Tenants’ lives are being put at risk by the failure of private landlords and letting agents to fix serious safety hazards, a study by the NUS and Electrical Safety First has found.
Their research suggested that 37% of private landlords and letting agents did not fix exposed wiring when reported in student houses, while 35% didn't fix damp, condensation, or flooding around electrics.
In March this year, Mumsnet also found that 70% of their users had reported problems with boilers and hot water, 42% had reported damp and 49% had problems with plumbing and water supply.
Of the 2,535 Mumsnet users surveyed, 31% found their landlords' response to the issues "poor" or "terrible". Eighty percent backed tougher regulation of private landlords.
When BuzzFeed News asked readers if they had experienced difficulty getting landlords to attend to potentially dangerous problems in rented homes, we were inundated with stories.
"At university in Norwich, I had a terrible landlord who wouldn't do the repairs we asked for," Hattie Grunwold told BuzzFeed News. "We had gas hobs that didn't work, broken toilet seats, horrible mould, but most dangerous of all, before we moved in our oven had failed its health and safety test.
"We couldn't get him to come and replace it at all, and months passed, until eventually we had to go to our students' union to apply pressure to get the landlord to do his job.
"When the oven was finally replaced, the repair man was horrified. Broken wires were taped together and it had been a serious fire risk. The landlord was so furious that we'd gone to the union that he barged into our house with no warning and said that because we hadn't replaced our lightbulbs we were causing criminal damage to the property and threatened to evict us."
"The only heating we had was electric heaters, which we left on a lot because the rooms were fairly cold, but after a while they started to spark and stuff," former University of East London student Jack Cartwright told us. "After we complained for a few weeks, they came round late one night to look at the broken heaters, but he [the landlord] deemed them fine and said that we should just use them on a lower heat.
"After one of my housemates ended up having to put out a small fire in her room, the landlord finally replaced them."
The heaters weren't the only problem Cartwright encountered in that particular rental. He recalled: "One of the three electric ovens in the kitchen had been removed before we moved in. There were cables hanging out where they had taped over everything, and done a pretty bad job of it. We just didn't go near it."
"I moved into the loft room in January, which was halfway through having an en suite installed, which I was told this would be finished in three weeks max," Emma Davidson told us. "Come July, it still wasn't. The entrance was hidden by a sheet hung from the wall so my room was constantly covered in dust. There were wires from old electrics hanging out of the walls everywhere too.
"All this and the landlord, who lived downstairs, thought nothing of just walking into people's rooms whether they were in or not, to do god knows what. My boyfriend and I were in bed one evening and the landlord walked in to accuse me of being £280 behind with my rent (I wasn't).
"I've recently moved out of a house share and I've since reported the landlord to Hackney council. He's now undergoing investigation."
Tom Jackson spent three winter months without heating or hot water before taking legal action to get his landlord to agree to fix a broken boiler.
"We called a heating engineer to come round to inspect the boiler. They informed me that it had been wrongly installed and was liable to explode (possibly taking the downstairs bedroom with it)," Jackson told us. "The engineer served the landlord with papers that required someone to come out and fix it, which he then finally did."
One man described his five-year battle with cockroaches, which the landlord eventually washed their hands of. "Initially the landlord paid for spraying, which would temporarily rid us of them, but then the following year they returned, and the landlord wouldn't pay. Now we have to," he said.
Him and his housemates are "freelance artists, and can't afford to [live] elsewhere. So we're stuck. Paying each year to have the house sprayed, waiting for the roaches to return, and [with] no financial choice but to stay."
It took more than three months for Harriet Reuter Hapgood to get her letting agent to even look at a problem with a leak from her roof. "I contacted my letting agent about a leak in my bedroom ceiling one winter three years ago and while a plumber confirmed it was an external leak, when a roofer came round, he glanced out the window, hit on me, and claimed there was no problem," she said.
"The next autumn, after the first night of rain in October, a hole the size of a two-pence piece appeared. And so began three months of living with a bucket on my floor.
"Nightly, it was 'drip-drip-drip', followed by a daily emptying of yellow water. I returned home from work in the dark and cold to bedsheets that were spongy from damp. The windows had black mould. I had this horrific, gross head cold I could NOT shake.
"I emailed or called the agents daily, sending them a three-A4-page document detailing all the requests we'd made to, please, just fix the roof. Hilariously, they replied with a request for a rent increase of more than £100 each. A roofer eventually turned up and found a hole the size of an iPhone next to the attic dormer window. He put glue over it: 'the cheapest option'. The drip continued.
"Eventually I called the council for a health and safety inspection. 'Ah,' they said, on entering my bedroom. 'We don't need the damp-o-meter when we can see the water.'
"Two days before Christmas, a roofer finally came to fix the dormer window hole. Christmas was dry, I returned to the house in the New Year. On the fifth of January, I woke to a drip on my floor. Fifteen feet above the dormer window, at the top of the roof, there was a three-foot hole. 'Looks like it's been there for years,' the roofer said."
Eventually, Reuter Hapgood simply moved out.
"Just before the end of my tenancy at rented accommodation, the upstairs toilet came away from the wall while I was sat on it," one reader recalled. "The water poured through the floor, into the ceiling space, directly down through the kitchen ceiling, and into the smoke alarm.
"The bathroom and kitchen were flooded, the smoke alarm was going off constantly, and I had no emergency contact number for the estate agent or the landlord. All I could do was call an emergency plumber and pray that the estate agency would refund me later.
"The plumber arrived and said the toilet had come away from the wall because the screws holding it in place weren't stainless steel and so had basically just wasted away to nothing.
"I did get the money for the plumber back from the estate agents, but they didn't seem to care that the installation was so poorly performed."
Roofer Ronnie Carr, a member of online tradesperson directory MyBuilder.com, told us he refuses to work for private landlords because "they just won't pay the going rate for what needs to be repaired".
"I've come across a lot of rented properties where landlords have tried to fix things themselves, then they have to call me in when it goes wrong. They often make the problem a lot worse because they don't know what they're doing," Carr said.
He added, "There's no money in working for landlords. They want it done tomorrow for nothing".
MyBuilder.com member Adrian Hagger has had a similar experience. "A landlord asked us to carry out 10 gas safety inspections on rented properties. He negotiated it down to a rock-bottom price. Three were deemed to be 'at risk', and one was in an 'immediately dangerous' state," he said.
"We asked for permission to temporarily cap off the gas supplies while remedial works can be arranged but the landlord refused, saying, 'It was OK last year'.
"We were so concerned about the danger to both life and property that we informed the gas supplier, who legally gained access to the property to make the faulty appliance safe by cutting the gas supply in the street off.
"The landlord now refuses outright to settle our invoices for the work we have carried out."
What can you do if your landlord or letting agent is refusing to fix dangerous damage to your rented property?
A spokesperson for the Citizens Advice Bureau told BuzzFeed News that while they wouldn't recommend that the tenant withhold rent from their landlord, they could do the repairs and then make a deduction from rent but only if they follow a specific procedure.
They said that while a tenant could try to take the landlord to court, this "can be costly and time-consuming". Instead, they suggested, getting the local authority to act is sometimes the best option.
The spokesperson advised tenants to "contact the local authority's housing standards team or environmental protection department and see if they can visit the property for an inspection. If there is a hazard identified, they can issue a notice under the Housing Act 2004."
Full details of how you can complain about a letting agent can be found in the renters' rights section of the Citizens Advice Bureau website.
Generation Rent, an organisation aiming to improve renters' rights, is campaigning to make the Housing Bill due to be presented to parliament later this year as robust as possible.
"It's illegal for landlords to let out unsafe properties but local councils are badly resourced and struggle to force landlords to make repairs," Generation Rent policy manager Seb Klier told BuzzFeed News. "The Housing Bill has the potential to improve tenant protection."
He said that tenants should email their MPs urging them to support the bill. "We'd like to see nationwide licensing of landlords with a Decent Homes Standard to show a home is healthy and habitable before it goes on the market".
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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