Property maintenance in a locked-down world

All the way through the coronavirus crisis, letting agents and landlords have been told, in a nutshell, that they must stick to the safety regulations covering privately rented properties, despite the pandemic.

The minimum standards required for a property’s smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, gas appliances and electrics have not been relaxed, nor have the annual gas and five-yearly electrical certificate requirements. The government’s guidance is clear on this.

But the ongoing realities of social distancing mean sticking to these regulations isn’t always possible. What should agents do? Here are some of the key issues to consider.

When should safety inspections be completed?

The most recent advice outlines that ideally gas and safety inspections should be completed in between tenancies, or when the tenants are not in the property.

How should the inspections be completed?

If the inspection cannot be done when the tenants are out, an appointment should be arranged and measures put in place to ensure physical contact is minimised. For example, tenants could stay in another room during the visit.

What happens if my engineer can’t gain access?

During the pandemic, the government has asked that landlords and letting agents demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with the law.

If you arrange for a gas or electrical safety engineer to visit a property and one or more of the tenants are self-isolating, shielding, infected or are refusing entry on health grounds, then the engineer and agent must work together to record and document what’s been going on.

Read the Gas Safe Register advice on completing gas certificates during the coronavirus crisis.

Will I be prosecuted?

Guidance from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) says that if a gas or electrical engineer cannot enter a property, prosecution would be unlikely, as long as the situation is documented, verbal, email or phone discussions recorded, and three attempts are made to complete the inspection

The government has also told councils to take a ‘pragmatic approach’ to the enforcement of safety regulations, given the problems some landlords and letting agents may have complying with them.

These rules also apply to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, which must be maintained or replaced if a tenant flags up that they are defective and require attention.

Given all this, isn’t it better just to suspend inspections?

The HSE is clear that letting agents should not implement a blanket suspension of safety inspections, repairs or maintenance. Instead, they should look at each property on a case-by-case basis. 

This will depend on the age and type of equipment inside the property, how often it has been service, how often it has broken down in the past and whether a property has been fitted with carbon monoxide alarms (in the case of gas appliances)

Read the HSE’s gas safety advice and social distancing guidance for landlords and engineers.

Must safety certificates still be updated?

Yes, landlords and letting agents must ensure that a property’s gas safety and electrical certificates are kept up to date as they would be normally.

Letting agents should also remember that since 1 April 2020, all properties must have an electrical safety test completed. The change applied to existing tenancies. From 1 July 2020, it will apply to all new tenancies. Electrical safety tests must be renewed every five years.

What if a tenant won’t allow my engineer into the property?

A letting agent or landlord must talk with a tenant about why they won’t let in an engineer and make it clear that a safety inspection is due. If they have a valid reason then this must be documented, and a visit arranged for a later date.

What if I can’t find an engineer?

Some engineers and property management staff, faced with the risks of entering properties, are not keen to complete safety inspections right now. Therefore, some landlords and letting agents have struggled to find engineers or contractors prepared to do the work.

In light of this, the guidance says: “If you are not able to gain access to the property due to restrictions in place to tackle COVID-19, or are not able to engage a contractor to carry out the necessary work, we recommend you document your attempts to do so and all correspondence with your tenants”.

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