Hands on HMOs – Don’t Shoot the Messenger #2

Hands on HMOs – Don’t Shoot the Messenger #2

13:50 PM, 23rd September 2011, About 13 years ago 7

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When a tenant has a beef with their landlord, I’m the guy they go to. My job is to either negotiate or prosecute, depending on the circumstances. This occasional and random series aims to let landlords know the common complaints that are made about them, the laws that cover them and how to deal with it.

My flatmates and I have big rows about bills and I am freezing and the landlord is ripping us off.

I can’t tell you how many times I get this complaint.

You let out an HMO to 5 or 6 tenants and they bring many issues with them- as so many HMO tenants do. There are 2 house styles for dealing with it:-

  • You chuck a gas card and an electricity key at them and leave them to it.
  • You take rent inclusive of bills and stick a lock on the timer, set to your own personal thermometer.

Method number 1 causes fights and arguments between the tenants, you get sucked into things as they bitch about lost cards and keys and who is using more than everyone else.

Method number 2 means you get the hump because they are using more than you consider they are paying for.

Either approach is akin to “light the blue touch paper and retire”, as the old instructions on the firework boxes used to say. An expression I always found strange as

a) I am too young to retire
b) Why do I have to give up work just for lighting a firework?

Anyway, I digress.

A short lesson in Anthropology

I once studied social anthropology at what was then Thames Polytechnic/now Greenwich University. When you study that stuff you understand that when groups of people get together they create social systems automatically, a bit like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which many of us have studied at school.

Cliques form, hierarchies are established, pecking orders get created.

This is not a healthy system, especially in an HMO where drink and drugs are not unknown aggravating factors. And who gets the backlash for this? Landlords of course.

Setting up a letting with no control over the utility bills is to light that blue touch paper.

2 Types of landlord

I have a theory that there 2 ways to run a letting;

  • Hands on
  • Hands off

Both have their uses and roles but I err towards the hands on approach for running HMOs, not because I see what happens when a landlord doesn’t do it, which causes me so much grief as the official ‘complaining officer’, but also from the HMO landlords I know who are brilliant at it. It isn’t that they don’t encounter problems but their response is far more philosophical, which causes them far less stress and their hands-on approach over-rides the power struggles in the house.

Leaving a bunch of people in a shared house to find their own level is madness in the extreme. As with any social group the loudest voices will dominate and a backbench will form to undermine the authority that took control without being appointed. Before you know it you have a war-zone on your hands.

Fights break out about who uses more electricity; people come to blows when someone wants the heating on in August that the non-lizards have to shell out for. Locks on timers get broken off, landlords have to keep replacing as well refereeing never-ending arguments about use of supply. Why put yourself through this?

Help is at hand

In the next few years every home in the land is going to have to install Smart meters for bills. Electricity and gas meters that can be read online – an end to estimates and the geezer with the torch who has to pull everything out from under your stairs periodically to get a reading.

There are companies around who install these things. I only know of one company, there may be more, who install special landlord/tenant tariff ones that allows them to chase ex tenants for outstanding bills and don’t bother the landlord for missing dosh.

Spark Energy have a deal where they do just that (I don’t have a deal with them honestly, I just think it’s a great idea) where they can individually meter each room. If a tenant runs into trouble they can reduce supply without actually disconnecting. I also think is quite a humane way of dealing with it and at the moment I understand they install them for free.

The results are no more arguments over bills between the tenants, less discord and less hassle for the landlord, who can just charge a small fee for the common parts. As with rent protection insurance I think it’s a no-brainer really.

Your HMO tenants are going to argue and fight with each other anyway, that is basic Social Anthropology for you, but you can at least avoid being drawn into their arguments over use of utilities and you might even encourage a little self-responsibility into the bargain. Plus you won’t have to keep replacing the locks on the timers.

And most importantly, I won’t have them coming through my front door telling me that their landlord is Satan incarnate and have to phone you up for a row over something I am in full agreement with you on.

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16:49 PM, 23rd September 2011, About 13 years ago

Yet another good point, Ben and one I was discussing just a few hours ago with a new HMO landlord. He was shocked when I recommended putting boilers and controls in lockable cupboards thinking that his new tenants would all be fair when using the utilities. If you're not the bill payer, you abuse it. Do you remember that, as teenagers, we'd spend hours on the phone to our mates (girls did anyway) and your parents would scream when the phone bill arrived 3 months later? It's the same with gas, electric and tenants.

In my experience people from colder climes like to keep the house at a reasonable temperature, whereas those from the southern hemisphere like to keep the house at a toasty 30 degrees 24 hours a day. And if it gets too hot? They don't turn down the thermostat, they just open all the windows. It's also for the tenants' own safety that they don't mess around with boilers and their controls. The only people who look at boilers should be the plumber and landlord so locking in a cupboard is the best policy.

Boilers are timed just as mine are at home and in line with the Environmental Health guideline. If anyone's feeling chilly outside these hours they can (a) go to the library or other community facility (b) put on an exercise DVD until the heating comes on or (c) talk to me and we'll find a compromise. Heating goes on 6am-9am, 12-1pm and 4pm-11pm - not unreasonable methinks. If you're worried about HMO electricity usage read this: http://hmolandlady.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/hmo-tenants-really-are-greener-heres-the-proof/

Ben Reeve-Lewis

17:54 PM, 23rd September 2011, About 13 years ago

Yeah I've known landlords, housemates and tenants come to blows over the heat issue. And you are right about southern climes. My missus Frazzy, being from Barbados, nearly kills me with the heat and I love cold snowy days. Norway would be my preferred clime.

Not sure about your library solution though haha. But you see individual room meters would take all the arguments out of it and teach the tenants a bit about budgeting and reposnibility

Mary Latham

11:07 AM, 24th September 2011, About 13 years ago

Thank you Ben I will pass on this very helpful information to all the HMO landlords that I know.

follow me on twitter @landlordtweets

7:05 AM, 29th September 2011, About 13 years ago

Just a small matter but worth mentioning - Energy Performance Certificates are not legally required for HMOs. Save your money.
EPC Choice


11:44 AM, 30th September 2011, About 13 years ago

I refuse to use key meters because I think they are a rip-off and it's unfair to tenants: we are not living in the dark ages of coins in meters. However I've always resisted offering "bills inclusive" rents because of the fear that the tenants then run the heating full blast and I'll be left covering the cost. However I recognise tenants like bills inclusive because they are often relatively young and inexperienced and it helps them to budget: they know exactly how much is going out each month on their housing costs, so they can spend and save the remainder with confidence.

In my view the way round the excessive-useage issue is to set a stop-loss on the bills. Tell the tenants the rent level, so they can see it's a market rent, then add a fixed sum per month to cover council tax, gas, water, electricity and TV license, again showing them your figures so they agree they are fair. Crucially, you need then to include a clause in the contract that says if the utility billls work out more than the amount you've budgeted for in your fixed sum, they must pay their share of the difference, deducted from their deposit if necessary. Also, if you run a houseshare, they have to agree to settle up the bills to date if someone moves out and is replaced, so the bills are set to zero.

For the sake of fairness I also say that if the bills come in under the amount budgeted, the tenants get a refund. This provides some incentive to keep costs down.

I don't think you'll ever solve the issue of disputes over heating. Mobiles have largely solved the problem of disputes over phone bills, but if it's not heating, people will always find something to fall out about, especially cleaning.

My solution does involve more work for the landlord, in that you have to administer the bills, but I think it's a price worth paying to support tenant happiness.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

10:12 AM, 1st October 2011, About 13 years ago

Good to hear Tony. You are right that is some ways it takes more effort but it does save other effort elswhere.

I love your idea about transparency over charges too. One of the most common things I hear said about landlords is that they are greedy and money grabbing. You and I know that often landlords are struggling and are only 1 missing tenant's payments away from mortgage arrears. In showing where their money goes it can go some way towards challenging that commonly held misperception.

I think that is a good idea that I will recommend to others, a rent book with an itemised bill.

My preferred tactic in a complaint of harassment or threats to illegaly evict is to get the landlord and tenant together, either in the property or my office and just getting them chatting to each other. Break down the imposed walls that both parties end up hiding behind, lobbing grenades over the wall at each other. I find both sides often soften up a bit when they have another human in front of them, and I often encourage the landlrod to talk to the tenant about what they have to shell out for.

It didnt work the other day though when the landlord arrived at the property for one of my mediation session in a black Bentley and a personalised number plate haha. Tip....if this is you, borrow another car when visiting tenants!

Tracy Conner

20:23 PM, 25th April 2016, About 8 years ago

We have found that by giving groups key meters they let them go into the red and run out of energy when they are skint, especially over Christmas or holidays. Then the boilers need firing up (often a call out) and you end up with condensation / black mould during cold and wet winters. This becomes a redecorating cost and a possible issue in the last month when the tenant wants to exit early and blames the environment on their 'breathing problems' ... pay the bills, it's easier and may be cheaper in the long run!

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