Friday, 7 August 2009

A Potential Death Trap

Whenever I write about bad landlords, the good landlords get angry. They pout with indignation and claim to be doing a great job, while assuming that I am exaggerating, rabble-rousing or lying. They are, they insist tormented to the edge of ruin: “Tenants trashed my precious flat,” they say “…and then they did a runner!”

Sorry; it’s not the same at all. Bad landlords are dangerous, but you probably think that’s over the top.

I once lived in shared flat where the landlord’s daughter was a fellow tenant, so you’d think we’d be treated well. Not a bit of it.

We told the owner that the ancient combi boiler was temperamental and that we could smell gas, but he just sneered, stating - somewhat oddly, I think you’ll agree:
“Don’t come that communist nonsense with me – all property is theft and rubbish like that. And don’t try and boss me around.”
“I’m hardly stirring up a revolution,” I replied. “But that boiler’s dangerous. Would you please fix it?”

He ignored me, so I energised him with an enormous estimate from a registered repair firm. Eventually, he sent round his friend, a gas-installer, who took one look at the appliance and turned white with rage.
“You stupid bastard!” he shouted down the phone. “Get your arse round here right now and you’d better bring the money for a new heater! It could blow up any minute! It’s like a bloody bomb!”

Outraged, he continued: “Your daughter lives here! For crying out loud, what’s wrong with you?”
The landlord was unrepentant, and frankly, a bit miffed. I left soon after.

Landlords do their worst in ramshackle shared houses, where tenants move in and out like renting yo-yos. In one HMO, the ancient shower broke; the landlord agreed to replace it, but only after accusing us of “....being heavy with him, when he’d been nice to us.”
Being nice, by the way, involved him once turning up late at night expecting “…coffee.”

To our dismay some ‘cousins’ arrived. They let themselves in unannounced with a spare key, and swaggered around, saying things like: “Hey – ladies, time to paaarrrtay!” After clocking our surly expressions they left in record time, but at least we had a new shower.

Some time later I heard a scream - my terrified housemate had suffered a serious electric shock, and was genuinely lucky to be alive.

The sodden plaster had been partly washed away, exposing bare wires embedded haphazardly in the wall. We called Health and Safety, who confronted the landlord, ordering him to get it sorted, or else.

His response was petulant and unapologetic:
“…you know what girls are like,” he said. “Always nagging and whining.”
The word bitch was used.

As you might have realised by now, I am writing this post in anger. Here’s why. Thanks to the excellent Nearly Legal (see blog roll) for alerting me to this case from Cornwall. To any landlords out there who are feeling betrayed by calls for regulation, please remember this: bad landlords are a minority, but owners can be lazy, negligent, callous, defiant and stupid. The worst landlord is a killer landlord. In a bad way.

Report by The Residential Landlords Association: “A young mother was electrocuted by bathroom taps at a rental home. The coroner said he found it inexplicable that whilst gas safety checks and annual gas safety certificates are a specific legal requirement, electrical checks are not. He called it a loophole.

The woman, Thirza Whittall, 33, was found by her five-year-old daughter Millie. The young mother died instantly when she was hit by 175 volts when running the bath.

Heartbreakingly, the little girl said a prayer over her dead mother’s body before taking her two-year-old brother, George, out of his cot, locking up the house, and walking down the street into a shop to get help.

A series of electrical problems had combined to make the bathroom a death trap, the inquest heard. Mrs Whittall was electrocuted after she part-filled the bath with water and touched the taps with wet hands.

The home had not been professionally rewired or inspected electrically for nearly 30 years. The landlady, Hilary Thompson, had it rewired in 1981, and it had then been checked by her husband. Since Mrs Whittall’s death, the property has been rewired, at a cost of £4,000.

Mr Whittall, a builder, said: “I remain deeply concerned that there is a gap in the legislation which permitted this incident to occur and which puts others at risk. “Whilst landlords of rented properties are obliged to provide an annual gas safety certificate, no such regulation applies in relation to electrical wiring in rented properties.

“As we have learnt to our cost, a fault in an electrical installation is every bit as dangerous as a faulty gas supply.”

The Electrical Safety Council, a charity, is now calling for basic checks to be carried out on rental homes and has published a new guide – the Landlords’ Guide to Electrical Safety.”

Anyone out there still think I’m being unfair?


Adam G said...

Reminds me of an apartment I saw not so long ago. The landlord was moving his son & daughter-in-law in. The building had been constructed in the 1980s and the outlets in the kitchen - including one two foot from the sink - were not GFCI. That meant there was a significant risk of electrocution.

I said as much at the time, and told them that if they weren't prepared to rewire they should at least disable and seal up the one that was closest to the sink.

Their response was that the drying board was going to be between the sink and the socket, and knowing their son dishes would be there all the time. The dishes would thus prevent any splashing water from hitting the outlet.

It all comes down to money in the end, and people's reluctance to spend it - but I wish they would use more sense.

RenterGirl said...

It's not about money - it's about stopping death. Blunt and stark to put it like that, I know, but that's how it is. But Adam, when someone like yourself takes the trouble to explain, why won't landlords understand this?

Adam G said...

Who can say?

It's not even as if these were stupid people. Yet they didn't see the need. It had been working fine for twenty years and nobody'd been hurt, so why should there be a problem?

I had exactly the same discussion with my cousin, who had a similar kitchen problem. It was like talking to a brick wall. He couldn't comprehend that just because it hadn't killed him yesterday, was no reason to think that it might not kill him tomorrow. Yet this was the house he lived in, with his wife and two kids, and it's not as though he's a poor man. He could have afforded the work.

I sometimes think that people honestly believe, once a house is built, that's it. No further work needs to be done. Oh, they might add an extension - that adds to the value, after all - and perhaps even loft insulation, if they're feeling green. But why check the electrics, or worry about the plumbing, or climb up to look at the gutter? Those things last forever, don't they?

Alex said...

This reminds me of a gaff in Shepherd's Bush where two French PhD students of my acquaintance were living in a room with a built-in sink and a B&Q bunkbed...and bare wires sticking out of the walls.

RenterGirl said...

Perhaps people imagine that electricity instead of being terrifying and destructive is natural and harmless unless provoked? As far as landlords go, it's: laziness, avarice, greed, negligence and a cavalier attitude to safety. Damn those annoying tenants with their love of life. I am fascinated: why don't people get angry? As the post says, when I was treated so abysmally, I was furious, and got something done.

nick said...

No you aren't being unfair, but you are being inaccurate with respect to the wiring regulations.

RenterGirl said...

How am I wrong? There are other means of penalising landlords who do not maintain wiring, but my understanding is that there is nothing specific. Bad landlords are prone, when asked to check anything to saying: " make me!" How can a new tenant make them? Ask if the wiring is safe? Most people assume that it is safe, and will be checked. Clearly, there is some confusion.

Emily said...

That story is heart-breaking. Do you know what? I have written on here before about my landlord being co-operative and kind and the house being refurbished to a brilliant standard but there is actually one flaw, a flaw which could be fatal: In the kitchen, there is a wall socket about a foot away from the sink. I never use it and it isn't necessary: There are three other sockets elsewhere in the kitchen. I don't know why it is there but it may have something to do with the washing machine wiring: The mains socket for the wasking machine is INSIDE the under-the-sink cupboard: A leak from the sink could be very dangerous. Proof that even the most meticulous landlords can overlook the most basic of safety requirements. Electrical tests on top of gas tests aren't just a good idea, they should be imperative.