Ensuring your home is fit to live in

Here’s an interesting situation. In a recent case that ended up in the High Court, a tenant had signed a two year tenancy on a house and paid £34,000 in rent for the full term of the contract. After the tenant moved in, part of the front garden wall collapsed, blocking a side passage. This caused internal damage to the house and as a result the tenant complained that the property was not habitable. A structural engineer’s report, obtained by the tenant, showed that part of the retaining wall could collapse at any time, posing a risk to the house. He concluded the property wasn’t safe to live in.

Most of us would assume that this would be enough to entitle the tenant to at least part of his rent back and for the landlord to immediately carry out the repairs needed to make the house safe. But under the law as it stands this isn’t necessarily the case. What is known as ‘significant disrepair’ is enough to make a case against your freeholder under section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, but – shocking though it sounds –  if a property is ‘not safe to live in’ that is not, at the moment, a basis for a claim.

In this particular case the tenant was lucky. The tenancy agreement contained a clause headed Premises uninhabitable, which stated,

“The rent or a fair proportion of the rent shall be suspended if the Premises or any part thereof shall, at any time during the tenancy, be destroyed or damaged by any risk insured by the landlord so as to be unfit for occupation and use…

After an appeal by the landlord, which was judged unreasonable, the tenant won. And rightly so but it was only the clause in the tenancy agreement that kept the law on the tenant’s side. In future we hope that tenants won’t have to rely on a clause like this to be treated fairly and to be reassured that their home is safe. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill is due for its second reading in the House of Lords on 23 November. If enacted, this new legislation will give tenants the right to take landlords to court if their home is unsafe. A recent report in The Guardian quoted figures from Shelter, revealing that more than a million homes are thought to pose a serious threat to the health or safety of the people living there. That’s a staggering one in six of the privately rented homes in the country.

This is nothing short of scandalous and change is badly needed. With cash-strapped local  councils responsible for chasing up any requests for repairs that are ignored by landlords, inspections by environmental health officers to investigate problems such as mould, damp and fire risk take far too long.

The changes set out in the Bill will make no difference to landlords’ existing obligations but will simply make it quite clear that rented property must meet certain standards. Let’s hope Parliament lends its support to a change in the law that is long overdue.

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