The home MOT test
A Dutch landlord is reducing maintenance costs by giving its homes regular check-ups. Chloë Stothart finds out how it works
It’s a scenario familiar to many a social landlord: maintenance costs are going up but the budget is not. How do you save money while keeping tenants happy and homes well maintained?
One Dutch housing association presented a possible solution at Inside Housing’s repairs and maintenance summit, held in London in November.
In 2007, De Alliantie, introduced the equivalent of a repairs MOT for tenants living in its 23,000 homes in and around Amsterdam. The scheme called PIOn, which stands for periodical inspection and maintenance in Dutch, sees residents receiving a scheduled visit from a repairs and maintenance operative once every 18 months. It has led to the cost of unplanned maintenance being cut from €2.27 million [£1.9 million] in 2006, before the scheme began, to €1.69 million [£1.4 million] in 2010.
During this single visit, a handyman carries out central heating and other safety checks, along with other minor repairs requested by the tenant. The association’s 25 in-house handymen are trained to do basic repairs of all kinds, and some are also qualified electricians or gas technicians.
Dutch tenants normally pay for small jobs, like fixing broken door handles or faulty hinges, but they can have this work done for free if it is carried out as part of their home’s MOT.
A month ahead of this guaranteed visit, the tenant is sent a letter containing a questionnaire about the repairs that need to be done to their property. This information is used to plan the visit - how long it’s likely to take and which operative, with which skills needs to be sent out.
Keeping in touch
The association introduced the scheme to get a better idea of the condition of its homes and to have more contact with its tenants. And it has found that the MOT system has indeed given it an idea of how much work will need to be done before individual properties can be re-let when the existing tenant moves out.
‘It [the data collected from the repairs visits] might say the tenant left the house in a good condition and that you can rent it the day after, or that the dwelling needs one to two weeks for repairs and renovation,’ says Peter Weppner, real estate consultant at De Alliantie.
The handymen also keep an eye out for any problems in the home - overloaded electrical socket extensions or bikes blocking communal stairs, for example. They also report back comments from tenants about any other problems that may concern their landlord, such as troubles they are experiencing with their neighbours. ‘All the information is important. It can be spread over the organisation and we can take action to improve,’ explains Mr Weppner.
The scheme has helped De Alliantie cut the time it takes to re-let homes - between 60 and 65 per cent of properties can be re-let the day after the previous tenants move out because the association knows they have been kept in good condition. As repairs are being done systematically at regular intervals, properties that are not up to standard when tenants vacate usually only require around five or six days’ work to be brought back up to a state in which they can be re-let.
Before introducing its MOT repairs system, it would normal take between 10 days and three weeks to re-let a home as inspection visits had to be scheduled and repairs may have been required.
‘If you know you can re-rent the dwelling the next day then you do not have weeks without rent income,’ says Mr Weppner, spelling out the benefits.
The price is right
The housing association’s budget for planned maintenance has remained steady - at around €12 million [£9.9 million] per year - since the PIOn MOT-type service was introduced in 2007.
De Alliantie did need to make some alterations to the scheme when costs rose briefly in 2009. It found its operatives’ visits were taking longer than planned, and they needed to arrange follow-up appointments because tenants had not given clear enough information about the work that needed to be done. Also, operatives were uncertain which repairs were free and which were chargeable and so sometimes did additional free repairs.
In response, the association wrote a clear price list for repairs and trained its customer service staff to get detailed information on the nature of the repair before he visit. As a result, costs per visit fell from €66 to €61 [£55 to £51] and the cost of repeat visits dropped from €572,235 [£476,248] per year to €103,254 [£85,486] after the changes.
The scheme is going down well with tenants in Amsterdam - they now wait up to 18 months instead of three weeks for small repairs, but they also get more done for free rather than having to pay an outside contractor.
As it’s been so successful, De Alliantie has decided to expand it to two more regions - Almere and Hilversum - and will add a fourth, Amersfoort, next year, which will take the project to 62,000 homes in total.
Residents there will, hopefully, give the same positive feedback as Amsterdam tenants did in a survey carried out by members of De Alliantie’s tenants’ group. Eighty per cent of respondents were very satisfied with the service, and 87 per cent would recommend it to others. There is no comparable data for the old system, but Toos Kloppenburg, chair of the tenants’ group, says that the majority of residents believe a visit every 18 months was frequent enough - and she agrees with them.
‘Most tenants are very happy with it,’ she says, adding that one of the benefits of the system is that small faults are not left to get worse. ‘Now, once a year someone does those things and the house is in order.’
Could a similar scheme work in the UK?
The incentives for tenants would be slightly different in the UK as most small repairs are already free. In 2010, one association, south east-based 6,000-home Housing Solutions, offered £100 to the most prolific users of its repairs service if they did not report any non-urgent repairs for a year, and gave them training and a toolkit so they could do these small jobs themselves (Inside Housing, 26 November 2010). The association said the scheme cost £12,000 but saved £87,000.
Several housing associations are testing the government’s variation, tenant cashback, where residents do the work themselves and take a share in savings made. While the scheme could give tenants greater control over their homes and possibly save money, there are also concerns that they could injure themselves carrying out the repairs.
How will the scheme shape up next to De Alliantie’s MOT-type system? We’ll see when tenant cashback is rolled out from April this year.