Fire safety advice for landlords – and homeowners

publication date: Aug 16, 2017
author/source: Kate Faulkner, Property Expert and Author of Which? Property Books

What do landlords and homeowners need to know about fire safety?

Nobody could fail to be horrified by the devastating scenes of the Grenfell Tower fire in London – and the fact that more than 250 other tower blocks are suspected to be unsafe is deeply worrying.

With fire safety on everyone’s mind, I thought it might be helpful to explain some of the ways you can protect yourself and your family and, if you are a landlord, highlight things you need to know to look after your tenants.

As landlords, of course we have to do what is legally required but, in my view, when it comes to people’s lives, it’s worth going above and beyond, doing everything you can to minimise the risks and keep everyone as safe as possible.

For example, when I played a part in supporting the introduction of carbon monoxide (CO) alarms, I was amazed they weren’t made mandatory in all homes. Even though they are now required in some rented properties, the rules only apply to those with solid fuel appliances… and yet gas appliances can also present a risk.

In fact, according to the English Housing Survey 2015-16, while the majority of homes (89%) had at least one working smoke alarm, only about a quarter (28%) had a carbon monoxide alarm.

Having learned all that I did during the campaign, I went out and bought CO alarms both for my own home and my mum’s. When I let a room in a flat I lived in part time, I also had all of the checks such as electric and gas made on the property, even though I wasn’t required to by law. I wanted to make sure I protected myself and my tenant.

Download our guide to fire safety

Fire safety in high-rise buildings
The focus of the investigation is on the outer cladding of the building so owners and managers of residential high-rise buildings are being offered free safety checks to see if any aluminium composite material used complies with Building Regulations.

Owners or managers of residential buildings over 18 metres or six storeys high can send a sample of the cladding used on their building to be tested for flammability. While the test is free of charge, if the cladding turns out to be unsuitable, responsibility for changing this will lie with the building’s owner.

Click here to see the full letter from the government and instructions for submitting a sample of cladding for testing.

Is your Hotpoint fridge safe?
The Grenfell Tower fire is believed to have originated in a Hotpoint fridge freezer. The manufacturers are taking this very seriously so everyone who has a Hotpoint fridge freezer with the model number FF175BP or FF175BG should contact them. Full details of how to do so, including how to find the model number, can be found here.

What happens if there is a fire in your rental property?

Insuring your rental property against fire
Landlords should take the risk of fire very seriously indeed. As well as the above fire safety regulations and recommendations, do check what cover is provided in the event of your property becoming uninhabitable.

Whose responsibility is it to rehouse private tenants?
In the case of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the flats were council-owned, so it is the council’s responsibility to rehouse the tenants. But what happens in the private rented sector?

Paul Shamplina, of Landlord Action, has provided the following information:

The obligations of a private landlord depend on the terms of the tenancy agreement, which may state something like: The Landlord will return to the Tenant(s) any Rent Payable for any period during which the Property may have been rendered uninhabitable by fire or other risk that the Landlord has insured.” In this case the landlord would not necessarily be responsible for rehousing but would not be able to take rent.

Where a tenant is deemed ‘homeless’ or ‘in need of accommodation’, their local authority may lend support.

Talking to Andrew Bulmer, CEO of the Institute of Residential Property Management, the professional body providing qualifications and learning in the block management sector, he outlines some thoughts for property managers and freeholders in the case of a catastrophic event such as this:

  1. It is important to try to get a staff team on the ground as soon as a freeholder/landlord or managing agent is aware of a problem. But you must ensure any staff on site are safe and do not add to the burden of emergency services. Safety of people is the primary objective at all times.
  2. On the ground, understand who is in control of the site in terms of emergency services and how the emergency is being dealt with. Let the emergency services know you are on site and may have useful knowledge of the building. By staying abreast of developments and taking instructions from the emergency services, you can help to communicate with your residents.
  3. Engage the insurers at the very earliest opportunity as they will have procedures for events like this.
  4. Every attempt should be made to try to account for people as quickly as possible. Estate managers usually won’t know how many people live in each unit, especially when sub-let, so work with the emergency services to try to understand who might be missing.
  5. Communication with occupiers is key, so try to establish means of ongoing communication with residents before they leave the site, be it to hotels, friends or family. Remember that residents may not have access to their mobile phones or emails, but will be anxious to know what is happening with their home.
  6. Remember that residents and possibly neighbours and others may be in considerable shock and distress and acting irrationally. Communications should be calm, considered and very clear and simple.
  7. There is an issue when securing alternative accommodation, such as hotel rooms, for people who can’t return to their home. Simply, who will pay? Hotels may want assurances on payment before they will provide accommodation, which is why the insurer must be engaged at the earliest opportunity to advise.
  8. The response to a major event will need a team to be brought together, with the building manager, owner, insurer, emergency services, residents’ associations, local authorities and possibly organisations such as the Red Cross. An engaged managing agent can pro-actively help with communications between the stakeholders and the leaseholders/residents.
  9. Be prepared for media interest. Social media reporting could be viral within minutes of a major event starting and early reports are sometimes inaccurate. Consider also how social media can be used to communicate in the early stages of an event, but communicate only with great care and accuracy.

The Grenfell fire has given property managers greater impetus to consider how they would respond to a major incident and I am certainly aware of agents who are reviewing their procedures and training, to be better prepared should the worst happen.

What happens if a fire is caused by a tenant’s negligence?
It is unlikely the landlord would be responsible for finding alternative accommodation or liable to contribute to the cost of this.

If the tenant was prohibited from smoking in the property and the fire was caused by a cigarette, then the landlord may be able to claim from the tenant’s deposit, depending on the terms of the tenancy agreement.   A landlord can make a claim against tenant, but it would be for the court to decide on any monetary award. The landlord’s insurers can pursue the tenant for losses and/or make a claim against a tenant’s own insurance if they have it.

The majority of fires are accidental, such as drying clothes on a heater, and therefore an insurer wouldn’t be expected to look to recover money from the tenant unless this was done maliciously.

For example, in 2015, Total Landlord Insurance had a case where a vacuum cleaner was left on which caused a fire. This was deemed accidental. If the case was classed as arson, insurers would seek recovery.

Can you evict a tenant for negligence that results in a fire?
If the break clause allows, you can serve a Section 21 notice, but there is nothing that would help a landlord in evicting a tenant for their negligence, unless this is specified in the tenancy agreement.

If the tenancy agreement includes words such as “the tenant, or his guests are not to cause fire damage to the tenanted property”, then a Section 8 notice Ground 12 could be used; this is a two-week notice served on the tenant for breach of tenancy agreement clause.

If the property becomes uninhabitable due to a fire which is the tenant’s fault, the landlord is not obliged to pay for alternative accommodation. The tenant may pay to live elsewhere, meaning they cannot afford to pay rent at your property, resulting in Ground 8 for rent arrears arising.

Download our free guide to fire safety

Please keep your tenants, yourself and your family as safe you can. With the help of our checklist partners, we have created a free guide you can download, containing advice to keep you, your family and your tenants as safe as possible.

It includes:

  1. How to prevent a fridge or other appliance fire
  2. What you must do by law as a landlord
  3. Further fire safety measures which are highly recommended
  4. Additional fire safety for HMOs
  5. What happens if there is a fire in your rental property
  6. Insuring your rental property against fire
  7. Whose responsibility is it to rehouse private tenants?
  8. Fire risk assessment for landlords and homeowners

NOTICE: Designs on Property Ltd has taken all reasonable care to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However, we cannot warrant the accuracy, adequacy or completeness of the information and expressly disclaim liability for errors or omission therein.

All our information is brought to you by Kate Faulkner, author of Which? Property books and one of the UK's top property experts.
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