The government has recently run some alarming adverts. One says, ‘No Property Licence. No Rent.’ In fact, after the July 3 deadline, landlords who fail to get a licence for a house in multiple occupation (HMO) will not only have to return any rent received during the offending period, but may also be fined up to £20,000. When new regulations were first announced to deal with substandard or dangerous accommodation for students, migrants and hostel dwellers, the concept was greeted with enthusiasm. Rushed into law, it has instead caused confusion, not least because local authorities deemed ‘excellent’ by government have the right to ‘upgrade’ the regulations.

Malcolm Harrison, spokesman for the Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA), says, ‘This is the worry area. The regulations are not necessarily as simple as the statutory procedures imply’. In theory, if five or more people who are not members of the same ‘household’ live in a property, and it is three or more storeys high, it is deemed an HMO. There are other categories, but this is the one that will catch most landlords renting to students or friends.

It sounds simple, but a back room on a mid-stair landing may turn a two storey house into three; a bedroom in the attic certainly will. Might an ‘excellent’ council decide two storeys are enough to qualify as an HMO? One has, apparently, already ‘upgraded’ requirements, insisting that HMOs have a basin in each bedroom and that all doors are fire doors.

In some areas, licences can cost as little as £400. Wandsworth council is quoting up to £1,500 for a five-storey building. Another confusing issue is the condition that licence holders must be deemed ‘fit and proper’ people. Mr Harrison advises landlords who think they might own an HMO to contact their local council. My advice is to keep a good record of what is said.

For more information, visit www.arla.co.uk and www.propertylicence.gov.uk.