The legacy of the Grenfell Tower tragedy means fire safety in buildings is, quite rightly, more important than ever. But what are the legal requirements if you’re a buy-to-let landlord? If there’s a fire and you haven’t met your obligations to keep people safe, you could be fined and may even spend time in prison.
Here is what you need to know in England. Find guidance for Scotland at gov.scot/publications/fire-safety-guidance-private-rented-properties. Information for Wales, where all landlords must be licenced and registered, is at rentsmart.gov.wales.
Where do I start?
You don’t need a fire risk assessment for a home let to a family or sharers on one tenancy contract. But it is required for a house in multiple occupation (HMO) let on room tenancies, and for the common parts of flats where you own a share of the freehold or residents run the block. Instruct a certified fire risk assessor (search registers at ife.org.uk or bafe.org.uk), unless you consider yourself competent — find advice at gov.uk. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has a guide to employing an assessor (london-fire.gov.uk).
What are the rules for alarms?
Landlords are legally required to fit at least one smoke alarm on every floor of any rental property. You must also put a carbon monoxide alarm in any room with a solid-fuel burning appliance, such as a coal fire or wood-burning stove, and are also strongly advised to install them in rooms with gas appliances. Find a useful guide to alarms, with case studies, at londonpropertylicensing.co.uk.
Ensure alarms work on the first day of each new tenancy. After this alarms should be tested monthly, either by the landlord (this is required in a mains-wired system in an HMO) or the tenant. The fire alarm should also be inspected annually by an electrician or specialist company that can provide a test certificate.
LFB recommends an additional heat detector in the kitchen and a smoke alarm in the lounge and hallway of individual flats and houses. Higher standards apply in HMOs and blocks of flats.
What about appliances and furniture?
By law, landlords must have gas appliances and flues checked by a registered gas safe engineer every year (search for one at gassaferegister.co.uk). New regulations also require inspections of electrical installations at least every five years (find an engineer at electricalsafetyroundtable.co.uk or electricalcompetentperson.co.uk). You must give both these gas and electrical certificates to tenants at the start of the tenancy or within 28 days of the check. Portable electrical appliances that you supply should be tested every year.
Furniture must carry fire resistance labels; for mattresses, divans and bed bases, check items have a label referring to BS7177. The exceptions are furniture made before 1950 and reupholstered furniture made before that date.
Do I need to fit fire doors?
Fire doors, which hold back flames and smoke for at least 30 minutes so people can escape, are legally required for flat front doors that open on to shared areas. How do you tell if a door is a fire door? They are heavy, usually at least 44mm thick and have a label on the top or side edge (firesafe.org.uk/fire-doors).
According to the LFB fire doors must be “self-closing”. Tell tenants not to prop them open. Without the correct seals, hinges and fire-safe letterboxes, the doors will fail, so get a specialist to fit them. Check older doors are still fit for purpose and shut properly.
In HMOs and buildings converted to flats, internal doors and the final exit door from the building must be fitted with locks or catches that can be opened from inside without a key. Locks on fire doors usually have a thumb turn on the inside that prevents residents becoming trapped.
What are the rules for HMOs?
“With HMO fire safety, each property needs to be considered on its merits having regard to the use, layout and occupancy of the property,” says Richard Tacagni, a housing regulation expert and managing director of the independent housing consultancy London Property Licencing (londonpropertylicensing.co.uk). “It is all based on risk, rather than being a prescriptive standard.”
Take the example of a two-storey HMO let to three or four friends on a single tenancy. If it has a standard layout and there are no high-risk factors, Tacagni says a landlord should install a “Grade D” fire alarm system, which has interlinked mains-wired smoke alarms with a battery back-up in the entrance hall, on the landing, in any cellar, in the living/dining room, plus an interlinked heat alarm in the kitchen.
The ideal standard for an HMO is 30-minute fire doors with thumb turns to each room (except bathrooms) that lead on to the fire escape route. “Sound, well-constructed and close-fitting conventional doors may suffice in a low-risk shared house or flat,” Tacagni adds. “Lightweight hollow and non-fire-resisting glazed doors are not acceptable.”
What about fire extinguishers?
Ideally landlords should put a simple, multipurpose fire extinguisher on each floor of the common parts in a block of flats and in the hallway of a small HMO. Extinguishers should be serviced annually, it is also good practice to provide a fire blanket in the kitchen of any property type.
How do I find out if the building’s walls are fire safe?
To prove a block of flats is safe in the wake of Grenfell, property owners need an “external wall system” (EWS1) certificate; without this form, which can only be commissioned by the freeholder, banks will not provide mortgages. The survey required for an EWS1 form checks that cladding, insulation, balconies and wall structures won’t spread fire. It is valid across all flats in a block for five years. Ask your block’s managing agent or freeholder for the EWS1 form and the survey it is based on.
The problem is that a majority of blocks fail, meaning banks won’t lend. For blocks that get the worst ratings of B2 or A3, leaseholders are liable for remedial costs that can, in the worst cases, total £75,000 per flat. Lenders have required the forms even for three-storey blocks with no cladding.
In blocks taller than 18m that qualify for £5 billion of government funds for recladding, buy-to-let investors are eligible for help unless they own a large number of flats. Where flats do not qualify for government funding, developers have sometimes been forced to pay for the works under pressure from MPs or local councils.
Under the Building Safety Bill, published this week, property owners would be given 15 years to claim compensation for dangerous cladding and poor workmanship, up from six years currently. The change will apply retrospectively, which will allow owners of a building completed in 2010 to bring proceedings against the developer until 2025, but offers a long and costly route to redress. Get advice at leaseholdknowledge.com.
Fire risk assessments must include the building’s walls and fire doors in all blocks with two or more flats in England and Wales, under the Fire Safety Act 2021 passed in April. The checks “must cover the building’s structure and external walls. This includes anything attached to the exterior of those walls (including balconies) and doors and windows,” plus all doors between the flats and common parts, says Timothy Douglas, policy manager at the property agent membership body Propertymark. Any risks must then be addressed, with yet more costs for leaseholders including landlords. These rules are expected to take effect in the autumn.