Baby's death could spark rental law changes

A central Queensland coroner has recommended tougher laws to ensure faults in rental homes are quickly repaired, following the death of a seven-week-old baby.

Isabella Diefenbach died in hospital in May 2010 after her father dropped her when his foot went through a piece of rotten wood at their rented home in Yeppoon, Queensland.

Isabella’s death led to an investigation by Coroner Annette Hennessy. In the 60-page coroner’s report, released yesterday, Ms Hennessy outlined how the Diefenbachs had reported the rotten wood to the Queensland-based letting agents on at least four occasions prior to Isabella's death.

According to Ms Hennessy, some repairs were made but the carpenter had not done the job properly.

In the report, the coroner made 13 recommendations including mandatory inspections by independent builders of verandahs and balconies older than 10 years at rental properties.

She also recommended industry stakeholders conduct awareness campaigns around safety standards and obligations, and suggested estate agents improve the way complaints from tenants were reported, documented and resolved.

While the Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) has come out in support of the coroners findings.

REIQ CEO Anton Kardash said the Institute had already spoken with the government about the need for increased industry self-regulation and compulsory professional development.

‘‘The Institute has made ongoing representations to the government during the lead-up to the proposed review of the Property Agents and Motor Dealers Act about the need for the introduction of an appropriate disclosure regime for landlords, as implied in the coroner’s recommendations,’’ he said.

‘‘Property managers are the intermediary between property owners and tenants and can often be perceived as having statutory responsibilities under the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act which in fact remain with the owner.’’

According to Josey Comerford, partner and senior property manager at Hugh Reilly Real Estate in Mackay, agents in the northern part of the state need to be especially vigilant in checking for rotten wood due to the region’s climate. However, this may require a professional eye.

“I took on a property a few years back that had been freshly painted. What the common eye couldn’t see was that underneath the paint was rotten wood,” she told Real Estate Business, “so it is very important that building inspections are done by qualified people.”

Ms Comerford believes the coroner’s recommendations are in a similar vein to regulations covering pool fencing or smoke alarms.

“Hopefully something like this will never happen again, but if the laws are implemented it will mean that a property manager will have to have a separate database for every property with a verandah to ensure the deck is inspected by a qualified person and it will mean another thing an owner will have to pay for.”

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