How should a landlord plan for events like these, and what can be done when they happen?
Experienced landlords check that repairs and fixes will be easy to do even before they buy a house.
For example, landlord Jack Pierson says: "When buying a property, I check that the fuse box is somewhere accessible. The same goes for stop-cocks and manhole covers for drains. The last thing you want in an emergency is to find that the stop-cock is in another property or that the manhole cover has been cemented over."
Good landlords also make sure their tenants are aware of what to do and who to contact in an emergency. Most give tenants a written set of instructions so that they know what to do to protect the property from further damage. These instructions usually include either their own telephone number or those of reliable plumbers, gas people and electricians. Pierson says he talks them through it and leaves a laminated copy on a noticeboard.
He adds: "Some tenants ignore minor problems until they become serious. I once had a tenant who had water flowing from the toilet overflow pipe outside her flat. Eventually it seeped into the wall of the flat below causing damage to the decoration. An angry neighbour and a big claim could have been avoided if the tenant had taken action earlier."
John Coyne lets out properties in London. He says: "Water leaks can be very expensive, though damage to decorations should be covered under the insurance as long as you deal with the problem quickly. As a minimum, you should always show your tenants where the stop-cock is and how to turn the gas off. I tell the tenants to get in touch if they think there is a problem, even if it proves to be a false alarm."
Another landlord, Andy Parton, lets out properties in north Manchester. He recommends that landlords do regular visits and check for things like overflowing pipes, damp smells, flaking wallpaper and short circuiting fuses. He says: "Some things are obvious to spot and often have simple causes. For example, damp problems are often caused by poor ventilation."
One thing all these landlords agree on is the need to get a reliable plumber and Corgi gas engineer. They recommend the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (www.iphe.org.uk). They also make a point of paying their plumber and gasman promptly.
If you own a flat, you may have to contact the freeholder's managing agent, even if it's just to register a claim or get into another property to stop a leak in an emergency. Some managing agents may suggest you use their tradesmen. However, that is rare, and some landlords complain that, while most freeholders' agents are excellent, some are good at just one thing - collecting the ground rent and service charges.
Water-leaks in flats are made worse where flats have just bare boards. Landlords who are continually flooded by careless occupiers of flats above should check that the flooring in the offending flat complies with the lease terms and keep a record and photos of any damage. If problems continue, the freeholder's agent should instruct a solicitor to enforce the lease. However, getting a freeholder to do anything at all is often a challenge.
David Lawrenson is the author of 'Successful Property Letting - How to Make Money in Buy-to-Let', published by Elliot Right Way Books, price £9.99
Tips for landlords
If you are using someone for the first time, get a fixed quote for the repair. When you find a good tradesman, pay bills on time and cultivate a good relationship so that when the big freeze comes you are near the front of the queue.
Remember, while the Corgi qualification is a requirement for gas engineers it gives no guarantee as to their plumbing skills.
Tenanted properties must be inspected annually by a Corgi-registered engineer and have a valid CP12 Landlords' Gas Safety Certificate.
Fix things quickly and keep tenants informed. If the property (or part of it) is uninhabitable following a leak, don't quibble on giving your tenants a rent reduction or waiver - remember, lost rent or cost of alternative accommodation is often covered under the home insurance anyway. Check your policy.
Smoke detector batteries should be checked every year. Even better, have mains-wired smoke detectors fitted. Doors should be fire resistant.
Read up on the special rules that apply to Houses in Multiple Occupation.