Property: Three's an Expensive Crowd ; New Scottish Rules for Renting out Shared Homes Are Worrying English Letting Agents. with Tougher Laws Also Being Proposed South of the Border, There Are Fears Young Sharers Will Be Hardest Hit
Jackson, Penny, The Independent (London, England)
Sharing a bedroom, fighting for the bathroom and clearing up the kitchen after your friends is often the price to be paid for a place in town. Few of the generations of city flat-sharers would regard their chaotic, quasi-family life as the same as living in the more anonymous surroundings of a bedsit, yet the law might well come to regard them as identical.
The definition of a house in multiple occupation, or HMO, is not the same in all parts of the country, with different councils giving different interpretations. Unscrupulous landlords who provide dangerous, cramped bedsits to vulnerable tenants are the obvious target of any new law, yet legislation that has come into force in Scotland this month is worrying letting agents south of the border. Many of the new breed of landlord drawn in by buy-to-let schemes would be affected.
All Scottish properties deemed to be an HMO should now be licensed, and by 2003 that will apply to three or more unrelated tenants. A licence is expected to cost anything from pounds 400 to pounds 1,700. Money must also be spent on complying with requirements such as emergency lighting and telephones, and according to the Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA), stipulated siting of washbasins, lavatories and "activity spaces". Failure to comply can result in a heavy fine or even imprisonment.
In Scotland, some local authorities already classify all shared homes as HMOs, which has set the alarm bells ringing in England where the Government is also proposing new, tougher legislation.
Frances Burkinshaw, chairman of ARLA, is pressing for a definition of property that should be excluded from both existing and future regulations. Where the occupants are jointly and severally responsible for the payment of rent and the protection and care of the property, they should be regarded as a family, she argues. "This will rescue the landlords of these shared, single- unit properties from having to make an absurd choice, either to stop letting to sharers or go down the most astonishingly bureaucratic route."
Peterborough city council has decreed that any property within its area housing two or more unconnected people must be registered as an HMO. The fee will be pounds 50 per habitable room, excluding bathroom and kitchen. In practical terms it means that the landlord of a three-bedroom family semi, let to three sharers, will have to be registered at a cost of pounds 250 which covers inspection.
A local ARLA agent recently walked out of a meeting with environmental health, planning and the fire brigade because "they could not agree what was needed."
So what lessons can be learned from the Scottish model? Ian Potter, a lettings agent in Glasgow and a member of ARLA's national council, endorses the need to improve standards in bedsits and houses where there are large groups of tenants, but feels politicians have waded in without considering the implications. He sees properties being drawn into the HMO net, either by over- cautious authorities or because the definition is not clear. "This has caused an underground market of mostly less safe properties," he says. "As landlords decide to stop that kind of letting it is causing frustration among people wanting to share. …