The tragic death of seven-week old Isabella Diefenbach has prompted a central Queensland coroner to recommend tougher laws to ensure faults in rental homes are quickly repaired.
Isabella Diefenbach died in hospital in May 2010 after her father dropped her when his foot went through a piece of rotten wood at their rented home in Yeppoon, Queensland.
Isabella’s death led to an investigation by coroner Annette Hennessy. In the 60-page coroner’s report, Ms Hennessy outlined how the Diefenbachs had reported the rotten wood to the Queensland-based letting agents on at least four occasions prior to Isabella’s death.
It was a specific recommendation by Ms Hennessy that the current training program for property managers in real estate agencies be reviewed to ensure that the managers know how to conduct a satisfactory inspection of decks, verandas and stairs.
Stacey Holt, director of Real Estate Excellence Academy, believed the tragedy was a wake-up call to property managers and licensees.
“It is a tragedy that should never happen again,” she said. “Property managers need to be empowered by their licensees to make the right call in terms of safety.”
While Ms Holt admited that property managers cannot be expected to evaluate the structural integrity of a veranda, the coroner recommended mandatory inspections, by independent builders, of verandas and balconies that are more than 10 years old.
Ms Hennessy also suggested real estate agents change their practices to ensure termite and building inspection reports are read by the property manager and brought to the landlord’s attention in a timely fashion.
“There is a massive review needed in our industry, especially of safe practice,” Ms Holt said.
It was recommended by the coroner that systems should also be in place to ensure that proper inspections are conducted and accurate reports
and recommendations given to the landlords, which Ms Holt strongly agreed with.
“The first two steps every property manager and licensee should undertake are to ensure their routine inspections are kept up to date. Due to
human error and incorrect data entry it is not uncommon for inspections to be forgotten.
“Secondly, review the maintenance reports and deal with them promptly, especially to do with stairs and decks.”
Although the agent is acting on behalf of the landlord and usually cannot act without the authority of the owner to conduct repairs and inspections, it is very important that the real estate agent has competent and well-trained people in charge of property management.
The coroner also suggested that state laws should be amended to ensure mandatory inspections are undertaken on decks that were over 10 years old before a property was placed on the rental market, and that ongoing checks of decks were undertaken every three years thereafter.
Ms Hennessy suggested that wood rot be considered an emergency repair issue and a register be kept of all maintenance requests made by tenants.
“If an owner wants to organise their own tradesman ... make it clear to them that the contractor needs to show written qualifications,” Ms Holt said.
“If the landlord is not willing to meet these requirements, then it should be the job of the property manager, with the unwavering support of the licensee, to forfeit that property.
“If they will not allow you to ensure the safety of your tenants then you don’t want them on your books.”
Ms Hennessy noted that various guidelines about the inspection and maintenance of decks had been developed in the wake of a deck collapse at Ascot in 2008, which killed one woman.
However she said these guidelines needed to be reviewed to include specific guidance about how to identify structural problems.
The coroner also recommended various industry stakeholders conduct awareness campaigns about safety standards and obligations, and suggested
estate agents improve the way complaints from tenants were reported, documented and resolved.
According to Josey Comerford, partner and senior property manager at Hugh Reilly Real Estate in Mackay, agents in the northern part of the state need to be especially vigilant in checking for rotten wood due to the region’s climate. However, this may require a professional eye.
“I took on a property a few years back that had been freshly painted.
“What the common eye couldn’t see was that underneath the paint was rotten wood,” she said, “so it is very important that building inspections are
done by qualified people.”
Ms Comerford believed the coroner’s recommendations were in a similar vein to regulations covering pool fencing or smoke alarms.
“Hopefully something like this will never happen again, but if the laws are implemented it will mean that a property manager will have to have a
separate database for every property with a verandah to ensure the deck is inspected by a qualified person and it will mean another thing an owner will have to pay for.”
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