Should rentals come with a warrant of fitness?
There are around 480,000 residential rental properties in New Zealand which make up about 30 per cent of the country's housing stock.
If you own a rental property you'll no doubt be aware of your obligations as landlord regarding the maintenance of your property.
There is, however, the prospect of a warrant of fitness scheme for residential rental properties that has recently been discussed. The children's commissioner, in his report to the Government on child poverty and Christchurch's Tenants Protection Association (in terms of the particular issues facing the Christchurch rental market following the earthquakes), has raised this topic as worthy of serious consideration.
The suggestion is that all rental properties be required to pass a compulsory health and safety type-warrant of fitness, with the properties being unable to be rented out unless the dwelling has a valid WOF. The rationale is that this scheme would force landlords to ensure their rental properties meet the Government's requirements with a view to healthier properties being available for those who rent.
A mandatory WOF scheme would be in contrast to voluntary government initiatives which have been implemented to provide incentives to property owners to insulate and install energy efficient heating systems into their properties.
Although there's currently no formal warrant of fitness scheme for rental properties in place, landlords do have obligations to their tenants set by the Residential Tenancies Act 1986. In turn, that piece of legislation requires you to comply with other legal provisions regarding buildings, and health and safety. So this means you should also be aware of your responsibilities under the Building Act 2004, Building Code, Health Act 1956, Housing Improvement Regulations and bylaws which are set by individual councils.
You'll be aware that your obligation as landlord includes providing a property which is reasonably secure, maintaining your property and carrying out reasonable repairs having regard to the age and character of the premises, ensuring the plumbing, electrical wiring and the structure of the property is safe and in working order. When offering the property for rental, you also must ensure it's in a reasonably clean state. This is not an exhaustive list, but it's indicative of your duties as a landlord.
You also need to ensure your properties aren't dangerous or unsanitary. Local authorities set policies to deal with dangerous and unsanitary buildings. Dangerous buildings are those which are likely to cause injury, death or damage to other properties; unsanitary properties are those that are offensive or likely to be injurious to health. Check your local bylaws if you're concerned about whether your property may be dangerous or unsanitary, or if your tenants have complained about this.
Many of the obligations imposed on landlords are simply commonsense requirements - where it's in your best interests to maintain your property so it's in good order and not prone to rot or deterioration over time.
If you're unsure of your full list of obligations the Department of Building and Housing has information sheets regarding rights and responsibilities for both landlords and tenants. Have a look at www.dbh.govt.nz. If you don't meet your obligations you may be prosecuted, depending on the circumstances and particular breach.
It's common sense to keep your rental property well maintained, and to ensure that it's safe and warm for your tenants. It's also a good commercial decision to keep your investment in sound order.
Elspeth Horner is a partner in Wellington law firm, Morrison Kent. Information in Your Law should not be a substitute for legal advice.
Sunday Star Times