Most Australian states and territories now require residential rental properties to be fitted with smoke alarms. If your investment property has tenants, the onus is on you or your rental manager to see that smoke alarms are installed and maintained.
While the tenant is responsible for changing the batteries, you would still be well advised to have your property regularly inspected to ensure this is being done and that the smoke alarms are working.
This follows recent advice from New South Wales Coroner, Mark Buscombe, that even though tenants are responsible according to the terms of a lease to replace smoke alarm batteries, it would be in the owner’s and property manager’s best interests to conduct regular checks.
The coroner’s comments were made during an inquest into the death of a tenant in a house fire near Newcastle in 2010. Mr Buscombe pointed to a ‘lack of clarity’ in the minds of those involved over whose responsibility it was to have working smoke alarms at the premises.
The main reason the task of maintaining smoke alarms shouldn’t be left up to the tenant is because some tenants have been known to remove the batteries if the alarm goes off prematurely (often triggered by cooking fumes). Tenants also remove the batteries to use in other appliances, such as a TV remote control.
If a fire were to occur and there was no working smoke alarm, your property insurance might be voided and, if there was loss of life, you could find yourself being held legally responsible in court.
It’s not just a problem for residential property investment either. Statistics show that up to half of all smoke alarms in Australian homes are either incorrectly installed, too old, or not functioning properly.
Many people still aren’t aware that the law requires their home to have at least one smoke alarm mounted between bedrooms and the best escape route on each floor. Most people also aren’t aware that a smoke alarm only has a working life of 10 years, after which it must be replaced.
With the advent of the new photoelectric smoke alarms, which can detect smouldering fires as well as smoke, fire authorities are now recommending these be installed instead of the current ionisation alarms. The problem is that, while these new smoke alarms are more sensitive, they would still be at the mercy of tenants removing the batteries or failing to change them when they expired.
As a property owner, you have a lot of money tied up in your investment. Regularly checking that it is being protected by working smoke alarms is a small price to pay when compared with the potential losses you could incur.
If an alarm is not maintained and there is a fire, your insurance company could refuse to pay, or a tenant could attempt to sue you for negligence.
Don’t take the risk. If you manage your own property, regularly check the smoke alarms yourself, or if you use a property manager, make sure it is part of their documented inspection procedure.