The Trouble With HMOs

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Apart from the fact that they are universally despised, the trouble with HMO's is that there are all sorts of HMOs yet everyone assumes they are all the worst sort of HMO. There are a range of different overlapping definitions before you even consider the important point, which is who lives there.

As landlords, we frequently suffer as properties are lumped together under the heading and we are treated as if we are running a tenement block of slum bedsits when usually, this is far from the truth.

Definitions 

Lets start with some definitions – the swanky Gunwharf apartment occupied by 3 tea-total doctors is categorised by many alongside the dilapidated Victorian tenement that is home to 18 or 19 formerly homeless recovering addicts and drunks.

There appear to be 3 quite distinct definitions:

  • From a planning perspective, an HMO is a property occupied by 3 or more persons from 2 or more families
  • From a licencing perspective, an HMO is a property occupied by 4 or more persons from 2 or more families
  • From a council tax perspective an HMO is a property occupied by individuals on separate contracts

And that is just WITHIN PCC! 

What's The Issue 

Because there is such a wide variation of types of HMO and standards within them, people tend to think of the worst and then write the rules with those properties in mind, which then get applied to all types of HMO and HMO tenant.

If ever an application for an HMO comes up at a Planning Meeting, you can guarantee that there will be 10-20 local residents apoplectic at the thought of over-flowing bins, rubbish down the street, late night parties, fires, parking issues and lord knows what else.

We have even had councillors talking about the prospect of '10 people sharing 1 toilet' – totally impossible under the rigorous standards approved by the same council and enforced by their staff.

Is This Warranted?

The statistics do show that HMO's do bring more issues than average – but that should be expected. When the average property in the city has less than 2 inhabitants, those properties with say 6 or 7 inhabitants are more likely to have issues than the average.Much of the difference disappears when you compare households of similar size and, when you include the social sector, privately owned HMO's look pretty good.

Fire Alarms – A Case In Point

The basis for fire prevention and management in any property should be the Fire Risk Assessment. This will identify likely causes of fire, the best means of alerting those in the property, options to ensure that if there is a fire, people are safely able to exit the building and of course, steps to be taken to minimise the risk of fire in the 1st place.

Part of this analysis includes consideration of the occupants of the property – the 3 doctors in Gunwharf will probably be a much lower risk than the 18-19 recovering addicts in the dilapidated Victorian tenement block.

Unfortunately, the latest update to fire regulations (BS5839) treats all HMO's the same and states that each habitable room requires its own hard-wired smoke detector. This makes sense in the Victorian tenement example – each room might have its own gas cooker in the corner, be very cramped, it may also have gas fires and due to the type of resident, very few would disagree that each resident needs an alarm in their room – particularly as all the rooms might be off hallways in a 5 or 6 storey stairwell, so the doors will be fire protected with intumescent strips and other precautions that make them pretty sound proof.

However, to say each of the doctors in Gunwharf require a smoke alarm in each of their bedrooms is bizarre (by the way, in this example, it is a 2-bed apartment shared by a pair of doctors living as a couple and their friend, Emily, also a doctor).The Fire Risk Assessment notes that the detector in the lounge is perfectly adequate and is only 3 feet from either of the bedroom doors – however, as it is technically an HMO, this will not do and more detectors are required.

Hard Wired Or Battery? 

To take this example one stage further, the new regulation talks about 'hard wired' alarms being required in HMO's even though Hampshire Fire and Rescue are quite happy to recommend and install 'sealed 10-year warranty, lithium battery alarms' in most situations.

Why the distinction? We spoke to Guy Merrick, Technical Specialist at smoke / fire alarm/detector manufacturer Fire Angel. He explained that alarms/detectors come with base plates which are typically screwed to the ceiling.The 'head unit' which is the actual body of the detector/alarm is then fixed to the base plate.

He added that whilst the lithium sealed units could be argued to be better than hardwired as they would work for 10 years, whereas a hardwired unit would only work for up to 24 hours after power was cut, he could not recommend them in an HMO as the hardwired ones are tricky to detach (needing a tool to unclip them) whereas the battery ones could simply be unscrewed – and people who live in HMO's have a habit of removing them and throwing them away…

Tell that to our 3 doctors in Gunwharf!

What Can We Do?  

The bad news is that most authorities and agencies find it easier to treat all HMO's the same and to legislate for the worst – so we have to accept it, even though it pushes up our costs and thus our rents.

What you can do is push back – not necessarily hard – but every time someone says 'HMO' do please ask them what sort of HMO they are talking about.Until we do this, small shared houses, large converted properties and blocks of bedsits will all be tarred with the same brush to our disadvantage.

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