Buying a New Boiler

Buying a New Boiler

David Lawrenson, landlord expert at LettingFocus.com looks at the things you should consider when buying a new gas boiler.

So, it’s cold right now, very cold. And naturally enough, this is just the sort of time your boiler breaks down. (Machines tend to break when they are being used most intensively).

As a landlord, in winter time especially, you really have to swing into action to ensure your tenants are not left in a freezing cold house. These days, tenants have the reasonable expectation that they shouldn’t be left to be cold for a long time. (We always have some electric fan heaters to give them to tide them over for heating for a day or three whilst we get a boiler fixed or replaced. It’s also good if your heating system has an immersion heater and/ or if you have an electric shower so they can at least have a warm shower too.)

If you have followed my advice in the past, you will have already developed a good relationship with a competent gas safe certified contractor, (who ideally can look after plumbing matters too). Someone you can trust to tell the truth when he or she tells you that maybe your old boiler has seen better times and it’s now time to get a new one.

Over the years I have come to realise that when certain big things go wrong with boilers or when they need new parts more than once a year, that is probably the time to admit you need a new machine. Fixing it repeatedly is usually just not worth it, the time has come to get a new boiler.

The good news is that in real terms, the cost of new boilers has gone down significantly in the 30 odd years I have been a landlord. And, (so we are told), the boilers are far more efficient in terms of how good they are at transferring fuel into heat than they were back in the old pre-condensing boiler days. That’s probably true, though many older experienced boiler fitters tell me that the models today simply do not last as long as the old ones did – a fact which they put down to the larger number of parts the newer machines have, which in turn means there is simply more things that can go wrong. (Some experts think the combi boilers of today have the shortest life expectancy, because the burners are always being fired on and off, as required to heat up water, on demand).

Getting hard and fast information on boiler efficiency is difficult, not least because the industry as a whole has a vested interest in pushing the fact that the new boilers that they are marketing are so much better in terms of efficiency (and hence lower carbon footprint so beloved of governments) than old ones. But some of my gas fitter guys and girls question just how much more efficient the new classes of boiler really are and I often consider their comments in the light of the Volkswagen car emissions scandal, (where low emissions rates were being faked by the car firms own tests), and so adopt a very skeptical view as to the manufacturers claims.

Until some trustworthy and neutral organisation tests the claims of the boiler manufacturers, we will never know the real truth. I cant help thinking the government is probably being hoodwinked by the boiler makers as to how efficient they really are.

Boilers of The Old Days

What I can say, from experience, is that the boilers we have in our properties that were installed from 15-20 years ago have not lasted as long as the ones that were fitted between 20 and 40 years ago. In our portfolio, we still have one boiler, (a non-combi), which is at least 25 years old and which is still running just fine and continues to neatly heat our sole one bedroom flat. I will say more about this particular boiler later, but it is worth commenting that it certainly appears to be extremely efficient if the heating bills of my tenants over the 20 odd years I have owned the property are anything to go by. (They seem to spend less than £50 a month for heating and lighting the one bed flat).

There is no doubt that the larger the portfolio of properties you have and the more work you have given to the same heating (and plumbing) contractors, the nearer the front of the queue you will be to get the work done quickly (and at a reasonable cost). If you are just starting off as a landlord or if you have properties all over the country and not more than one or two in any location, it can be harder to get to the front of the queue.

90% of our properties are within 20 miles of each other, which helps and we give all our landlords gas certificate work and plumbing and heating call outs to just one or two local tradesmen. They get a regular flow of call out maintenance work from us, (which can be as profitable as fitting new boilers for those fitters who are on call to many clients and can thus generate a lot of work covering the whole of their working days).

You should note that I will only work with gas fitters who are prepared to look after ALL my plumbing and boiler needs – both the maintenance AND the fitting of new boilers. One reason for this is that I want to be able to give the tenants the tradesman’s phone number and email for them to contact the tradesman directly, so I’m not involved. I’m a landlord, not a plumber or gas fitter!

Trust the Boiler Fitters

So I trust to the experts to make the “right calls” on the works to be done. And because I give them a lot of work, I don’t expect them to rip me off with unnecessary work. In fact, the fitter only needs to call me to discuss the job, if there is a decision to be made – such as whether to spend £200 fixing an old boiler, or whether the time has come to get a new boiler. (Note: If you use a letting agent, this is the sort of thing they will call you about too, which is another reason not to use a letting agent for anything other than finding tenants).

These are the types of decisions that are “my call” as a landlord and they will need my authorization on. In summary, I try to set clear guidelines so they can follow them without having to check with me all the time. It works for the tenants, it works for the fitter and, most of all it works for me.

You will of course, be aware that the likes of British Gas, (advert tagline, “Looking After Your World”), are very keen to get the business of landlords and to fit and maintain new boilers for them. They have a heavy advertising presence, marketing extensively on TV and other media. They, and a wide variety of other companies like them, sell a variety of service contracts to landlords and other homeowners in which they promise to maintain a variety of household appliances, look after plumbing and drainage etc., for an annual fee.

But from what I have seen, it is simply not worth getting the likes of British Gas to come and fit your new boiler (nor to assess if your old one is possibly kaput – see more on this below!). Their fees are always higher than a local independent gas safe fitter would charge you. Sure, you have the reassurance that if anything goes really badly wrong, you could always write to the Chief Executive of British Gas and threaten to write to the Daily Telegraph etc., and things will get fixed.

However, if you opt to use an experienced local independent local fitter, (and avoid the big corporations), you will find not only will you pay less, but that many fitters will be able to give you up to a ten year part and labour guarantee anyway on certain models. The key here is that it’s not the fitter that is giving the guarantee, it is the manufacturers, who are also big companies with reputations to protect. Both Worcester Bosch and Vaillant, two of the biggest players, offer such long term parts and labour guarantees, provided the machine qualifies, (many machines will come with at least a seven year guarantee), and provided also it has been fitted by selected tradespeople who have built up a track record with them and who are fitting a certain, minimum number of boilers each year. So, check with the fitter if they qualify with the manufacturer to give you the longer guarantees. And get all this in writing before you commission the work.

Invoking Boiler Guarantees

And if you have a really long guarantee, you won’t need a service contract either, because if the boiler fails, all you need to do is call Worcester Bosch or Vaillant (or whichever manufacturer it is) and they will come and fix the machine, hopefully with no problem or grumbles.

When you have a good machine backed by a long term parts and labour guarantee of this type, who needs a service contract from British Gas or Homeserve, or some other such service company?

As far as we are aware, the big manufacturers are usually pretty prompt at coming out and fixing boilers that have broken but which are under guarantee, though it may take a few days in the middle of winter, when breakdowns tend to peak. (British Gas and other providers offer no hard and fast guarantees either, it should be noted) And, of course, there is no charge for the call out or the work to fix the machine if it is still under guarantee. To continue to qualify for the guarantee, you will need to boiler to be serviced annually by a qualified gas safe registered fitter, so don’t forget this and make sure to record the service in the log book that comes with the boiler. In practice, of course, the machines rarely breakdown within the guarantee period, though I admit I have not had to call out within the guarantee period yet.

We always buy the machines with the longest guarantee period, so we usually have ten years’ worry free on our boilers. It works for us.

Boilers and British Gas

Just a comment on British Gas. Back in 2004, the same one bed flat where my old boiler of 25 years + happily chugs along to this day, was being let under a housing association lease scheme to a London-based housing association. The housing association took the property off my hands for four years, paying a guaranteed rent. Within their contract they looked after most repairs, and for the boiler they had entered into a service contract with British Gas. The contract with the housing association stated that their contract with British Gas covered most things but not major breakdowns, which might require a new boiler.

A few years into the contract with the housing association, I was contacted by them to say the boiler had broken down and that British Gas had told them it could not be fixed and a new boiler was needed – and it would cost in the region of £2,500. I said I would have my own fitter look at it. He came around and fixed it for a fee of £80. It is still working 14 years later!

At around that time, many people had said that British Gas workmen were very keen to condemn old boilers in order, it was alleged, so they could get the profitable business / commission from installing a new boiler along with the usual service contract that they can often upsell along with it. This was a number of years ago and it is possible that British Gas have since improved their service. Do write and tell me of your experiences. With British Gas, it seems more a case not of “Looking After Your World”, more of “Looking After Our Profits”.

For now, I am keen to give my business to my local small contractors. They do a good job for me. Generally, a fitter has to do a certain number of jobs a year to be able to maintain membership of the gas safe register, qualify for the manufacturers’ discounts and to be able to offer the manufacturer’s long term guarantees on the machines they fit). This does point out that one must pay a fair price for tradespeople’s work.

Dissenting Voice: It must be said that my main plumber (who used to fit gas boilers but doesn’t any more due to the low profit margins) still remains unconvinced that the likes of Worcester Bosch and Vaillant won’t try to claim you have the “wrong sort of water” or try some other get out of the warranty. He may be right. So far we have not had to invoke a claim in the warranty period. What is your experience?

Economy 7 Heating

One of our properties has Economy 7 heating – in which a well insulated electric water tank is used to heat up water overnight (on the low tarriff) and then pumps it to storage heaters for heat in the day and evening. These are also very efficient, if my tenants’ bills are anything to go by. And in the long years I have had this property, I have only had to once call out for a repair to the boiler. Plus, you do not need an annual gas safe check, thus saving at least £60 a year, nor have to worry about carbon monoxide detectors. I’m a big fan and I wish more of my properties had Economy 7 heating systems.

I hope you have found this blog of interest. I would be very keen to hear what experiences you have had and will happily publish any useful tips.

Any experiences you have had with other heating systems such as oil based heating (more common in the countryside) or indeed, with renewable energy, especially self-generated electricity from wind, solar and water systems will be welcome too.

 

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