How to Protect Your Tenants’ Health, Your Landlords’ Liberty and Your Letting Agency’s Reputation!

Good letting agents are always working with landlords to encourage safety.

This includes everything from safety certification to risk assessment surveys.

A risk assessment in the UK addresses the 29 points of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, HHSRS. This includes security as well as any means of escape, I.e. whether any security lock could inadvertently impede emergency egress. It is this very narrow aspect that this article addresses and in particular the legal implications for failure to communicate this to landlords in relation to escaping an emergency from a “House in Multiple Occupation”. In subsequent articles other related aspects will be addressed.

1. Letting agents must ensure that landlords provide safe egress from each rented property in the event of an emergency.

2. Post emergency is too late to address such matters.

3. Any door, from bedroom to main property exit door(s) needs to be designed so that no keys are required in order to escape. Imagine one’s keys in a pocket or purse but cannot be found under a bed or chair in a smoke filled room in which alarms are sounding, housemates are screaming for help and emergency vehicle-sirens are blasting outside. At such time tenants need to escape quickly without the need to find the exit key to a room!

4. Bedroom door locks are not compulsory, but where fitted and keys are provided, the internal face of bedroom doors should have a thumb turn lock fitted. This said, it is a selling point to have bedroom locks which provide additional security and privacy for tenants.

5. Thumb turns on the internal face of main entrance doors are essential to enable keyless egress.

6. However, easy thumb-turn egress can also result in easy burglar access. Thumbturns, whilst improving safety, can thus compromise security, therefore, any risks must be balanced or overcome. Check any insurance implications.

7. A letterbox-cowl, can be fitted in order to deter burglars from using coat hanger-like devices to open door-locks from outside a property, without keys.

8. All such matters are addressed in the property risk assessment provided by a competent person.

9. A competent person may be the landlord, if suitably aware of the criteria for a safe house; alternatively the landlord can appoint and pay an independent assessor for about £200.

10. Many agents will organise this on the landlord’s behalf with no profit margin for their involvement – likewise any other safety measures. Agents may be willing to sacrifice profit to ensure landlord compliance, because it is so important. The implications of failing are unthinkable: death of a tenant, deprivation of a landlord’s liberty, and loss of an agent’s reputation.

11. Occasionally there may be more than one lock on a main entrance door, with say a second 5 lever mortise lock requiring a key to enter and exit. Such key should not be provided to the tenants nor to trades-people who might use it and inadvertently trap a tenant with no key who is thus unable to escape an emergency. If the use of the additional lock is compulsory then a thumb turn lock must be fitted, obviating the need for any keys. The complexities of such exceptions only serve to highlight that it is best to avoid any such risks by always fitting thumb turn locks on all such doors.

12. Where a patio-door forms an essential means of escape, it should be fitted with a thumb turn lock. In some instances a bolt will suffice. A bolt on the inner face will enable non-key egress. However, if the tenants are likely to use the patio door en-route to a rear access short cut, say to shops, then they would not be able to re-enter the patio door if bolted inside by say a fellow housemate. This may not be a safety problem per se, however, it may be a security issue, since there is a strong probability that the tenants might leave this patio door permanently unlocked in daytime if unable to lock from the outside. This would create a security risk when no one is home. This is why a risk assessment is so important. Only by thinking laterally will such risks become apparent. This is why an independent professional assessor is a landlord’s best protection against any allegation of negligence or lack of foresight. Few of us have foresight until after an incident when suddenly we ooze with subjective hindsight as to any objective foresight.

13. If you are not a “competent person”, are you willing to instruct an independent risk assessor?

14. This is a complex topic and one about which, in the writer’s experience, most landlords and agents appear to be uninformed.

15. The importance of this topic cannot be sufficiently emphasised in order that all parties are in no doubt as to their respective responsibilities: the agent must inform the landlord and in turn the landlord must comply. If an agent fails in his duty to communicate the need for specific safety, even when the landlord client is unwilling to comply, paradoxically, the landlord client, will be first in line to sue the agent alleging negligence.

16. A property risk assessment encompasses every aspect of safety. There are many risks but only one property risk assessment. There are many certificates required as part of the same single property risk assessment.

17. Carrying out this property risk assessment is cost effective as it may obviate the need for a separate fire safety risk assessment, since fire safety is included in the overall property risk assessment. Confusing? Read on.

18. A fire certificate is an additional requirement and is conducted by a qualified electrician to test the electrics at the property to minimise the risk of fire from electrical defects – but this is not a fire risk assessment, nor is it a property risk assessment! The property risk assessor does not conduct the fire certificate but will require sight of it in order to acknowledge that it exists before including details of this in the survey as part of the property risk assessment.

19. In addition an electric Portable Appliance Test PAT is required to test appliances plugged into sockets that are not actually part of the property. Vacuum cleaners and washing-machines are not part of a property but represent typical high risk appliances due to flexing or stretching of cables and insulation damage.

20. Any overall property risk assessment will never be complete without all relevant certification evincing the safety of the property. The law provides that it is a criminal offence not to provide a gas safety certificate in a rented property.

21. The law also provides that it is an offfence to market a property before procuring a valid EPC.

22. The law does not make it a criminal offence to fail to provide most safety certificates… until after: an incident, allegation or challenge as to safety. At that point it can become a criminal offence to have failed to comply with the need to ensure a house is safe. Failure is the point at which most matters first arise, e.g. following a fire.

23. In the absence of certification the house might merely appear safe. Landlords go to jail for retrospective failure to comply with the requirement to provide safe housing under e.g.: Housing Act 1985 section 11; TheManagement of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006; The Electrical Equipment(Safety) Regulations 1994.

24. The offence need not merely be the absence of certification, no, it is more importantly the absence of evidence to evince that the house was safe prior to any incident, inspection, etc. The problem for landlords is that they cannot predict when an incident might occur, only that, statistically, sooner or later, it probably will. At that point no landlords regret, or count the cost of, compliance. They merely sigh with relief in the knowledge that they did everything that could reasonably be expected in all the circumstances – your honour.

25. All property investors take calculated and acceptable risks. However, any landlord successfully renting property would not knowingly jeopardise everything including the lives of their tenants, to say nothing of their own livelihood, if they knew the price might one day be ruination.

26. It is the letting agents job to be unpopular, to tell landlords what they do not initially want to hear, who, upon hearing and finally realising the implications of non compliance, ultimately cannot wait to protect against the now apparent risks.