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What is repair?

This content applies to England & Wales

There is no straightforward definition of the word 'repair'. It is subject to continuing interpretation by the courts. Ultimately whether something is a repair will depend on the facts of the individual situation.

Until recently repair was defined by distinguishing it from improvement. For example, the installation of a damp proof course to remedy damp used to be regarded as an improvement and not a repair, despite being the most effective remedy available.[1]

This situation was changed by a number of cases in the early 1980s. One case concerned a block of flats that had been built without expansion joints (because they did not exist at the time of construction), with the result that the building's stone cladding was threatening to fall off.[2] By the time of the case expansion joints had been invented. The court decided that to use expansion joints to remedy the situation would be a repair and not an improvement.

Other cases have sought to distinguish repair from renewal. In one case that concerned the landlord's covenant to repair under section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (see the section on Contractual rights including section 11), the court gave three tests that could be applied to distinguish repair from renewal:[3]

  • whether the alterations were to most of the structure or only to a part of it
  • whether the effect of the alterations was to produce a building of a wholly different character than that which had been let
  • what the cost of the works was in relation to the previous value of the building, and what their effect would be upon the value and lifespan of the building.

The tests are to be applied separately or concurrently according to the individual case, and the conclusions will vary depending on the nature and age of the premises, the condition of the premises when the tenant moved in, and the express terms of the tenancy.

In the case in question, the works by the landlord resulted in a complete change of the roofs, elevation and windows, changes to almost all features of the property, and a substantial increase to the life and value of the property. The court decided that the works were not ones of repair but of renewal.

The case brought together tests that had been put forward in earlier cases. Interpretation of the tests has given the following results:

  • for the first test, a rebuilding of one wall of a house was found to be a repair,[4] whereas the rebuilding of a house following its demolition was renewal[5]
  • for the second test, the replacement of a lean-to utility room to the back of a property with a more solid structure was found to be a renewal[6]
  • for the third test, the approximate cost of replacing the roof of an industrial unit was £84,000, which represented 50 to 60 per cent of the value of the unit with a new roof, but a much smaller proportion of the much higher estimated cost of rebuilding the entire property, and was found to be a repair.

[1] Pembery v Lamdin [1940] 2 All ER 434, CA.

[2] Ravenseft Properties Ltd v Davstone Holdings Ltd [1980] QB 12.

[3] McDougall v Easington DC (1989) 21 HLR 310, CA.

[4] Lurcott v Wakeley and Wheeler [1911] 1 KB 905.

[5] Lister v Lane and Nesham [1893] 2 QB 212.

[6] Halliard Property Co Ltd v Nicholas Clarke Investments Ltd [1983] 269 EG 1257.

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