With more of us renting than ever before, the Government has brought in new regulations to raise the standard of our rental housing. By working together, landlords and tenants can do a lot to meet the new rules – and create healthier, happier homes in the process.
The research backs this up. On average, the standard of housing for renters is lower than for owner-occupiers. New Zealand homes often have issues with cold and damp, and this can have a whole range of negative effects including poor health outcomes, and long-term damage to properties from moisture and mould.
The Government has brought in a range of measures to improve the situation. While most of the headlines so far have been dedicated to new rules about insulation that’s just one of five areas with new requirements, which some landlords will need to start complying with from 2021. The others are heating, ventilation, moisture ingress and drainage, and draught stopping.
All of them are designed to make rental housing warmer, drier, healthier and more comfortable. They’re also ways to help tenants feel like the property they rent is a real home – a place that’s cared for and maintained, both by themselves and their landlords.
Metro spoke to several tenants and landlords about the new rules, their expectations, and their experiences of the Auckland rental market.
Now retired, Rudi worked for 40 years as a tiler and stonemason. He owns four rental properties – mostly commercial, but one also includes a residential flat. That property comes with some challenges when it comes to maintenance and improvements, because the historic building has restrictions on it.
This meant that when the new rules came into effect, Rudi did everything he could to meet the new requirements – including putting in underfloor insulation. “I found a promotion where if you spent $600, you got a $50 rebate,” he says. “That sounded good to me!”
Rudi completely supports the new rules. “A warm insulated home is essential,” he says, “and it should have been a legal requirement 30 or 40 years ago. Happy, well tenants are good tenants.” Because of his background as a tradie, he does much of the maintenance and improvement work himself.
“I’ve always had a great relationship with my tenants,” he says. “I’m more their friend than their landlord. However you shouldn’t get too close, as previously I’ve had tenants take advantage of my generosity. My daughter Krista takes care of the accounts and makes sure they pay their rent on time.”
“It’s all about communication,” Krista says, “both ways. I also put everything in writing, and I’m upfront and expect the same in return.” Rudi agrees. “You have to compromise and negotiate when something needs to be done,” he says. And that includes being pragmatic about meeting new rules when they come in.
“If it’s a legal requirement, it’s a legal requirement,” he says. “And it must be adhered to. No buts.”
Half Moon Bay, Auckland
Not all tenants are so lucky. Olivia has lived in her Half Moon Bay home for three years, and it’s been a constant battle to get the property manager and her landlord to acknowledge the problems with cold, moisture and mould. Olivia says on the whole, it’s quite a nice, low-maintenance house, with a relatively new kitchen and maintained gardens. But the heating and insulation is another story altogether.
“We’ve got zero heating in the house,” she says. “So we have to provide our own. We can’t really afford it. We bought a cheap heater that said it would be economical to run, but it’s really not. Our power bill was ridiculous. It wasn’t doing much, and it was costing an arm and a leg. It just wasn’t worth it.”
She also says that, until very recently, there were no secure latches at the property which made it harder to ventilate it safely. These factors can lead to mould – which they’ve found in their bedrooms, on window seals (which she says are also failing, so there are draughts too), on curtains, and in the bathroom.
The property manager told Olivia there was nothing they could do to fix the mould issue, and that the flatmates would simply have to scrub it away with bleach on a regular basis. The landlord did drop off a dehumidifier – which, like the heater, costs an enormous amount to run.
Olivia says her health was impacted last winter. The obvious question, of course, is why she and her flatmate don’t just look for a new place. The answer is simple: in the hyper-competitive Auckland rental market they’re not confident they’d do better.
“It’s really hard in Auckland to find a place,” she says. “It took us a wee while to even get this one. You’re often battling against families, who will always be a priority because they’ve got kids who’ll go to the local school, so that’s five years they’re likely to stay in that property… As a tenant, you do feel a little bit like [landlords and property managers] have all the power.”
With the new rules in place, tenants like Olivia should find it easier to raise issues about the health of their homes. But if that still doesn’t work, mediation can provide a useful framework for tenants and landlords to achieve the best results for both parties – and meet the new standards.
Grey Lynn, Auckland
When Sam moved to Auckland from Australia for work, the cost of rent in the central city was a shock. “For the cost of my [Grey Lynn] room,” she says, “I could rent a 4 bedroom house 20 minutes from the Brisbane CBD.”
Sam’s original plan had been to rent a one bedroom place. But when she weighed up the costs, she decided to go flatting instead. Being in a new city, she was reluctant to dive into any shared house situation. With the Grey Lynn bungalow she now shares with two others, she set up a time to meet her potential flatmates and see how well the property was looked after. She also asked if she could meet Ilse, the landlord, before she signed the contract, “just so I could get an understanding of whose house it was, because I do take a lot of pride in where I live.”
Meeting Ilse and seeing the state of the property gave her the confidence to move in. There was fresh paint, and she instantly noticed how warm the house was. “You could see Ilse had put a lot of hard work into it,” she says. “I think it’s important to look for somewhere that you think your landlord would live in as well; not somewhere they’re using just to make a bit of coin.”
Sam had heard the horror stories about cold, damp New Zealand houses, and, coming from Queensland, was nervous about her first winter here. But the 1940s bungalow has a heat pump in the living room, “and if you open up the other rooms, it can heat the whole house in about an hour. I’ve got the biggest bedroom, so I actually bought my own heater, but I’ve found I only need it on the coldest nights in July and August.”
The house is also raised off the ground and insulated, which makes a huge difference, both to the warmth and to avoiding moisture and mould. “Like with any old house, it’s something to keep your eye on for sure,” Sam says. “But because we’re cleaning it and looking after it, we haven’t seen any problems arise.”
Sam puts the flatmates’ willingness to keep the place tidy and well-ventilated partly down to their personal relationship with Ilse. “I guess it brings a bit of accountability, and responsibility for both parties,” she says. The quality of the house has also created warm connections between the flatmates, who often have dinner together out on the western-facing deck. “I have to be a bit too rugged up for my liking,” Sam jokes, “but it feels like Sunday every day out there. We feel really lucky.”
Grey Lynn, Auckland
Sam’s landlord Ilse lived in the house for a couple of years, which partly accounts for its high standard. Now, the house is part of Ilse and her husband’s portfolio of nine tenancies across seven properties, from Whangarei to Hamilton.
Ilse bought her first property in 2007 when she was in her early twenties, and says she made “quite a few errors with the first one or two,” by trying to manage them herself and be the “friendly landlord… That actually cost me thousands of dollars in tenancy costs, and chasing down payments.”
She realised she needed a professional property manager. “One of the reasons for that is I would never pretend to be at the fore of all of the legal and technical details around every aspect of the building, or the heating and insulation.” She now keeps a mix of professionally-managed and self-managed properties in the portfolio, and says she’s able to take what she learns from working with property managers and apply it to the tenancies she looks after herself.
When she and her husband purchase a property, they renovate immediately. She says they now have quite a “well-oiled model”, which involves interior painting, new carpet, blinds and curtains, renovating the kitchens, bathrooms and laundry, and installing heat pumps and extractor fans. In the case of the Grey Lynn house, the tenants noticed a couple of draughts after they moved in. Ilse got her builder in straight away to locate and stop them.
The goal is to get things to a low-maintenance, high-quality standard, so she and her husband can attract the best tenants. Then, Ilse says, “to retain those best tenants, I need to look after them. If I have fantastic tenants, and I have good communication lines with them and can work things through together, they’re more likely to feel settled in the property and I’m less likely to have turnover – which is extra admin and expense. So why not help the people who are already helping you?”
In a nutshell
There are five ways the Government is raising the standard of rental housing.
Landlords need to provide a heating source in the main living room, that meets a required heating capacity year-round. The Raise the Standard website has a link to a heating assessment tool that will calculate the minimum heating capacity you’ll need for your property. Plus the heater has to be fixed – it can’t just get wheeled in for colder months.
Ceiling and underfloor insulation has been compulsory since 1 July 2019. The healthy homes standard builds on current regulations and some existing insulation will need to be topped up or replaced.
Every liveable space – pretty much everywhere but the hallway – needs an openable window or door. Kitchens and bathrooms need extractor fans that vent to the outside, to let out moisture and improve air flow.
MOISTURE INGRESS AND DRAINAGE
Landlords need to make sure gutters and downpipes are in good working order. And if there’s a space between the floor and the ground, you also need a ground moisture barrier.
Landlords need to seal up any unreasonable gaps or holes that cause noticeable draughts.
For more information about the healthy homes standards visit raisethestandard.nz