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A Landlord’s Winter Guide

A house covered in Snow

Winter comes around every year without fail. Once October slips into November and the shops start setting out their displays for Christmas, we can expect short days, long nights, and plenty of miserable weather.

To make matters worse, 50% of landlords don’t prepare their properties for winter. This usually leads to disgruntled tenants, property damage, and financial loss.

The good news is, with the right preparation, you and your tenants don’t need to be miserable when the Met Office predicts sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds. All it takes is a bit of essential winter maintenance and everyone can look forward to a happy festive season where the only things giving you a stonking headache are mulled wine and belligerent relatives.

Take a leaf out of a professional landlord’s book. They run their portfolio as a business, so rather than going into panic mode and fixing problems when they arise, they put preventative measures in place to ensure problems don’t arise.

Handy hint: use your Landlord Software to schedule annual reminders, so you don’t forget to carry out essential maintenance tasks.

Use the table of contents below to find your way around or read the whole guide to become an expert.

 

A Landlord Winter Checklist

Save a copy of our winter checklist for quick reference, then read on to find out about each of the checklist items.

A landlords winter checklist infographic

Check gutters, drains, and the roof

Winter is not the best time to discover there is a gaping hole in the roof or a rainwater downpipe is blocked. Schedule a maintenance check in the autumn. Perform a visual inspection of the roof. Look for loose or missing tiles, evidence of damage to lead flashing, and any other issues that need attention. Use a set of binoculars if your eyesight isn’t that brilliant.

Late autumn is also a time when gutters need clearing. Leaves and other debris soon build up in gutters, especially if there are several trees nearby. If this debris is left to rot, it could block the downpipes, which will lead to overflowing water and damp issues.

Blocked gutters are also a danger if it snows. The extra weight of snowfall could be enough to break plastic gutters. Broken gutters usually lead to leaks, which are expensive to rectify.

Clearing gutters isn’t a major job, but it does require a set of ladders and a head for heights. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to carry out this task, engage a handyman to do it for you.

Check the drains, too. Are there any signs of blockages? If your tenants are fond of pouring fat and oil down the sink, it won’t be long before you have a fatberg growing in a subterranean pipe (yuk!). It is a good idea to make it quite clear that any drain blockages due to fat deposits, non-flushable wet-wipes and nappies, and so on, are chargeable to the tenant.

Schedule a boiler service

Central heating boilers and water heaters have a nasty habit of breaking down over winter. This might seem like horrendous bad luck, but if you think about it, you’d soon see why. We tend not to use the heating much from May to October, so the boiler has a nice little rest. Then once the weather cools down, it is forced into overdrive. If there are any worn out parts, this is when the cracks start to show.

Boilers and other appliances need an annual service. As per the Landlord and Tenant Act (1985), Landlords are legally responsible for boiler services and repairs. You are obliged to keep records and provide tenants with copies of the paperwork when they begin a new tenancy. Keep all records for at least two years.

Regular servicing ensures the appliance is working efficiently and is safe. A fully-functioning boiler is unlikely to break down on the coldest day of winter. And if there are any issues, an experienced engineer can give you a head’s up when he/she carries out an annual service.

To avoid any problems, instruct your tenants how to top up the boiler pressure, bleed radiators, and avoid blocking vents around the appliance. Also, make sure they run the heating regularly, or damp will become an issue.

Check heating and hot water systems

As well as a boiler service, check the heating and water systems. Ask your tenant whether everything is working as it should. Christmas Day is not the best time to call out an engineer because your tenants have no hot water. Any problems, get it sorted immediately.

It is often sensible to have a maintenance contract in place. Engineers can contact the tenants directly to gain access and all you need to worry about is paying the monthly fee. Companies like British Gas offer plumbing and heating maintenance contracts that include an annual boiler service. Price check all offers to make sure they are cost-effective.

If nothing else, a maintenance contract will give you peace of mind when you are on holiday.

Make sure external pipes are well insulated

External pipes are susceptible to cold snaps. If you have an external boiler waste pipe or an outside tap at your property, make sure it has a foam sleeve around it to prevent any issues when the temperatures drop.

Don’t forget about exposed pipes in the loft. These are just as vulnerable to extreme temperatures and can cause a lot of damage if they burst.

Have chimneys swept

Do any of your properties have an open fireplace or a log burner? Any chimney that’s in regular use must be swept at least once a year. Carbon deposits soon build up and the more congested a chimney is, the greater the risk of a chimney fire.

Chimney sweeps are often very busy in late autumn, as this is when many homeowners begin using their fireplaces and log burners. Book your chimney sweep well in advance and make sure the tenants are aware s/he’s coming.

Check extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms

Extractor fans remove hot, moist air from bathrooms and kitchens. In winter, moist air turns into condensation, which can lead to damp, mould, and mildew problems. Check that extractor fans are functioning correctly, and if there are any problems, replace them.

Check whether tenants are going away for the holidays

Are your tenants planning to visit family and friends over the holidays? Will the property be empty for a few days? If so, ask them to leave the heating on low to prevent any burst pipes.

Test smoke alarms and CO detectors

Smoke alarms and CO detectors should be tested once a year. There must be a working smoke alarm on each floor of the property. A CO detector is a statutory requirement in any room with a solid fuel appliance, e.g. a log burner, a multi-fuel stove, or a solid fuel boiler.

Tenants will be using their heating appliances more often in winter, so fully-functioning alarms are critical. Hard-wired alarms are better than battery operated alarms, as they can’t be manually disabled by a tenant removing the battery.

Check your insurance policies

Now is a good time to check your insurance cover. If policies are up for renewal, look around for a new policy, but make sure it is suitable for landlords. Read the small print so you are not caught out by nasty clauses that invalidate cover just when you need to make a claim.

Discovering you can’t claim on the insurance for a burst pipe is not going to make you feel merry this Christmas.

Repair or replace old windows and doors

If the property has older windows and doors, consider whether now is a good time to invest in new ones. Poor quality windows and doors are not energy efficient and make it harder to keep a property warm and dry. They may also leak, which creates a whole new set of problems.

Remember, it is much easier to find new tenants if a property is well-maintained.

Remind tenants to use the central heating

Some tenants are disinclined to use the central heating because they are trying to save money. This is understandable, but it creates a lot of problems, especially in an older property. Cold homes tend to be damp, which leads to mould and mildew growing on walls, ceilings, and soft furnishings. Remind your tenants to keep the property warm and well ventilated, especially when they are away from home.

Check trees in the garden

Winter weather can cause a lot of damage in the garden. Unstable, rotten trees with heavy branches could potentially fall in strong winds or under the weight of a heavy snowfall. Check any trees in the garden to see if they are rotten. Large branches overhanging fences, conservatories, or neighbouring properties should be lopped off by a qualified tree surgeon.

Don’t take any chances or you might be hit with an expensive claim when a branch crashes down on a smart new Mercedes parked nearby.

Don’t use dodgy Christmas lights

Christmas is a time to hang fairy lights and pretty decorations. Unfortunately, many of these products are poorly made. Educate your tenants on the perils of using cheap Christmas lights bought from a pub car park.

Christmas lights should not be left on all night. They should not be hung around fireplaces or near open flames. If a live fir tree is bought into the house, it should be placed well away from an open fire or candles. Old, dry trees are a particular safety hazard, as they catch light very easily. Remind your tenants to responsibly dispose of a real Christmas tree – most local authorities offer free collection services in January.

Avoid Christmas dramas

Most landlords don’t want to be bothered by tenant dramas over the Christmas holidays. This is probably one of the few times where you can enjoy a well-earned rest, so you probably won’t appreciate a telephone call at 7 AM on Christmas morning telling you the boiler has conked out.

If you have worked through the checklist above, you should be reasonably safe, but it is sensible to have a word with your tenants before Christmas and let them know what to do in the event of an emergency. And if you are jetting off to the Caribbean, make sure there is someone trustworthy who can act as a point of contact while you are away.

A surface covered in damp and mildew

How to Prevent Damp and Mildew

Since damp, mould and mildew can cause huge problems, they deserve a special section all of their own.

Winter is a time to pay particular attention to damp, mould, and mildew. This is when your tenants are most likely to report problems, but if you ignore complains, you could end up being fined by the local authority.

Damp

Damp problems are usually caused by an issue in the building.

  • Rising damp comes up through the walls and floors. Signs include peeling paint, salt deposits, rotten floors, and a musty odour. Rising damp is a common problem in older properties in low-lying areas.
  • Penetrating damp is often found in older properties where the cement between the brickwork has crumbled away. Water can also penetrate walls when gutters or plumbing leaks, or where rendering has failed on the exterior of the building.
  • Condensation is the most common type of damp problem in a rental property. Moist air condenses when it meets a cold surface, such as wall or window. If warm, moist air isn’t removed by adequate ventilation, condensation lingers and, in time, you have the perfect breeding ground for mould and mildew.

Mould and mildew

Untreated damp usually leads to mould and mildew. Make no mistake, mould and mildew are serious problems. Apart from looking unsightly and being difficult to eradicate once they take hold, mould and mildew can cause breathing problems and other serious health issues.

Many people are sensitive to mould. Symptoms of hypersensitivity to mould coughing, asthma, rhinitis, and watery eyes. Toxic black mould is the most dangerous type of mould. It releases mycotoxins, which are deadly and can cause respiratory illness, nausea, jaundice, and even cancer.

Identifying the source of the problem

If your tenants report a problem, don’t fob them off. If you don’t treat the issue, you might have to make some expensive home improvements in the future.

Assess the cause of the damp. If the issue is rising damp or penetrating damp, have a professional take a look to see how much it will cost to rectify the problem. If it is an older property, the existing damp proof course may have failed, or it may not even have one. This is a fairly expensive job if walls need hacking back to the brickwork and floors replacing, but the problem will only get worse if you don’t deal with it.

Preventing condensation problems

There are several ways to prevent condensation problems.

  • Open windows for 10-15 minutes a day
  • Use extractor fans in the bathroom and kitchen
  • Cover pans when cooking
  • Don’t dry clothes on radiators or clotheshorses
  • Don’t push furniture up against an outside wall
  • Keep the property reasonably warm

Treating mould and mildew

Treat mould before it gets worse. Bathrooms are usually the worst affected areas. Buy a fungicidal solution from a DIY store and paint the walls and ceiling. A diluted solution of bleach and water will do a similar job. Do not use a vacuum cleaner on mould patches, as it could spread mould spores all around the property. Use antifungal paint in bathrooms, to inhibit the growth of mould.

Soft furnishings contaminated with mildew should be discarded and/or replaced.

Is the landlord or the tenant legally responsible for mould and mildew?

This is a tricky area. Landlords are responsible for making sure the house is fit for human habitation, so if it is damp, you need to step up and fix the problem. Mould caused by condensation is a different area.

Generally speaking, tenants are at fault if mould and condensation are caused by poor ventilation and inadequate heating (unless the windows don’t open and/or you have left them with no heating). So, unless it is clear the property has a penetrating or rising damp issue, or there are leaks, the most likely cause of mould is poor ventilation.

A tenant is presumed guilty unless they can prove their innocence. It is hard for a tenant to prove they had the heating on and opened windows every day, but if they provide an expert report stating the mould has been caused by structural damp problems or a leak, the landlord is at fault.

If the matter is taken to arbitration, in the absence of evidence, landlords are not guilty.

A horror surrounded by ice

Landlord Winter Horror Stories

If you weren’t already convinced that you need to be prepared for winter as a landlord, check out these horror stories. These landlords weren’t prepared, tried to ignore winter issues and ended up with huge fines.

£2,500 fine for leaving a tenant a month with no hot water

A Reading landlord was fined more than £2,500 for leaving his tenant without hot water for more than a month over winter. The tenant lodged a complaint with their local council in December 2015. The housing team investigated but were unable to contact the landlord. They issued an abatement notice to the landlord for a failure to supply hot water. The landlord made repairs, but upon inspection, the repairs were found to be unsatisfactory and the boiler unsafe. The housing team had the water supply restored in February 2016 and the landlord was prosecuted.

Over £1,900 fine for letting out a damp mouldy flat

A Derby landlord was prosecuted for letting out a flat riddled with damp and mould. The landlord was serviced with an improvement notice following a council inspection, but he failed to carry out the repairs. The council issued a second improvement notice and rehoused the tenants, so the landlord could do the work, but when the flat was inspected, he hadn’t lifted a finger. He was taken to court and fined £1,822.50 plus a victim surcharge of £134.

Tenant wins court case when pipe bursts in rental property

The tenant left his property over Christmas and when he returned, a burst pipe had caused a ceiling to collapse, leading to significant damage.

In the ensuing blame game, the landlord said it was the tenant’s fault for not adequately heating the property while it was empty. However, the tenant said it wasn’t his fault, as he had left the heating on a timer. He also said the property was difficult to heat, as the system was old. The fact the weather had been especially cold over the period in question was an aggravating factor.

The case went to deposit arbitration when the landlord and tenant failed to agree on whose fault it was and who should pick up the bill for remedial work (the landlord didn’t want to claim on his insurance and the tenant didn’t want his deposit withheld by the landlord).

An independent contractor was asked to look at the heating system. The report concluded the heating system was on a timer, but the set temperature was unknown. The contractor noted that the system was old, pipes were insufficiently insulated, and it was inadequate.

The adjudicator found in favour of the tenant. He concluded the tenant had taken preventative steps by leaving heating running on a timer, but due to the inadequacies of the old heating system, this was not enough to prevent damage during a period of exceptionally cold weather. He said the problem might have arisen irrespective of whether the tenant was away.

This case highlights the importance of giving tenants instructions on how to heat a property when they are away. It also highlights the importance of providing an adequate heating system.

 

That’s it, folks. We have covered just about everything you need to worry about in the cold winter months. All that remains is to invite you to share your stories and let us know if we have missed anything!

 

Want more in depth guides like this one? Check these out:

Landlords are you Ready for the Fees Ban? Here’s What you Need to Know…

7 Things Landlords are Missing From Their Spreadsheets

Tax-deductible Landlord Expenses – The Ultimate Checklist

 

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