Key aspects of block maintenance

They say there are only two things that are certain in life - death and taxes. I am inclined to suggest that the phrase must pre-date the existence of blocks of flats or it would have been death, taxes and maintenance.

I suspect very few readers would choose to own a car and never have it serviced so why treat your block of flats differently, after all it’s worth quite a bit more.

There are of course many good reasons to keep up with maintenance tasks, the most obvious being:

  • It is a legal duty – landlord’s covenants to maintain and repair.
  • It is cost effective - the old adage ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ very much applies.
  • It minimises insurance costs - a building which constantly makes claims for water damage will quickly find its premiums and policy excess raised.
  • Saleability of flats – this is no-brainer.
  • For Statutory compliance - lift inspections and electrical testing for example.
  • To comply with Warranty requirements - many elements of  new buildings and even parts of refurbished older properties may benefit from manufacturers warranties. Often, especially for roofing membranes, the warranty will be invalidated unless a record of periodic inspections and minor maintenance is adhered to.
  • For residents’ comfort - an avoidable leak not only costs the block money on insurance excess but might also damage contents, not to mention the inconvenience.
  • For Safety reasons - thankfully not a common occurrence but it can happen. Only recently in London a fatal accident occurred when a piece of masonry fell from roof level.

I dare say we could all add a few more to the list but these alone ought to be more than enough to convince even the most impervious-to- reason residents one might encounter at the AGM.

The arguments against regular maintenance expenditure usually centre on the need to keep costs down to reflect the financial circumstances of individual residents. Certainly reasonableness has to be a factor of any well drafted planned maintenance report, but that shouldn’t mean nothing gets done until the roof caves in. Landlords have duties to repair and maintain: lessees have duties to pay.

There was a time when there was perhaps some advantage in suppressing service charges by cutting expenditure, often on routine maintenance in order to attract buyers with seemingly low charges. It seems fair to say that those days are probably gone. The average purchaser is now well advised on such matters and indeed the absence of a realistic budget and planned maintenance regime can now adversely affect saleability..

So that is the case for maintenance made. But what does this mean in real terms?

Taking a broad view, maintenance can be everything from day-to-day cleaning right through to periodically repairing and painting the external elevations, replacing roofs, communal heating systems and such like. In ideal circumstances there should be a predetermined schedule of all the maintenance tasks required for each particular building.

Specialist services

Previous articles have emphasised the value of having a surveyor prepare a detailed Planned Maintenance Report and this will be an essential starting point, but it shouldn’t stop there.

Often there are various specialist building services within a block, such as lift and heating plant. The surveyor preparing the plan will be confident of predicting the likely timing and cost of major capital replacement of these services for the purposes of long term projections but this won’t cover the routine maintenance requirements.

If it hasn’t been necessary to have a specialist Building Services Consultant involved in the preparation of the Planned Maintenance Report, it might be worthwhile instructing a competent firm to review any plant and equipment. This report will comment on the standard of maintenance being carried out and will include a schedule of the various requirements and timings in order to implement the maintenance plan.

In many cases blocks will have in place contracts with retained services engineers and lift contractors etc and such contracts should contain a schedule of duties which take care of the maintenance at the right periods. Where this is the case, it is worth checking the schedule is comprehensive in each case and maintenance is being done to standard.

Such specialist contractors are themselves a valuable source of information. Where they have been involved with a building for a number of years they can usually provide insight into the vagaries and bespoke needs of a particular system to keep everything running smoothly. Talk to them - but take advice or get a second opinion if your enquiry prompts a suggestion of sudden additional tasks and associated costs.

Health and safety file

Look at any available documentation relating to the building which might be available. In the case of blocks built in the last 15 years there ought to be a Health and Safety file containing maintenance requirements (as a result of the provisions of the CDM Regulations). Ensure the surveyor has sight of this when preparing the plan. Those responsible for the day to day management should ideally work through it as well to familiarise themselves with any requirements.  A word of caution is needed here. If the building is of a particularly large and complex nature or has a range of specialist building services it might be unrealistic to expect such a review to be within the remit or indeed the field of expertise of the building managers. So there may be merit in considering extending the role of the surveyor and perhaps commissioning a services consultant on a one-off basis to prepare a schedule of routine tasks from these manuals.

In buildings pre-dating the CDM Regulations there will often now also be a range of such manuals arising from any major works projects completed in recent years which did fall within the scope of the regulations. These should of course be made available to the surveyor but, again, it is advisable to ensure the provisions of any warranties are being observed by instigating routine inspection and maintenance.

Often health & safety manuals are absent or at best incomplete. Check first that they aren’t in a dusty basement store as they are frequently put away ‘safely’ only to be forgotten. They are an integral part of the maintenance plan for the building and any contractor working on the building should have access to them for compliance with safety legislation.

If the files can’t be found or are missing sections, it is important to use your best endeavours to acquire a replacement set of information. It is often easier than one might expect to do this provided a little effort and time is committed.

Reference should also be made to other documents which will exist for most buildings. The periodic Health and Safety Audit will generally identify the specific statutory legislation which applies, such as lift inspections, water testing, fixed wiring tests and such like. See that all these reports are commissioned and are still in date and work through them to ensure the various maintenance requirements are actioned and suitably diarised on the routine maintenance schedule.

Back to basics

In all of this, don’t overlook the basics: simple cost free tasks are every bit as essential to the overall maintenance strategy. If you have site staff or even contract cleaners or gardeners, consider what routine tasks would be within their reasonable competence. Good examples of this might include checking that all drainage outlets and gullies are cleared at frequent intervals or that light bulbs in common parts are replaced as and when required.

The maintenance strategy for each block should be periodically reviewed and adjusted as circumstances dictate, particularly as buildings get older. In all cases the importance of having regular inspections undertaken to identify defects and act swiftly cannot be under-emphasised. The extent to which this is necessary will vary from block to block and might include weekly reviews by site staff, reinforced by monthly or quarterly walk-throughs by the property managers. Again there are limits to what can be reasonably expected of the property managers and site staff as certain aspects may fall outside of their field of expertise.

In certain cases it may be worthwhile considering an annual review by a surveyor or similar professional and if a planned maintenance report is in place such a review would run in tandem with the recommended update of that document.

Finally, don’t forget that your building does not stop at the common parts. There are various aspects of maintenance within the individual flats which will need regular attention. Examples include annual servicing of boilers and other equipment. Minor tasks such as making sure there are no defective overflows staining the exterior and creating dampness or attending to defective bath / shower sealants should be stressed to leaseholders perhaps by way of a periodic circular.

For further information contact Kevin Marshall BSc (Hons) MRICS, Managing Director, Cardoe Martin Limited

2nd Floor 146 New Cavendish Street London W1W 6YQ

Tel: 020 7563 8900