COVID-19: The impact of COVID-19 on residential landlords in Northern Ireland
COVID-19: The impact of COVID-19 on residential landlords in Northern Ireland
The restrictions on the movement of people that were implemented by the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 have resulted in challenges for landlords of private residential properties.
The regulations impose major restrictions around when people may leave their homes and accordingly these regulations will give rise to issues faced by landlords in complying with their obligations under the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (PTO).
The PTO places upon landlords of private residential properties, duties of repair with regards to their properties. In light of the current COVID-19 restrictions, what repairs are landlords required to carry out and what steps should be taken when carrying out such repairs?
The PTO imposes upon landlords an obligation to carry out certain essential repairs, these include repairs to the following:
The structure and exterior of the property comprised in the tenancy
Installations in the property for the supply and use of water, gas and electricity and for sanitation (including basins, sinks, baths and sanitary conveniences) as well as the installations for space heating and water
Northern Ireland Housing Executive has issued guidance to its tenants that it will only undertake emergency repairs. Examples of what constitutes emergency repairs include the following:
Heating systems that have failed or if a household cannot heat water
Unsafe gas supplies/installation
Burst water pipes
Lack of electrical supply or unsafe electrics
People who have become stuck in an elevator
Shower or bath not working (if it is the only one in the property)
Access for essential repairs
The PTO stipulates that tenants shall permit landlords, as well as those that are authorised by landlords, to enter their property upon reasonable notice and at reasonable times for the purpose of inspecting the property and carrying out repairs.
In light of the social distancing requirements, what steps should a landlord take in order to access a property?
When a landlord is seeking a tenant's permission to enter the property to carry out essential repairs, they should also enquire if any occupants of the property are sick, symptomatic or are self-isolating. If a tenant or an occupier of a property is sick or symptomatic or is self-isolating, then the landlord should:
notify other tenants at the property and should also notify anyone requiring access to the building
postpone, where possible, any inspections until the resident is no longer required to self-isolate
notify contractors who may be carrying out repairs. It will up to the contractor whether to proceed with the repair but they should comply with the Public Health Agency's advice and guidelines
A landlord can take additional measures such as ensuring contractors and tenants remain in different rooms during any visits to the property.
Landlords and any contractors should, at all times, follow current Government/Public Health Agency advice and guidelines on hygiene, cleanliness and social distancing when carrying out visits to a property.
If a landlord cannot access the property, all attempts made by the landlord to access the property should be recorded in writing so that there is a written record of the attempts made by the landlord and the reasons why the landlord was unable to gain access.
If a contractor is unwilling to carry out any emergency repairs, the situation still needs to be dealt with otherwise a landlord may face the risk of penalties. Your tenants will need to be sympathetic to the situation if you cannot get anyone to carry out repairs. It should be noted that, at present, the Housing Executive will only carry out emergency repairs.
If there is an emergency situation, you will still need to deal with this and could face penalty action from the Council if you do not. If a qualified tradesperson is not available or is not willing to carry out the necessary work, landlords should consider if there are any alternative actions that can be taken to improve the situation for the tenant. For example, can alternative accommodation be provided, can electric heaters be provided, can the landlord pay the costs of electricity to heat water if the boiler isn’t working?
Landlord's obligations with regards to gas and electrical appliances:
By law, a landlord is required to ensure that all electrical equipment supplied and gas pipework, flues and appliances are kept in good order and are safe to use.
For gas appliances and equipment, an annual safety check is required.
Landlords should not cancel safety checks at this time as it will potentially put tenants at a greater risk, particularly as people are now spending more time at home.
Where it is not possible to carry out a safety check, the landlord should document evidence to show that they took reasonable steps to attempt to carry out the safety check. This should include records of communication with the tenant and details of the contractor's/engineer's attempts to gain access.
If there is only a limited resource of engineers available, then the landlord should prioritise inspections, taking into account the age and type of appliances, previous maintenance history, whether the tenant is considered vulnerable (other than risk from COVID-19).
If gas/electrical safety checks are due but are not carried out at this present time for one of the reasons noted above, the landlord should ensure a safety check is carried out as soon as all parties are available and it is safe to do so.
What happens if the landlord cannot comply with their repair obligation?
The tenant can sue the landlord for breach of contract and the court can award damages and order repairs to be done.
The tenant can apply to the Environmental Health Department of the local Council to inspect the property and if repairs are required, and not carried out, the Council can take the landlord to court to force them to carry out the repairs.
If the repairs are not carried out due to the COVID-19 crisis, a Court/Council is likely to take a sympathetic view if the landlord can show that they acted reasonably and exhausted all efforts, in light of the current restrictions on movement of persons and guidelines on social distancing, to deal with the repairs. Landlords and managing agents should therefore keep detailed records of any issues reported and/or identified and records of what steps were taken to remedy any issues.
What can be done in the event that a tenant's income is affected as a result of COVID-19?
Tenants may have lost their jobs or seen a significant reduction in earnings and, as a result, tenants may have issues in relation to their ability to pay rent. Some of the ways that landlords can help tenants affected in such a way include:
reducing the rent for a period of time, if they can afford to do so
applying for a mortgage holiday and sharing the benefit of this with tenants
using any deposit to cover the immediate rent and allowing the tenant to build this back up again once their situation improves
making sure tenants know about the government’s wage relief scheme
helping tenants to apply for benefits by providing them with tenancy agreements, letters confirming tenancy etc.
Mortgage holidays for landlords
A landlord may request a mortgage holiday, this will result in a break from paying the mortgage for a fixed period of time. The government has recommended three months as a suitable period.
The loan/mortgage will still attract interest during this time and this interest will be added to your future payments. To collect the missed payments, your lender will either:
extend your mortgage term by the number of months you had as a holiday
slightly increase your monthly payments after the holiday for the remainder of the mortgage
Each lender is likely to have different policies and procedures in place for approving and managing mortgage holidays. Mortgage holidays taken as a result of coronavirus should not affect your credit rating, but make sure to confirm this with your lender.
The situation is ever changing and landlords should continue to refer to updated guidance on COVID-19 issues published by the Government.
For further information please contact James Pringle, Consultant, or any member of the Commercial Property team at A&L Goodbody Belfast for support on any specific COVID-19 related queries you have.