What can cause a property to be unfit for habitation?

On 20 March 2019, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 came into force. While some landlords might feel nervous about this, there’s really no need to. In terms of maintenance obligations, you’re not being held to any higher standard than you were before, and the act is really just empowering tenants to take action more effectively against sub-standard landlords.

All the same, it’s worth being clear about what might cause a property to be unfit for human habitation, so that you can avoid relations with your tenants deteriorating unnecessarily.

Major issues

Some maintenance issues are fairly clear-cut in terms of making a property uninhabitable. If your tenants are unable to cook, flush a toilet or get clean water then that’s a serious problem. The same is true if the fabric of the building is unstable, if there are serious damp problems, or if the property is in a very poor general state of repair. Heating is important too – the property can’t be too cold, and the tenant needs access to hot water.

Other issues like an inappropriate layout or a lack of natural light can also make a property uninhabitable. This might sound alarming, but in reality deficiencies in these categories will almost always be maintenance-related rather than requiring fundamental changes to the fabric of the building – for example, a lack of natural light might be caused by vegetation that needs trimming back.   

Other hazards

There are a whole host of other hazards that could make your property uninhabitable, and these are listed under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). The HHSRS is a tool used by local authorities to assess the safety of a property, and while it takes an experienced environmental health specialist to use the tool effectively, it can provide a useful checklist if you’re carrying out your own health and safety assessment. There’s a helpful guide for landlords on Gov.uk

There are nearly 30 different hazards listed, from condensation right up to risk of explosion.

When would a hazard make your property unfit for human habitation?

If it’s the council that’s assessing your property’s fitness for habitation then they’ll probably be using the Housing Health and Safety Rating System tool mentioned above. Environmental health officers assess each hazard through a formula that multiplies the likelihood of it causing harm against the severity of the harm that it might cause.

If your tenant takes you to court using the Fitness for Habitation Act, it’ll be down to a judge to decide whether a deficiency in the property is severe enough to make it uninhabitable. They’ll essentially be weighing up the same equations as a council environmental health officer, and they’ll base their appraisal on a variety of different factors. To start with, they’ll consider the tenants themselves, since hazards that are severe for elderly people or young children might not be so much of a problem for fit adults. Other factors like the nature of the property, its location, the urgency of the repairs and even the time of year might also come into the balance. If the decision goes against you, they can order you to make the repairs and to pay compensation.

Are there any exceptions?

As with so many aspects of being a landlord, you’re frequently limited by forces beyond your own control, and fortunately the law covers this. For example, the Fitness for Habitation Act has specific exemptions in the case of fires, floods, or other disasters that you couldn’t have prevented. The act also recognises that sometimes you need permission from planning authorities and freeholders to carry out major works, and that if they won’t give you this despite your best efforts then you can’t do the work.

In some cases, it might actually be your tenant that’s causing the hazard. You can’t fall foul of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 if the hazard has resulted from the tenant’s own behaviour, and you’re also not required to maintain the tenant’s personal possessions.

In summary

The vast majority of landlords won’t notice any change with the introduction of the Fitness for Habitation Act. For a property to become unfit for human habitation, you’d have to wilfully ignore major repair issues long enough for your tenants to take you to court, so as long as you’re conscientious about your maintenance obligations then you should have nothing to fear.