cannot refuse to make a repair that is needed to maintain a property’s fitness for habitation if it is your responsibility to do so, even if the tenant has not paid the rent.
Other factors to consider
You are also allowed to consider other factors before making repairs, such as the age of the property. For example, it would be unreasonable for a tenant to expect uPVC window frames as a replacement for sash windows in a Victorian property.
Finally, the law states that if you, the landlord, know or should know a repair is needed, you should make that repair. While you wouldn’t be expected to know about internal problems unless they are reported (the need for which should be detailed in the tenancy agreement), external problems or issues in common areas of apartment blocks would be considered to be public knowledge and, therefore, you will be responsible to make the repair even if it is not explicitly reported.
What can your tenant do if you don’t maintain your property as fit for habitation?
The tenant can legally withhold rent if you don’t make repairs that are the landlord’s responsibility under Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. Once the repair has been made, the tenant must then pay the rent owed.
It may seem obvious that you should keep your buy-to-let property in a good state of repair. A well-maintained property commands higher rental prices and attracts better tenants. Knowing the law, and how it applies to you, is important to ensure that your tenant is never in the position to legally withhold rent and that you are able to maximise your buy-to-let profits.
One of the services we provide to aid landlords in maintaining their properties well and maintaining cash flow and profitability is regular property inspections and appraisal against property inventories. For effortless property management, contact Ezytrac today on +44 0 1522 503 717.
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