Rent Officer Handbook: Housing Benefit referral

Housing Benefit referral: tenancy information

How the Rent Officer gathers information about the letting which has been referred by a Local Authority for a determination of rent to be made in respect of a claim for Housing Benefit.

Access unobtainable - Housing Benefit

(v.2 2009)

When the Rent Officer is unable to access the letting to inspect the dwelling.

Access denied

Where an occupant denies access, for example by closing the door on the visiting officer, they should make sufficient notes of the outside of the premises to allow the Rent Officer to make a valuation. The Rent Officer then makes determinations on the basis of known information, and does not make a further appointment.

The Rent Officer should add the following note in remarks on the decision to the local authority – ‘Claimant did not allow access to inspect accommodation, so decision made on basis of information available/external inspection’.

Access unobtainable

The following procedures apply where, having given advance notice of an inspection in writing or by telephone, the visiting officer gets no answer at the door.

When this happens:

  • They should leave a card/note addressed to the claimant in a sealed envelope. The note advises the claimant that the Rent Officer called as arranged, got no answer at the door, and will make their decision based on information available
  • They should make sufficient notes of the outside of the premises to allow the Rent Officer to make a valuation. The Rent Officer makes determinations based on known information
  • The Rent Officer should add the following note in remarks on the decision to the local authority – ‘Unable to gain access to inspect accommodation, so decision made on basis of information available/external inspection’
  • If the claimant contacts the Valuation Office Agency after the determination based on available information has been issued, then the Rent Officer should not arrange a further inspection or attempt to re-open the case. The only other option in these circumstances is for the claimant to ask for a redetermination, if they are unhappy with the decision itself. However, if it transpires that a factual error has been made a substitute referral may be appropriate
  • Inspecting Officer
  • Inspection criteria
  • Inspection policy
  • Inspection practice

Inspection criteria

(v1 2011)

Considerations of the Rent Officer in deciding whether to inspect the letting in order to make the determination.

With the reducing number of Rent Officers each is now covering a much larger area, so it is increasingly important that each inspection adds value to the process of valuation or our market intelligence.

Targeted inspections

This targeted approach to inspections enables Rent Officers to inspect only when it adds value, while maximising efficiency by reducing the time travelling each day and reducing the T&S bill.

To enable the Rent Officer to select cases for appointment the proportion of mandatory inspections should be limited. Too many mandatory inspection criteria could serve to thwart the aim of inspections adding value to determinations or market intelligence, but regard should be had to the following criteria.

(Note: The reason for the inspection to be entered on the VICTER system is covered in a separate handbook page ‘Inspections reasons using VICTER drop downs’.)

a. the referral is for an HMO or Hostel and

  • there are no details on VICTER, or
  • lettings at the property were previously determined to be reasonable or better overall in the Rent Officer’s judgement, but the property has not been seen for more than 12 months, or
  • lettings at the property were previously determined poorer than reasonable in terms of quality or service provision in the Rent Officer’s judgement, and the property has not been seen for more than 6 months

b. the dwelling referred is of a room size category and is situated in a neighbourhood that has been identified for targeting (in conjunction with the lettings information collection team) as one with insufficient or gaps in lettings information

c. the referral is for board and attendance and

  • we need to establish the substantiality of the Board & Attendance, or
  • lettings at the property were previously determined to be reasonable or better overall in the Rent Officer’s judgement, but the property has not been seen for more than 12 months, or
  • lettings at the property were previously determined poorer than reasonable in terms of quality or service provision in the Rent Officer’s judgement, and the property has not been seen for more than 6 months

d. the referral is for a boat or mooring and the dwelling has not been seen before or the mooring has not been seen within the last year

e. the referral is for a caravan/mobile home or site rent and either the dwelling has not been seen before or the site has not been visited within the last year

f. where the referral from the LA indicates that there has been substantial change in the condition of the accommodation or terms of the tenancy other than rent

External inspections

External inspections should be made when:

  1. the tenant cancels the appointment before the inspection
  2. access is unobtainable
  3. access is denied
  4. an appointment has been cancelled and other cases received later that need an inspection in the area can be fitted in, and where there is not time to send out a notification of the inspection

Separate redeterminations inspections criteria

  1. Redetermination officers (RDOs) should seek to inspect in cases where:

a. in all cases on the second redetermination if there has been no first instance Rent Officer inspection and no inspection on the first redetermination

b. the tenant or LA specifically request inspection and cite legitimate reason

c. it would assist for legal reasons or to further complaints resolution

d. The referral is for a case where board and attendance are included and the Rent Officer’s determination was made without the benefit of an internal property inspection

e. The referral is for a site rent or mooring charge and the Rent Officer’s determination was made without the benefit of a property inspection

  1. RDOs should not inspect as a general rule in cases where the above does not apply and where:

a. the LRR is the lowest of the values

b. the claimant’s concern about the Single Room Rent is the sole reason for the redetermination request

c. there is an inspection report on file, of good quality and made within previous 12 months of the original valuation date

d. the property/type is known by the RDO and sufficient information is available to make a determination

  • Inspections reasons using VICTER drop downs
  • Inspections practice – HB
  • Inspections – measuring standard

Inspections - practice (HB)

(v1 2009)

Practices of the Rent Officer when inspecting the letting in order to make the determination.

The purpose of an inspection is to observe and record information relating to the dwelling that will assist Rent Officers / redetermination officers in making the required determinations for current and future referrals.

Inspections must be of a sufficient standard so that it should not be necessary to re-inspect the property unless there is a notified change in condition of the dwelling, or to comply with VOA general inspection policy.

The primary purpose of the inspection is to provide further information about the property and any other information that may affect the valuation process, for example, the vicinity, neighbourhood and locality where the property is situated.

Inspections provide Rent Officers with:

  • a wider knowledge of a specific vicinity, neighbourhood or locality
  • a wider knowledge of the factors which may change the ‘locality’
  • up to date knowledge about changes in amenities or local conditions (for example, new bus routes, schools, shops, football pitches or sewerage works) which may impact upon the valuation process or help to define specific localities
  • possible sources of Lettings Information – The tenant may have paid the rent from their own resources before claiming benefit
  • inspections should be targeted in order that they add value to the Rent Officers’ processes

Inspections must never be carried out just to check the information provided on the referral. Although, at an inspection, the inspecting officer must check and verify information on the referral about the tenancy details, occupiers, any joint tenancy and any accommodation not included in the letting. The inspecting officer must also give the occupier the opportunity to ask questions about the Rent Officer’s role.

It is good practice to find out:

  • how the occupier found the accommodation
  • how long it took to find
  • whether the occupier was able to negotiate the rent
  • where and on what terms they had previously been living;
  • whether they had been paying rent from their own resources for a period prior to making a housing benefit claim; and
  • how occupiers themselves classify and use rooms in different property types and places (for example is an attic used as a bedroom, or a kitchen/diner used as a living room)

Inspection sheet

The standard valuation/ inspection sheet must be used in all cases and sets out the essential factors that need to be recorded at each inspection. Additionally the Rent Officer / redetermination officer must record:

  • A broad indication about the quality of the property
  • The services provided (i.e. fuel costs, porterage, cleaning, etc)
  • The property specific amenities (gas, water, etc)
  • Details of any local amenities (schools, shops, public transport)

Level of detail

Free text must be limited and must not be used to record standard property descriptors that are already recorded using tick boxes.

The description needs to be accurate but not over detailed - for example the extent of any central heating (i.e. full, partial or none) provided should be recorded. There is no need to comment on state of the guttering or the construction materials unless they are particularly unusual.

There is only limited room in the text boxes on the worksheet and on VICTER to record detail and it is important not to repeat information that is already held on VICTER such as property / dwelling type, age, central heating & garage. This information is recorded in a standard format on VICTER following an inspection. Use of the locality and inspection remarks sections is important to provide full and meaningful inspection notes.

Locality details

Rent Officers / redetermination officers must record any relevant good or bad points found at the inspection with regard to:

  • Location in relation to schools, public transport (or lack of), local shops and general amenities such as banks, healthcare
  • Type of residential area – for example: good, poor, on an estate, popular residential area, unpopular area, boarded properties in immediate vicinity
  • Proximity of Social Housing
  • Also help to provide directions for difficult to locate properties, particularly in rural areas
  • School catchment areas

Inspection remarks

Rent Officers / redetermination officers must note any relevant factors relating to:

  • The local market – eg, average for area
  • Modernised/ recently refurbished
  • Lack of heating and/ or modernisation
  • Identity by description – for example: traditional Victorian property, typical 1970’s estate property, new build
  • Character
  • Dated fixtures and fittings

Inspection remarks - rooms

Important additional information on rooms must include:

  • Is there a resident landlord?
  • How many rooms are let in the building?
  • How many shared bathrooms and kitchens in the building?
  • Does the property have fire regulations approval?
  • Details of the size of room, for example, single, double, large single, large double

Plans

Rent Officers and redetermination officers are not expected to draw plans when they inspect properties. A sketch should only be made if the property is unusual or if it brings added value to the valuation process.

Case notes

Case notes must be used to record any extra notes, also useful for phone details and for recording reasons why an inspection was cancelled or did not take place. Redetermination officers must use case notes to record the name of the consulting officer and the date of contact.

Effective use of space

Popularly used acronyms and abbreviations must be used to make effective use of space available on the Victer system.

  • Inspection criteria