£600 a week: a first-floor, two-bedroom furnished flat with a large reception room and bay window in Paddington, W2
The saying that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true is definitely one to bear in mind when looking at buy-to-let properties.
I went to view a four-bedroom duplex apartment that looked on paper like an ideal rental investment. It was already let to four sharers whose rent was easily enough to cover the mortgage, but I had a hunch there must be something wrong with it because it had been on the market for months.
When we got inside it was obvious the place was originally designed as a three-bedroom flat but the present owner had played around with the layout to squeeze in a fourth. Now, I'm all for finding ingenious ways to increase a property's rental income, but what concerned me was that the extra bedroom was off the kitchen, at the rear of the flat.
I was concerned that this layout was risky. What if a fire broke out in the kitchen while someone was asleep in the rear bedroom? As this was a first-floor flat with only one exit door at the front, their only escape route would be through the fire.
Back home I started to search for advice on fire safety to find out if this arrangement was acceptable, or if alterations would have to be made to make sure the property was safe to let. Frustratingly for landlords, there are no hard and fast rules about what fire safety measures must be installed in rental properties, because each one will present different risks according to its size, the layout and even the type of tenant.
For example, if a property is let to physically or mentally disabled tenants, or to tenants with drug or alcohol addictions, or to elderly people, more precautions than usual will be necessary.
This means that every landlord must carry out a fire risk assessment of their property, or pay a professional to carry out the assessment for them — this costs from £200 to £400 — and then put the appropriate safety measures in place. In other words, the onus is on us to protect our tenants.
Unless your property is a House of Multiple Occupancy that requires a licence to let, it's unlikely anyone will come knocking on your door for proof you've carried out regular fire risk assessments. But if your rental property goes up in smoke and you can't prove you took all the recommended fire safety precautions, you could be in a lot of trouble.
If you're looking for advice on what steps you might need to take, a good place to start is lacors.gov.uk. It gives examples of properties of different sizes let to various types of tenant and lists the recommended fire safety measures for each.
I ploughed through the guidance and came to the conclusion that although it's not ideal to have a bedroom tucked behind a kitchen with no alternative escape route, it might be acceptable if the property had interlinked mains-operated fire alarms, fire doors, a fire blanket, a fire extinguisher and possibly a sprinkler system.
Interlinked mains-operated smoke alarms, which cost about £60 each to install, and fire doors, which cost about £80, are recommended for any rental property with two storeys or more. You can buy fire blankets and fire extinguishers for about £25 each.
All these I could manage. However, sprinkler systems cost from £750 to £2,500 to install and require quite a bit of upheaval to fit. I decided that, for me, this property really was too good to be true and left it for someone else.