Property firms are being urged to make sure their health and safety checks are in place after a property firm was fined £20,000 after a potential buyer fell down a 30-foot well during a viewing.
Lucy Driver was looking at the house in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, last year when she walked off a garden path and fell through a board covering the well opening and had to be rescued by the Fire Service. Strakers admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act and was heavily fined. Allegedly, the estate agent had been told about the well before the accident happened, but had not carried out a thorough inspection.
Although health and safety guidance when showing people around property is vague, agents have a duty of care to carry out property risk assessments to make sure everyone is safe, including employees and customers. The first thing to do is to ask the current owner if there are any safety issues to raise, which have not been picked up on at an initial inspection. Then you can walk through each room looking out for any potential hazards such as a faulty boiler, exposed wiring, wobbly paving slabs, loose roof tiles or missing floorboards. These should be included in any report, so that anyone who has to deal with the house knows the score. Also, some properties may have steep steps without railings or poor lighting in the basement. These also need to be pointed out to potential buyers, to make them more careful and, therefore, less likely to have an accident. These are also areas which need to be highlighted to potential tenants or buy-to-let investors, and doing so shows a duty of care by the professional body in charge of the property. It shows that the estate agent or letting firm is acting professionally and rates customer care highly, as part of their business obligations.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a Housing, Health and Safety Rating System guide for landlords and other property professionals, to point out potential problem areas, both inside and outside a property. It is a complicated area, because a single fault could contribute to more than one hazard, while several deficiencies could cause or contribute to the same hazard. For example, a poorly-maintained ceiling could cause excess cold because it loses heat, allow fire to spread to other parts of the building, provide a breeding ground for pests, and increase the spread of noise between rooms. Similarly, the same ceiling together with a badly-fitting door and lack of smoke detector could all contribute towards fire hazards, by helping smoke and flames to spread without being detected.
If these problems go unchecked, it could be costly for landlords if it comes to the attention of the local authority during inspections, or following a complaint. The council could serve improvement notices, serve an emergency prohibition order, serve a hazard awareness notice which is advisory, or even serve a demolition order. Obviously, professional landlords and agents would never let a problem get so severe, but it shows the need to keep inspections and inventories up-to-date or risk making very costly mistakes.