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What are houses in multiple occupation (HMOs)?

A house in multiple occupation (HMO) is a property lived in as a main residence by multiple tenants who are not members of a single ‘household‘ or ‘family’ (ie not a single person, family, or couple who live together). HMOs involve at least 3 tenants forming more than one household (in England and Wales) or at least 3 tenants from more than 2 families (in Scotland) living together. For more information, including on who forms a household/family, read HMOs.

HMOs can contain a large number of tenants and, with multiple households/families involved, it’s important to be aware of who has responsibility for shared spaces and facilities. Consequently, landlords of HMOs are often subject to more rules and requirements than other residential landlords. 

HMO licencing

Under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006, HMOs in Scotland must have a licence to be rented out. Under the Housing Act 2004, ‘large’ HMOs (ie HMOs with at least 5 tenants) in England and Wales must also have a licence. One of the requirements that landlords must meet to be granted a licence is that the local authority must be satisfied that there are appropriate fire safety precautions and equipment in place.

For more information, read HMOs.

General fire safety obligations for residential landlords

Landlords of all residential properties, including HMOs, have responsibilities for fire safety including: 

  • fitting and regularly testing smoke alarms. Smoke alarms should be checked to ensure that they’re working at the start of every tenancy. Throughout the course of a tenancy, tenants should check that smoke alarms are functioning. Additionally:

    • in England, at least one smoke alarm should be installed on every floor of a privately rented residential property

    • in Scotland, at least one smoke alarm must be installed in the living room (or other most-used room in the property), at least one smoke alarm in every hallway or landing, and at least one heat alarm in the kitchen

    • In Wales, at least one smoke alarm on each floor must be connected to the property’s electrical supply and all smoke alarms must be connected to that smoke alarm (ie to the one that’s connected to the electrical supply)

  • fitting and regularly testing carbon monoxide alarms (or ‘CO alarms’) 

    • in England and Scotland, CO alarms must be installed in every room that is partially or fully used as living accommodation and which contains any appliance that burns (or is capable of burning) fuel (eg a gas boiler, wooden stove or open fire). The only exception is that carbon monoxide alarms do not need to be placed in a room containing a gas cooker

    • in Wales, CO alarms must be installed in each room containing a gas appliance, an oil-fired combustion appliance or a solid fuel-burning combustion appliance. 

    • as with smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms should be checked at the start of the tenancy (by the landlord) and during the course of the tenancy (by the tenants)

  • ensuring that any fittings and furnishings that they supply are fire safe and meet fire resistance standards (eg that upholstery is cigarette resistant)

  • ensuring that potential fire evacuation or escape routes are always accessible. For example, since February 2023, all new residential tower blocks over 30 metres in Greater London have been required to have 2 staircases for fire safety purposes. This requirement is being considered for extension to the rest of England

As these are general obligations for residential landlords (ie not specific to HMO landlords), they apply across all areas of the property including shared areas and each household’s/family’s own areas (eg each bedroom).

For more information, read Legal obligations of a landlord and Legal obligations of a landlord in Scotland.

On 23 January 2023, the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 introduced various other fire safety obligations for responsible persons (eg landlords) of buildings in England that contain 2 or more domestic premises. For example, certain information must be given to residents. For more information, read Legal obligations of a landlord

Fire safety obligations specifically for HMO landlords

In addition to landlords’ general fire safety obligations, HMO landlords must meet fire safety obligations specific to HMOs. These include requirements relating to: 

Fire safety equipment

Landlords must provide adequate fire safety equipment, including fire alarms and extinguishers, if the house is a large HMO. If a property is larger than 3 stories, it should have an appropriate (eg centralised) fire alarm system. In Scotland, properties should also have fire blankets.

Evacuation routes and access

HMO landlords should maintain accessible evacuation routes out of the building. More is required to meet this obligation for HMO landlords than for other residential landlords. For example:

  • doors which form part of an escape route out of the property should have ‘thumb-turn’ locks, which can be opened without a key

  • fire doors (ie doors which block fire and which close automatically) are required for doors that lead to escape routes in HMOs

Fire risk assessments

Landlords are responsible for carrying out fire risk assessments for common areas in HMOs. 

To meet their obligations under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the Fire Safety Act 2021, HMO landlords in England and Wales must conduct and review fire risk assessments covering the shared areas of an HMO. A fire risk assessment is used to assess and manage a property’s fire safety risks. 

Most HMO landlords in Scotland must carry out risk assessments under the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and The Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006. For specific guidance on fire risk assessments in Scotland, read the Scottish government’s guidance on fire and rescue

For more information, read Conducting a fire risk assessment

Other safety considerations for HMO landlords

To maintain fire safety, a landlord should also consider electrical safety and gas safety. Faults with poorly checked or maintained electrical and gas equipment may lead to dangerous fires in HMOs. 

For more information on landlord responsibilities, read Legal obligations of a landlord and Legal obligations of a landlord in Scotland. Ask a lawyer if you have any further questions.

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