Stockport Homes Limited
26 November 2021
The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme). The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.
Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.
- The resident complains about:
- The landlord’s response to his report of repairs needed at the property which he considers should have been identified by the landlord’s mutual exchange inspection.
- How the landlord handled the formal complaint.
Background and summary of events
- The resident is a tenant of a three-bedroom semi-detached house (the property). The resident became a tenant by way of mutual exchange.
- In the year prior to the mutual exchange, the landlord inspected the property and produced an inspection report dated 6 January 2017 which referred to various repairs including the following:
- Damaged dining room doors which were described as “beyond repair” and “rechargeable”.
- Shed clearouts. “Three to clear” and “rechargeable”.
- “No drop kerb/boundary or driveway and front entrance gate/fence missing” and “rechargeable”.
- On 12 January 2018 (prior to the mutual exchange), the landlord completed an inspection of the property. The report notes include the following:
- “Front open – no dropped kerb (always been like this).” Under the recharge column it states “N”.
- The condition of the property is marked as satisfactory.
- The transfer was agreed subject to the current tenant taking some actions such as removing drawing pins and reporting a crack to the repairs team.
- On 26 March 2018, the resident contacted the landlord requesting some work be completed at the property. He said that the patio at the back of the property had sunken down. He was concerned that it was a trip hazard and may be collapsing. He also said that the sheds at the back of the property were in need of repair.
- The resident also asked about the driveway stating that there was not currently a dropped kerb, but as he had three children, two of whom were disabled and it would help to be able to park on the drive. He explained that he had made enquiries with the Council who advised that the cost was £936.80 to drop the kerb but that this could not be completed until additional work was completed. He requested financial help for this additional work. He complained that the driveway, the state of the shed and the patio were not identified in previous inspections. He also asked for the patio work to be escalated as he could not wait six months for this, referring to a danger of the wall collapsing or concrete floor giving way. He said that one of his children had tripped over the patio ledge.
- An inspection was arranged for 5 April 2018. The landlord’s notes of this visit state that the resident refused repair works to the outhouses as he wanted to demolish them.
- On 9 April 2018, the resident contacted the landlord again. The resident said that the inspector had attended and noted that the previous tenants had installed an illegal tarmac driveway and there was poor workmanship but the landlord would not help repair this. The resident said he wanted to raise a complaint. He asked how no one had identified an illegal driveway previously and stated that the inspection prior to the mutual exchange did not address this, or the patio issues and collapsing wall of the shed. The resident said that the only item on the mutual exchange form was a lock missing from the bathroom door so when he signed the forms he understood that this was his responsibility but not an illegal driveway.
- The resident chased a response to his complaint on 3 May 2018 and 11 June 2018. The landlord acknowledged the complaint on 12 June 2018 and said it aimed to respond by 26 June 2018.
- On 6 July 2018, the landlord responded to the complaint. The landlord said it had visited the property and arranged for the drainage system at the rear to be checked. It said that once it had established what works were required, it could then arrange for remedial works to both the drainage system and to the path. The landlord said it would look to complete other works once the drain check was done including the removal of the outbuildings and reinstatement of the steps leading down to the garden which were “uneven, inadequate and a potential hazard”. The landlord said it would contact the resident once the results of the drain check were received.
- In response to the resident’s concerns about the inspection that took place prior to the mutual exchange, the landlord acknowledged that it had inspected the property in January 2017 and the majority of defects had been picked up at that stage. The landlord said it had discussed the procedure with a manager as exchange visits were now done by a Neighbour Officer (NO) and they needed to be aware of what to look for. It had agreed to arrange training to take place. It said that an NO had completed an inspection but had not been aware of the previous visit in January 2017. The landlord said that access to previous mutual exchange inspections would form part of the training. The letter gave the resident four weeks to appeal the decision.
- On 11 July 2018, the resident submitted an application under the Right to Buy (RTB) legislation.
- On 11 September 2018, the resident contacted the landlord stating that it had been six months since his complaint but no work had been completed. He said he had seen the January 2017 report which said that issues should have been addressed by the landlord and billed to the previous tenant. He requested the landlord address the patio, refund him the cost of the drop kerb and replace the bedroom door stating it should have been billed to the previous tenant.
- On 17 September 2018, the landlord wrote to the resident advising that the works discussed were improvements works which did not fall under section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and therefore it was not obliged to complete these while the property was the subject of a Right to Buy application. Further it was not obliged to contribute towards any costs of the kerb dropping.
- On 10 April 2019, the resident contacted the landlord stating that the RTB application had been withdrawn and requesting that the work be completed. The resident chased a response on 3 May 2019. A further inspection was arranged for 22 May 2019. On 28 June 2019 and 26 July 2019, the resident chased up the work. On 1 November 2019, the resident said he had still heard nothing further from the landlord and requested his previous formal complaint be escalated.
- On 15 November 2019, the landlord apologised for the delay in the issue being resolved and said its contractor would contact him directly soon. On 22 November 2019, the resident said he had not yet been contacted by a contractor and requested the complaint be escalated.
- On 25 November 2019, the landlord advised the resident that due to the time that had elapsed since his initial complaint, it was not possible for the complaint to be escalated to Stage Two but it offered to open a new Stage One complaint. The resident repeated his request for the complaint to be escalated and said if this was not possible, a meeting with a manager.
- A meeting was arranged but this did not resolve the complaint. On 20 December 2019, the landlord wrote to the resident acknowledging that the resident remained unhappy that the response to his previous complaint did not address the poor condition of the property. It noted that he complained about the quality of the inspection carried out prior to him moving in and the fact that a more comprehensive one was completed in 2017. He complained that there were items on the earlier report which had still not been resolved and had been missed by the housing officer, including holes in the doors, an unapproved driveway, uneven paving to the rear and issues with the shed.
- On 22 January 2020, the landlord responded to the complaint. The landlord said that the January 2017 inspection was completed by a technical surveyor and a housing officer and a year later a further inspection was completed by a housing officer. The landlord said that technical surveyors no longer carry out inspections however it appreciated his frustration that it had information which was not acted on. The landlord acknowledged that it needed to review its process and ensure that officers completing inspections check to see if there are any previous documents available. It also acknowledged repeated contact from the resident and apologised. The landlord offered £50 in vouchers in recognition of inconvenience caused.
- On 24 January 2020, the resident requested escalation of the complaint stating that the complaint response had not addressed the expenditure he had incurred that should have been billed to the previous tenant. He said that the 2017 inspection report said that the bedroom doors needed replacing and this was to be billed to the customer and that the customer was using the driveway without a drop kerb so a drop kerb should be installed and billed to the customer. The resident said that as he had repaired the doors at his own expense and had to pay approximately £900 to have the kerb dropped, he had paid for the previous tenant’s faults. The landlord was addressing the sheds and patio but he felt it was unfair he had incurred costs in relation to the other issues.
- On 10 February 2020, the landlord responded stating that there were no grounds to take the complaint to a panel. The landlord said that the reason for this was that the property was taken on through a mutual exchange and under this process the incoming tenant agrees to take on the property “as seen” which was outlined in the paperwork when the assignment took place. The landlord said that an inspection in 2017 states that the internal doors in the dining room were in poor condition beyond fair wear and tear, and if replaced by the landlord, the costs would have been recharged to the tenant, but the tenant was not under an obligation to ask the landlord to complete the work, or could have chosen to arrange it themselves. The paperwork explicitly states that the incoming tenant accepts responsibility for all repairs of this nature so it was not responsible for the costs of replacing any internal doors.
- In terms of the driveway, the landlord said that it was noted that the previous tenant was using the front of the property as a driveway but “in the context of recognising that they should be contacting the Council to seek permission to lower the kerb”. This was not work that it would generally carry out as a landlord but tenants can usually arrange it themselves. It was the resident’s choice to lower the kerb so it was not liable for this. The landlord concluded that the vouchers previously offered were to recognise that there had been an undue delay in removing the outbuilding that was in poor condition, which should have been picked up on when the RTB application was withdrawn.
- On 31 May 2020, the resident requested the landlord prioritise the work to the patio once COVID 19 restrictions had been lifted as his son had tripped on the uneven surface. A visit was arranged for 5 June 2020.
- The resident has informed the Ombudsman that the brick outhouse was demolished in March 2020, but the patio works are still incomplete.
Assessment and findings
Mutual exchange terms and Mutual exchange procedure
- The agreement for the mutual exchange included the following terms:
- “I undertake to accept the tenancy and enter into occupation of the other party’s dwelling indicated hereon in its present condition”.
- “I accept full responsibility on entering the property of the other party and for the cost of remedying any defect not due to fair wear and tear left by the other party and which would otherwise have been his/her responsibility and I will not claim against the Council for such defects”.
- The landlord’s Mutual exchange procedure includes the following:
- In relation to the property inspection, the procedure states that the Neighbourhood Housing Officer (NHO) or Independent Living Coordinator (ILC) “must look for any damage or signs of neglect and poor property condition along with any repairs that need to be reported. They should also identify whether there have been any alterations to the property or non-standard fittings installed; non-standard fittings should be checked for functionality where possible. Where extensive non-standard alterations or damage have been identified a further technical inspection may be required. Where external areas fall within the boundary of the property these must also be inspected for alterations and non-standard items”.
- “If alterations have been made or non-standard fittings installed these must be individually itemised on the property inspection report and the incoming tenant needs to sign to take ownership of the non-standard items or the outgoing tenant must return non-standard items back to standard before the exchange can progress. In all cases a re-inspection must be carried out by the NHO/ILC before progressing.”
- Further the procedure states that as part of the signup process: “Both tenants must sign an “Agreement for Exchange of Dwellings” form or equivalent of another registered landlord, confirming that they take responsibility for repairing any defects which were the responsibility of the previous tenant, and for maintaining any non-standard fittings installed by the previous tenant. Where applicable, a list of defects must be given to the tenants so they are clear on their responsibilities for these, along with decorative condition and cleanliness.
- The landlord’s Mutual Exchange policy states that “All instances of poor property condition will be considered on an individual basis. Where rechargeable repairs are identified at a property, individual circumstances will be taken into account when agreeing a remedy. However, [the landlord] will not permit exchanges where there are Health and Safety concerns over alterations or improvements, this is to protect the incoming tenant from harm and [the landlord] from liability. In these circumstances the tenant will be required to fully remedy the defect before conditional approval can be given. [The landlord] can decide to remedy the defect and to recharge the tenant in such circumstances all recharges must be paid before the exchange goes ahead. [The landlord] will not take responsibility in cases where tenants choose to accept a property in poor condition or requiring work.”
Rechargeable Repairs policy
- The landlord’s Rechargeable repairs policy states that:
- Tenants have a responsibility to repair any damage caused by themselves, their family or visitors to their property under the terms of the tenancy agreement.
- Tenants disputing costs or charges may appeal or challenge the charge within 60 days of an invoice date.
- [The landlord] recognises that in some specific circumstances, raising a rechargeable repair will not benefit the responsible tenant or the organisation and in these cases, a flexible approach will be taken.
Assessment: Internal doors
- The resident complained that the landlord had identified that there were defects to the internal doors in January 2017 for which the landlord should have charged the previous tenant. The resident has informed the Ombudsman that he has carried out a temporary repair by filling the holes and painting the doors.
- The inspection report of January 2017 provided by the landlord evidences that the landlord was aware of damage to the dining room doors which were beyond repair prior to the mutual exchange. However, this issue was not identified in the inspection that took place shortly before the mutual exchange.
- When responding to the complaint, the landlord relied on the terms of the mutual exchange that the resident agreed to take on responsibility for any defect at the property not due to fair wear and tear left by the previous tenant and refused to compensate the resident for the money spent remedying these defects or replace the doors. In its earlier complaint responses, the landlord acknowledged that training needed to be arranged since the officer completing the inspection should have had access to the previous inspection report and inspectors needed to be aware of what to look for.
- The Ombudsman’s Disputes Resolution Principles are:
- Be fair – treat people fairly and follow fair processes
- Put things right
- Learn from outcomes
- The landlord has acted fairly in acknowledging the shortcoming that the inspection had not identified some of the issues that it had identified previously. It is also acknowledged that the strict terms of the mutual exchange meant that the resident accepted responsibility for certain defects. However, it was unfair that the landlord has not considered the impact of the shortcomings of its inspection prior to the mutual exchange. Had this inspection identified all the relevant defects, the resident would have been made aware of these issues meaning he would have had the opportunity to decide whether to accept the property in its present condition with that knowledge. The Mutual Exchange Procedure specifically states that the landlord will look for any damage to the property.
- If the landlord had identified this issue in 2018, the landlord would also have had the opportunity to consider whether it should request the outgoing tenant remedy the defects prior to the exchange. The damaged doors were marked as “Rechargeable” to the outgoing tenant in the 2017 report.
- The resident is of the opinion that the landlord should have charged the previous tenant for the repairs. However, given that the landlord has a Recharge process and it would had to have taken into account the previous tenant’s individual circumstances in accordance with its Recharge policy, it is not possible to determine whether the landlord would or should have recharged this work to the previous tenant had it been identified in the January 2018 inspection. However, it is acknowledged that the landlord missed the opportunity to consider this option and the resident missed the opportunity to be made aware of this issue prior to signing the contract for the mutual exchange due to the landlord’s shortcomings.
- In conclusion, the landlord’s inspection prior to the mutual exchange did not identify the damage to internal doors despite the issue having been identified in a previous inspection and therefore the landlord was unable to give the resident an accurate list of outstanding defects in accordance with the Mutual Exchange procedure. This meant that he was not clear of the responsibilities he was taking on and this was unfair. While the landlord has acknowledged a shortcoming, it has not fully put right the failings identified in relation to this aspect of the complaint since it did not address the impact that this had on the resident.
- In relation to the issue with the driveway, the resident complained that the landlord was aware prior to the mutual exchange that the previous tenant had illegally installed a driveway for which there was no dropped kerb. When responding to the complaint, the landlord said it was not responsible for the costs of dropping the kerb and this was the resident’s choice, and again relied on the terms of the mutual exchange stating that the property was taken “as seen”.
- As for the door repairs, there is evidence that this issue was identified in the January 2017 inspection but not in the inspection that took place prior to the mutual exchange. The landlord’s Mutual Exchange procedure specifically states that external areas should be inspected for non-standard alterations and if identified they should be itemised on the inspection report and the “incoming tenant needs to sign to take ownership of the non-standard items or the outgoing tenant must return non-standard items back to standard before the exchange can progress. In all cases a re-inspection must be carried out by the NHO/ILC before progressing.” Therefore, on balance, this issue should have been identified during the mutual exchange process.
- The resident complained specifically that there were further works required to be done before the kerb could be dropped. He has informed the Ombudsman that he spent over £4000 on this work to put right the issues with the driveway previously identified by the landlord, in addition to the cost of the dropped kerb (£936.80).
- However, the costs of dropping a kerb would not fall under the landlord’s repairing responsibilities and therefore these costs would fall to a tenant who wished to make this alteration. In addition, it would have been apparent visually when the resident viewed the property that there was no dropped kerb. The resident still had the choice whether to go ahead with creating a parking bay therefore it would not be reasonable to expect the landlord to reimburse these costs.
- The 2017 report notes that there is “no drop kerb/boundary or driveway”. The report marks this as rechargeable to the tenant. Had this issue been identified in the January 2018 report, the landlord would have had the opportunity to consider whether it should request the outgoing tenant remedy anynon-standard alterations prior to the exchange. The landlord also missed the opportunity to explain clearly that it was not responsible for the works nor would it pay for any further works and that it would be for the incoming tenant to decide whether to complete the works and drop the kerb.
- In conclusion, the landlord should have identified this issue when inspecting the property and in not doing so, it missed the opportunity to clearly explain its position in relation to the driveway. The landlord should have acknowledged this shortcoming and offered compensation when responding to the complaint. However, it was reasonable for the landlord to refuse to refund the costs of the works the resident arranged since the landlord was not responsible for converting the driveway or dropping the kerb. It would also be reasonable to expect the resident to have noted that the kerb was not dropped when visiting the property and therefore he did have an opportunity to consider whether to continue with the exchange or not.
- In contrast to the door repairs and the issues with the driveway, it is unclear whether the landlord was aware of the repairs required to the sheds prior to the resident reporting the issue on 26 March 2018. The 2017 report refers to there being sheds to clear but does not refer to repairs or removal.
- The landlord acted appropriately by inspecting this issue and in July 2018, it agreed to arrange removal of the sheds once the drainage check had been completed. Following this the resident submitted a Right to Buy Application and for this reason the works were suspended. There was a subsequent delay in the landlord starting these works since the resident advised it on 10 April 2019 that the RTB application had been withdrawn and chased up the work several times. The landlord responded in November 2019 and the works took place on 3 March 2020. The landlord offered £50 for the inconvenience of this delay.
- While this delay was inconvenient for the resident, that landlord had initially advised that these works might take several months to arrange. The landlord’s repair priorities as set out on its website refer to the following:
- Urgent repairs, which it will aim to carry out within four hours of reporting.
- Non-urgent repairs, which will be attended to at a time which suits the customer and usually within 20 days of the repair being reported.
- Planned repairs, which are generally larger projects such as large areas of loose plaster pointing to brickwork. These are scheduled to be completed within six-month period.
- Given that the works required were the removal of external sheds, it was reasonable for the landlord to treat these works as planned repairs and aim to complete them within six months. The landlord completed this work approximately 11 months after the resident informed it that the RTB application had been withdrawn. While this was outside the six-month time frame, the landlord acted fairly by acknowledging a delay and repeated contact from the resident and offered compensation to address this. While the compensation was modest, the Ombudsman is satisfied that the landlord appropriately addressed this aspect of the complaint.
Assessment: Patio works
- In relation to the patio works, while the resident felt that the landlord should have identified this issue in previous inspections, there is no evidence to confirm when this issue arose or that the landlord was aware of it prior to the resident’s contact of 26 March 2018 (it is not referred to in the 2017 report). Following this the landlord acted appropriately and arranged an inspection.
- The resident considered this work was urgent since it was a tripping hazard. When responding to the complaint on 6 July 2018, the landlord agreed to do remedial works to the path and steps to the garden area noting that the steps were a “potential hazard”. However, the resident has reported that these works are still outstanding to date.
- While the landlord explained that it was not carrying out these repairs while the resident had a live Right to Buy application, the landlord was made aware that this had been withdrawn by at the latest 10 April 2019. There has therefore been a considerable delay in the landlord following up in completing these works which it agreed to do. It has now been more than two years since the RTB application was withdrawn, and while the Ombudsman accepts that some delay may have been caused by disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, there has still been a considerable delay in these works being completed. This was a serious shortcoming by the landlord particularly given the resident’s and its own concerns about the potential hazard caused by these issues.
Assessment: Complaint handling
- The landlord’s complaints policy has two stages:
- Stage one, which allows up to ten working days to respond, with an additional ten working days available in exceptional circumstances.
- Appeal panel, under which the resident will receive a response within 20 working days of the request to escalate, with an additional ten working days in exceptional circumstances. Where a decision is made to refuse an escalation request then it must be set out in line with the exclusions in paragraph 3.4 and an explanation will be provided to the resident.
- Paragraph 3.4 states the following reasons why a complaint will not be accepted for investigation. Where the issues:
- Are being addressed via another route.
- Have not been raised within six months of the matter arising.
- Have already received a response through the complaints process.
- Are being pursued in an unreasonable manner, such as being accompanied by unacceptable behaviour.
- Concern matters that do not cause significant adverse impact to the complainant.
- Are subject to legal processes.
- On 9 April 2018, the resident raised a complaint to the landlord. The resident chased a response to his complaint on 3 May 2018 and 11 June 2018. The landlord acknowledged the complaint on 12 June 2018 and said it aimed to respond by 26 June 2018. On 6 July 2018, the landlord responded to the complaint. There were therefore some delays in the landlord responding to the resident’s initial complaint and it did not do so within the time frames set out in its policy.
- On 1 November 2019, the resident requested his previous formal complaint be escalated. On 25 November 2019, the landlord advised the resident that due to the time that had elapsed since his initial complaint, it was not possible for the complaint to be escalated to Stage Two but it offered to open a new Stage One complaint in relation to the delays. While this was technically correct given the length of time that had passed since the previous complaint response, given that the resident was pursuing the same complaint, it would have been fairer if the landlord had instead escalated the complaint rather than requiring the resident to return to Stage one.
- A meeting was arranged to try and resolve the issues at the resident’s request, but as this did not resolve the issues, the landlord logged a new complaint. This was acknowledged on 20 December 2019 and responded to on 22 January 2020. The landlord’s response to this complaint was therefore reasonably timely and although outside the ten-working days in its timescale, there was not an extensive delay and it is also acknowledged that the Christmas holiday period may have contributed to this.
- On 24 January 2020, the resident requested escalation of the complaint and the landlord responded on 10 February 2020 stating that there were no grounds to take the complaint to a panel. The landlord said that the reason for this was that the property was taken on through a mutual exchange and under this process the incoming tenant agrees to take on the property “as seen” was outlined in the paperwork when the assignment took place. The paperwork explicitly states that the incoming tenant accepts responsibility for all repairs of this nature so it was not responsible for the costs of replacing any internal doors.
- This response was provided within the ten working days set out in the policy which was appropriate. However, it is of concern that the reason given for not escalating the complaint does not fall into one of the categories listed in the landlord’s policy. The landlord should have escalated the complaint and had it done so, it might have identified some of the shortcomings identified in this report and resolved the complaint at an earlier stage.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was service failure by the landlord in respect of the complaint about the landlord’s response to his report of repairs needed at the property which he considers should have been identified by the landlord’s mutual exchange inspection.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was service failure in respect of how the landlord handled the formal complaint.
- In relation to the issues with the sheds, the landlord responded appropriately by acknowledging a delay in this work, arranging completion of the works and offering some compensation to address the delay. However, in respect of the repairs to the damaged doors, the landlord failed to recognise the impact on the resident of the shortcomings in relation to the inspection it completed prior to the mutual exchange. It noted that training was required but did not identify that the resident has missed the opportunity to be made aware of the defects prior to the mutual exchange and the landlord had missed the opportunity to consider if it was appropriate to require the outgoing tenant to take any remedial action. The landlord also missed the opportunity to explain its position in relation to the driveway works.
- In relation to the patio, there is evidence that the landlord has significantly delayed in carrying out the agreed works which are outstanding to date. The landlord has not identified this delay or appropriately followed up by completing the works since responding to the complaint.
- There were delays in the landlord responding to the first complaint. It would have been fairer if the landlord had escalated the complaint rather than require the resident to return to Stage one in November 2019. The landlord should also have escalated the complaint to the appeal panel.
- The landlord to apologise to the resident and pay compensation totalling £900 (within four weeks of the date of this Order) for the inconvenience caused by its failures in respect of the report of repairs needed at the property, comprising:
- £250 in respect of the internal doors;
- £200 in respect of the driveway;
- £300 in respect of the patio works.
- £50 in respect of the previous offer for the delays to the shed removal (if it has not already paid this).
- £100 in respect of the shortcomings in complaint handling.
- The landlord to evidence to the Ombudsman the steps it has taken or will take to ensure that members of staff carrying out inspections prior to mutual exchanges identify the relevant defects in accordance with its Mutual Exchange policy to prevent the same shortcomings happening again (within six weeks of the date of this Order).
- The landlord to provide the resident with a date for the patio works within six weeks of the date of this Order.
- If the resident reports that there is still damage to the internal doors, the landlord to arrange an inspection to determine whether there are repairs for which it is responsible.
- The landlord to remind its complaints handling staff of the reasons for refusing escalation of a complaint in accordance with its complaints policy.