Should landlords be concerned about the new Homes (Fitness) Act?

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The simple answer is, no. Landlords who are abiding by the current regulations, administered by local authorities, have nothing to be concerned about. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act (2018) is in many ways a transfer of rights from local authorities to tenants. However, it makes sense to understand the new legislation and the additional protection given to tenants.

Why was the Homes (Fitness) Act introduced?

The reason this legislation has been brought in is to ensure that private rental properties are fit for purpose and human habitation. It would appear that local authorities up and down the country are struggling to carry out their current responsibilities regarding the repair of substandard rental properties. Therefore, the UK government has decided to back a Private Members Bill to refresh tenant protections and shift the emphasis on pursuing repairs. In simple terms tenants will now be able to sue their landlord for the cost of appropriate repairs.

Elements of the Homes (Fitness) Act

The basis of the new Act will replicate elements of the Landlord and Tenant Act (1985) such as:

  • All property must be fit for human habitation at commencement of the tenancy
  • All landlords must undertake to ensure the property is fit for human habitation for the duration of the tenancy

While the term “fit for human habitation” lacks a little detail in isolation, we know that the new Act will take into account:

  • Repairs
  • Natural lighting
  • Ventilation
  • Water supply
  • Stability of the property
  • Free from damp
  • Drainage and sanitary conveniences
  • Food preparation areas
  • Disposal of wastewater
  • Internal arrangement of the property

The original legislation was written at a time when rents were much lower and only those paying rent of less than £52 (£80 in London) were afforded the above protections. The new Act will remove these price exemptions and the new legislation will apply to all tenancies in England. Once the Act is implemented, expected to be 20 March 2019, it will initially apply to all new tenancies with terms of less than seven years.

The legislation will also take into account an array of hazards specified in the Housing Act (2004) which number 29 in total. These include issues such as excess cold, excess heat, asbestos, carbon monoxide fumes, volatile organic compounds, pests and refuse, electrical hazards and dangerous surfaces to name but a few. There is no doubt that the new Act will be all-encompassing, refresh out of date legislation and bring everything under one roof.

Who can deem a property unfit for human habitation?

As we touched on above, previously tenants were forced to use local authority services to enforce repairs. The new Act effectively transfers significant powers to tenants living in properties which are not fit for habitation. They can take independent expert advice regarding repairs if they believe their landlord has broken the covenant under the new Act. If proved, and the landlord refuses to act, the courts will then intervene and legally oblige the landlord to carry out the required repairs.

It goes without saying, if a landlord refuses to carry out these repairs there will be legal repercussions and they could even be sued for compensation by their tenants. While these changes will no doubt attract an array of controversial headlines the fact remains, those currently abiding by fit for habitation guidelines will not be impacted.

Protection for landlords

It is fair to say that so far the balance of power seems to have shifted towards tenants, but there are a number of exceptions under the new Act. Landlords would be protected from legal action where:

  • Blame for the issues in question could reasonably be applied to the tenant for failing to act in a reasonable manner, such as deliberate damage to the property
  • So-called “inevitable events” occur, with damage caused by fire, storm, flood, etc
  • The repairs in question relate to items a tenant might reasonably be expected to remove for example their own furniture
  • The undertaking of such repairs may lead to a breach of other laws such as planning permission
  • The work/repairs in question require consent from a third party such as the property freeholder

While many landlords will argue that the balance of power has shifted significantly in favour of tenants in recent times, these exemptions will at least offer a degree of protection for landlords.

Summary

As of 20 March 2019 the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act (2018) will commence and apply to all new tenancies in England. On the anniversary of the Act, 20th March 2020, the regulations will apply to all existing tenancies. It is fair to say the switch of responsibility for inspection and repair from the local authorities to tenants is the biggest change. The rest merely updates historic legislation and brings an array of other protections under one legal umbrella.

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