Buy-to-let is bad news for the environment

Eco Cottage The boom in buy-to-let property investment over the last few years has been a staple news story. First time buyers are often reported to complain about older, wealthier people coming in and buying up homes to create lucrative rental portfolios they can retire on.

For some buy-to-let hasn’t been quite the golden goose they hoped for, a glut of rental properties has made it difficult for them to break even. When I rented in a central Brighton “loft conversion” I was fortunate: I could negotiate the price down between three desperate private landlords in the same building. There were repossessed flats on every floor of the apparently “prestigious development” as the developers had described it to my landlord.

Yet, for many, the combination of rising house prices and the people left unable to buy, buy-to-let is profitable. At the extreme end of the scale are the maths teachers who are apparently en-route to becoming Britain’s first buy-to-let billionaires. I do think there should be firmer taxation on multiple home owners, but there will always be a rental market.

What strikes me is how few incentives there are for landlords to make their homes more energy efficient. Tenants almost always pay the bills themselves but often stay only for a short time, so have little reason to make long term investments in energy efficiency beyond low-energy light bulbs.

The Telegraph reported in May that energy performance certificates (which are also part of the controversial Home Information Packs or HIPS) would be required of landlords October 2008. However it’s not really clear what purpose they would serve. The certificates would be unlikely to sway the majority of people looking to rent. It’s a small, pointless gesture from a Labour government continuously failing to take action on climate change.

85% of Brighton & Hove residents live in privately owned property. 21% of homes are privately rented, twice the national average. These rented properties often see a high turnover of tenants and landlords who show little concern for energy efficiency.

While there are grants available to improve the energy efficiency of private rental properties, they are usually limited to tenants on benefits or over 60 whilst being complex to apply for. Whilst these grants may help those most in need of warmer homes, they will barely make a dent in the carbon footprint of private rental properties overall.

Buy-to-let isn’t going away, so the government needs to get serious about addressing this major part of our housing stock. Without clear incentives for landlords, either in the form of taxation related to the energy efficiency of their properties or through bearing the burden of energy costs themselves, I’m afraid I don’t see private rental properties getting any greener.