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Warm house, cool landlord: Why doing right by tenants pays off

From June 2019, every rental in the country will need to be insulated. Emily Writes talks to Kelson Primary School principal, landlord and mum Judy Pemberton about the changes, and why she chose to do the right thing early on.

Judy Pemberton talks in a way I haven’t heard a landlord talk before. She talks about values and morals and doing the right thing. Straight away I felt myself reconsidering the assumptions I’ve made about landlords over the years. I formed these opinions tucked up in a bed with wearing a winter coat while the windows in my mouldy rental rattled in the wind.

If only I’d stayed in Judy’s rental.

She is one of an estimated 80% of landlords who owns at least one private rental property. And she considers it a moral duty to provide a dry, warm, and safe home to her tenants.

Under the Residential Tenancies Act, all rental properties must have underfloor and ceiling insulation by June 2019. A landlord who fails to comply with insulation requirements is committing an unlawful act and may be liable for a penalty of up to $4,000. All new rental agreements from 1 July 2016 are required to have an insulation statement that outlines what insulation is in the property, where it is, and how much there is.

This is clearly welcome news for renters – but what does it mean for landlords?

I met Judy in her four bedroom rental in Epuni. She came across the property when one of her five children from a blended family was renting there and bought it about two years ago.

JUDY PEMBERTON IN HER RENTAL (PHOTO: AARON SMALE)

“It was called ‘The Fridge’ because it was a fridge,” she says simply. “It was freezing cold so when we bought it we always knew from the get-go that we would insulate, whether we did that ourselves or through a scheme.”

“We always intended we’d put a heat-pump in – not at that stage knowing that another one of our children was going to end up living here. It was always the intention to do it regardless of who the tenants were going to be and the aim was to do it before they moved in.”

More and more parents who are landlords are asking the question: “Would I want my children living here?” It’s an important consideration and one that was on Judy’s mind well before she bought the property.

“I always thought my rental would have to be a house we would want to live in ourselves, that we’d be willing to live in ourselves. We always thought we would want to provide a nice environment for people to live in.”

Being a mother to five children and a principal to hundreds takes a certain kind of person – values clearly matter to Judy.

“Being a parent is part of it. And just being responsible is too. I don’t think I’d want anyone living in my rental cold and uncomfortable. I just think it’s the right thing to do. Being in education, I see children who aren’t living in places that are always warm and with that comes health issues. This approach comes down to who and how we are as a family.”

But this approach also ensures Judy secures great tenants, she says. “It’s a win-win.”

She views her relationship with her tenants as a partnership.

“I want them to feel they can approach us and that we are pretty proactive about making sure things are looked after when they need to be. On the flipside of that, the expectation is that they look after the rental, they maintain the grounds and they treat it as a home rather than just a rental. And we’ve had long-standing tenants. That’s what we want. We don’t want people coming and going all the time.”

The BRANZ report ‘The New Zealand Rental Sector’ found that 46% of tenants had moved in the last two years. The most common reason was to go to better quality accommodation.

“I’ve got a sister who is a landlord as well and they’ve always had that philosophy. If you’re providing a really nice, warm environment, you’ll get long-standing tenants.”

“The affordability of insulation is not an issue”, Judy says. She was able to take part in a scheme under the Lower Hutt City Council. The bill from her insulation was added to the rates for her rental.

“Each rates bill that we pay, there’s a little bit tagged on and that just chips away – we get a letter yearly that shows how much we’ve got left to pay on that. A company contracted to the council just came in and did all of the underfloor insulation as well as the matting on the ground so it stops the moisture coming through and then they did the ceiling as well.”

As a rough guide, the average cost of paying a professional installer to put in both ceiling and floor insulation is approximately $3,400 excluding GST for a 96m2 property.

Grants of up to 50% of the cost of insulation are available for low-income home owners and landlords with low-income tenants through EECA.

Doing the right thing is a choice, Judy says. She didn’t want to think about her tenants being cold and getting sick from a rundown and freezing rental.

It seems to be a choice many landlords are making now. They’re challenging the “mean landlord” stereotype with a commitment to their tenants and their properties. A Tenancy Services poll found that 46% of Kiwi mums and dads who are rental property owners worried about their own child’s house being insulated.

They have reason to worry: the latest State of the Home Survey from AUT found that 40% of renters chose not to have heaters on to save money.

Again it comes down to values, she says: “You just want people to be in a nice environment. I would hate for people to be driving past a house and think – ‘Ugh look at the state of that place!’ and that’s our rental. That’s not what we’re about.”

“I just think that if you’re going to be a landlord it’s a commitment,” says Judy. “The ideal is to buy a rental and forget about it – that’s what the financial side of it tells you to do. But you can’t forget about it with the maintenance of the place. You’ve got to be willing to constantly maintain your rental and make sure it’s warm so you have to get it insulated.”

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