Painsmith Landlord and Tenant Blog

A practitioners landlord and tenant law blog from PainSmith Solicitors

New CMA Guidance for Lettings Professionals

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which replaced the OFT earlier this year issued on the 13th June 2014 “Guidance for lettings professionals on consumer protection law”. Plainly for anyone involved in the Lettings Industry a must read document!

Much of what is included within the guidance is not new. It helpfully pulls together various guidance which has been issued and incorporates it in one document. The underlying principle throughout is that letting professionals must act fairly with all they come into contact with. This is a positive obligation which you must actively set out to achieve. This objective mirrors the Consumer Protection Rules and also the CAP Guidance on advertising issued last year.

We will be studying the guidance carefully and watching how over the ensuing months this is applied by both CMA and Trading Standards officers in their dealings with agents.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , , , , ,

Council Tax

We have been getting a number of queries regarding council tax liability on our helpline recently so we thought it was about time that we revisit some past cases and the relevant legislation and answer a few of our frequently asked questions.

Who is liable to pay council tax?

As a starting point, Section 6(2) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 sets this out thus:

Persons liable to pay council tax.

(1)The person who is liable to pay council tax in respect of any chargeable dwelling and any day is the person who falls within the first paragraph of subsection (2) below to apply, taking paragraph (a) of that subsection first, paragraph (b) next, and so on.

(2)A person falls within this subsection in relation to any chargeable dwelling and any day if, on that day—
(a)he is a resident of the dwelling and has a freehold interest in the whole or any part of it;
(b)he is such a resident and has a leasehold interest in the whole or any part of the dwelling which is not inferior to another such interest held by another such resident;
(c)he is both such a resident and a statutory , secure or introductory tenant of the whole or any part of the dwelling;
(d)he is such a resident and has a contractual licence to occupy the whole or any part of the dwelling;
(e)he is such a resident; or
(f)he is the owner of the dwelling.

Local authorities will therefore first see if there is someone who falls into para (a), and if not will move onto para (b) and so on.

Following this list, it is clear that where the owner of the freehold interest (the Landlord) is no longer a resident of the property and has entered into a tenancy or created a licence with another party who is resident of the property i.e. there is someone who falls into one of categories a-e above, he will no longer be responsible for the payment of council tax. However if there is no-one liable under a-e, council tax liability falls on the owner.

Who is the “owner” for the purposes of section 2(e)?

In Section 6(5) ‘owner’ is defined as a person having a material interest in the whole or any part of the premises. Section 6(6) further defines ‘material interest’ as being either a freehold interest or a leasehold interest which is granted for six months or more.

Therefore the “owner” for the purpose of this section can mean not only the owner of the freehold interest ( i.e. Landlord), but also in some cases the tenant ( owner of leasehold interest).

What happens if the tenant is no longer resident?

Where the tenant leaves the property before the end of a fixed term of six months or more (without giving notice in line with a break clause or agreeing a surrender with the landlord), the tenant would be the “owner” for the purposes of Council Tax liability and therefore the tenant would continue to be liable for council tax. This liability would only continue until either the tenant’s valid notice has expired or the landlord accepts to implied surrender and takes back possession.

However, what about when fixed term has ended and a statutory periodic tenancy has arisen. This situation was considered in the case of MacAttram v London Borough of Camden [2012] EWHC 1033. This case concerned a three year fixed term contract with Camden who used the property to house homeless applicants. After an initial fixed term the tenancy became a statutory periodic tenancy and Camden continued to pay the monthly rent although there were no longer any occupiers residing in the property. Camden had then stopped paying rent and tried to surrender the tenancy. To add insult to injury, they then presented the landlord with a council tax bill for the time that the tenancy was a periodic tenancy.

As neither the landlord nor tenant was a resident during this time, the court explored the definition of ‘owner’.

The Landlord, Mrs MacAttram tried to argue that as the original tenancy had been granted for three years, Camden continued to have a material interest in the property when the tenancy went periodic. However, it was held that the periodic tenancy was a new tenancy and not a continuation of the original fixed term. As the tenancy ran from month to month, Camden was not considered to have a material interest as it had not been granted for six months or more.

It is worth noting that whilst this would mean that the local authority can require a landlord to pay the council tax from the date that the tenant vacates, this does not affect the contractual relationship between the landlord and tenant. As such, you should ensure that your tenancy agreement contains a clause that states that the tenant is responsible for council tax until the end of the tenancy (and most well drafted agreements will define the tenancy to include any holdings over or statutory periodic tenancies etc) so that the landlord in turn can recover this money from the tenant.

Who is responsible for council tax where the property is an HMO?

It is important to note that the definition of an HMO for the purposes of council tax liability is different to the definition provided in the Housing Act 2004. We have already posted a blog on this case, Goremsandu R (on the application of) v London Borough of Harrow [2010] EWHC 1873 (Admin), but for those of you that missed it the case can be summarised as follows:
A group of tenants occupying the property on a single AST, each paying a ‘share’ of the rent direct to the landlord. The conservatory at the property was unusable because the tenants had placed all of the landlord’s furniture in it (by agreement) as they had no use for it. As the tenants were jointly and severally liable and the tenants did have access to the conservatory should they have wished, liability fell to the tenants.
However where a property is an HMO for Council Tax purposes then the landlord has the primary liability for Council Tax. If part of the demise is excluded from the tenancy ( e.g. a locked room) so that there is no liability to pay rent on the dwelling “as a whole”, or the tenants have a licence to occupy only part of the dwelling, then the landlord will remain liable for Council Tax.
The tenants left owing in excess of £11,000 in Council Tax. Harrow tried to make the landlord pay it.
The full post can be found here.

What if the landlord is storing items or restricting access to parts of the premises?

Landlords should be careful where they are storing possessions at the property or restricting the tenant’s access to parts of the premises. A common example is where the tenancy agreement specifically excludes the loft from the tenancy. In these situations the owner can be pursued by the local authority for the council tax. Again, the landlord would be able to pursue the tenant for any council tax he has paid if the tenancy agreement states that the tenant is liable to pay it.

Who is entitled to any council tax discounts when the property is vacant?

Local authorities now have the discretion to charge full council tax on empty properties, but can choose to offer a discount. You will need to contact your local authority to find out if they have an exemption period of offer any discounts.

We receive a lot of calls from the agents and landlords whose tenants have vacated the property a month early and later find the council tax exemption period has already been used by their former tenants. Unfortunately for landlords hoping to use any discount themselves to bridge the gap between tenants, tenants are able to make use of any empty house exemptions. Of course this is only if they are no
longer living in the property and have taken all their belongings with them.

Filed under: England only, ,

The Green Deal

28 January 2013 was the first day on which works can start under the government’s Green Deal initiative on residential properties in England.

The aim of the Green Deal is to improve the energy efficiency of properties by removing the upfront cost of improvements and instead allowing the cost to be paid in instalments through energy bills.

Green Deal Finance can be used to pay for improvements such as cavity wall or loft insulation; upgraded heating; installation of draught-proofing; installation of double glazing; and installation of renewable energy technologies such as solar panels or wind turbines.

A Green Deal Assessor will carry out an inspection of the property being proposed for improvements and will make recommendations as to the most suitable – weighing the cost of the improvements against the likely savings that the improvements would attract. The golden rule is that the savings enjoyed as a result of installing any particular technology must be equal to or greater than the cost of the finance required.

Once the Green Deal Assessor has made recommendations, a Green Deal Plan will need to be signed with a Green Deal Provider. The Green Deal Plan is a contract setting out what work will be done and how much it will cost and once it has been signed the Green Deal Provider will arrange for a Green Deal Installer to carry out the contracted work. All participants in the process are bound by the DECC’s code of practice and must display the quality mark.

Once the Green Deal Installer has carried out the work, the cost will be payable in instalments through energy bills. As the finance obligation passes with the liability to pay the energy bills rather than with the person that signs the Green Deal Plan, Green Deal finance must be disclosed in all new property transactions as part of the EPC information. A written acknowledgment of the finance should be obtained from the tenant, licensee or purchaser in a standard form to confirm the information has been given.

In respect existing tenancies, neither the landlord nor the tenant can sign a Green Deal Plan without the permission of the other.

There are plans afoot to obligate landlords to install green technologies upon receipt of a “reasonable request” from tenants but, as we understand it, these are unlikely to come into force before April 2016.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , ,

Where does the liability for water usage lie?

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 is expected to come into force in October 2011. Section 45 of the Act amends the Water Industry Act 1991 to place an obligation on the Landlord to provide the tenant’s contact details to the relevant water company. The rationale behind this is to prevent tenant’s departing properties without providing water companies with appropriate forwarding addresses and leaving unpaid bills. Should the landlord fail to comply with this provision he will become jointly and severally liable the invoices of the water usage at the rented property.

The supplemental regulations that the government has created to bring the provisions into force are still in draft. However we understand that they will require the water companies to set up appropriate websites for landlords to provide the necessary information.

These changes place a significant new obligation on landlords. It also gives the water companies a substantial benefit over other utility providers who do not have the benefit of this kind of statutory protection. Landlords and agents should consider amending their tenancy agreements to specify that tenants must provide evidence of the water bill being paid to date otherwise it will be deducted from the deposit.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, ,

Gas Safety

The Old Bailey will this summer be hearing the case of a Plumber charged with the manslaughter of a woman who died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It is alleged he breached his obligations under regulation 26 (9) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998.The Plumber has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

This case should serve as a reminder to landlords and agents to ensure they comply with the obligation to maintain all gas fittings and flues in a safe condition and that the gas safety check is carried out by a registered engineer every year.

Many agents contact us on the helpline in complete frustration due to the tenant’s refusal to grant access for these checks and given the potential consequences the frustration is understandable.

Whilst a landlord will not be able to transfer this responsibility onto the tenant in any circumstances the legislation does make it clear that the landlord is only required to take all reasonable steps to gain access for the checks. Reasonable steps do not include forcing entry or using management keys to gain entry in the absence of consent.

Possible options to gain access include applying for an access injunction or even applying for possession. The injunction is the quicker and potentially the more expensive of the two options and the threat of an injunction is possibly most effective when a tenant understands that the costs of any action will be sought against them.

Whilst it is accepted that this is a very difficult task in some cases, landlords are strongly advised to ensure that they retain confirmation of requests for access, cancellation notices, appointment cards, missed appointment cards and the like to defend their position when and if necessary.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, , , ,

Digital Switchover

As most people will know the UK is in the throes of switching from analogue to digital telelvision signals. For many people this will simply involve a change in equipment, such as a new television set. However, some areas will require that a new aerial is fitted to the property to allow reception of the new signal.

For private landlords there will of course be the question of whether there is an obligation to upgrade the installations in their properties. In the case of O’Connor v Old Etonians Housing Association the Court of Appeal considered whether a landlord was required to upgrade a water installation to deal with a drop in supply pressure. It commented that while it would be unreasonable to expect a landlord to provide an installation which coped with any possible change in supply of services there would be times where a technical advance, which was well flagged in advance, would require a change in installations. In these cases the Court felt that it would be reasonable forr a landlord to be expected to upgrade installations to cope with the change. On this basis one would be forced to the conclusion that landlords will be expected to meet the cost of altering installations to make them compatible with the digital signal.

There are a number of sources of further information on the digital switchover although the majority are targetted at block landlords. There is a Chartered institiute of housing good practice guide as well as a range of resources for property managers.

Filed under: Uncategorized, ,

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