The Deposit Diaries: When is tenant or landlord responsible for burst pipes and damage?

As many do, this particular tenant left the property for a short break over the Christmas period. On his return a ceiling had collapsed causing water damage to the property below and to its contents.

The landlord said that the tenant had failed to leave the property adequately heated while he was away, and this had caused the pipes to freeze and burst, leading to the damage.

The tenant on the other hand said that the heating remained on a timer while he was gone, set at the same timing and heat level as when he lived in the property.

The tenant had complained to the agent that the cost of heating the property was extremely high and was due to the system being old and inefficient. It was not helped by an exceptionally cold snap over the period.

The tenant provided several photographs of damage to his own personal property caused by the ceiling collapse and asked for compensation or for the landlord to add these items to the landlord insurance claim.

The landlord was unwilling to make a claim on his insurance as he felt the damage was the tenant’s responsibility and as the excess on the policy was £400.

A building contractor’s report on the remedial work required confirmed that the heating system was set to come on for several hours twice each day, but the temperature was unknown.

The report also noted that the system was indeed old, including the pipework, and lacked adequate insulation.

A quote was provided for a replacement system, repairs to the ceiling and walls, the pipework and full insulation of the loft area.

The décor at check-in was in reasonable order throughout.

As you would expect, the landlord was responsible under the lease for ensuring that installations for the supply of heating and water were also in a reasonable state of repair and that an insurance policy was in place to cover the premises and the landlord’s contents against the risks usually covered by a comprehensive policy.

The tenant was, as is also to be expected, responsible for either draining the system down or leaving the property with sufficient heating to prevent pipes freezing in the event that the property was unoccupied for more than 48 hours.

It was not disputed that damage occurred during the tenancy, but what the adjudicator had to do was decide where the responsibility for the damage lay.

Based on the evidence, it was clear that the tenant had left the property with the heating set to come on twice for a part of the day.

While it was not clear as to the level of heating provided, it would have been difficult to assess how much heating was enough to prevent the pipes from freezing, given the apparent inefficiencies of the system.

The adjudicator found that the tenant had complied with his tenancy obligations and done all that could reasonably be expected of him by way of reporting the issues about the poor heating and by leaving the heating on while away.

Coupled with the fact that the contractor’s report showed that the system was old and insufficiently insulated, the adjudicator concluded, on balance, the possibility could not be dismissed that the problem may have arisen whether the tenant was away or not, due to the inadequacies of the heating system itself.

The adjudicator was unable to take account of the tenant’s potential counter-claim relating to damage to his own goods. It was the tenant’s responsibility to arrange insurance for his own belongings.

This case highlights the need to provide specific instructions about heating a property during cold or void periods. A tenant will not necessarily know how the heating should be set.

It is unlikely to be found reasonable for a tenant to leave the heating on constantly when absent from the property to avoid the possibility of pipes freezing. Landlords and letting agents should ensure that a heating system is regularly checked and serviced to ensure that it is in efficient working order.

They also should not be obliged to make a claim on their insurance policy unless the terms of the lease requires them to insure the item subject to the dispute.

The adjudicator will find it helpful to know the extent of the landlord’s uninsured loss (excess) in insurance claims or disputes involving issues potentially covered by an insurance policy.

* Sandy Bastin is assistant director of dispute resolution at the Tenancy Deposit Scheme


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  1. MF

    Good, informative article. Landlords and tenants would also be well advised to check the wording of their insurance policies. I’ve seen some buildings insurance policies stipulate that when the property is left unattended for a period of time either the plumbing must be drained down, or the heating left on constant with the thermostat set at a minimum of 15°C (I’ve seen different policies stating figures between 13°C and 15°C). There are of course other benefits in keeping the property warm and given the potential cost of a drain down and then a refill, it might be cheaper to leave the heating on anyway.  (On the downside of this however, there is the risk of the boiler breaking down before the occupants return…)

  2. Woodentop

    It is unlikely to be found reasonable for a tenant to leave the heating on constantly when absent from the property to avoid the possibility of pipes freezing.


    Is it now, so what should be done when the tenant is away from the property? The landlord goes in and drains down, come on! In all my years I have never come across pipes freezing if the system is set to trickle to move the water in the system, not to generate heat to heat the building … moving water does not freeze unless its Siberia and we don’t get that weather. Tenants are renowned for leaving it turned off as they want to save on the fuel bills and as for set on a timer … when it was checked … h’mm after the event.  The adjudicator would get a great deal of help from the insurance industry advice about burst pipes. How many old properties and system are there in the UK and they ALL just happen to burst every time we get a cold snap? The tenant is negligent at the time of vacating the property and should be confirmed in the tenancy agreement.


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