A private landlord is any person (including a company) who rents out residential dwellings. A landlord who shares his living accommodation with a lodger is not classified as a private landlord.

Repairs to rented residential property

The question of who is responsible occurs when a tenant complains of disrepair to his dwelling. For example, leaky guttering or a faulty boiler may cause dampness to interior walls. In most cases it is the landlord’s responsibility to make major and structural repairs.

Tenants are usually obliged only to take reasonable care of the property. Reasonable care will mean carrying out minor jobs such as gardening, general housework, unblocking the sink, changing light bulbs and the like. However, the terms of the tenancy agreement can be written to provide for other obligations on the tenant. It can be required that the tenant decorates and keeps the interior of the premises in good repair.

In a number of areas the law will intervene to ensure tenants are not given too much responsibility. The tenancy agreement should specify who has responsibilities for which particular repairs. What constitutes ‘repairs’ and the extent of those repairs is a matter of common sense, and what is reasonable. The cost of repairs should be proportionate to the value of a property.

Structure means walls, floors, roof and windows (including frames)

  • Exterior means the outside of your dwelling. This includes brickwork, drains, gutters and pipes
  • Installations means those used to supply utilities. These include the supply of water, water heating, fixed heaters, electrical wiring and gas piping
  • Also included are plumbing repairs to sanitary conveniences. This includes basins, sinks, toilets and baths.

There are two exceptions, where the above will not apply:

  • If the letting originally agreed was for a fixed term of seven years or more;
  • If the tenancy began before 24 October 1961.

In addition, a landlord must take all reasonable precautions to prevent his property from causing personal injury or damaging personal property. This obligation will also apply to the tenant, anyone living with them and their visitors.

Tenants have a right of action if the property is deemed unfit for human habitation or prejudicial to health. Fit for human habitation means that premises reach an acceptable standard. Prejudicial to health means capable of causing injury to health.

Liability will only arise where a landlord is aware of the disrepair that is his responsibility or should have been aware. The tenant does not need to complain in writing or need to specify precisely what repairs are needed. Neither does he need to complain directly to the landlord (he could complain through an agent). Once a landlord knows that his rented premises is in disrepair, he should take remedial action as quickly as possible.

There is a right to re-enter the premises in order to inspect its condition and carry out maintenance, provided the landlord gives the tenant at least 24 hours notice in writing. It is best for a landlord to set up a program of regular inspections and maintenance, and then if proceedings are brought he can show that he has taken all reasonable precautions.

If a landlord refuses to carry out repairs that are his responsibility, the tenant has two main options, both of which can be pursued simultaneously.

Firstly, he may ask the council’s environmental health department to inspect the dwelling. If the disrepair is serious enough, the council will serve the landlord with legal notice to carry out the repairs. Non-compliance may lead to criminal prosecution.

Secondly, the tenant may take criminal or civil action against the landlord himself. The court can order a landlord to carry out works and to pay monetary compensation to the tenant. Civil awards are often greater than criminal awards.

Alternatively, the tenants may elect self-help. This is where a tenant will carry out repair works himself and deduct the cost by withholding future rent. Tenants can use this option only if they have first given the landlord a reasonable opportunity to carry out the repairs himself. Self-help is a lawful remedy and a defence to a claim for rent arrears.

Repossession

Without exception, a court order is required to repossess residential property. A landlord can serve notice on a tenant requiring him to leave. But if the tenant refuses, the landlord will require a court order even if there are significant rent arrears. The law relating to repossession is complicated by the fact that there are various forms of residential tenancy and each has its own special procedures for creation, termination and repossession. Therefore, the first step in starting a possession action is to know what kind of tenancy you have granted.

The two most common residential tenancies are ‘assured short-hold’ tenancies and ‘assured’ tenancies. Assured short-hold tenancies are short-term lets for a fixed term of at least six months. At the end of this period, the landlord has an absolute right to repossession.

Assured tenancies offer tenants greater protection. In most cases, assured tenants can be repossessed only if they have built up substantial rent arrears (normally two to three months) or are damaging the property. A notice requiring possession in the proper form must be served at least 2 months before the end of the period of the tenancy. Increasingly, landlords are using an ‘accelerated’ possession procedure designed to avoid a court hearing. Provided the landlord’s case is in order and the tenant does not raise a legitimate defence, judges normally grant landlords possession without a court hearing. However, these accelerated procedures apply only to assured short-hold tenancies. In all other cases, a court hearing is required (called ordinary possession proceedings).

At ordinary possession proceedings, judges will listen to the evidence of both the landlord and tenant before deciding whether or not to grant an order for possession. Since the landlord is bringing the action he will be the claimant. That means the burden falls upon him to prove his case. He must prove that he has valid grounds for seeking possession and that every legal formality has been complied with. As the defendant, the tenant needs only to show defects in the landlord’s case. If enough defects can be highlighted, the landlord’s case may collapse, in which case the tenant will be entitled to remain in the dwelling.

Force is not an option. Landlords are not entitled to harass their tenants (or any member of their family) to try and force them to leave. Harassment is a criminal offence. This includes cutting off services (gas, water etc), removing light bulbs, changing locks and leaving rubbish on the premises. Under no circumstances should a landlord use or threaten violence. Such actions could lead to criminal prosecution.