About the AFS / Unipol Code
Summary of the Code
The Unipol/AfS Code:
- Sets a number of specific professional standards for off-street properties for shared student living and their management
- Covers all off-street properties (including flats) with up to 14 occupants in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and is consistent with the legal and regulatory requirements in those countries
- Is a scheme which landlords and managing agents voluntarily join and in doing so commit themselves to maintaining these standards for their accommodation and their accommodation management
- Establishes a national accreditation framework to help consumers make more informed choices about accommodation and its quality
- Provides landlords and their tenants with a set of transparent undertakings about how they are going to do business with one another
- Operates a standards verification system, allied to a mandatory skills-based training package, to ensure that those volunteering to meet the standards do so
- Enables landlords to show that they follow nationally recognised professional standards of service, and to badge properties covered by the Code accordingly
- Reduces misunderstandings and disputes
- Maintains a simple, inclusive, transparent, rapid and publicised complaints and Tribunal system
- Enables parties to enjoy the benefits of good standards of housing management and practice
Larger properties housing 15 or more occupants fall under the existing ANUK/Unipol National Code and can be accredited separately under that scheme. Click here to be re-directed to the National Codes website.
Background on the web-based sector for property letting
Poor Record on Quality Checking
There has, for some time, been concern amongst the customer base and within the sector about students using national websites that have no form of quality control on them at all. As a direct result some online property search engines which operate throughout the private rented sector (not just in the student area) have been prey to poor quality and in some cases fraud.
The National Patchwork of Accreditation and Licensing Arrangements: Confusion for the Consumer
Some landlords have access to a local accreditation scheme, although many do not. Some landlords are members of landlord organisations or a regional scheme where they can be accredited. Landlords in Scotland and Wales also meet higher regulatory standards. The problem with these schemes is that it is difficult to use them to undertake national marketing because they are frequently different and few consumers immediately outside the areas they cover know what they are or what they mean. Indeed, many local or landlord-based schemes are, at best, very limited in what assurances they offer students. Similarly, local authorities operate with minimum regulatory standards which offer few assurances about management quality and they run their regulatory standards and inspections in very different ways around the country.
The Unipol/AfS Code
Students and parents are therefore confronted with the risk of buying poor quality and the difficulty of working out the value of local accreditation because of strong variance in standards across the country.
In response to this challenge the Unipol/AfS Code provides a national accreditation framework which places at the heart of the web-based letting market both rigorous quality checking and a ‘currency' of standards meaningful to the consumer.
On quality, the Unipol/AfS Code gives reassurance to students and parents about the ownership and quality of properties that they can rent online. Specifically, the Code offers protection for the consumer by ensuring that:
- Accredited (or Code) landlords have a level of management skills that means they are competent and professional managers
- Property and management standards are checked through a system of independent professional verification which entails visiting and inspecting sample properties
On the issue of the Code's ‘currency', its standards are consistent with regulatory regimes across all local authorities and countries (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) and takes into account that some landlords are already accredited in local or national schemes. So landlords are not being asked to meet standards that are contradictory.
Where an existing scheme is doing good work, this is recognised in the application process and fee-charging regime for the Unipol/AfS Code. Where additional regulation has been applied (particularly in Scotland and Wales) which raises regulated properties to the accredited standard then those properties are also recognised as meeting this quality threshold.
As the secretariat for ANUK, Unipol grades schemes it knows about so that there is no duplication of effort. Those landlords and agents within existing accreditation schemes can be ‘passported' into the AfS Unipol scheme, and, depending on what type of scheme they are in, they should receive a discount on the fee for joining the AfS/Unipol Code. For the Code's schedule of fees, including discounting click here .
The AfS/Unipol Code has been carefully constructed to be consistent with all national guidance, existing Government approved national schemes for larger developments and the Accreditation Network UK's (ANUK) model code and its recommended four core values of: declaration, verification, continual improvement and a complaints system.
The Code concentrates on management standards (sometimes reflected in the physical management of the property) and the fire standards are based on the LACORS fire guidance. There should be no inconsistency with the standards being required by any local codes and this National Code so landlords are not being asked to meet standards that are contradictory.
The standards chosen for the Code reflect a balance of common sense obligations and responsibilities between landlords and tenants. They are based on what an average student and their parents would expect of a good quality landlord. The standards are supported by the voice of students themselves through the National Union of Students.
Notwithstanding their focus on best practice, the Code standards have been designed to be achievable by landlords without significant expenditure of time and money.
The Code requirements are a combination of
- Standards established in law
- ‘Good practice' guidelines
- Procedures to reduce misunderstandings between landlords and tenants
The Codes set Standards in a Number of Categories:
- Equality and diversity
- During the tenancy
- Health and safety
- the environment and sustainability
- Community relations
- At the end of the tenancy
- Disputes and complaints
In a word, reassurance. Often for students one of the big anxieties about college life is working out the options on where to live and how to secure decent accommodation. For students looking for shared housing – there are many uncertainties about what to expect and the reality of what is out there.
What the Code does is to establish a minimum set of professional standards for shared student houses (off-street properties) and how they are managed. Landlords who are members of the Unipol/AfS Code commit to meeting these standards. If they fall short, there are mechanisms readily available to students to have things put right. Members are also checked for compliance when they join and periodically after that.
In signing a tenancy for a Code property, students are giving themselves the reassurance that:
- The property is of a certain standard
- It is appropriately maintained and
- If anything goes wrong they have at their disposal a reliable means of having that problem addressed fairly and reasonably, and in good time.
Students signing up for a property covered by the Code can expect:
- Their contract to be clearly written and to stick to reasonable terms; and to state straightforwardly how much the rent is (with no hidden costs) and what they are paying for
- Their accommodation to be ready on the day they move in
- The accommodation to meet a set of nationally recognised standards, covering services, furniture and fittings
- Repairs and maintenance to be carried out within timescales prescribed by the Code
- The property to meet with robust health and safety standards
- Clarity on what deposit charges are for and why any deductions have been made from it at the end of the tenancy
- Information to be provided at the start of the tenancy, explaining what management routines the landlord follows, for example in doing repairs and routine maintenance
- A prescribed and independently administered procedure for dealing with disputes and complaints that may arise between tenants and their landlord
Landlords join the scheme on a voluntary basis. Many play an important role in the governance of the Code through the Landlords Forum.
Being able to badge themselves as a Code member signals that landlords meet a set of professional standards which gives them a competitive edge. Conversely, over time, as accreditation expands, not being a member or not meeting the Code's standards is a commercial disadvantage. For sound business reasons then landlords want to be Code members.
They also like the certainty that a fixed frame of reference gives them in terms of contractual issues, repair timescales, deposit arrangements etc – being able to say to tenants “We're operating in accordance with National Code standards” is helpful in following good practice standards and minimises problems and complaints and the time spent on handling them.
Click here for more detailed information on the diverse benefits which attract providers to Code membership.
Unipol Student Homes is a voluntary organisation instrumental in setting up and running the Code. It is a charitable, not-for-profit company limited by guarantee.
Established by the University of Leeds and Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University) and their respective students' unions in 1973, it has evolved over the decades since to become an accommodation developer, provider, manager, trainer, lobbyist, policy informer, market influence and voluntary standards setter with national renown and clout. It currently has offices in Leeds, Bradford and Nottingham and undertakes training in Leeds and London.
Accommodation for Students (AfS) is a student accommodation search engine that displays over 44,000 UK properties a year. It is the largest student search engine in Europe.
The NUS serves the interests of students and their students' unions which operate alongside, but independently of, education institutions across the country. The NUS provides research, representation, training and expert advice for individual students and students' unions. It has no affiliation to any commercial student accommodation providers. As well as being a key stakeholder in the Code, the NUS plays an important part in its governance.
The Code has four core components:
- Declaration – ie making a formal commitment
- Skills-based training
- Verification – ie checking compliance with the Code's property and management standards
- A complaints and tribunal system
Landlords or their agents can be accredited on a property-by-property basis or they can be accredited as landlords for all their student properties.
To join landlords fill in a declaration form stating that they agree to comply with the terms and conditions of the Code. Landlords join the scheme for three years at a time. (The Code is reviewed, consulted on and revised every three years.) Click here for detailed information on how to join the Code and gain accreditation.
A fee is payable to cover the cost of joining and processing the application. Fees due vary according to prior accreditation under other schemes and their level.
Landlords applying to join the Unipol/AfS Code need to undertake and successfully complete a short skills-based online training course. The programme has been compiled in recognition of the strong consumer expectation that landlords are equipped with a set of skills to make them competent and professional managers.
The property-based accreditation regime operates through property inspections known as verification visits. Verification can be undertaken in one of two ways depending on the form of the landlord's application: either through the inspection of a property or, where a landlord wishes to accredit their whole portfolio, inspection of a sample of properties.
One out of every five properties are inspected. If any problems are identified further inspections can be carried out.
If a landlord is already a member of a scheme where inspections have taken place then this may count towards the Unipol/AfS Code.
Verification visits are undertaken by independent professional verifiers with experience in the sector. The strong evidence from other schemes is that almost all landlords find the visits helpful and useful.
Verification visits focus on the property's physical condition, how it is managed and customer satisfaction.
The verifier writes a formal report to record their findings for each property inspection. This is done according to a prescribed format. The report is issued to the landlord. Where the verifier identifies matters which need addressing, these are highlighted in the report as Action Points. Following consultation with the landlord, a deadline is attached to each Action Point stipulating when the identified works must be completed by. The timetable for completion is set in consultation with the landlord. Timescales are realistic and the intention is to help the landlord meet the standards required and not adopt an enforcing mentality more common elsewhere.
Verification reports are reviewed by a National Audit Panel, made of experts who ensure that the verification process is consistently undertaken and the methodology properly followed.
If a landlord is unhappy with their report they have access to the independent Tribunal which can review complaints.
A paper certificate is issued to each landlord accredited together with free key rings for each tenant and stickers that can be fixed within the property and any office to display accreditation.
Once granted membership of the Code, a landlord's compliance is tested periodically through further verification visits. In serious cases non-compliance can result in membership being withdrawn.
Click here for detailed information on how standards are checked through verification.
Complaints and Tribunal System
The Code has a complaints procedure that is open to both landlords, tenants and ex-tenants. The first stage of any complaint is to the National Codes Administrator who will talk to all parties and try to get a resolution before proceeding further. Experience shows that almost all complaints are resolved at this stage.
If a complaint cannot be resolved in this way, it can be referred to an independent Tribunal for resolution. The membership of the Tribunal includes representatives of education institutions, landlords and students. It is chaired by a barrister with considerable expertise in the sector and its legal setting.