Coronavirus - managing your property

Last updated 14 April 2021 - easing of restrictions

Introduction

As the lockdown restrictions ease, it is important to keep up with the latest changes to guidance from the Government.

While for many, the easing of lockdown changes what they can and can't do, it does not fundamentally change the obligations or restrictions landlords face. House moves, viewings and repairs to the property were possible throughout the lockdown and so little changes in this area. However, in some areas, the guidance has changed slightly.

This guidance has been updated with the latest published information. Please bear in mind when reading this that the guidance will change regularly as the situation develops and you should check back regularly for the latest updates.

What is the NRLA campaigning for during coronavirus

The NRLA is calling for the Government to support the private rented sector through:

  1. Interest free, government guaranteed hardship loans for tenants. Providing tenants with a means to pay off COVID-related arrears will sustain tenancies and remove any risk of eviction as furlough is removed. These should be paid directly to landlords and should cover all arrears accumulated since the start of the pandemic. A similar scheme has already been introduced in Wales.
  2. Tenant hardship grants through local authorities. Where the tenant is in receipt of benefits, we are calling for arrears to be covered through ring-fenced funding for councils.

  3. Keeping LHA at 30th percentile at the minimum – and ideally raise it to cover median market rents – to help ensure tenancies can be sustained.

  4. Suspending the Shared Accommodation Rate for under 35s for 12 months. Currently, those who are single and rely on benefits can only claim for the cost of a room in a shared property. A 12 month suspension would support those who face unemployment due to the impact of the pandemic to sustain existing tenancies and allow house moves where need be.

We have made a joint statement with 10 other organisations - The Big Issue Ride Out Recession Alliance, Crisis, Citizens Advice, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Money Advice Trust, The Mortgage Works, Nationwide Building Society, Propertymark, StepChange Debt Charity and Shelter - calling for the Chancellor to provide direct funding to support landlords and tenants to address arrears.

We also continue to call for possession and court reform.

Possession rules during the coronavirus pandemic

To limit the number of possession claims made during the coronavirus, the Government has made a number of significant temporary changes to the way possession works.

Extended notice periods

The Government has temporarily changed the rules around using a Section 21 and Section 8 notice during the coronavirus pandemic:

  • In England, up to 28 August 2020 notice periods were all three months. As of 29 August 2020 this has changed. Most possession notices now require a minimum of six months notice, however the notice period can be shorter using a Section 8 notice.

On 10 March, the Government announced that the current extended notice periods will continue until May 31. After this, the extended notice periods will begin to taper off from the start of June. Further details will be available on the details of this tapering shortly.

Re-opening of the courts from 20 September 2020

While landlords have been able to apply to court during the suspension on possession hearings, no cases have progressed since 27 March 2020. From 20 September 2020, possession cases are able to progress again and landlords will be able to regain possession of their property. 

However, in preparation for this, the Government made a series of changes to the procedures landlords will have to follow when seeking possession:

  • All ongoing possession hearings are stayed until a 'reactivation notice' has been filed at court and served on the tenants. This reactivation notice needs to confirm what the claimant is asking the court to do and what information they have about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the tenant and their dependants. This applies to any possession claim filed before 3 August 2020.
  • At the hearing the landlord must bring two copies of the notice, stating what information they have on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the tenant and their dependants. For accelerated possession claims this will need to be attached to the application and applies to all cases filed before 30 July 2021.
  • Courts will no longer have to schedule a hearing for possession within 8 weeks of the claim being filed. 

Failure to comply with these directions can lead to further adjournments or the case being struck out.

'R' hearings and mediation

During these restrictions possession hearings are split into two hearing; review (R) and substantive (S) hearings. The R hearing is the initial hearing to assess whether a full hearing is necessary, after which the S hearing will determine whether possession is appropriate.

At the R hearing the tenant can request the case be sent for mediation if you agree to this. The Government's new mediation pilot scheme aims to find a mediated solution between you and the tenant without the need for a possession order. Given the lengthy delays in the courts, and the short turnaround time for mediation, you are advised to consider agreeing to this option where possible.

If the mediation service does not lead to a settlement both parties are happy with, then the case moves forward to a substantive hearing.

Enforcement of possession orders

Due to the national lockdown, warrants may not be enforced in England in most circumstances. Originally this prohibition on bailiffs was expected to end in February but has been extended twice. The ban on using bailiffs has now been extended to 31 May 2021.

Are there are any exceptions to this?

There are some limited exceptions to this ban on enforcing warrants where:

  • the case involved trespassers;
  • the landlord served a Section 8 notice and possession was granted either wholly or partly because of Ground 7, 7A, 14 or 17; or
  • the landlord sought possession via a Section 8 notice and the court granted possession on Grounds 8, 10, or 11 and the tenant is in six months or more of arrears. Prior to the latest legislation, this exemption was only available where the tenant was in 9 months of arrears prior to the coronavirus pandemic. This has now changed to six months in total, regardless of when the arrears were built up.

Please note that you must have used a Section 8 notice if you wish to use these exceptions. If you have received a possession order as a result of a Section 21 notice, you will be prohibited from using a bailiff even if the tenant is in arrears of six months or more.

What are the general rules I should adhere to when entering my tenant's property?

In general, as of April 12, the government has confirmed that routine inspections and other repairs can take place provided everyone is following the latest Government guidance on working in people's homes.

For tenants who are clinically extremely vulnerable or self-isolating, then you should consider whether entry to the property is necessary. If it is then you should discuss this with your tenant and try to find a suitable solution. For example:

  • If a tenant is clinically extremely vulnerable, then arranging an inspection or a repair while they are exercising outside may be the most appropriate option.

Contact your tenants ahead of time to outline the social distancing measures that need to be followed during your visit. You should also remind them about these practices upon arrival. 

As you will be in a relatively confined space you should bring and wear a mask. If you have employees performing the work on your behalf, you must supply them with masks as well. 

Inspecting a property where someone is self-isolating

Anyone self-isolating is advised to avoid having any visitors to their home unless the repair work is needed to prevent a threat to their safety or life. If the tenant informs you they are self-isolating, you should cancel any planned visits or inspections and rearrange them for a suitable time in the future. Ensure this is documented.

Can my tenants still refuse access for inspections?

Yes. Regardless of the pandemic, tenants can refuse access to landlords if they choose. If they do you should ensure you have kept records of your attempts to gain entry and your attempts to arrange a suitable alternative time for visiting the property.

Alternatively, in very serious cases, where access is essential and the tenant persistently refuses to grant you access, you can consider going to court to seek an injunction or start possession proceedings. This is often costly and difficult however.

How should I market and arrange property viewings in England?

Landlords in all areas of England are free to market their properties and arrange viewings under the tier restrictions and the new lockdown.

Provided all parties are following social distancing measures, tenants, landlords and agents are free to visit properties for viewings, moving in, cleaning the property after check-out, etc. Lettings agencies may also now re-open and tenants may leave the house to visit these offices too, but practices involving viewings will need updating to account for coronavirus:

  • Absolutely no in-property viewings should take place while the prospective or current tenants have any symptoms that are linked to coronavirus. 
  • Initial viewings should be done virtually wherever possible. If tenants are still in residence, you should ask them to record a virtual tour of the property to accommodate this. If the property is vacant you may record the virtual tour yourself.
  • All physical viewings should be arranged by appointment, limited to members of the same household and open house viewings should not take place. While any viewings are taking place, every effort should be made to ensure that nobody touches any surfaces in the property. In addition, while letting agents and landlords can accompany prospective tenants on a viewing, they should ensure social distancing practices are followed as far as possible.
  • Masks should be worn by the agent and anyone viewing the property
  • If the current tenants are performing the viewing, they should also be provided with information on how to ensure they can follow social distancing practices while prospective tenants are in the property.
  • Ideally, the property should be viewed after the existing tenant has vacated. Where this is not possible, the tenants should go out for exercise during viewings, ensure the property is well ventilated with windows open before they leave, and clean the surfaces of the property with household cleaning products after the viewing is complete. 

In addition, while properties in England may be visited for viewings, where there are tenants in residence you should be mindful that they may not want people to visit their property at this time. If they do refuse access then you should wait until the property is vacant before arranging viewings. 

How should I arrange check-ins and check-outs during this period?

Ideally, you should deal with as few people as possible during this period and try to minimise contact. Identify a lead tenant and arrange to meet them. Ensure the keys you provide have been cleaned appropriately before giving them to the new tenant.

Where possible try to arrange with tenant for check in and check out inspections to be performed while the property is empty.

Prior to check-in the property should be thoroughly cleaned to ensure the risk of contamination to new tenants is minimised.

For properties in England, new tenants are advised to pack their belongings themselves and clean the boxes and belongings with household cleaning products before providing them to any removal firms.

For HMO properties this is more difficult. You should let any existing tenants know your arrival time so they can avoid the common parts and practice social distancing. It is also a good idea to provide tenants in shared accommodation with links to the Government’s guidance on sharing homes with anyone self-isolating in case anyone does start to develop symptoms.

TDS have also published some deposit-specific guidance on performing check-outs during the coronavirus pandemic as part of their regular blog series for the NRLA.

What if my tenant is self-isolating, and we need to perform repairs to the property?

Anyone self-isolating is advised to avoid any visitors to their home for at least ten days. This may affect landlords' ability to inspect properties or organise maintenance and repairs.

In these circumstances, we advise the landlord to keep a dialogue going with tenant. You should document the reason you cannot carry out the repair; ask the tenant to explain in an email or writing that they are self-isolating and therefore cannot allow visitors to the property.

If access is needed for an urgent repair, landlords need to make a judgement on the urgency of the situation, the threat to health or life and the seriousness of the repair when scheduling. With winter approaching, disrepair leading to damp or extreme cold in the property will need to be addressed promptly.

If you have not done so already, it may also be worth signposting tenants to information on being tested for coronavirus. If they have confirmation that the household does not have coronavirus there is no need to self-isolate any further and repairs can be scheduled as normal.

Essential works, such as water supply, sanitation and heating failure will still need to be addressed. Landlords, their representatives and tradespeople should ensure they are following the Government’s guidance on working in people’s homes while such work is performed.

If an urgent repair is identified, then you may enter the property with the permission of the tenant. You and any contractors present should ensure you are not symptomatic. In addition, you should follow all guidelines on social distancing and hand washing while the work or inspection is performed.

Contractors and tenants may also wish to contact Public Health England for further guidance when a property repair is required and the tenant is self-isolating.

I have to perform a right to rent check. Do I still have to meet the tenant in person?

The Home Office has now published guidance on the status of right to rent checks during the coronavirus pandemic. This guidance has made a number of significant, temporary changes to the existing right to rent regime.

Under normal circumstances, a right to rent check requires the landlord to meet all adult occupiers in person before the tenancy is signed. At that meeting, they check they have one, or potentially two valid documents to show tenants have a right to rent in England.

Under the temporary regime, landlords can instead:

  1. Ask the tenant to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents electronically.
  2. Video call the tenant and ask them to hold up the original documents while the landlord checks them against the digital copy sent to them.
  3. Record the date the check was made and mark it as “an adjusted check has been undertaken on [date] due to COVID-19”.

Once the coronavirus emergency ends, landlords who have performed a check in this way will be required to perform a follow-up check in person to ensure they have fully complied. The date such follow up checks will be required has not been set yet.

My gas safety certificate is due to be renewed in the near future. What should I do?

Gas safety inspections can go on provided that everyone follows social distancing practices and the inspector, tenants, or landlord are not symptomatic at the time. However, there is a recognition this may be difficult to arrange due to shortages of inspectors as well as tenants self-isolating or refusing access.

Gas Safe have now published updated guidance, including worked examples for landlords to follow to ensure compliance on this. This guidance covers a number of scenarios that you will need to consider if you do need a gas safety certificate.

Where the tenant is vacating the property in the near future you are advised to perform the gas safety inspection during the void period, as this is the best way to ensure the risk of infection is limited.

What if I can't have an inspection performed?

Gas safety certificates can be obtained up to two months prior to the expiration of the existing one. Landlords are encouraged by Gas Safe to start trying to arrange an inspection as early as possible in that two month period. If it's not possible to arrange an inspection then it should be documented. documentation should show that the landlord has tried to contact a number (most likely 5 or 6) of inspectors who were all unable to allocate an appointment.

Similarly, if the tenant refuses access then this should be documented with evidence the landlord has tried to accommodate suitable dates for the tenant.

For example, if the tenant refuses because they are self-isolating due to symptoms then the landlord should try and arrange a new check to be done 14 days after the household first shows symptoms. Provided the landlord has made three genuine efforts to arrange access and documented it this should be enough to provide sufficient excuse to the HSE.

Am I required to have an electrical safety inspection performed?

Whenever you grant or renew a tenancy on or after 1 June 2020 in England, you are required to have a competent person inspect the electrical installations of your property and provide you with an electrical installation condition report. If the property is unsafe you are expected to ensure work is done to bring it up to a safe standard.

Further information on this legislation can be found in our guide to electrical safety.

The pandemic has not changed this requirement and landlords are still expected to comply with their obligations. However, the Government recognises that your tenants may refuse you access and it is sufficient to take all reasonable steps to gain access to the property to perform the work. Their guidance states:

A landlord could show reasonable steps by keeping copies of all communications they have had with their tenants and with electricians as they tried to arrange the work, including any replies they have had. Landlords may also want to provide other evidence they have that the installation, appliance or flue is in a good condition while they attempt to arrange works.

My energy performance certificate (EPC) is about to expire, do I need to renew it?

The Government has now published its guidance on EPC requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. It makes it clear that EPCs can still be performed and are still a legal requirement during this period.

However the coronavirus guidance does reflect that it may be difficult to attain an EPC in a timely fashion. If all reasonable efforts have been made to obtain a valid EPC but this has not been possible, a further 21 days are allowed as a grace period. After this period, enforcement action can be taken by enforcement authorities in line with the EPB Regulations.

In addition to this, you should consider whether you need an EPC before trying to arrange an appointment. As it is a legal requirement for marketing a property, a landlord is only required to have a valid EPC at the point a tenancy begins. Therefore, if there is no new tenancy created then you can, and should, allow your EPC to lapse rather than arranging for an inspection.

For the avoidance of doubt, a new tenancy is created in three ways:

  • A new tenant moves into the property leading to a new agreement with different people.
  • A tenancy agreement with existing tenants is renewed by offering a new contract.
  • At the end of the fixed term of a tenancy, the agreement is replaced by a statutory periodic tenancy (members can call the advice line on 03330 142 998 to check whether this is the case).

Where tenants are moving into the property you are advised to arrange a suitable void period to allow for necessary inspections and non-essential maintenance to be performed, including EPC's.

If your existing tenants are replacing their current tenancy with a renewal or statutory periodic tenancy you will need to arrange an appointment, whilst being mindful of the Government's guidance on staying alert, working in other people's homes and moving during the coronavirus restrictions.

If anyone in the household or the contractor is symptomatic, no work should be carried out unless it is to remedy a direct risk to a household. Where someone in the household is shielding due to risk factors, an inspection can still go ahead but the tenant must be contacted ahead of time to ensure there is no face-to-face contact.

Will local authorities continue to enforce property conditions and licenses during this time?

The Government’s guidance for local authorities encourages a pragmatic, risk-based approach to enforcement during this time.  

Where should I signpost my vulnerable tenants?

There are a number of resources available to help those self-isolating that you can point your tenants towards.

For example, you can make sure your tenants know about their local Covid Mutual-Aid community group to arrange food deliveries.

For older tenants or those with dementia, the following numbers may be useful.

Alzheimer’s Society

English: 0333 150 3456

Welsh speakers: 03300 947 400

Age UK

Advice Line: 0800 169 65 65

You can also provide your tenants with the phone numbers for local shops and convenience stores so they can call up to place a delivery. Where tenants don’t feel confident placing their own deliveries, you could offer to place the delivery on their behalf.

Finally, the local authority may be able to help with non-medical care. It may be worth providing their contact details as well.

HMO Management specific issues

I manage a HMO, what advice should I be giving my tenants who live in the property?

Tenants should follow government advice, therefore you may wish to consider emailing copies of this, as well as having soap and/or sanitiser sent to the property.

Tenants should be encouraged to inform housemates if they are self-isolating or have become ill as the whole household will need to self-isolate.

The Government has issued guidance on decontamination in non-clinical settings which HMO landlords may want to familiarise themselves with.

As part of my management duties I employ a cleaner and a gardener. Should they still continue to visit the property?

Tradespeople can visit the property to perform work provided they are following the Government’s guidance on working in someone else’s home.

One of my tenants has been abroad and now needs to self-isolate for ten days. Do the other tenants need to also self-isolate?

Only the person who has come from abroad needs to self-isolate initially. They should avoid the common areas and may need some assistance during this time. Where they cannot avoid the common parts (shared use washing facilities, etc) then the tenant should be ensuring they are following the guidance on decontamination in non-clinical settings after use.

However, if the new tenant develops symptoms all of the household will have to self-isolate as they are part of the same household.

Please note that if the tenant is a British or Irish national that has come from a red listed country immedately prior to moving in, then they will need to isolate in a hotel for 10 days prior to moving in.

My tenant has asked to end the tenancy early because their circumstances have changed due to the outbreak. How should I respond?

Some tenants may ask their landlord to end their tenancy early. Typically, this can occur where a university or college has suspended courses or teaching, or a job contract has ended unexpectedly or without notice due to the coronavirus outbreak. As the latest lockdown has also moved university courses online, landlords are likely to see an increase in the number of these requests during this time.

While you legally can enforce the terms of the tenancy and claim rent for the remaining period, it may be better to negotiate an end to the tenancy or arrange a rent holiday with the tenant. However, you are under no obligations to accept this if you do not want to.

Contracts are still binding in these cases so if you do receive a request like this and you do not want to accept it, you can remind the tenants of their obligations and, where necessary, contact their guarantors to inform them you plan to recoup the lost rent. If you do you should find out if they are suffering from any short term financial problems due to coronavirus.

If they are, it is worth remembering that landlords have up to six years to chase any outstanding debt. You are advised to wait until the coronavirus emergency is over before actively pursuing tenants and guarantors through the courts.

I agreed to a break clause allowing the tenant to leave in the event of a national lockdown, can they activate it?

Some universities have promoted inserting break clauses into tenancy agreements allowing tenants to leave in the event of a national lockdown. In these cases the tenant may be able to end the tenancy by complying with the terms set out in the break clause. However this clause will only be effective if the terms within are clear, precise and equivalent to the situation the tenant is in.

My tenant was set to leave the property but has now wants to stay as they need to self-isolate. What should I do?

Landlords are encouraged to be understanding here where possible. While a valid notice will bring the tenancy to an end, the reality is it will be very difficult to enforce at this time given the delays.