House Inspection Hints & Tips
Our relationship with at least one of our local authorities is very poor and we do not want to make it worse, but conversely, if members are being hit with unnecessary expenses, we have a duty to help them avoid those costs. Thus, in this article several members give their views on recent examples of overly keen house inspections and, if it should happen to you, what the legal position is should you wish to challenge them.
(Note views shared here are those of individual members and form a small subset of those who responded - specifics have not been checked with qualified EHO's)
Raising / Lowering Banisters or Handrails
We have several examples of HMOs that have been inspected many times without concern, being inspected in 2023 and the owner being asked to add handrails where they were never needed before - like by the step down from the living room to the kitchen, and also to raise or lower handrails.
Should you be asked to raise or lower handrails, PDPLA member Simon suggested the following response:
"Based on our own HHSRS assessment undertaken subsequent to yours, and with reference to the nationally published HHSRS Operating Guidance, we do understand that the Hazard of a "Fall On Stairs" in this instance scores 170 (F), and that this score is higher (worse) than the average for all properties of 134 (F).
Whilst we understand lowering the banister rail by 100mm might be advantageous in the case that the staircase would be used routinely by small children, lowering the rail would not - in the opinion we have received independently - improve the HHSRS risk score. We have been advised that HHSRS score is driven by the age of the property (pre 1920) which in turn is driven - not solely by banister rail height - but largely by other features of staircases typical of the period, including pitch/rake and tread length.
As the action recommended by yourself based on your HHSRS assessment will not substantively lower the "Fall on Stairs" risk score - as calculated using the HHSRS methodology which you are statutorily required to use in these assessments - and the score is within the normal bounds to be expected of a pre-1920 property: We have chosen NOT to action this recommendation arising from your HHSRS assessment.
Indeed, we are somewhat baffled as to how this action was ever raised if the inspector was properly trained/qualified in the use of HHSRS. It should be noted that prior HHSRS inspections by council did not highlight this as an issue.
Aside from HHSRS considerations, we would like you to note that the property is currently used as a C4 HMO with a licence for occupation by x persons over the age of ten. It may be your policy to allow two children under 10 as substitutes for one person over the age of ten when assessing compliance to HMO Licence conditions. We do not make that assumption operationally and will not be letting any part of this HMO to persons with children for as long as we continue operating it a C4 HMO.
Plainly, the action demanded here by yourself is neither legally required/lawfully enforceable, nor can it validly be construed as constituting a breach of your HMO Licence conditions.
Furthermore, we are familiar with your HMO Standards document, and have noted therein that the terms 'recommendation' and 'requirement' (specifically as in 'council requirements' c.f. 'Legal requirements') are used synonymously and interchangeably. We take the use of the word 'requirement' used in the standard letter we received following the HHSRS inspection in that context, ie meaning 'council requirement' not 'Legal requirement' and as having the common meaning of 'recommendation'.
We trust this response is adequate to close the matter fully. Should you determine to pursue this further in any way, we will be taking appropriate legal advice, and consider taking the matter of such extraordinarily poor practice in HHSRS assessments by yourself up with the LA ombudsman. No response to this letter is required"
(Obviously references to children only apply if you have been asked to lower the handrail, not if you raised it)
Simon added, "If you choose to ignore this advice and just comply with the council request to alter the height of the handrail/banister you may actually be in a worse position regarding building regulations compliance if you start making alterations to stairs without advice of a structural engineer. So long as it is original and in reasonable condition, it remains compliant with building regulations."
Have you been asked to add trickle vents on windows?
PDPLA member Sarah has read the rules (plus she works in the industry) and states, "There is no legal requirement for trickle vents (unless it is a new build) including on extensions, where they exist already or when new doors/windows replaced so what is being requested is more than is required in normal building standards and regulations etc. It would make sense if there is a clear ventilation issue/condensation but this does not seem to be the case in the examples we have seen."
She adds, "You often don't need new windows, trickle vents can be retrofitted in most cases (not all) for around £75-85 so not sure why the initial request is for a new window - it should simply be a demand for a trickle vent and then left to you to work out if possible and if not, a new window. Due to the way they have instructed it (if they instructed a new window in this case), could mean many landlords spending a lot of money unnecessarily on a new window which is also bad for the environment
The local amenity and space standards DO NOT state that trickle vents are a requirement - there is just a line on where they should be placed and
"All habitable spaces in communal areas should be provided with means of controllable
Which again, purge ventilation in the form of opening doors and windows can be classed as controllable whereas trickle vents typically are not"
PDPLA member Simon added, "National guidance has recently changed which likely prompted this area of focus by PCC. The old optional 2500mm2 trickle vent is out, and bigger ones, now mandatory on all replacement windows, are in. This is applicable as/when windows are replaced, not pre-existing windows. Table on bottom half of second page of the doc in this link is relevant to any landlord changing windows in an existing building: Titon-Building-Regs-Update-Guidance-Dec-21.pdf And if choosing to act on PCCs demand to retrofit vents, landlords should be aware there are a lot of now redundant 2500mm2 trickle vents on the market, use that table to get the right new size."
Need To Add A Toilet?
We consistently see one of our local authorities asking for toilets to be separate from other bathing facilities even though their standards document makes it clear that as long as you have the requisite number, it does not matter whether they are in separate rooms or form part of a bath or shower room.
PDPLA member Tony said, "This demand for a 3rd WC makes me very angry (not for the first time).
You should read the attached appeal decision (add link) where installation of a 3rd WC was a licence condition and this was appealed. PCC got their knuckles wrapped for asking for a 3rd WC. (It is very rare for the Council to pay the appellants costs.)
Continuing to request a 3rd WC demonstrates not only an overzealous approach but reveals a lack of training and understanding of the HMO standards and that at least one officer has not learnt anything from previous appeal decisions.
It is sadly not unusual for officers to get this wrong as the WC requirements were reduced in 2007 in amended regulations and amendments were not picked up by Local Authorities. The PDPLA alerted PCC to this issue when they were drawing up the latest HMO standards last year.
And In Closing
Simon commented, "Besides Housing Act 2004 Part 1 (where HHSRS is defined), also referred to in PCC's Licence Conditions is another statutory instrument, much shorter this one:
That defines HMO managers duties to maintain stuff, including ventilation and stair bannisters, in good order. But for us, it also has a highly relevant point in Section 11 (2):
Any duty imposed by these Regulations to maintain or keep in repair are to be construed as requiring a standard of maintenance or repair that is reasonable in all the circumstances, taking account of the age, character and prospective life of the house and the locality in which it is situated.
Thus, maintenance does not mean improvement/upgrade. There's no expectation on the part of the government that facilities typical of older properties are upgraded to contemporary standards as part of the proper management of HMOs - an area where we probably need to challenge the approach of some of our local authorities."
Sadly, examples such as these confirm the poor standards as documented in the NRLA survey of local authorities (Portsmouth were in the bottom 10 of over 300 LA's), PDPLA Vice Chair, Landlord and local Letting Agent, Alwin Oliver concluded, "Housing officers have a difficult job, but a lack of training, a lack of resources and a lack of direction are clearly not helping.
It appears to PDPLA and has done for some time that PCC private sector housing are clearly ill prepared for their proposed additional licensing scheme, set to cause chaos in September.
Our fear has always been, and remains a Leeds City Council scenario (where it was recently predicted that at the current rate of progress it will take 131 years to process the applications) or a campaign to raise Civil Penalty Notices against largely compliant landlords on spurious grounds, while the real rogue operators go largely untroubled by enforcement activity.
Nothing more clearly demonstrates the need to reset priorities than the above cases, but what is worse is that this is happening against a backdrop of high interest rates, the abolition of section 21 to recover property from difficult tenants and an unprecedented wave of rental properties being sold off.
It is surely time for PCC to realise that these actions do not happen in isolation from the wider marketplace and they are storing up major problems for the not too distant future."