How to Win at Property Maintenance – Advice From a Tenant and a Landlord

By 9 min read • July 11, 2019
A tradesperson wearing a tool belt and holding a drill.

It was 3am. I had one of those wake-ups that takes you a while to recover from. The kind that starts with your heart beating intensely before you understand what’s woken you.

I opened my eyes to find chunks of wet paint and plaster strewn across the bottom of my bed, an eerie hole loomed above me… That wasn’t there when I went to sleep!

It’s probably one of the worst wakeups I remember, surpassed only by the time I awoke staring at a giant spider who’d decided to share my pillow.

The next two hours were a rush of towels, mops and misplaced furniture as my husband and I tried our best to stop the flow of water while protecting as much of our furniture and the landlord’s property as possible.

A collapsed ceiling
Here’s the hole that opened up in the ceiling. As you can see the damp must have been building up there for some time. The recent spell of wet weather we’d had was just too much for the ceiling to bear.

Property Maintenance Separates the Rogues from the Pro’s

I’ve been a tenant in the rental sector for 15 years, unfortunately this wasn’t my only experience of poor property maintenance on behalf of the landlord.

I’ve seen my fair share of under-maintained properties, but I’ve also seen the other side as well. My father is a landlord and he also works as a locksmith and sometimes as a sort of bailiff, helping to evict tenants and recover properties on behalf of property management companies. I’ve spent many lazy afternoons being paid in tea and cake to help with his paperwork. I’ve seen hot water installations ripped out by tenants (why!!?), carpets pulled up, properties strewn with needles, and back gardens filled to the tops of the fences with endless black bags and assorted rubbish.

The thing that sets my father apart from the many rogues I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with is that he doesn’t take maintenance issues lightly. He has a network of tradespeople he can call on at any given moment to repair whatever happens to have gone wrong. The way he builds relationships with and subsequently manages these tradespeople are, I would say, the keys to his success.

I’m in a unique position, a tenant with a fair amount of property management knowledge and access to a landlord with a decent sized portfolio. So, I sat down with my dad and asked him to impart his property maintenance wisdom:

Speculate to Accumulate

Before we dive into the specifics of his supplier relationships, we discuss the costs of property maintenance. My father explains that he’s met many landlords who don’t like to spend their money. He’d happily put himself in this category, “you don’t make money by spending it” he says. “But if you apply this logic to property maintenance, it represents false economy.”

If your property is in dis-repair, you can’t charge extra rent (or rather you can but you shouldn’t). If you spend money on your property to keep it in good condition you can expect a better calibre of tenant. If your properties are in good condition you can raise your rents in line with market rates and you’ll have far fewer void periods. All of this adds up to higher rental yields. When it comes to selling the property, you’ll see a better capital return and a faster sale if you’ve kept the property in good condition. No one likes nasty surprises when it comes to valuations.

Due Diligence Matters

I ask if there’s a way to find good tradesmen when you’re just starting out. He tells me that a lot of the tradespeople he knows and uses regularly were recommended by fellow landlords and letting agents. His due diligence doesn’t stop there though. He also makes sure that any tradespeople he uses are registered with the appropriate institutions. For instance, if the gas installation needs work he wouldn’t dream of using someone that isn’t GasSafety registered.

Beyond the certificates he reads reviews, checks online databases of recommended trades people and screens them against databases of rogue builders and traders. Finally, when he’s whittled his list down to the most qualified traders, he gets estimates from them and goes with the one that he feels is fairest for the work quoted. If the tradesperson he has chosen does a good job, he’ll strike up a deal for regular property maintenance and will recommend the tradesperson when asked.

I ask if it takes a long time to go through this process, he says it does seem “like a bit of a faff” but skimping on the due diligence costs far more money than it saves.

Take Your Maintenance Issues with a Dose of Reality

My dad loves a pithy epithet, in his words, a stitch in time saves 9. It doesn’t help to go into denial over the state of your property. If you ignore maintenance issues the chances are, they’ll get worse and will cost you more money in the long run.

You need to keep this in mind when you’re asking tradespeople to carry out work on your properties. Understand that the work may cost more than you’d planned for. This is where quotes or estimates come in handy. When you’re comparing them make sure you also compare the work they’ve quoted for to make sure they’re all quoting for the same level of work and that every aspect of the job has been covered.

If you get an estimate that seems way too low or high in comparison be suspicious and ask the tradesperson to justify their estimate. You don’t have to accept the lowest quote, and you don’t have to be happy with the highest one either. In all cases judge the work by its own merit and be realistic about what needs to be done.

What Goes up Must Come Down

Though his trope for this was a little more unsavoury the gist is that there’s no point in being rude to people. In his daily work as a bailiff and as a landlord he talks to a lot of letting agents and tradespeople. He treats them with respect and a lot of people respect him in return. Over the years adopting this demeanour has allowed him to build up a huge network of tradespeople that he can rely on to get things done when he’s not around.

Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t a push over either. If you try to pull the wool over his eyes, he won’t waste any time reminding you that he knows a lot of people in your line of work…

He owns properties all over the country, and travels far and wide on behalf of letting agents and Property Management Companies in his capacity as a sort of bailiff. At any given moment he could be hundreds of miles away from one of his properties when something goes wrong, but when a tenant calls to report an issue, he’ll know exactly who to call and he’ll be able to rely on them to do a good job in a short space of time for a reasonable price.

A Landlord Always Pays his Debts

When a tradesperson does a job for him, he pays as agreed and on time, this is necessary for a good working relationship with tradespeople.

This is mostly helped by the fact that he details a scope of works (SOW) with every supplier before work starts. They agree a timetable, a cost and agree on the list of jobs to be done. If any of those things look likely to change during the work the tradespeople call him and have a conversation about it there and then. This means he avoids any nasty surprises when the invoice lands on his desk, speaking as an administrative assistant I can vouch for the fact that this also saves time on admin.

I point out to him that the SOW’s probably help a lot when it comes to managing tradespeople, he assures me the advice isn’t that special: “every landlord probably does it….”

Careless Talk Costs Tenants

Never say anything to a tradesperson that you wouldn’t want your tenant to overhear. That’s not to say that every tradesperson will go around parroting everything you say, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Three weeks after my disastrous roof incident the landlord sent around a builder to look at the damage to the ceiling.

The builder muttered something blue as he peered into the ceiling hole. The long and the short of it was that the roof needed replacing, it had been leaking for some years. This same builder had informed the landlord of this several times in the years prior to us moving in, but the landlord opted to see this as the builder trying to scam him out of a few thousand pounds.

This same builder went on to explain how much money the landlord owed him, how difficult he was to get hold of and then advised us to move out. He said we weren’t the only tenants that had experienced this landlord’s lacklustre approach to property maintenance. 

If you aren’t nice to do business with word will get around.

A Little Knowledge Doesn’t Have to be a Dangerous Thing

My father mostly credits his maintenance network to the fact that he’s picked up quite a lot of knowledge along the way. He knows what indoor plumbing looks like behind the walls and beneath the floorboards. If you give him two beer mats and licence to bend and tear them, he can explain a lot about roofing, wall ties and many aspects of electrical supply.

When you’re trying to select tradespeople to work with in the long run, it helps to know a bit about what you want them to do.

Just this winter my dad tells me, he was looking for a roofer, the guy he regularly used was away on holiday and the tenant had reported damp in the upstairs bedroom. His roofer friend had recommended an alternative, and a few hours later my dad was looking at a quote for £500 to replace lead flashing.

He knows what lead flashing is, he knows where to find it on the roof, and he knew there was nothing wrong with it as it had been replaced a year previous. He called the roofer and asked for an explanation. Unhappy with what he heard he headed over to his rental with a long ladder and climbed up to inspect the damage himself.

He discovered the lead flashing was intact and apparently doing a good job but found that the gutter had become blocked and water had been unable to escape via normal means and was now overflowing from the gutter causing the damp inside.

My dad might not be able to fix anything and everything, but because he knows what he’s talking about and understands how things should work, he can tell when he’s being taken for a ride.

Google is your friend in this respect, it’s not difficult to find all kinds of diagrams and explanations on every aspect of property maintenance.

In the end we’re all just trying to get along. I as a tenant want a nice (and dry) place to live, my dad as a landlord wants his tenants to be comfortable and for his property to be safe and accumulating in value. And the tradespeople want to work with someone decent and fair tempered.

What Happened After my Disastrous Roof Incident?

The builder was never instructed to dry or fix the property. Last I heard the landlord had asked the builder to plaster over the hole. The builder refused on account of the property was soaking and the roof needed replacing and there was no way he was going to put his name on a shoddy temporary fix.

Luckily, we were spared the hassle of waiting for our contract to run out. Our landlord was so sick of us asking him to repair and dry out the property that he served us an eviction notice.

For my husband and I this was our first shared home and we lost over half of our joint possessions to mould, but our only recourse was to fight this out with the landlord. It wasn’t going very well until we realised the landlord hadn’t protected our deposit. We presented him with evidence that we could reclaim up to three times the amount of the bond because he hadn’t used a deposit scheme. I’ve never seen a landlord get out his check book so quickly before or since.

Property damage caused by damp.
Here’s just some of the damage we were left with a few hours later. Our mattress, bookcase and a few other bits of furniture were moved out. Water continued to run down the walls and the wallpaper began to peel. Even now, looking at these photos it never ceases to amaze me that the mould visible on the wall and ceiling wasn’t visible on the outside of the wallpaper.
Water dripping through bay window ceiling.
While not mentioned in this post, the very same night the ceiling above the bay window in the living room (pictured above) also began leaking. This soaked the floor, our sofa and a lot of new wooden furniture we’d recently purchased.

There are no Short Cuts to Property Maintenance

While my story had a reasonable ending, it really shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

If my story doesn’t at least help you see things from a tenant’s perspective, know that now the Fitness for Human Habitation Act is in force tenants have a lot more recourse when maintenance issues occur. If my roof incident had happened yesterday, I’d have happily seen my landlord in court and it would have cost him a lot more than he ended up paying.

There really are no short-cuts to property maintenance and it pays to build good relationships with tradespeople who’ve done a good job.

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