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Homeowners ignore healthy home advice

Homeowners understand the importance of insulation, but messages about other important measures which could make homes healthier aren’t getting through.

A recent University of Otago study of 80 homes showed 92 percent failed a warrant of fitness inspection. Despite being told of failings, the homeowners were reluctant to make changes believing they were unnecessary or would cost too much.

Professor of public health and study co-author Philippa Howden-Chapman was surprised at the reluctance for the low-cost measures which could make a big improvement.

Plastic sheeting placed under a house could stop an estimated 25kg of water per day from rising into a house. The sheeting costs around $200 to purchase and install.

She said previous work had looked at reluctance from some landlords to improve home as they didn’t directly benefit, but finding homeowners were also unwilling to improve the house they lived in was eye-opening.

“People didn't feel that they wanted to do it. It was a kind of halo effect around the house. They felt their house was in better condition than actually the assessor thought.”

Unhealthy homes can lead to an increased risk of contracting avoidable illnesses such as meningitis, pneumonia and rheumatic fever. They can also increase the risk of physical injury.

The study participants had all been part of a programme which funded insulation installation.

“They are people who had already put up their hands to say: ‘Yes, we know that insulation improves warmth and comfort’, but as we know that's only part of what you need to do to keep your house really warm.”

Howden-Chapman believes some older housing isn’t fit for the way people live their lives today. In a household where all adults spend the day at work, the temperature can drop throughout the day, and often the opportunity to air out dampness is missed.

“I often think those names we call our houses, bungalows, we pretend we were in India, or villas that were in southern part of Italy. We do fool ourselves because while we are in a temperate climate the wind changes quite dramatically.”

The warrant of fitness inspection checked a number of features related to health, safety and energy efficiency.

These included heating, checking for mould, curtains, functioning spouting and stormwater, ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens, window security stays and a ground water vapour barrier.

Participants were then given information about the items which had failed, and approximate costs for rectifying failures.

Of the 80 properties, 92 percent failed the inspection.

Over half did not have a ground water vapour barrier, which is similar to a ground sheet which you might have in a tent, under their house.

Only two of the study participants said they intended to install it despite it costing as little as $200.

The reasons for not installing it was the belief the ground underneath their home was dry, a worry it would add to dampness by “sweating” and a dislike of using plastic.

“One thing that distinguishes the New Zealand climate except when we are in drought - the moisture which comes up from the ground can make the floors very cold and damp.”

She said despite sharing with homeowners that 25kg of water can be produced most participants struggled to accept this.

“There are some quite simple things we can do which people don’t tend to do unless there is quite a lot of publicity about them, or they regulate.”

The Health Homes Guarantee Act, which comes into effect in July 2021, relates to rental homes and boarding houses. Housing New Zealand and community housing providers will also need to comply with the standards but have until July 2023 to do so.

The standards include insulation, heating, ventilation, draught stopping, moisture ingress and drainage.

Howden-Chapman said the Act sends a clear message to landlords of basic requirements.

“As the former Prime Minister said, if the carrot doesn't work, we need to use the stick.”

She hopes the study, published today in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, will raise the issue of what work is required for homeowners as well.

“It’s not just a problem for tenants, it’s a problem for homeowners - at a lower rate. They can improve their health and stop having injuries with minor modifications to their home.”

She thinks the attitude of just putting on another jersey in a damp house is slowly changing.

The study concludes with better education about the importance of improvements, and with funding support such as subsidies, homeowners could be encouraged to improve their health and safety.

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