There is no doubt that winter is firmly setting in. As the seasons change, a new challenge picks up pace for the nation’s renters and landlords – managing damp, condensation and mould issues.

Mould growth in a rented property can be more than just an unsightly annoyance. This pesky issue can cause health problems for tenants, the property to fall into disrepair and if left unchecked can even land the landlord in legal hot water.

But what causes mould, damp and condensation problems? What are tenants rights in this situation, should the fixing the issue be a landlord responsibility, or does the clean up land at the feet of the resident?

The common causes of mould in a property

A mould problem in the home is most often caused by a build-up of condensation. This occurs when moisture held in warm air (such as from showering or boiling kettle) meets cold surfaces, such as a glass window or a tiled wall. The warm air then condenses into excess moisture, which has nowhere to go.  Modern homes have actually made this situation worse. Better standards of insulation, such as double glazing and draught proofing work brilliantly at keeping heat in, but also trap moisture in exactly the same way.

If this happens regularly, the pooling excess moisture lingers in the same area, settling in regular places, such as on window frames and in the corners of baths, which can eventually becomes a mould infestation.

Whilst tasks such as showering and boiling kettles are an obvious source of condensation problems, another key day-to-day household task that is high on the list for creating excess moisture in the air is drying clothes. Every average sized load of wet washing holds a staggering one litre (nearly two pints) of water. That’s a lot of liquid to disappear into thin air every time a tenant needs to dry clothes!

Overcrowding can be a real issue too. Depending on how humid the air around us, the average person loses around 300 to 500 millilitres of fluid a day through just breathing. It’s no surprise that a lot of people in one small space, or even one person in a space that is too small can result in mould if left unchecked and unventilated!

Of course, the cause of damp doesn’t have to come from inside the property. Damaged guttering, broken roof tiles/flashing, damaged mortar in external walls or a leaky pipe hidden deep within a wall can all be sneaky culprits of a dodgy damp area inside the property. This is known as penetrating damp. Coupled with poor ventilation inside, all it takes is a few days of wet weather or a slow leak on a pipe fitting and you could be facing a damp spot that will struggle to dry out.

Finally, everyone’s favourite – rising damp. Occurring on the ground floor or basement, this sort of damp happens when moisture is soaked up though a broken or absent damp proof course, into the bricks or concrete foundations of the property. This situation is now slightly rarer, thanks to effective damp proof courses being present in most properties.

What are the dangers?

As well as being unsightly, some mould issues can actually have real impacts on tenant’s health.

Black mould releases tiny spores which travel through the home, triggering allergies, asthma, and fungal infections.  The Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) classes mould as a category one hazard, and requires a landlord to remove or reduce any damp or mould factors that could have any impact on a tenant’s physical or social wellbeing. This applies to homes owned by a private landlord or local authority. You can read all of the HHSRS hazards here.

As well as being risky to your tenant’s wellbeing, a damp problem will undoubtably have a lasting impact on the health of your property. Should internal walls be subject to ongoing moisture, it is likely that significant repair work will be required to get plasterwork back up to a good standard, and woodwork is likely to suffer too.

In the very worst cases, damp can invade the very foundations of a building, and if this happens, you could be facing a really hefty bill – but it’s very possible to solve, so don’t panic! Additionally, it is outlined in Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 that a landlord has a responsibility to ensure that the structure and exterior of the dwelling-house is kept in working order so if damp is causing a problem in your property, you need to fix the issue quickly to ensure not only that your asset is safe and secure, but that you are not breaching any landlord legislation (you can check out some more of your legal requirements here).

How to fix the issue

Working out where the problem is coming from is the first hurdle. Once you have figured out what is causing the problem, you can set about tackling the issue.

There are some simple fixes that will make a really big difference inside your property.

  • Install light-activated extractor fans in the bathroom and kitchen – these are the key areas that cause problems internally
  • Install a tumble dryer – and incentivise your tenants to use it if they are nervous about the cost
  • Explore vented windows – if windows are left unopened, bedrooms can be hotspots for condensation. Many windows now offer vented options allowing airflow whilst maintaining warmth and security
  • Consider installing air bricks if they are not in place already, and check that they have not been blocked up!
  • Request that large items of furniture (wardrobes etc) are not pushed flat to the wall. This encourages air flow around them, and prevents build up behind them

If you have a significant problem, you may need to look at ventilating the property, using dehumidifiers to draw water out of the fabric of the building. A dehumidifier can be hired from a local DIY store, but they must be left on continually and are not always very quiet – so the tenant may want to vacate the property whilst this is ongoing!

If damp has crept in from the outside, your focus should be on managing repair work to address the immediate cause. Ensuring maintenance of your roof, guttering, damp proof course and brick work is up to date is vital.

Landlords not managing mould

Manging damp appropriately can be tricky, as often tenants are nervous about reporting it to landlords.

There is a concern amongst some tenants that the blame for any damp within the property will be placed firmly at their feet, and that the first time they report an issue they will pay the price with an eviction notice.

However, whilst it is vital that landlords carry out any repairs that are needed within a reasonable timeframe, they can only do so if they know about them. Details of how a tenant can report any concerns must be included in the tenancy agreement, with UK contact details for the landlord, or their representative clearly stated.

Once a problem has been reported, it is landlord’s responsibility to respond in writing within 14 days to the tenant, noting details of what they intend to do about the issue, and giving a clear timeframe for works.  

If the landlord fails to do this, the tenant can raise the issue with their local council, where the environmental health team will investigate. If a landlord then tries to evict the tenant within six months of the problem being reported but not addressed, they will be unable to enforce the section 21 notice.

In worst case scenarios, failing to manage mould could even land you in court. A new law, the Fitness for Human Habitation Act came in force in 2018, designed to make sure that all rented properties are free from anything that could cause serious harm.

If a property is not fit for human habitation, tenants have the ability to seek legal advice and ultimately take their landlord to court, where they can be forced to carry out repairs, or put right health and safety issues. The landlord can also be made to pay the tenant compensation.

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