Don’t Get Court Out: Maintenance Issues Could See You In Court

Many landlords fall foul of small mistakes that can lead to fines or even a day in court

Being a landlord can feel fraught with pitfalls, especially when it comes to ensuring that you and your tenant are on the same page with regards to property maintenance

Your property is an asset, and you want it to be kept in tip-top condition, whereas it’s your tenant’s home and they are living in it, with all the chaos that day to day life brings. 

When these two worlds collide, relations can become a little fraught, so we caught up with Carly Jermyn, CEO and founder of Woodstock Legal Services, a specialist in resident and landlord tenant law and landlord herself, to go through how landlords can tackle the tricky business of managing maintenance issues without it reaching the courtroom.

Housing disrepair

‘The biggest concern at the moment, and I think it will only continue to get more of a concern, is housing disrepair’, explains Carly. 

We’ve definitely seen an increase in claims by tenants, whether that’s a standalone claim, or a counterclaim, when [the landlord goes] to claim for rent arrears or tries to seek possession. The tenant will respond and explain that the reason they hadn’t paid their rent is because of their property not being up to standard and the landlord not complying with their obligations.

This sort of issue is becoming increasingly common, with a marked increase during the pandemic. Whilst many of the claims were genuine, a lot of them are a little far-fetched, and it can be a difficult negotiation. 

‘It’s a tricky area to navigate if you don’t have good systems and processes,’ said Carly. ‘I think the reason we saw lots of them off the back of the pandemic is where there were high rent arrears, and people needed a reason to try and reduce those arrears or get rid of them completely. For many reasons, people were not able to pay their rent and therefore needed a reason to avoid having to pay it back.’ 

How do you ensure your property meets the regulations? 

Some wear and tear in a property is entirely normal, after all, you can’t expect anybody to live in a property and keep it showroom pristine for the duration of a twelve-month tenancy, it’s just not realistic. But when does wear and tear cross over into disrepair? There’s no danger of legal action for simple wear and tear, is there?

‘Normal wear and tear is not included, and they [the courts] will always look at what’s reasonable,’ reassures Carly. ‘That also applies to if a tenant comes to you with complaints about disrepair. You are allowed a reasonable amount of time to get those works done – we all know how hard it is to get contractors in.’

Courts will also look at the age of the property. For example, the condition of a Victorian property compared to a new build would be very different.

Who’s at fault?

One of the major niggles with maintenance is who is to blame for the issue. Damp is a particular concern, with many landlords called up to manage a damp problem in properties, only to find that the tenant’s lifestyle is a contributing factor. How does this work with regards to the legal standpoint? 

‘Damp at the property is a very common one. An expert’s report will show whether it’s the property, or tenant use – often it’s a little bit of both. And it’s really important that landlords educate their tenants, to make sure their tenants know how to deal with the damp and help get rid of those issues,’ explains Carly. 

‘There’s some great technology out there that can monitor moisture in the air in properties, so you can see what’s going on in the property. Lawyers love that sort of thing because it produces nice, clean and tidy reports that I could present to a court or to a solicitor on the other side. I can evidence that, prove it, and deal with things quite quickly.’

What should you be doing with your tenant to avoid maintenance issues?

The key to keeping on top of things, is literally that – keeping on top of things. Regular inspections at your property will help you ensure that maintenance is, well, maintained, and your tenant should have no cause for concern. 

However, don’t be popping by every ten minutes – your tenant has the right for quiet enjoyment of the property, and you swinging by every week would contravene that part of the tenancy agreement. Also, don’t forget that you must give 24 hours’ notice before entering the property, and you have to request your tenant’s permission – if they say no, you absolutely cannot enter under any circumstances. 

You could consider scheduling in a six-monthly maintenance check and utilise occasions such as the Gas Safety Check to carry out additional checks on the property if possible. If you can, driving by the property every couple of months to make sure the outside is looking ok – no slipped tiles on the roof or broken guttering, will also help. 

This must be combined with good communication with your tenant. After all, a lot can change in six months. Reassure them that if there are any issues you’d like to know as soon as possible and you will deal with it promptly (and be as good as you word). If they trust that you will deliver, they are more likely to let you know ASAP. 

Try and document all communications in email where possible, building a paper-trail of comms which can be used in evidence should you ever need it. 

What if your tenant won’t allow you access?

Worst case scenario – your tenant is being less than cooperative and won’t allow you access to the property (as they are allowed to as per the terms of a contract).  Frustrating, but also can land you in hot water legally, with regards to not only maintenance issues, but also compliance, such as your Gas Safety Certificate, EICR and EPC, all of which have to be updated in order for you to be renting the property legally.  

‘You’d be surprised how often that happens when [the tenant] complained about disrepair, and that can be a real challenge for landlords,’ said Carly. ‘I would say, where they’ve complained about disrepair and you’re having issues getting in, make sure you document your efforts to get in because that happens really regularly.’

If you’re struggling to get in, Carly recommends:

  • Document your efforts. Email or send a letter to remind them of their obligations, so you have evidence of your attempts to access the property
  • Remind them of your obligations. As a landlord, you have to have certain certification in place and you have to keep the property in good repair, remind your tenant of this so they understand why access is required
  • Consider an injunction. This the worst case scenario, but if you can’t get in a firm letter from your solicitor usually does the job

No win, no fee?

When faced with a situation like this, your mind may be turned towards the ‘no win, no fee’ offers advertised to landlords AND tenants. They crop up all over the place, even being advertised on TV. 

But how viable are these options? Are they contributing to the legal battles that landlords are facing, or are they a positive?

We’ve definitely seen many more standalone letters coming through the door, that as a landlord you have to respond to, and you have to deal with. Tenants, you know, they’re quite aware of what the conditions should be, what their rights are, what a landlord’s obligations are, and quite rightly so. When landlords don’t comply with those obligations, they’re quite right.

To hear the whole conversation and learn about the other issues that can trip landlords up, check out Common Claims Against Landlords and How to Avoid Them.

In the meantime, why not head over to the Mashroom Landlord Community on Facebook and join the conversation about the upcoming reforms? We’re all chatting about how it’s going to look for us, and we’d love to hear your thoughts!  

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