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1. Tips for Househunting during the pandemi - Image via Pexels

Image via Pexels

Tips for House Hunting During the Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19 has drastically changed the way people search for and buy houses, so you’ll need to be prepared. These resources can help you get ready for house hunting in the age of the coronavirus.

Getting Your Finances in Shape

Regardless of the pandemic, the first step in buying a house is to get your finances in order and researching loan options. Here’s what you should know about the process.

  • COVID-19 has affected interest rates, which can impact your mortgage rates when you apply for financing.
  • Getting preapproved or prequalified for a home loan can aid your search for a new house.
  • Pandemic or not, your mortgage rates will depend on your credit score. Most things you can do to improve your score are already done remotely!
  • Now is also a good time to evaluate your savings to see if you’re on track to make a down payment. COVID-19 has complicated many people’s financial situations, but making adjustments to your spending can help you save.

House Hunting Has Gone Virtual

Before the pandemic, most people already started their house-hunting efforts online. But with social distancing orders in full effect, many other aspects of buying a home are done virtually, too.

  • In-person tours are almost unheard of these days. Instead, estate agents are holding live video walkthroughs to replicate the experience of touring homes.
  • Open houses are also being put on hold. Instead, you can often find estate agents holding virtual open houses on platforms like Facebook Live.
  • Work with an experienced estate agent in your area.

Moving and Settling in During COVID-19

Once you’ve found your dream home, it’s important to understand how the pandemic has changed the way we move, and find professionals to take care of home repairs.

  • You can still hire professional movers; however, moving companies may follow special safety considerations, such as wearing masks and not shaking hands.
  • Some repairs can wait, but others need immediate attention. For necessary repairs, you can keep yourself and contractors safe by asking for a remote inspection and practicing social distancing.

Buying a home during a pandemic is a bit challenging, but it just requires flexibility. Fortunately, most aspects of the home-buying process can be done with little to no contact. And if you feel confident, you can even buy a home sight unseen! In the event you do need to work with an estate agent, seller, title agent, or home inspector in person, remember to keep yourself and everyone else safe by following the latest guidance.

Jim Vogel

Professional Fire Risk Assessments

Fire Much has already been said about fire safety especially in light of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell.  Given that so many lives were lost, it bears repeating that risk assessments are the key to identifying the dangers great or small not just in fire safety but all areas of health and safety.

2 Rivers has maintained the in all areas of health and safety but especially fire, there is no point scrimping on cost when lives are at stake.  We continue to recommend that all managing agents use a professional company to perform the risk assessments and to take great care in the fire risk assessor that you choose.

Some key points to consider include:

  • Be satisfied that the fire risk assessor who carries out the work is competent.  This can be demonstrated by them providing evidence of compliance with the competency criteria set down by the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council.
  • Check that they have experience of working in your kind of business and premises.
  • Be clear about the scope of the work to be carried out and ensure that the assessor is provided with access to all areas of the premises and with relevant information.
  • Obtain alternative quotes ~ make sure they all cover the same scope, so you can draw a proper comparison.
  • It is advisable to request references from previous clients in similar premises types; ask them if they were satisfied and if any problems were later identified by the Fire and Rescue Authority.
  • It is advisable to ask for proof that they have sufficient professional indemnity insurance and to seek assurance that the contractor is impartial and has a complaints procedure.
  • Keep and maintain records of the steps you took in selecting your fire risk assessor.

Click here for a full report from the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council.

 

 

Nationwide leading the way on unfair ground rent leases

Accounts - house piggy bank with coinMuch publicity has been made of unfair leases drawn up on certain new build houses, the meat of which is the doubling of ground rent every 5 years.  Nationwide has confronted this by announcing plans to introduce new requirements to help protect homeowners buying new-build leasehold properties.

Nationwide says they want to impose more transparent lending conditions on these troublesome homes.  From the 11 May, they stated that loans on new-build leasehold properties would have to have leases of 125 years for flats and 250 years for houses. Ground rents must be equivalent to a maximum of .1% of the property value and must be ‘reasonable at all times during the lease term.’

Unreasonable clauses which allow the multiplying of ground rent such as doubling every five, ten or fifteen years, will not be allowed.  Instead any increase in ground rent will have to be linked to a verified index, such as the Retail Price Index.

Although work is going on at legislation level much spoken of in the press, this is a good start.  If all banks will not loan, with such leases being imposed on new buyers, pressure may be put on unscrupulous property developers to draw up leases which are not only fair but practical.

Planning for Rehousing

Legal - Key attached to a house  A critical question which was asked to all property managing agents after the Grenfell fire disaster was “Does your organisation have an agreed plan to be used if a block of flats has to be evacuated at short notice and residents cannot go back to their homes?”

The question was obviously asked because the biggest criticism after the fire at Grenfell was the lack of support for those left homeless. Local authorities have a duty to assist homeless persons.

The legal position for private sector landlords however, is as usual complex.  There appears to be no legal obligation on landlords to offer alternative accommodation but in the private sector arena residents often like to make their own arrangements.  If necessary, contact with local authority emergency planning teams would be helpful, but it is a considerable short term problem.  If buildings insurance has been correctly placed, depending on the level and extent of damage, the building can be repaired or rebuilt followed by the necessary discussions with displaced residents.  But this is not a short term solution.  Some policies especially those which cover residential properties with elderly and potentially vulnerable adults in them, have provision for re-housing after a fire.  But this is not necessarily available for all buildings, and especially for the tenants of lessees who rent out their flat.  Our advice at 2 Rivers to RTMs and RMCs is to check with your managing agent, whether rehousing is included in your building insurance in the event of flood or fire.  Discuss among yourselves as residents, how important it is to you, to have this form of cover.

After the Lakanal House fire a report about the forms of assistance given to tenants and lessees by the local authority was produced.  Click here to see it.

There are clearly solutions to homelessness after a fire, but better still for the 5 pieces of advice given by the government to be followed and the damage done by a fire should it happen, to be as limited as possible.  The damage done at Grenfell has more or less emptied the building.  Our thoughts continue to be with those who lived there.

Non compliant cladding advice 5

water-drop-275938__180  Of all of the practical issues surrounding the government advice coming out, since the Grenfell tragedy installing sprinklers is the most direct fight which can be taken to any fire. Unfortunately, due to a number of issues, the installation of sprinklers is still a discussion.

Currently in England, only buildings erected after 2007 and more than 30 metres (98ft) high are required to be fitted with sprinkler systems.  In Scotland from 1 May 2005 all new residential care homes, sheltered housing and high rise domestic accommodation above 18 metres high have to be fitted with sprinklers. In Wales the requirement for tower blocks was the same as England.  In addition a building regulation requirement for the installation of sprinklers in all new or conversions of dwellings and flats, came into effect on the 1 January 2016.

This leaves the question, what about retrofitting of sprinklers? This would be a challenge if recommended.  The landlord has no legal right to demand access to fit the sprinklers inside the flats and the lease may not allow for recovery of the cost of installation in common parts.

However, it would seem to us at 2 Rivers, if the managers of Grenfell had the money to put up cladding, even the cheaper non compliant kind, they had the money to retrofit sprinklers.  Would any flat residents anywhere in the country now object to this becoming a requirement even if just for those buildings over 18 metres, or the height from which firemen cannot reach the fire to fight it with extended ladders and hoses?

The answer seems obvious.

Non compliant cladding advice 4

Woman asleep with lit candle  The dangers of fire have never been more in the minds of people since the tragedy of Grenfell sparking debate of varying kinds in our communities, but never more so in the property management community and forcing all of us to review our practices.

It is now known that the cladding on the Grenfell Towers building was not fire safety compliant and this has caused any and all managing agents with buildings with cladding and even those without to look with fresh eyes and the very best of fire safety procedures.  The government has been frantically consulting with experts and putting out advice about what to do, especially for those with buildings which have cladding which may not be fire compliant.

Their fourth piece of advice is to employ competent fire risk assessors.  As previously mentioned 2 Rivers chooses the very best advice from Cardinus Risk Assessment.  These guys are experts in this field and cut no corners to give the best in service for all types of risk assessment.  From this flows top flight procedures as far as humanly possible, to keep residents safe.  It has to be said, residents have their part to play, such as not leaving burning naked flames, when either going out or to sleep.  But in the case of Grenfell, what happened was beyond the power of the residents.

There has been criticism in the press that there is no legal requirement for the responsible person to appoint a suitably qualified fire risk assessor.  The reason for this is of course that the level of risk can vary wildly between types of residential buildings.  An 18 storey tower block has a far more complex set of risks than a conversion of a 2 storey house into 2 flats with the freehold owned by the leaseholders and little or no common parts.

There is a duty on the responsible person ~ that is you if a managing agent is appointed ~ to appoint a competent fire risk assessor.

There are some simple steps and precautions which can be taken to help verify the competence and suitability of a prospective contractor.

  • Be satisfied that the fire risk assessor who carries out the work is competent.  This can be demonstrated by them providing evidence of compliance with the competency criteria set down by the Fire Risk Assessment Competency.
  • Check that they have experience of working for your kind of business and premises.
  • Be clear about the scope of the work to be carried out and ensure that the assessor is provided with access to all areas of the premises and with relevant information.
  • Obtain alternative quotes ~ make sure they all cover the same scope, so you can draw a proper comparison.
  • It is advisable to request references from previous clients in similar premises types; ask them if they were satisfied and if any problems were later identified by the Fire and Rescue Authority.
  • It is advisable to ask for proof that they have sufficient professional indemnity insurance and to seek assurance that the contractor is impartial and has a complaints procedure.
  • Keep and maintain records of the steps you took in selecting your fire risk assessor.

The Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council (FRACC) has published a set of criteria on which the competency of assessors can be judged.  A number of schemes offer certification or qualifications as fire risk assessors and the FRACC recognises some as properly accredited schemes.  These are listed in Appendix A of the Guide to Choosing a Competent Risk Assessor.

 

 

Non compliant cladding advice 3

Business woman with megaphone  The third piece of advice given by the government in the event of building cladding likely to be or not compliant is ~ inform your residents.  And our view at 2 Rivers ~ don’t do it with just a note on the notice board ~ engage with residents to ensure they fully understand the emergency fire procedures in the building, particularly the meaning of “stay put.”

In our experience too many managing agents rely on the notice board or their resident website portals and they expect and put all of the responsibility to become informed, onto the resident.  This is poor customer service and frankly not good enough.  Face to face meeting by the agent’s property manager with the directors if an RTM/RMC or Resident Association, is the least they should do.  If neither of these is in place, meet with as many of the residents as possible, especially those who are known and liked on their site to try to spread the word.  Where you do put your notices, make sure they are accurate.

Among the things to bring to residents’ attention:

  • Check that at ground level or on balconies, there are no combustible materials e.g. storage of refuse in the vicinity of the cladding.  Ensure there are measures to prevent combustible materials in such locations e.g. by temporary barriers or instructions to residents.  Instruct residents they must not have any barbeques on any balcony.
  • Check that all flat entrance doors and doors that open onto escape corridors and stairways are fire resisting and effectively self-closing against any resistance of a latch (or, for example, in the case of plant rooms or cupboards, are kept locked shut).  For guidance on these doors, consult the Local Government Association guidance on fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats. Click here for this website.  In general doors that were deemed to be fire-resisting at the time of construction of the block will be satisfactory.  Replace any non-fire-resisting doors (such as non-fire-resisting upvc doors) immediately with doorsets (i.e. doors and frames) that are third party certificated as providing at least 30 minutes fire resistance.
  • Check all walls that separate flats, plant and store rooms, etc from escape routes to ensure there are no obvious routes for fire or smoke spread (e.g. holes where services, such as pipes and cables, pass through walls).
  • Check that any smoke control systems, including associated fire detection systems are operating correctly.
  • Check all facilities provided for fire-fighters, including fire-fighting lifts and dry or wet rising mains.  If you have ANY concerns you should contact your local fire and rescue service, who will, if they have not already done so, carry out an inspection to ensure functionality.
  • Ensure that there is sufficient roadway access and hardstanding for firefighting vehicles attending incidents and to be set up to fight any fire externally.
  • Check that insulation or other materials that form the façade meet all relevant standards.

If the building is protected by an automatic sprinkler system (or equivalent fire suppression system) you might not need to take any further interim measures before replacement of the cladding.  If the building is not protected by a suitable suppression system you must consider the need for interim measures.  The measures adopted need to be based on an assessment of the risk by a competent person, but the following must, at least, be considered:

  1. Residents to be advised to ensure all smoke alarms are present and working in their flat; to report concerns about fire safety measures in the building (e.g. presence of combustible materials in escape routes) to their landlord and, understand the purpose of any interim measures being taken.
  2. Closure of car parks in which a vehicle fire could impinge on cladding.
  3. Provision of a temporary communal fire alarm system, comprising smoke detectors in circulation areas and plant rooms, and fire detectors (possibly heat detectors, rather than smoke detectors) in conjunction with fire alarm sounders in each flat.  This will enable the entire block to be evacuated simultaneously in the event of fire. This option is unlikely to be suitable for tall blocks, in which a large number of people would need to use escape routes at the same time.  The system may compromise a wireless system, using radio to link devices.
  4. Provision of a fire watch by appropriately trained patrolling security officers or wardens.
  5. In the case of the most serious risk, consideration must be given to moving all residents out of the block until satisfactory remedial work has been done.

All good advice from the government, a lot of work for managing agents, but the fire at Grenfell is the wake up call we all got to tighten up, adopt and continue robust practices in fire health and safety.

 

Non compliant cladding advice 2

Fire risks assessment form  The second piece of advice given by the government is one which 2 Rivers always promotes with our colleagues and in fact we recommend, unless you have an ex-fireman on your staff, use one of the professional companies like Cardinus who are health and safety specialists.

Do a Fire Risk Assessment

Check that the fire risk assessment has been carried out within the previous 12 months and that the recommendations within the action plan of the assessment have been completed.  Also relevant at this time is to confirm that there has been no material changes to the building or occupancy that could potentially undermine the validity of the fire risk assessment.

If no assessment has been done, make arrangements for one to be done immediately.  At this point it will also be necessary to ensure a responsible person is appointed and they are suitably qualified. (This will be covered in more detail in advice 4).

Suffice to say at this point that the responsible/competent person must be listed on a register of fire risk assessors operated by a professional body or certification body, or preferably by a company that is certificated by a third party certification body, which is itself accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to operate the certification scheme.

We suggest you start at the Health and Safety Executive.

Advice 3 tomorrow.

 

Non compliant cladding advice 1

Fireman  Further to government advice ~ should property managers suspect that cladding on a building they manage, is unlikely to be compliant ~ first on the list is:

Notify Fire and Rescue Service

Government advice is to inform the local fire service or protection department as failure to do so may put fire-fighters as well as residents at risk.  The fire and rescue service will carry out an urgent inspection with the responsible person to ensure they know about and are introducing appropriate interim measures.  The fire service will carry out further inspections once the interim measures have been completed.