Who controls the heating? Landlords or tenants?

After I graduated and got my first ‘proper’ job in London, my wife-to-be and I rented a particularly poky studio flat in west London.

The worst things about it were the cold and the damp. There was a radiator in the main room but we had no control over it. What little ‘heat’ we ever detected in it was clearly designed to stop the system freezing over and nothing more. In winter, it wasn’t unusual for us to spend the evenings sitting on our sofa-bed while wearing two jumpers and a coat.

The flat was essentially an annexe to a house of multiple occupation (HMO), which was home to a variety of largely transient tenants. Everyone’s electricity ran off a single prepayment meter and we took it in turns to take the plastic key to a local shop, where you could top it up with £10 worth of electricity.

In winter this didn’t last long, largely because everyone had bought expensive-to-run electric heaters in a bit to keep at least slightly warm.

Unsurprisingly, the landlord didn’t keep his tenants for very long. We lasted about eight months – rather longer than most of the people who lived in the main part of the house. We didn’t get our deposit back though and I doubt many of the other tenants did either. Perhaps that’s how the landlord made his money. If so, I hope bad karma caught up with him eventually!

Can a landlord legally box in a thermostat?

I was put in mind of that terrible studio flat today when I read this article on the BBC News website. It’s about a tenant who lives in an HMO that’s not a million miles from the part of west London I used to live in.

The house he lives in has a Google Nest thermostat that controls the heating and hot water. Very modern, you might think. But there’s nothing modern about the plastic cage his landlady installed over it – preventing any of the tenants changing the heating or hot water settings.

The story went viral on Twitter, prompting lots of people to question whether the landlady’s actions were legal or not.

According to the article, a property owner is perfectly entitled to control the heating in HMOs or in normal rented properties with fewer than three tenants – assuming that they pay the bills. In other words, if heating is included in the rent, the landlord can set the thermostat or put it in a cage!

That said, landlords do need to be careful. Tenants have rights to heating and hot water, and they shouldn’t have to live in properties where they are exposed to “unreasonable extremes of temperature”. Guidance suggests that serious health risks can occur when the needle drops below 16 degrees centigrade.

If you’re a landlord, it’s probably wise not to rush out and buy cages for your thermostats. Your tenants will only plug in electric heaters – and even if you don’t pay the electricity bill, that’s an extra fire hazard you don’t want.

Also, the amount of money you’ll save on your gas bill will be more than offset if annoyed tenants vote with their feet and move out – finding new tenants costs money, and if a room stays empty for a month or more you’ll be much more out of pocket.

We know full well that margins in the buy-to-let market are being squeezed these days. But rather than alienate your tenants, we recommend you look for other ways of increasing your profits. You’ll find some helpful ideas in our article on strategies for improving buy-to-let income.

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