Isabella's Story

Rosy Sullivan

It is sad that it often takes a tragedy to prompt an industry to adopt safer practices; even sadder when it involves the death of a child. Whilst this is a Queensland case, it is equally relevant to property managers throughout Australia. The maintenance of property requires a set process no matter where you are located.

The tragedy unfolded in May 2010, at a young family’s rented home in Yeppoon, Queensland.  Proud new father, Adam Deifenbach, was holding his 7 week old baby girl, Isabella, when he noticed a piece of rotting wood on the verandah and called his wife out to see it. He touched it lightly with his foot and, while his horrified wife watched on, his foot went straight through the rotten board.  Adam was thrown forward, letting go of baby Isabella who landed on the tiled ground beneath the verandah. Isabella died from head injuries on route to Rockhampton hospital.

Prior to the incident, Isabella’s parents made numerous complaints to the property manager about the rotting verandah, and inspections had been carried out by three different tradespeople.  While each inspection revealed that the verandah had substantial termite damage that needed to be repaired, the property manager did not read the reports but instead forwarded them on to the landlord.  But, because of miscommunications and a lack of guidelines on how to deal with the complaint, it was not fixed in time to prevent Isabella’s death.

Isabella’s death was the subject of a Coronial Inquest late last year, with the Coroner recommending an overhaul of the rental industry. The Coroner stated the following in her recommendations:

"[I recommend] that the Office of Fair Trading and relevant residential rental industry stakeholders… review the current property management training program with a view to incorporating a component that provides property managers with an appropriate level of guidance about how to conduct a satisfactory inspection of decks, verandas and stairs for property management purposes."

She also recommended mandatory inspections, by independent builders, of verandas and balconies more than 10 years old in rental properties, and that all Queensland real estate agents be required to complete mandatory Continued Professional Development (CPD) courses.

The Coroner’s comments are particularly salient in light of the Australian Government’s plans to scrap Continued Professional Development and lower entry qualifications for the real estate industry under a new National Licensing Scheme. This horrific incident has made abundantly clear the need for higher professional standards in our industry.

The Coroner’s recommendations have not yet been implemented through any legislative change. Nevertheless, we believe that Isabella’s story puts every property professional under an obligation to do all they can to ensure the safety of the tenants in the rental properties that they manage. When asked to comment on the Isabella Diefenbach inquest, the Real Estate Institute of Queensland provided the following guidelines for best practice which can and should be applied Australia wide:

  • Property managers should carefully read reports to determine whether any defects in the property have been identified and whether any repair works or maintenance are recommended;
  • Property managers should forward reports to the Landlord highlighting any relevant repair and maintenance issues identified and seek the Landlord’s written instructions in relation to those issues;
  • In circumstances where reports identify serious repair and maintenance issues which pose an immediate risk to Tenants and visitors, property managers should seek urgent instructions from the Landlord to enable them to arrange for the necessary repairs and maintenance as soon as possible; and
  • Property managers should implement a diary or reminder system for following up instructions from the Landlord for all outstanding repair or maintenance issues. All follow up attempts and communication with the Landlord in relation to such matters should be recorded in writing and retained on file.

Landlords are sometimes reluctant to spend money on repairs, as they are making a financial decision in relation to their ‘return on investment’ for their investment property.   Some of these reluctant landlords may well benefit from reading Isabella’s story.

By seeking to implement these guidelines in your own agency, we can all play a role in ensuring that Isabella’s legacy is one of positive change for the real estate Industry.