The ESW1 Form in a Post-Grenfell Market – Here’s What Homeowners Need to Know
Post-Grenfell fire safety measures continue to slow down the UK housing market. So, what do homeowners need to know?
This article isn’t a substitute for professional legal advice. If you’re looking for help with your fire-risk assessments, you should always speak to a qualified expert.
The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 caused more than 70 deaths in a residential high-rise block of flats. To prevent further tragedy, the combined efforts of government and industry leaders led to the introduction of new fire safety checks. These in turn have caused a backlog of delayed property transactions in the UK housing market, already volatile in the context of Brexit uncertainty and the COVID pandemic.
The backlog centres on the External Wall System Form (EWS1), meant as a fire safety check on buildings which have wall cladding and are over 18 metres or six storeys high.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, one EWS1 form covers the whole building. Thus lenders only require one form on behalf of one flat owner in the block, after which it stays valid for five years.
Those who will not require the form include:
– owners of new-build blocks built with non-combustible cladding in accordance with 2018 regulations
– hotels and hostels.
The form requires that building owners have their buildings’ cladding reviewed by fire-safety experts. It was designed to provide assurance for residents, lenders, valuers, buyers, and sellers. It has also, however, caused considerable frustration and delays for sellers and buyers.
Basing their requirement on recent guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), some mortgage lenders now require the form for buildings that are low-risk in fire-safety terms (i.e. no cladding and lower than six storeys). There are even reports of mortgage-lenders requiring EWS1s for Victorian and brick buildings. The form is not a legal requirement, but mortgage-lenders are increasingly considering it best practice to obtain one prior to issuing mortgage offers.
The situation is compounded by the cost of completing the EWS1, the waiting list for fire safety experts qualified enough to complete it, and reluctance from some freeholders and property management companies to comply (when only they can commission checks on behalf of their leaseholders).
Current fire safety checks prioritise high-risk buildings, which means that many people in low-risk buildings may expect to wait years before they will be able to sell. So far, over 250 high-rises have failed fire safety tests, and several hundred more are due for testing. These numbers do not reflect all the transactions held up (or affected by stringent caution among mortgage lenders). By February 2020, The Guardian had estimated the number of leaseholders delayed by fire safety measures to be around 500,000.
In just the last few days, there have even been reports of fake EWS1 forms being issued to apartment buildings up and down the country. These forms appear to have been signed by unqualified experts and even non-existent surveyors, which is an indication of the desperation these new regulations have caused property owners.
In the wake of such events, the ESW1 is currently under review by the government. Lixing hopes for a more efficient set of fire safety checks without compromising the safety of all residents, so those wishing to sell or buy can move forward with their transactions.