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The heating conundrum – can you box off your thermostat?

Wed 13 Nov 2019

An unexpected story was recently trending as number one on BBC News’ most read list of articles. Normally, Brexit-related stories or major news events of the day hit top place, but on November 5 2019 this title was catching people’s attention more than any other: “Can my landlord lock my thermostat in a box?”

Here, we take a closer look at the story in question, where landlords and tenants stand when it comes to heating, and how you can remain compliant as the cold winter months and festive season roll around.

What was the story?

When the hot water went off in tenant Alex Milsom's shared house, he – like many modern renters – turned to WhatsApp to discuss the problem with his housemates. In the group chat, one person replied: "It's because there’s a cage on the thermostat."

“I said I would put the water back on, but obviously I couldn’t get past the new lock box,” Milsom told the BBC.

Milsom’s landlady had visited the property to install a clear thermostat cover over the Google Nest thermostat, which can control heating and hot water.

"We have no idea what the temperature is,” Milsom said. “The Nest screen only lights up when you stand up close to it, but the box has stopped that from working and we can't see the number.”

According to experts, heating in residential properties should be controllable by the occupants, but a landlord could choose to cover the thermostat if the tenancy is a bills-included package and you are paying the heating costs.

Milsom shared his story on Twitter, it went viral and prompted queries over the legality of the move.

While his post received supportive tweets from fellow tenants, some landlords waded into the debate by saying the move could be understandable in a situation where renters are being careless with the heating.

Is it legal for a landlord to box off a thermostat?

David Smith, policy director for trade body the Residential Landlords Association (RLA), states there are no rules preventing the boxing off of thermostats.

However, he added that it’s a matter of good tenancy management and said the RLA encourage landlords to speak first with tenants before taking such drastic action.

“In shared homes there can often be disputes between tenants who want the thermostat set at different temperatures,” he said.

The issue, however, is not clear-cut, with Daniel Fitzpatrick – a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors – saying every tenant has the right to heating and hot water. Nonetheless, whether a landlord can box off a thermostat depends on the terms of the tenancy agreement; in other words, it needs to be made clear in the document that this action could be taken if, for example, tenants were to become careless with the heating.

This could be tenants having the heating on all day and night, at high levels, or turning it on and off on a far too frequent basis.

“If the tenant is just paying a basic agreement where bills are not included, that could be why the landlord installed the fitting - usually thermostats can be covered,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Should that not be the case, then there could be various actions against the landlord. It's a basic right to be able to turn on heating and hot water, and it would be a breach of health and safety if the tenant could not.”

Typically, homes in the UK are heated with a boiler and radiators, with controls such as boiler or room thermostats/timers

According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, tenants should have control of the temperature in a dwelling.

Keeping homes habitable

In Scotland, a property is required to meet the ‘Repairing Standard’ which relates to it being wind and watertight.

This legislation also requires utilities to be in a ‘reasonable state of repair’, with any repairs carried out according to the ‘Tolerable Standard’.

To meet the ‘Repairing Standard’, a privately rented property in Scotland must make sure installations for supplying water, gas and electricity and for sanitation, space heating and heating are in a reasonable state of repair and in proper working order before and during a tenancy.

The Repairing Standard – part of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 – legally and contractually obliges Scottish private landlords to ensure that a property meets a minimum physical standard.

As such, landlords must carry out a pre-tenancy check of their rental property to identify work required to meet the Repairing Standard and notify tenants of any such work. Additionally, landlords have a duty to repair and maintain their property from the tenancy start date and throughout the tenancy. Once aware of a defect, issue or possible repair job, landlords are required to complete the ‘work within a reasonable time’.

Cold temperatures, of course, could represent a hazard and could lead to your home being below the required standard. Guidance suggests that the risks of adverse health effects occur when indoor temperatures fall below 19C, with serious health risks arising below 16C, so heating is something you need to take seriously as a landlord, especially in the colder months.  

What if there is a dispute with your tenant over heating?

It’s hard to know for sure how widespread the practice of covering thermostats is, and will often come down to the individual preference of each landlord, but if you do decide to install a cage in your rental homes and your tenants are unhappy with this, what should you do?

According to Citizens Advice, it’s always better for landlords to ‘negotiate amicably’ if at all possible.

To avoid a row escalating, or disputes from occurring, it’s always better to work with your letting agent and your tenants to ensure everyone is on the same page in a tenancy. If you want to install a cage on your thermostat, make sure you explain this decision clearly and plainly to your tenants and ensure it is written in any tenancy agreement that you and they sign.

One possible way around the above being a problem is to take a bills-excluded approach. That way it’s down to the tenants to pay for the heating they use, rather than you as the landlord.

Here at Letting Solutions, West Lothian’s first dedicated lettings agency, we can help you to manage all aspects of your tenancies, including heating. We use our knowledge and expertise to guide you through the letting process.

For more information about our services, please get in touch on 01506 496 006. We also offer free and instant online valuations to give you an idea of how much you could be charging in rent each month.

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