Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Dovecots In Dubai

The other day, I spent some time chatting with an architect from Dubai, who spoke about his home.

I was picturing otherworldly fake islands in the sun, luxurious super-tower residential blocks, and open spaces decorated with beautiful public art all with a sea view. Then he told me some shocking news: they have dovecots there as well.

I have always imagined that the race for rabbit hutches was a British obsession. I remember all those meagre niches where people lived like gulls on a cliff face, to be counted in hundreds of thousands, every bird, every nest looking just the same. Urban dovecots are increasingly discredited, as they do not sell, people hate them, and at the bottom end of the market, are such a bad investment that you might just as well stand on the balcony and shower money down on the people below as expect to make a profit.

And guess what: everybody hates them in Dubai. Nobody bought them, nobody wanted to rent them, and again, the builders had a strange idea of their target market (tiny stupid people as they are the only creatures who don’t need space to live, and were silly enough to pay up?) Then, after a financial trauma so terrible it was like staring death in the face, the developers realised: if people don’t like them – let’s ask them what they actually want. Let’s build flats people actually enjoy living in!

And here’s what residents were found to favour: what are called furniture walls – i.e. walls or partitions where you rest a sofa or put up a picture or two. Separate kitchens, all achieved by wooden partitions, so safety if allowed. The toilet does not open out onto the dining area, but out into a hallway. There should be storage (any of this sound familiar?)

This is just so obvious they might as have said: where does the sun rise? People buy large homes if they can afford it, but the kind of people renting in Dubai, according to my source, are single (or couples with no children) who still like a separate kitchen.

My informant also told me about some earlier mistakes: like the development with a row of three blocks allowing for space, and views and a sense of freedom (until the greedy developers filled in the gaps with yet more apartment blocks, and removed any sense of openness and liberation.)

Developers everywhere should read their red bank statements, count their empty properties, and pacify those angry buy-to-let landlords, furious at being promised a gold-standard money maker (but lumbered instead with a catastrophic ruin waiting to happen.) They should look and listen to all these things and then they ask people, i.e. mostly tenants how they actually want to live, not just put their fingers in their ears and whistle so as to drown out disgruntled investors and miserable tenants. They need to build some nice flats. Honestly, is it really that hard?

In Dubai, they were planning to do exactly that, but they left it too late, and look what’s happening there.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Strange Case Of The Missing Architect

I am rarely lost for words; you might even describe me as chatty (well, that’s the polite way of putting it) but the other day, I discovered something that left me absolutely speechless.

I’ve always wondered just who designs those nasty little orange euroboxes like my former home of Dovecot Towers which are disfiguring cities everywhere. Whoever they are, they express their hatred of humanity by designing homes that are less about domestic bliss and more about smiting people with vengeance. I imagine their wizened yellow faces contorted with malice, manically intoning their evil plans and cackling until dawn as they draw up the blueprints, satisfied at the huge amount of misery they inflict upon their enemies.

Who else could be held responsible? I know that developers pay this evil piper to call their tune, but seriously – what were the architects thinking when they designed those meagre little box flats? Does nobody ever reject their demonic plans and drag them out by the scruff of the neck, slapping them as they shout: “You’ve been a very naughty architect!”

In fact truth is worse than that. The architect is invisible and powerless. The architect is absent. You see, there is no architect. Buildings urban twat-flats are designed by anybody who fancies a try.

The excellent blog Bad British Architecture (see links) has coined an excellent phrase, which always makes me laugh: ‘developer vernacular,’ that is, buildings styled and envisaged by developers, who favour cost-saving uniform grey metal fittings and orange brick infill stuck onto a concrete box.

Exactly who is responsible, then? Anybody who fancies giving it a go, basically: the work experience girl, some bloke who was wandering by, the cleaner, the man who delivers the organic veg box, Jeffrey from Rainbow, and (on more than one occasion) a troupe of semi-trained gibbons.

Here’s what happens: they draw a childlike box, with no fripperies, no extras, no fancy accoutrements like strong doors, insulated walls, space, or cupboards. They squeeze everything into their tiny little closet and afterwards put a window-box outside and call it a balcony.

Seriously though – can you imagine the same happening anywhere else, where rank amateurs intent on torturing humanity are given free rein to meddle in what should be a skilled profession and thereby ruin innocent lives? (oh right – apart from letting agents.)

Please tell me I’ve been misinformed: please tell me there’s a law stating that houses must be planned with great skill by people specially trained to this, allowing for safety, comfort and even beauty (shouldn’t our homes be beautiful – if only for the sake of the poor blighters standing outside dumbstruck with horror or pointing and laughing.)

But apparently, that’s the way it is. The plans are drawn up with a stubby crayon, and if we’re lucky, they’re in a straight line and everything! Please tell me that’s not true.

Although thinking about it – why be so churlish? Why not embrace this notion of can-do. Since you’re asking, I’ve always fancied trying a spot of brain surgery, and I’ve also got this great fantastic idea for a nuclear power station. Somebody hire me please – after all, what harm could I possibly do?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Your Name's Not Down - You're Not Coming In

Last week, I emailed my Letting Agents stating firmly but politely that they mustn’t come round if I was out. They had (if you recall) left a hand delivered letter on the floor in the communal hallway giving 24 hours notice of a summary inspection.

So there I was bubbling with righteous anger, having cancelled appointments and set aside waiting time (the LA’s allowed themselves a whole day, not even specifying morning or afternoon).

I did some work, typing very fast (I do that when I’m angry) and was speaking to myself in a high-pitched angry voice when, at about ten am, I received an email: they weren’t coming round after all.

How thoughtful of them to them let me know. Were they aware I had complained about my house-keys being passed around like free newspapers? “The office manager is aware of it,” apparently, but not so aware as to apologise.

I reminded them that despite being furnished, there is no shelving or cabinets in the bathroom, so everything is piled up on the floor: not nice, not really hygienic, and so easy to remedy.

But here’s the trap: if I plough ahead, I could be hammered for repair fees. I pointed this out when the LA visited last time (I just the leave the door on the latch for them now) when their response was: “You could buy something yourself.”

I am reasonable. I bought my own towel rack, and I have a clothes rail, since for many landlords, ‘furnished’ is a vague and whimsical term. But drilling into a wall was not the way forward, as I’d lose my deposit (yes, I think I think I’d get it back after a court case, but even so…)

I have as yet received no reply to any of my queries.

So here then, is a thought. Let’s say, hypothetically, that a friend owns several large houses. And let’s say that my hypothetical friend, knowing that I was flat-hunting, had asked me to report on Letting Agents, in a mystery shopper capacity: you know, tell him how they treated me so could select a firm to manage his property portfolio. Let’s say that he wanted them to be fair to tenants, having (hypothetically of course) been a private tenant for years himself. Not wanting to work with a company who abused, disdained and trampled on the rights of residents, he wanted nice people, fair people, to oversee his houses.

And let’s just imagine that I’ve done just that, ensuring that the Office Where The Nasty People Are didn’t get the gig.

It’s sort of a motto of mine: never shaft people unless you’re willing to accept the consequences. Not for one minute do the spiny sharks ruling my world imagine that I have any standing in the world, or that I am willing to stand up for my rights (they believe that renters, like slugs may be eradicated with impunity.)

Be careful who you pick on - very careful. You never know who can bite hardest.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Come Round Anytime!

Last Thursday, whilst sucking at an oxygen tank, sick with altitude fever after traipsing up the many flights of stairs, I realised the rubbish needed taking down. Cursing at the journey and the rain, I noticed a hand-delivered letter soggy and discarded on the floor. It was addressed to me, and had apparently been left on a first floor ledge but had been moved or made its own way down.

And guess what’s inside? A cheery letter from my letting agent. Apparently, they’re inspecting my flat between 9am and 5 pm next week. How thoughtful of them to let me know.

The letter says: “It is not necessary for you to be present.”
Erm…actually people, yes it is, since you mention it. I have no intention of allowing strangers free-rein to gambol in my lounge, poking their sticky beaks into my affairs. And they intend on doing this every three-four months “…on behalf of the landlord.”

Whatever next: summoning tenants with a whistle like the Von Trapp children, compelling us to wear uniforms and stand by our beds military fashion while saluting?

To be honest, it’s like Piccadilly Circus in here. A fortnight ago, my flat required a small repair, and I was expecting the contractor to arrange a convenient time. When I called, he said: “But I’ve already been to your house; the agency gave me the keys and I was round last Saturday.”


At least he had the grace to be embarrassed at having marched uninvited in my home, and was astonished that I hadn’t been informed. In fact, he was mortified, but not as horrified as I am. Furious doesn’t cover it, and words are inadequate. The letting agent are so keen to protect themselves and yet stomp over my rights, crushing my privacy and legal entitlement to peaceful enjoyment at every turn.

God, I was angry. The cheek of it: I have no idea who has the key to my home, how many keys exist, and (this is the terrifying part) how many copies have been made. I will allow reasonable access in an emergency, but surely frequent, random spot-checks is against the spirit of the law (I might add that an agency employee had already called two weeks ago so they know I’m not wrecking the place.)

I wonder if I’m allowed to change the locks (which I really want to do, considering the amount of unauthorised visitors who’ve had my door key in their grubby little mitts). Also, can the letting agents insist that the law is on their side?

It’s so demeaning, and I feel powerless, since I know full well that - as retaliatory evictions are widespread - dissent will lead to me being shown the door. On days like this, I loath being a tenant, I really do. I hate it because these measures are less about inspection – more about making me feel unwelcome in my own home, the one I pay rent to live in.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Stair Mistress

Another new flat, and so far, it’s basic but reasonable: properly sound-proofed and sturdy, with separate rooms and even a bit of storage. It’s in an old warehouse which was converted decades ago, so even if the area can be slightly ‘challenging’ at times, I am happy here.

Except wouldn’t you know it, there’s one problem: it’s position (on one of the highest floors) is starting to become an issue. Yes, I realise I sound ungrateful, and yes I know that the higher the flat the warmer it is and the cheaper the bills, but you try carrying a heavy bag of books, and then stocking up on groceries, after grappling with an amusing collapsible umbrella in a wintry storm and obliged afterwards to climb upwards and onwards.

Where I live, these hallways are called ‘closes.’ The less salubrious examples have no door, granting strangers the freedom to wander in, look around and do whatever they want to do. Once inside it doesn’t matter how luxurious the flats are: even if they house spendthrift millionaires, with décor and fittings both sumptuous and grand, the close always looks like a dodgy alleyway in a notorious slum. Walls are covered in cracked ceramic tiles, or painted in diarrhoea coloured splatters with mysterious oily stains on the chipped concrete steps.

Fortunately, my close has a locked door. Even so, for some reason, even in the middle of snowstorm, someone usually opens a window – so bracing. The cold, grey stairwells become like a film-set, with shadows and plumes of frozen breath contributing to the eerie atmosphere.

This lay-out has an chilly effect on residents. We never linger and only meet when taking steps three at a time, or, when and panting and shattered we rest our red and stripy hands after lugging bags of spuds and washing-powder up the steps.

Occasionally I meet the people who live beside me, or their guests, like the girl who had stayed the night with a neighbour. She was grinning and blushed when I greeted her: she rushed down the stairs, stopping on every level to fasten a button, check the time, or tie back her hair, obviously remembering the night before and smiling again before checking her diary and laughing out loud at a text message.

Later I noticed an elderly lady stranding helplessly beside her front door as relatives carried heavy groceries to her kitchen. Stairs make these buildings impossible for anyone whose legs are slowing down.

My new home’s not that high, but already it seems like quite a daunting trek. In my vagabond life, drifting around has led me to formulate a list of must-haves. Thanks to Nice Heights, I know the value of a thoughtful lay-out and a concierge. Thanks to this place (I can’t think of a name) I also want a lift next time. Well, it’s something to aim for, isn’t it, and we all need a dream.

(NB: I’ve had some contact with an admirable and determined rental-rights campaigner from Texas, who issues standard forms to help tenants battle the combined forces of agents and landlords. One is headed: “Record of shots fired.” It’s different over there, isn’t it?)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Just A Rentergirl Who Can't Say No.

Scotland has sorted out those whimsical, onerous and imaginative letting agents admin fees good and proper. They’ve made them illegal. Agents caught charging fees are transported in chains to Rhyl, beaten about the face with cabbages and obliged to record a sincere, humble and profuse apology broadcast on youtube before repaying all the money and then some.

Yeah, right. There is a law, but letting agents brazenly ignore it, and have done for decades.

When I was sorting my current home (a great flat I might add – I seem to have been lucky for the second time) I raised the whole fees-being-illegal-thing, but you know how it works: no fees paid=no flat.

So: here are some other stories. The tenant who moved into a flat, and was told that she would be charged a £50 admin fee. It’s a three bed flat: that’s £150 in total. An online credit check costs about a fiver, and they didn’t contact her referees.

She asked me what she should do. I suggested that she should mention casually and chattily that the fees were illegal. She was told: ‘It’s a grey area.’ Only in so far as a minority opinion argues that ‘reasonable’ fees may be charged, to cover actual expenses.

Another prospective tenant queried the purpose of that £100 ‘key-money’ (this scam operates under a multitude of different names.) She was told it covered the onerous and time consuming duty of hauling in written references from her nominated referees (perhaps they live on the moon; rocket fuel is costly which might explain the rates.) Can you can guess what happened next? Just as with myself, none of the referees was actually contacted.

My agency justifies these mystery monies: “...as we have to pay to run our office.” Moving left me out of pocket, what with storage, removal vans to hire, and deposits to find. Perhaps I should send them an invoice?

I was also ambushed by sudden news of six weeks in advance for the deposit. I queried this, as tenants/customers are entitled to prior warning of any extraordinary costs, but was told by a snide letting-agent: “…this is just what charge; it’s what we charge. You can always say no.”

What would happen if I had stood my ground, looked the agent in the eye, and in my firmest stentorian tones declaimed: “No! I will not pay your illegal charges! Vive la revolution!” But I was technically homeless, and when people say: be strong and refuse to pay it’s hard even for me and I know my rights. I am aware that a charity did some secret shopping, and discovered that the majority of agencies openly and contemptuously break the law.

There is an obvious course of action: the courts, for a possible case involving fraud, extortion and charging illegal fees, but if I choose that path, I might lose the flat. Oh, this mountainous dilemma. What would you do?

(NB: I’ve been away from blogging. Sorry, but that broken memory stick sideswiped me. I need to get it repaired – all advice welcome.)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Tech Support Request - Broken Memory Stick

So there I am, about to post, and my memory stick dies. Anyone know how repair/reactivate/exorcise the little blighters? I have quite a lot of stuff on it, so any help is welcome.
Normal posting resumed as soon as humanly possible.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Mastering The Space Time Continuum

The rules governing any move to a different city are complex – a strand of theoretical physics where explanations are trippy and weird. In summary: letting-agent time operates in a different zone (or rather, an alternative reality) to time in the tenant’s dimension. Meanwhile landlord and removal-man time are different again.

To maintain order in this continuum, relocating renters must synchronise their plans. It’s very tense. I tried to find a new flat well in advance this time around, but most properties are advertised when they are already vacant, and landlords expect you to move in immediately.

That causes problems with the timing of deposits and notice. My last landlord was kind enough to initiate the Deposit Protection Scheme refund before I left, as having seen the flat he knew it was in good nick. Even so, I still had to wait a few days, a delay which meant someone was sitting on the money I would have placed on my new flat.

There’s also the fact that I was technically homeless (I’ve written before about the problems this causes.) Friends who would have let me stay had a much loved relative in hospital, and a fretful sofa-surfer was not what they needed, so I made arrangements to stay in a cheap accommodation, which ate up money I cannot spare. That ticking clock again, as delay in finding somewhere cost me dear…

So I had to hurry letting-agents, without seeming desperate. Once they scent the blood of homeless woman, they go in for the kill, offering the worst leaking shed, and expecting you to be grateful, thereby wasting more time.

Meanwhile, I kept working without landline or internet access, which for a writer is a nightmare. Mostly though, I coped, until the agency got confused (hmm…) about exactly when I was due to collect the keys.
The ferocious she-lettingagent growled: “Where were you – my time is money. Don’t waste my time.”

I pointed out that she had missed a message rearranging the appointment to suit my equally important and valuable time, to no avail. There was no room at the inn. I called my friends, whose relative had rallied; they are kind, and let me stay.

Another factor warps this continuum, and that’s bills. There’s a five day meter reading delay. The tenants of my new flat had left storage heaters on full blast before I moved in, and I wasn’t going to pay for that. Previous occupants sometimes try and bamboozle their replacements into paying for their final days energy use, which can add up.

To avoid chaos, the moving process must happen in the correct sequence: give notice, have meters read, move out of old flat, collect refunded deposit, find new flat, pay deposit, travel across space to new city, collect keys, find removal firm, move in.

Unfortunately, Rentergirl’s General Theory of Relocation says: whatever you need to happen within a defined time-frame will be screwed up completely. There is an explanatory equation somewhere, but even with a Nobel prize up for grabs, it will remain unsolved. The greatest minds all agree; time in the renting universe defies logic as we understand it.

(NB: In memory of ‘Davey,’ who died a year ago.)






Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Don't Make Me Angry

I didn’t want to do this, but I am writing about letting agents again. I was hoping that if I ignored them, they’d go away. It didn’t work.

First of all, they are rude, and their manners worsened as my flat-hunting progressed. I’ve been ordered to hurry up during phone conversations when I was obviously asking too many pertinent questions, airily dismissed through an audible haze of impatient sighs, sneered at (again) then mocked for checking the days date.

I called one agent to arrange a viewing. Now, in every city, there are areas where at one end of the neighbourhood, life is sweet. Let’s call that Easy Street. At the other end, life is dominated by burglaries and fear - let’s call that Death Row. You can’t always tell from the postcode or a map, and once you are seen to be an out-of-towner, agents will try and palm you off with a shack in Death Row.

I asked the agent: “The flat’s not in Death Row, is it?”
“No; no – of course not.”
“It’s not on the ground floor?”
“No; the very idea!”
“…and it’s definitely fully furnished?”
“Of course!”
“I’ve seen some nasty places recently; please don’t waste my time.”
“It’s lovely – trust me.”

Fifteen minutes and one costly taxi ride later, I was viewing an unfurnished ground-floor hovel in a slum, with a view out onto the bins, after the neighbours had eyed me up like vultures circling a carcass. I didn’t take the flat, and the agent was incredulous: “…you mean you don’t like it? Do you mind if I ask why?”

The worst encounter so far involves that old letting agent ploy: lying. Where I am living, agent admin fees are illegal - a detail cheerfully ignored by them all. I visited an office. Briskly, they mentioned a fee. I said:
“I thought charging admin fees was illegal here.”

It was like the scene in Oliver where that brave little orphan asks for more gruel, but here with letting agents snorting with derisive laughter. Illegal – yeah right. I couldn’t work out if they were actually lying, or simply didn’t know. What do other readers think? Still, I really made their day.

Then they gathered their composure. Speaking to me slowly, as if I am an idiot, they said: you want the flat – we charge a fee – that’s how it is. They demanded a higher than usual deposit all the while looking me up and down like I had rolled around in dog muck and wrapped myself in cling film before visiting.

I know for a fact they haven’t followed up a single reference, which means they are charging both myself and the landlord a horrible amount of money for an online credit check, which costs about a fiver. The application form they gave me was badly spelled, poorly formatted and full of improperly used legal terms, which I kept quiet about.

Thing is, I’m really angry now. They shouldn’t have made me angry. This might well go further.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Farewell Nice Heights

I’ve left Nice Heights, which was a wrench because I loved there. I’d been in the strange position of showing prospective tenants around. For the sake of my landlord and neighbours, I wanted a good tenant to move in, but I was so enthusiastic that I think some of them must have worried that I would never actually find the will to leave.

Here’s why I’m going to miss my favourite ever flat:

Synchronised Radio 4, although we needed a warden to make sure we were all listening simultaneously on DAB, as the delay caused a civilised, urbane echo.

Nice heights was so quiet. Not deathly, like a morgue, but parties didn’t destroy the peace, and occupants of shared flats didn’t feel obliged to have a birthday party, a moving in party and then a moving out party. It’s also well insulated.

Instead of thinking: how can we cut things back, how can we economise, how can we eliminate anything helpful, humane or enjoyable, without being discovered ie after the block is sold, the developers paid attention.

The way it’s managed (or rather the fact that it is managed.) There are so many blocks where the management team think of running fees as a sort of treat, to be spent on shiny things, and certainly not on nasty, ugly real things like cleaning, and security.

Residents are respected, but then tenants are in the minority. Occupants are also respectful of each other. They keep themselves private, but are friendly and chat, which is ideal.

There was a sense of peace. I don’t know why, but if Dovecot Towers was built on a hell-mouth, or something, but if so, then Nice Heights was on a place where all the happy people lived contentedly for many years.

I once saw a squirrel playing on the grass nearby, and the urban wild mink have been marching boldly into city shops. I could hear birdsong in the morning. Nature’s creatures boycotted Dovecot Towers.

Nice Heights proved that things can be done properly – that newbuild housing might look identical from the outside (and despite the quality, the exterior was far from grand.)

Some residents cultivated little indoor gardens by the front door. Nothing fancy – just a few random plants in pots, but nobody steals them. You can have a doormat, without it being nicked.

If you are carrying heavy shopping, people hold the door, and keep the lift waiting. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but sadly, for me, it was.

I’ll miss chatting in the stairwells with my friendly, sociable neighbours. People weren’t scared of each other, as they were in Dovecot Towers. The enemies of Nice Heights were outsiders, but then we had the security of a concierge and that rarity - a good strong door.

I really wish I could have stayed. A friend pointed out that that this is the only time I’ve had to move out of somewhere I’ve been really happy, which is why I am so wistful. Happiness and high-standards in rented housing shouldn’t be an aberration. Still, onward, as my renting adventure continues…

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Letting Agents - Slight Return

Yep – letting agents again. I’ve written before about these mythical monsters and wondered if I’d been too harsh. Then I thought: what if I’ve been unfortunate, only encountering the worst examples. Somewhere in the solar system, jovial, informative, honest, helpful letting agents must exist. Don’t they?

But the examples I’ve encountered recently have been horrible. They also seem to have gathered up all the properties in all the world in order to control them. Furthermore, some of them are weird.

One company in particular monopolises the flats in one of the best areas, leaving me with little choice: I had to deal with them. But these days prices aren’t too bad (rents really are falling) and so I arranged a viewing via their prickly and officious receptionist.

The apartment block in question was enormous and had been cunningly converted into a maze. I’d been given short notice of a viewing, and called to say I was on my way. The agent greeted me sharply: “I wondered where the hell you were.”
I did call to say I was lost, I said.
“Hmmm…” came her reply.

She looked me up and down with an armour-piercing squint. No small talk, no patter - just a disdainful, frigid absence of words.
“I have the keys,” she said as we approached the flat.
“Good because I don’t.” I joked lamely. Silence and another cyclopean death stare.

I asked about references. She ignored me. I asked about the landlord. More silence. The flat was okay - there was even some storage (yay - cupboards!) which I noticed was packed with half-empty paint tins, which, I was tetchily informed, I’d be obliged to hold on to (“…just in case.”)

I saw another flat. It was furnished bloke-style: matt-black and everything made of what the inventory will refer to as faux leather, with fake designer chairs. It smelled of damp. The wallpaper was peeling off in places; underneath I noticed blackheads of emerging mould.

“Does the roof leak?” I asked, quite reasonably.
“It smells of damp – I think the roof leaks. Would you know anything about that?”
Silence, and another baleful squint.

I asked all questions I’ve learned from previous bad experience to ask, like does the owner have an official buy-to-let mortgage, but there was no reply, just another squint, this time paired with a terrifying sneer. Her face was so contorted by now that she looked like a life-model for Francis Bacon. Tenants who ask awkward, albeit pertinent questions are clearly not wanted round those parts

Another firm imposed complex, arcane rules on tenants, so strict that only the blessed Sir David Attenborough, or another modern saint would suffice. They advertised one flat as ideal for students, but operated a no-students policy. Get out that, if you can… I questioned this, but all the agent said, repeatedly was: “Those are company rules, and rules are rules.”

The thought of meeting letting agents has made me feel sullied by association. Seriously, how can I wrestle free of these vampires? And landlords, why do you associate with them?

Friday, 21 August 2009

What Next?

So here I am again, flat hunting once more, encountering my own bad news. Letting agents really have taken over a massive wedge of the rental sector. There really are too many newbuilds. Yes, prices are falling, but tenants are heading en-masse for the best places, and I am at the end of the queue (I don’t exaggerate, as some readers imagine, and I hate being right.)

Last time, I was lucky: I found Nice Heights and a fair-minded landlord online, miraculously avoiding all the many weirdoes. But as far as my housing timeline goes, it’s been nasty-nice, nasty-nice, alternating between great places with decent owners, before veering off into psychopathic part-time landlords, amateur and incompetent buy-to-letters and harrowing dovecots. What’s next?

Because of this, and despite myself, I am wistful about the idea of owning a home (not property – a home.) But then, if I did I would have found it harder to take advantage of my recent opportunity (and reason for my move.) Even so, I’d like to buy a home when I get there. In my mind, there is no mortgage, no deposit, no chain, no disreputable, tricky estate-agents, no gazumping, no gazundering, no surveys, no being stuck forever with nightmare neighbours. In my reverie, buying is smooth and easy, slippery like a dream.

First up, I’ll paint my home or pay for an interior designer, as years of magnolia have blunted my senses, and to compensate I want lurid emerald walls and vivid, warm colours so it’ll be sunny all the time.

As for furniture, I’ve even been reading up on sofas, and tables, and four-poster beds. It’s so unlike me. Contrast that with some of the stained, lumpy mattresses and cabinets with the doors hanging off I’ve witnessed when renting. There will of course, be insulation (sleeping in woolly socks and a balaclava helmet deflates the spirit) and I’ve been planning a garden (even though I want to live in a flat.)

Dealing with removal companies, and insurance, and being responsible for repairs won’t put me off. But I want to do this in luxury; there are removal firms who actually pack your belongings for you. I expect there’s a firm to float your goods away, and unpack and re-arrange at the other end.

I do appreciate my freedom. I can move at will. But I still want some security, without landlords who wilfully encourage a grim sense of despondency in tenants, who are left wondering: will they renew the tenancy, please let them renew. It’s like trying to sleep on a the edge of a cliff; you can’t rest because of worrying you’ll roll over and fall off.

I try and make the best of renting, but I really need some security and a semblance of control. I want to chose my surroundings, not endure the whims and notions of an owner, some of whom are prone to selling up capriciously, for revenge or just because they can.

So that’s settled, then. All I need is to be resolute and conjure up a hulking great deposit. That’s all.




Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hug A Landlord

According to some readers, I have a bad attitude. People see me as an unreasonable, no holds-barred landlord loather, spoiling for a fight. Nothing could be further from the truth: all I want is a quiet life.

When I moved in, ‘Dave,’ my current landlord, didn’t demand exhaustive references, but then, I get no guarantees from him. Thankfully, he’s been helpful, understanding, realistic, reliable and tolerant. I do my utmost to be the same. Unfortunately, I have been enduring a complex and protracted nightmare with my bank much like a scene from the film ‘Brazil’, which involved them apparently losing or deleting my account. I was late paying my rent, which is dreadful.

Delaying payment requires delicately negotiations, balancing the need to collect money with the problems the tenant faces. This latest batch of new landlords who bought in the boom-time are learning that when renters run up arrears, being heavy can be counterproductive. If someone has lost their job, and is claiming benefits, why not be reasonable and wait. They might have been your dream tenant until then, so why lose them? In return, tenants might accept that landlords can’t always come racing over at the drip of a tap.

Of course, some tenants are wilfully dishonest, or presume that all landlords are rich, when usually they are barely covering their costs, especially at the moment. A property owning friend had tenants who ran away to Australia owing three months money. He only just managed to survive.

I’ve written previously about the evil that bad landlords do, but ‘Dave’ has been a star. I paid the backlog as soon as possible, and wouldn’t dream of doing a runner. He’s new to this, and to those in a similar situation, I offer this advice: there will, at some point, be a gap between tenants, a late payment, or even renters who can’t or will not pay. You need an amount put by to cover unexpected situations. Tenants pay in advance, and landlords have the deposit, so in those rare cases when rent is late/goes awol, you should never be owed more than a month. But to avert disaster, you need something in reserve.

Landlords can be excellent – as in actively pleasant and helpful, or simply okay – as in quiet and absent. ‘Emily’ has commented here about her landlord who, when her toddler scribbled on the wall, shrugged and said: “It’s okay – I can paint over it when you leave.” He didn’t rub his hands with glee at the chance to claim on insurance for redecoration while simultaneously docking money from her deposit.

‘Dave,’ the owner of my Nice Heights flat has been reasonable beyond the call of human tolerance, and A in Glasgow was lovely too. It’s not always necessary, or even wise to seek possession at the first hint of late rent. Tenants, if you can wait for a non-essential repair, then try and be reasonable. Remember: we’re both human and we need each other, so if you can, be nice.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Marching Into The Studentland

I remember student halls of residence fondly for torrential water fights, utilitarian fittings and superhuman livers. Nowadays however halls are positively bleak. They are also expensive. A friend’s student flat was made of bare cinder blocks and I’ve seen plans for another which is basically a random pile of Portacabins.

Student flats are so small I wonder if it’s all some kind of elaborate joke. There’s one narrow single bed - as you know, students are famously celibate for religious reasons - a tiny en-suite shower room, a desk, and well, that’s it. What about storing books, linen, clothes, and other general stuff?

Some private landlords are heroes, but the worst examples treat students with outright disdain. Most scholars are young and excited to be living independently for the first time. They are optimistic and accept the shabby state of the property, although a broken heater in September seems more important when December comes.

Some houses are so bad you’d think the Young Ones was a documentary. Owners rent out hovels, knowing they won’t make get as much money, but won’t have to do any repairs. They don’t reckon on parents. Do not mess with articulate, protective, litigious parents. They are fierce.

Rigsby-ite owners assume they can cheat and fleece students, ignoring the Deposit Protection Scheme or docking money for minor misdemeanours. One landlord even tried to charge a back-dated retainer on a house we’d moved into in the autumn. Nice try.

Neighbours argue that students destroy their community, having moved for the old style houses or peace and quiet, not parties, gigs and poster sales. Students, meanwhile counter that they need to live somewhere.

It’s not their fault, but students are a beacon for crime. Criminals think they own computers, drugs, loads of lovely cash and consumer items, and landlords can put burglar alarms low down on the list of importance.

Studentland is quiet in May (exams) but noisy in June (parties!) Outside of term time, it’s a wasteland. One friend watched the value of his home tumble, and then the accompanying theft and mugging rates made the streets a no-go. He was beaten up on his own doorstep, and moved away.

Buses are so plentiful that diesel smog chokes your lungs and obstructs the view. Then come July they all migrate in herds like Wildebeest back to the depot, where they stay grazing until September. Mind you, for those no longer in the first flush of youth, it’s a compliment to be asked at the bus-stop what course you are on.

Student zones are coalmine canaries, indicating where the next up and coming area will be, usually full of large cheap family homes, unrenovated, with intact original features (and a smell of stale weed and pizzas).

One neighbourhood in Edinburgh campaigned against the transient nature of its student population, which they claimed discouraged any sense of community. The students offered to organise a street party for the grumpy neighbours, who were long past the stage of swigging BOGOF Frascati from the bottle with a fag end bobbing about, but it’s the thought that counts.

Friday, 7 August 2009

A Potential Death Trap

Whenever I write about bad landlords, the good landlords get angry. They pout with indignation and claim to be doing a great job, while assuming that I am exaggerating, rabble-rousing or lying. They are, they insist tormented to the edge of ruin: “Tenants trashed my precious flat,” they say “…and then they did a runner!”

Sorry; it’s not the same at all. Bad landlords are dangerous, but you probably think that’s over the top.

I once lived in shared flat where the landlord’s daughter was a fellow tenant, so you’d think we’d be treated well. Not a bit of it.

We told the owner that the ancient combi boiler was temperamental and that we could smell gas, but he just sneered, stating - somewhat oddly, I think you’ll agree:
“Don’t come that communist nonsense with me – all property is theft and rubbish like that. And don’t try and boss me around.”
“I’m hardly stirring up a revolution,” I replied. “But that boiler’s dangerous. Would you please fix it?”

He ignored me, so I energised him with an enormous estimate from a registered repair firm. Eventually, he sent round his friend, a gas-installer, who took one look at the appliance and turned white with rage.
“You stupid bastard!” he shouted down the phone. “Get your arse round here right now and you’d better bring the money for a new heater! It could blow up any minute! It’s like a bloody bomb!”

Outraged, he continued: “Your daughter lives here! For crying out loud, what’s wrong with you?”
The landlord was unrepentant, and frankly, a bit miffed. I left soon after.

Landlords do their worst in ramshackle shared houses, where tenants move in and out like renting yo-yos. In one HMO, the ancient shower broke; the landlord agreed to replace it, but only after accusing us of “....being heavy with him, when he’d been nice to us.”
Being nice, by the way, involved him once turning up late at night expecting “…coffee.”

To our dismay some ‘cousins’ arrived. They let themselves in unannounced with a spare key, and swaggered around, saying things like: “Hey – ladies, time to paaarrrtay!” After clocking our surly expressions they left in record time, but at least we had a new shower.

Some time later I heard a scream - my terrified housemate had suffered a serious electric shock, and was genuinely lucky to be alive.

The sodden plaster had been partly washed away, exposing bare wires embedded haphazardly in the wall. We called Health and Safety, who confronted the landlord, ordering him to get it sorted, or else.

His response was petulant and unapologetic:
“…you know what girls are like,” he said. “Always nagging and whining.”
The word bitch was used.

As you might have realised by now, I am writing this post in anger. Here’s why. Thanks to the excellent Nearly Legal (see blog roll) for alerting me to this case from Cornwall. To any landlords out there who are feeling betrayed by calls for regulation, please remember this: bad landlords are a minority, but owners can be lazy, negligent, callous, defiant and stupid. The worst landlord is a killer landlord. In a bad way.

Report by The Residential Landlords Association: “A young mother was electrocuted by bathroom taps at a rental home. The coroner said he found it inexplicable that whilst gas safety checks and annual gas safety certificates are a specific legal requirement, electrical checks are not. He called it a loophole.

The woman, Thirza Whittall, 33, was found by her five-year-old daughter Millie. The young mother died instantly when she was hit by 175 volts when running the bath.

Heartbreakingly, the little girl said a prayer over her dead mother’s body before taking her two-year-old brother, George, out of his cot, locking up the house, and walking down the street into a shop to get help.

A series of electrical problems had combined to make the bathroom a death trap, the inquest heard. Mrs Whittall was electrocuted after she part-filled the bath with water and touched the taps with wet hands.

The home had not been professionally rewired or inspected electrically for nearly 30 years. The landlady, Hilary Thompson, had it rewired in 1981, and it had then been checked by her husband. Since Mrs Whittall’s death, the property has been rewired, at a cost of £4,000.

Mr Whittall, a builder, said: “I remain deeply concerned that there is a gap in the legislation which permitted this incident to occur and which puts others at risk. “Whilst landlords of rented properties are obliged to provide an annual gas safety certificate, no such regulation applies in relation to electrical wiring in rented properties.

“As we have learnt to our cost, a fault in an electrical installation is every bit as dangerous as a faulty gas supply.”

The Electrical Safety Council, a charity, is now calling for basic checks to be carried out on rental homes and has published a new guide – the Landlords’ Guide to Electrical Safety.”

Anyone out there still think I’m being unfair?



Monday, 3 August 2009

Love In The Time Of The Cubicle

Relocating to another city is a precarious time for tenants. When I was last in that tricky situation, I alternated between sofa-surfing and staying in a friend’s vacant flat, which gave me time to view homes at my leisure, no pressure to accept a place, any place. Occasionally though, my tenuous chain of accommodation broke and I moved to a hostel.

I’d rather have been snug in my temporary flat, but the hostel was cheap and less awkward than sofa surfing. In the common-room, an American tourist, who pronounced Cardiff as “Carr-deef,” announced: “You must hate us, but I’m a Democrat.”
“What is this, please?” wondered a Slovakian guest, bemused by The Chuckle Brothers, as are we all.

Other residents were self-employed business travellers. They paid their own expenses - aloof but not too proud to book what was a step down from a budget hotel.

Eventually I found a flat. My references were great and I was ready to move with a deposit and rent in advance. I called, arranging to collect the keys.
The landlord said: “…um, yeah. Sorry. A different girl moved in this morning. I think my other flat’s more you.”
I asked why.
“It’s by the river – it’s quite…plush.”
But it’s too dear, I said.
“Oh come on - you can afford it. I can tell.”

I was supposed to be moving in next morning, so I was homeless. Frantically I phoned around, but everywhere was full or else people were away. In desperation, I found a rundown back-packers’ hostel, which was better than the pavement.
The owner said: “Towel hire is 50p.”

The other guests were four uncharacteristically snotty Aussie backpackers, and a group from Bangladesh, attending a student conference. In the morning, the queue for the shower was ridiculous. I waited my turn tutting grumpily because two people were hogging the bathroom.

I went for a brew. When I returned they were still showering. Their fellow delegate said: “I am so very sorry; please to take my place in the line.”

His companions continued their seemingly endless shower. Every now and again they both turned off the water, standing in silence before restarting the weak spray. Judging by some clothes left on the floor, one was male, while the owner of the electric blue salwar kameez was female. It was cold outside, and both owned several layers of shrunken grey wool.

We were all going to be late. An irate Aussie rattled the thin partition. I asked their friend: “Can you make them hurry up?”
He smiled awkwardly, explaining. “They are in love, you see.”
The couple showered on, whispering softly, and affectionately.

I realised what was happening. The showering lovers were devout Muslims, and had never been alone together. Back home, even sitting next to each other was forbidden.

So in a frosty, foreign bathroom, an adoring couple lingered beneath a gentle cascade of warm water, naked but separated by opaque plastic shower cubicles, passing scented soap through a narrow gap below the screens, fingers brushing, close for the first time, oblivious to the strangers hammering on the door.




Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Higher Baby

Right now, I’m settled in a well-constructed, peaceful block which is managed humanely and efficiently rather than for profit alone. I love it here, I really do - this flat has been a refuge. Despite my affection for Nice Heights, it must be said that even here, there is one aspect of its design that is found wanting.

Nice Heights exemplifies the nature of property’s most exclusive luxury: space. Contemporary flats are tiny. It’s hard to obtain accurate figures, but urban newbuilds can be as small as 45 sq metres (I suspect the worst examples are even smaller.) Nice Heights seems fine until a few visitors arrive, and highlight the deficiency. There is no internal corridor. The bathroom door opens out onto the eating area (dining room? Don’t be daft.) When I start flat-hunting again, top of my wish list is separate rooms, and more space.

The obsession with cramming people into low-rise blocks seems to be the result of ill-founded assumptions, fatally combined with a crushing lack of ambition. Low rise? It’s just how things are. There is a solution to this problem: we must build higher.

Unfortunately, the terrible fires in South London recently have stalled a growing campaign for taller buildings. There did seem to be safety problems in those particular blocks, but even a building that touches the clouds - if properly designed - will be as safe as well… houses. Safety is often a management concern though: as I’ve said before, Dovecot Towers had no fire assembly point, and we never had a fire-drill.

Apart from that, why are we so reluctant to build higher? Surely it would eradicate the argument for the little boxes foisted upon buy-to-let tenants? There’d be fire escapes and lifts at either end, and also in the middle of the building. It’s good business to use a low rise footprint for a taller building, allowing greater space for renters, who stay longer, meaning less voids for landlords, who would also benefit.

Increased height would accommodate everything I dream of, like storage space and generously proportioned rooms - even open-plan living is fine with enough space. We’d have bedrooms large enough to double as studies, with a desk and shelves (built into in a niche?) Or perhaps a separate study, and a terrace that’s a proper outdoor room, with space to dry washing, and enjoy the view. Gardens would allow for children’s playgrounds. We’d have rented homes for life in an urban suburb in the sky, with plants creeping up the outside in a vertical garden.

The circle has turned, and vertiginous living is now entirely the domain of rich owner occupiers. The over-lords of the sky-kingdom enjoy vast eyries, peering out between the branches of imported olive groves, glancing down at the poor creatures condemned to remain in orange, low-rise hell-holes. It used to be the other way around: landless, tenant proles housed in stacks of dilapidated council blocks, the very same blocks that in some cases were refurbished to make luxury apartments. How did we get from there to here?

(NB: Regular readers might like to know, I will now be posting on different days, and slightly more often.)




Friday, 24 July 2009


Recently, it has been suggested that a register of landlords might control their worst excesses. Naturally, owners are against the proposal on the basis of ‘human rights,’ even though they ask a lot - bank statements, credit references - from their tenants. A register of landlords might at least prevent rogue repeat offenders scaring tenants away, and then starting anew with a fresh batch of victims.

But we shouldn’t need a register. We need a house. You have a house. You need our rent. We pay the rent. I have an inkling that this bargain goes wrong partly because landlords have unrealistic expectations of tenants, like their behaviour, the impact they will have and the time consumed by managing property. They have genuinely forgotten that there are warm-blooded, sentient humans living in their investment. Owners want tenants who have taken a vow of perfection.

Landlords want sanctified, holy, winged tenants with halos, who will pay over the odds, two years in advance. These dream tenants pester the landlord pleading with them: “Please sir, can I pay you some more?”
Tenants must never ask for repairs. They accept the squalor, conceding: “It’s exactly what we deserve; it is our destiny - so it was written.”
In fact, they replace all appliances with top-end luxury substitutes on moving, out of devotion to, senseless love of their master.

Either that, or owners will settle for virtual tenants, holograms, or spectral beings that waft around the property without landing (I expect they’d still find a way to make deductions for wear and tear.)

Landlords want a signed personal guarantee from god/your chosen imaginary deity, who will rumble assurances from on high that rent will be paid. In credit checks, tenants must also be divine and superhuman, undertaking a solemn vow: “I swear on my firstborn’s life I have never, ever, ever, paid bills on a red final demand.”

Landlords hate being scared. The following is scary: tenants. They would actually quite like it if we paid rent without living in the property, to save all the nasty, disruptive business of having us contaminating the flat with our presence (even though we pay to live in it.)

Landlords also want the power to dismiss us instantly by snapping their fingers and intoning: “I evict you, I evict you, I evict you,” because it’s Wednesday, or because they stood in a crack in the pavement, or because their astrologer advised against Scorpios, and men (or women) with moustaches.

Robot tenants are the future. Perhaps the National Landlords Association has constructed a clone of us all which they keep in a pod at the Masonic Lodge. Stepford renters leave no messy residue, and are highly obedient. Landlords want armies of cloned mechanical tenants, marching in step like the workers in Metropolis: “Master, we obey and will sign the S.21 notice, just as you order us to.”

Meanwhile, we remain defiantly and flamboyantly human. Landlords must deal with us as we are now, but still operate as if tenants are drones and good for one thing only, and that’s money.



Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What A Mover

Life for tenants is a madcap relay of constant moving, all speeded up like a Benny Hill sketch to the sound of funny banjo music. We relocate more than homeowners - potentially every six months if we’re unlucky, which judging from your comments and emails, many are.

It’s very bad for the nerves. Most newbuilds are specifically aimed at renters who’s life-cycle is: move in/get out/then more of the same all over again, it’s bizarre that these specialist, modern constructions manage to make moving so difficult. For one thing, newbuilds have nowhere for vans and lorries to park, and we’ve all been faced on a stressful day with tetchy friends and removal companies waving those inevitable and extortionate parking tickets, which we have to pay.

In modern buildings, there is no freight lift. Moving belongings via a small, creaking elevator, hoping that your vast collection of ancient vinyl doesn’t conspire to send everyone plummeting into the basement is a stressful, albeit character-building test.

Conversions present a different challenge. Internal remodelling fits the original, historic shape and layout of the building, so there are often random pillars blocking foyers, compelling irate removal men to perform a sort of country dance, do-si-doing through double-doors and twirling around posts with heavy boxes and fragile plants. Maybe the answer to the question: “How did they get that enormous sofa through that narrow door and into that tiny lounge,” is the same as: “How did they get that ship into that bottle.”

We used to have this under control. Whenever I pass older structures, like converted canal or roadside warehouses, I notice the original rooftop hoists, ingenious and ideal for lifting goods up the outside of the building if too large or heavy to risk the elevator. I want them back. Bring back external hoists. We want rooftop hoists, and we want them now.

The best example of a humane design which acknowledges the trials of life can be found in a council block in Salford. Residents always wondered about the cubby-hole/niche at the bottom of the back wall of their lift. What was it for? Enquiries revealed that the space was created to allow coffins to lie flat when the occupant made their last relocation to that sitting tenancy in the sky. It makes me wonder how undertakers arrange that same journey from an urban newbuild.

Why does this matter? Well, soon I’m going to be moving again. This time its career related (please don’t ask why - I have a life outside of this blog.) But I’m off elsewhere, so once again I must pack, find another home, move everything, and then unpack again (using my hoard of banana boxes.) My friends say, put it in the blog - put it in the book, but it’s another unavoidable move and I’m dreading it already, really, absolutely and completely dreading it.

More than anything else, I just wish I could put Nice Heights on wheels and take it with me on a monster truck.



Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I Can Get A Witness

Dovecot Towers is on my mind. I’m making preparations for the book I plan to write, going through old posts etc, and a few weeks ago, I went back there.

To my surprise I found the return visit quite daunting. With the building looming up ahead, I imagined the soundtrack, with stag-parties, Sarah screaming, and the people who gossiped, played and argued on their balconies, never realising I could hear. I wonder how the other residents remember life there - after all, some people enjoyed happy days in Dovecot Towers. Occasionally, even I managed to raise a smile…

I was accompanied by Owen Hatherley, author of Militant Modernism, and responsible for the excellent Nasty Brutalist And Short blog – see links. Owen is a fan of brutalist architecture, which, in a column for Building Design, he defends with eloquence and passion. Personally, I’m not so keen, but Owen’s spirited advocacy could almost change my mind.

Owen is aware of Rentergirl, so I wondered what he’d make of Dovecot Towers. With the trained eye of a practiced architectural critic, Owen appraised the exterior. Here’s what he had to say:

“Dovecot Towers is tucked away in the back end of beyond - seemingly in an alleyway, without much hope of any light ever getting into the rooms. Then there were the grilles on the ground floor, which just made it seem like an industrial structure rather than housing - which, given the popularity of ageing satanic mills as yuppie flats, was probably the intention (also the reason for the cheap red brick, I suspect, although that looked like a bit of shallow dressing on a concrete frame), but combined with the dead flowers left for the suicide it all looked decidedly inhospitable. More than that, though, I remember that bit in the middle. Not really a square or a plaza, not a garden, just this odd bit of greenery that thought it was a feature of some sort. I can only wonder what it all looked like in the drawings...”

I agree with everything Owen says, except for one point. I don’t believe that Dovecot Towers was intended to reflect any style at all. It was - in more ways than one - thrown up. Architects speak of buildings having a dialogue with the surrounding area. In which case, what was Dovecot Towers trying to say? Then I saw the wilted bouquet. No green shots, just some half-dead lilies propped up and dwarfed by a shoddy, bleak and shabby buy-to-let disaster.

I’ve since learned that Davey might not have intended to die that night: he was threatening to jump, possibly to scare Sarah in the heat of the moment, and may have fallen, which for me makes his death all the more tragic. Coroners only record a verdict of suicide if there is conclusive evidence, like a note, so there was an open verdict. I heard from Sarah a while back. She’s determined not to be bitter and miserable (her words.) I also understand she’s doing voluntary work abroad.

As for William, my former landlord - well, I never did find out what happened to him.






Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Down Came The Rain

The other night I saw a storm like no other. Javelins of rain pierced the sky, while an astonishing display of lightening flashed between shower curtains of water.

Newbuilds (and Nice Heights is one) all have flat roofs. From what I’ve seen all flat roofs leak, and this one was no exception. It was as if the world was ending; the lights went out, the water was shut off and the lifts stopped working (presumably war, famine, pestilence and disease headed straight for Dovecot Towers.) The penthouses above me were deluged, as apart from being huge and expensive, they are directly under any leak (more of a Niagara, actually.)

The management company and concierge do their jobs properly, so cleaning and repairs began immediately - carpets were sorted with massive hair-driers. In Dovecot Towers, there was also a leak (the only disaster in that doom-laden block which didn’t affect me) but the management company’s impassioned response, was basically: “…tough.”

A friend lived in another jerry-built newbuild so bad he’s earned time off from purgatory. It had a sieve for a roof, but repairs were botched and piecemeal. There were constant leaks - well, more of a water feature, actually, but an evil one. He came home to find water bubbling through light-fittings, rotting the carpet and drenching his belongings. The people in the flat below had some much loved possessions destroyed.

Tired of spending his days wearing one of those zany umbrella hats, he consulted the letting agency (how sweet; I wonder if he also believes in fairies?) and asked for help. They did nothing. Exasperated and damp, he was forced to evacuate (in one of those inflatable emergency boats, I believe) ending up homeless and - ironically it must be said - sofa-surfing. The agency sternly insisted he was obliged to pay full rent, and unbelievably tried to keep his deposit.

Now, if I was building a structure with an eye its long-term future, I’d make sure the roof had an incline. Architecture follows fashion, and oddly enough, the current vogue is for a wedge-shaped outline, which looks odd (as if a giant has lopped off the top, like a boiled egg) but at least the torrents can flow safely away.

Could any architects reading (and I know you do) explain this affection for flatness? No matter how grand or humble the development, sooner or later, flat roofs leak - that’s just how it is, so why do we have them? Or perhaps we should ask builders about the porous roof thing. (Now there’s a lively can of worms – would you please be so kind as to pass the tin-opener?)

One fine clear night, from a vantage point high above the city, I could see the moon reflected in countless muddy puddles shimmering on a multitude of rooftops. It was beautiful, unexpected and eerie, but does it count as a plus side?

(NB: Another thing I like about Nice Heights. The response to the recent burglaries was to start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. It just feels so grown-up.)

Monday, 29 June 2009

Tipping Point

It was an intensely hot, super sunny day three years ago and flat-hunting had driven me to the brink of madness. After several fruitless weeks of openly disdainful letting-agents asking ridiculous rents for nasty little boxes, one agent actually seemed pleased to hear from me. He could show me a flat immediately (adding, when he remembered himself: “…I’ve had a cancellation, so I can squeeze you in for a quick viewing…let’s see… right now, actually.”)

How odd - he didn’t sneer. Stranger still, he listened to me and didn’t claim that the price had risen over night. Either he was being nice (don’t be silly) or could it be that he was desperate, too?

The agent arrived in the cliché branded Smart car, and ignored me to grandly shuffle some papers. His old-fashioned spiel was complimented by a rapidly dating wide-boy hair-style, erect with gel. He was in a hurry to show me the building which would cast a shadow over my life, a nondescript oblong block of orange brick, set back from the main road.
“They’re going fast, better make up your mind!” he insisted, gamely sticking to his script. My reticence clearly unnerved him.

“I suppose I could show you another one… ooh, you’ll get me in trouble…” he joked in a feeble attempt to get me onside.
The building was mostly empty, so I could take my pick. He seemed to be reading aloud from his own advert:
“You will enjoy a magnificent vista…” Then correcting himself, he continued, “I mean, there’s a view. If you like that sort of thing.”

I smiled vaguely. I was homeless and trying not to appear needy. I mentioned the other flats I’d inspected, all identical, bleak and eerily devoid of tenants, but he pretended not to hear. Louder this time, I said:
“No really; I’ve seen a lot of flats. Too many. Must be making your life quite hard.”

He looked unsettled. I don’t enjoy messing with people’s heads, but I had to make my point. I wonder if at that morning’s team meeting, somebody had suddenly noticed a pile of unlet newbuilds, and he’d been ordered to reach a target.

My phone rang, and I took a call from a landlady who - to my surprise - couldn’t conceal her eagerness to have me move in. I’d left a message answering her ad for a below-par flat well outside my chosen area. Politely, I asked for a discount. She admitted the price was steep and agreed to go lower.

Gel-boy was rattled. The flat I was standing in was already fifty quid cheaper than the original ad, for no clear reason. I decided to look again at the foyer, and then ask for a further reduction. Bartering in tourist markets makes me feel uncomfortable, but rents had been ramped-up by landlords, developers and letting-agents – the usual suspect ingredients in a layer cake of greed.

“Look,” I said, studying that ‘vista.’ “You don’t really need a quick decision, do you? There are plenty more flats just like this one…”

I moved in and spent summer nights on my balcony gazing across at cranes and the twinkling half-lit checkerboard of empty newbuilds in the distance, listening as Dovecot Towers came alive, only for it to die a lingering death.

And now, on another sultry summers evening, I can’t help but wonder if the moment a letting-agent condescended to haggle coincided with the precise time, perhaps the exact second that everything changed, when the rollercoaster property market ride began its perilous descent, careering downwards, out of control.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Shock Of The Nice

It’s amazing. Every day, I am astounded. When I meet people here in Nice Heights, we say hello and share a smile (although the lads who giggled when they saw my tiny, Palaeolithic telly the day I moved in are bastards.) Other than that, I greet every morning like Pollyanna: “Hello neighbours! Hello cleaners! Hello…carpets!”
Sickening, isn’t it?

One girl struck up conversation in the lift, where we discussed how much we both enjoyed living here.
“It’s really quiet, isn’t it – like a posh hotel.” she said.
We had both lived in Dovecot standard newbuilds, and Nice Heights is a revelation.
“Our flat’s lovely,” she continued. “I’ve never heard a peep from the neighbours - and the rooms are ever so bright.”

Another woman stepped into the lift. Dressed immaculately, the interloper admired her own expensive shoes, and sneered as we shared memories of all the nasty places we’d lived previously while the lift loitered on the ground floor (my Dovecot tales won, of course.) Stylish woman pressed the button for the penthouses, and left without looking back. Of course she did. It’s interesting that the storey-based system denoting social-class I recognised from Dovecot Towers (higher=richer) is repeated here in Nice Heights.

I suspect that the predominantly friendly atmosphere is down to the varied nature of the inhabitants. I’ve seen people who are older. Shocking isn’t it? One elderly man said he had downsized, helped his children buy their own homes and moved to Nice Heights to enjoy the city. He liked going to concerts, museums, and the theatre. He also liked exploring, and was off for an urban adventure in sturdy hiking-boots.

Or is it the fact that people own their flats? I’ve noticed just a few people staying temporarily (the wheelie-cases are a giveaway) but mercifully, Nice Heights has no online presence as a party apartment-hotel. The guests here dress in suits – computer specialists and accountants in town for a short contract, and they make a refreshing change from stag-parties.

Does this sound boring? Perhaps my enduring memories of the chaos in my former home conspire to make the peace hereabouts seem remarkable. People with larger flats have terraces, useful for barbecues. No forty-eight hour parties, no squealing girls and boys bellowing like bulls. I’ve heard neighbours say:
“Time to head inside; don’t want to annoy the neighbours, do we?”
Crikey. Consideration.

Nice Heights is an upmarket design, but still lacks anything encouraging a sense of community. I’m not expecting a common room, but we have no communal areas, like gardens, or a seated reception (even in high-spec buildings, entrances are stark.) Encounters take place beside the rubbish bins, which, since they are located underground, gives a simple chat about the weather an illicit appeal.

But right now I am sitting in the sunlight lounge, with birds singing daintily in the distance, as ‘In Paradisum’ from Faure’s Requiem drifts faintly and beautifully into my room. I can almost imagine that behind every front door, there lives a reasonable person. No thumping techno. No random screaming. Is this what normal life is like?

(NB: Recently, there were two burglaries in here. The management company have kept us informed – another improvement on Dovecot Towers. Gangs are targeting city flats. Even our robbers are posh. CCTV footage shows smartly dressed thieves ‘tail-gating’ their way through the (very) secure main door. But at least we have a main door. And also CCTV.)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Strange days indeed. The sun’s turned blue, and in Norfolk, a three headed cow was born. Also: our busy politicians have condescended to (half-heartedly) spend some time discussing private rented housing.

Forgive me for not floating on a lilac cloud of joy, but I don’t believe anything will change. The current situation is labyrinthine and chaotic. We need a powerful agency to monitor and regulate renting, while standing up for tenants. Until then, in order of effectiveness, here’s who you can call now, for all the good it will do:

The landlord? Fine unless the problem is the landlord themselves (which it generally is.) Don’t worry if they’re based abroad - they’ll fly over on their private jet and fix the toilet themselves, pronto. Alternatively, they could ignore you, or commence possession proceedings immediately. Either, really.

The local council? Councils can refuse HMO licences and take action if property is unsafe. First they’ll say: “….keep a diary.” I wonder if this ever leads to housing officers confronted by the following:

“Day begins, as ever with a crafty Jodrell, but still the world seems dark, so very dark (dark!) Nobody understands me (except maybe The Smiths) so I’m running away from home.”
You’re supposed to be recording the misdemeanours of crooked proprietors, like leaking pipes, lack of HMO licences, dangerous appliances, and nefarious neighbourly fly-tipping and drug farms. But thanks for sharing.

Rent officers? In the old days, tenants could ask for a ruling on what was a fair rent. Such a lovely idea. Nowadays they spend their days finding the cheapest rent in any area in order to keep Local Housing Allowance at a permanent low, and they are mighty good at this.

The National Federation of Builders? Royal Institute Of British Architects? Planners? “Hello! This buy-to-let newbuild dovecot I am renting is crap. Please send round a squad to rebuild it and remodel the interior, at no extra cost.” Oh, wouldn’t it be nice…

The police? Horses for courses, obviously; don’t alert the persons in blue if your roof is leaking. They don’t care (and why should they?) The police are the bouncers, the door security-staff of the legal world. They don’t know the rules, they just do the arresting. So even if you are being threatened/harassed by neighbours and landlords, don’t expect too much.

Your spiritual advisor? By your side for all the unpleasant things in life, like exorcisms, funerals and weddings, or worse – when you finally go postal and kill your flatmates/landlord/letting agent. (NB – the last one? Don’t. It. Would. Be. Wrong.)

Relate? There should be some sort of support-group or mediation-service for house-sharers. The low number of flatmate-on-flatmate murder leads me to conclude that humanity is less warlike than previously feared. Isn’t that nice?

Random people on the streets? It doesn’t work. They look at you funny, and afterwards they run away. I know this.

The letting agent? Oh, perrr-leez… No; wait a minute - let’s have ourselves some fun. You could complain, for a laugh, and play letting-agent-repair-response-bingo, where you tick off their most inventive evasion. Big boys did it and ran away? The dog ate the deposit? Ask the landlord? And around we go…

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Taken For A Park And Ride

When I still lived in Dovecot Towers, a well-dressed, nervy gentleman lurking by the main door startled me by saying:
“You have something I want!”
I told him to go away with extreme prejudice.
“But I’m desperate!” he pleaded. “I’ll pay you!”
I escaped.
“Wait! Come back – I’ll give you money!” he shouted. “I need to sublet your parking space!”

Lowly tenants haven’t a hope in hell of obtaining residential parking spaces, so speculative notes pushed under the door, offering to organise parking applications so we can rent them out, are pointless. I don’t own a car. I hate driving, try to be environmentally sensitive, and as for parking nearby, I might just as well drill into my own stomach and dig out an abscess, as city centre parking will give me an ulcer regardless.

Parking wars cause night-terrors and punch-ups. In converted flats, when a building initially designed for one, solitary, Victorian carriage (horseless or otherwise) is transformed with space defying magic into five flats (an attic, a basement, and three storeys) then as many as ten car owners compete to shoehorn their runabout outside, leading to all-in, freestyle, automotive tag-team sardines between the yellow lines.

Buy-to-let newbuilds have unimaginably complex land ownership rights and deciding who is responsible for what is torture. In Dovecot Towers, the car park was owned by a different company to the building’s freeholder. Individual owners rented parking spaces, while non-resident outsiders have bought the freehold on a spot (boy, were they ever smug.)

Drivers flaunted their cars, proudly hoovering and washing windows (which they’d never do at home) while playing loud music, which is their way of saying ‘I am a real man. I own a car. And, yes, it’s a Smart Car, but laydeez love it. You don’t have one. And I do!’

We needed crowd control to marshal the armies of traffic wardens. If you ever thought, even while abroad, of parking briefly on the street, they swooped, bagging doctors on emergency call-out (although I hope they get extra points for catching fake disabled parking badges.) Contractors tried to include the ticket in the bill they gave me, despite having been warned to arrange access before starting work. There was little temporary space for them or guests to park.

Inside Nice Heights, there are two floors of car space in the basement, leased to outside businesses (as usual, tenants are last in the queue.) Outside Nice Heights, side-streets are a tangle of meters and time restrictions. City dwellers live in a transition zone, where the attainable dream of a car-free society is at odds with the primal urge to own even a modest, non gas-guzzling personal transporter.

The real luxury of living and working in the city is that I don’t need a car. There are innovative schemes for shared ownership and vehicle leasing. Public transport, supermarket delivery and taxis tide you over for the difference. I’ve even seen rickshaws for hire. Cars are a problem I avoid by walking. Others, by roller-blading.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Vanman And Supervanman

Riding that infernal conveyor-belt of serial house-moves, when you tire of asking friends for help, and inevitably, they grow weary of assisting, the time comes to employ professionals.

Removal companies work hard. Loading quickly and efficiently is tough. Civilian-shifters have been hospitalised after moving their own furniture, and are now subject to a lifetime of Deep Heat and osteopathy, and friends to their whining. Even something as simple as lifting stuff is liable to leave you with back ache, sanity related issues and a severe pain just below the lower back.

My first experience was the archetypal man and ubiquitous van. Buying a cheap Transit and transporting goods is casual employment for an unskilled gent who (as here) had been made redundant. This Manvanster was morbidly obese. He wheezed, and ruddily complained about the amount of belongings, despite having been forewarned. He stopped regularly for breathe on the stairs, looking so ill that my new neighbours nearly called an ambulance. His co-worker griped, chucking belongings around, but only broke a few glasses (only...)

During the next move, I accepted the cheapest quote. The company phoned later on to explain they had forgotten to include insurance costs. Something felt wrong, but they collected my worldly goods for storage, hauling them southwards two weeks later. Never have I felt so useless; heavy books floated away like feather pillows. I mentioned four small extra boxes; the chief said it was no problem.

Hours afterwards, the MD called, demanding money for “…heavier than expected boxes,” sounding like a villain from Taggart, rejected for being a cliché.

He said: “Listen girlie, you dinnae know who you’re messing with.”
I said: “Well, you don’t know who you’re messing with do you?”
He seemed quite taken aback. I hate bullies, and anyway, I didn’t have the extra money.

He threatened to dump everything if I didn’t pay. The police agreed this was extortion. They visited the company, who changed tack to holding my goods to ransom. So began a fortnight of daily calls from the MD who cackled down the phone like a pantomime baddie, getting his kicks by trying to frighten a “…silly wee girlie,” like me.

After delicate diplomatic negotiations, i.e. him screeching: “Listen girlie: you’re gonnae lose everything if you dinnae gie us more money!” (Can you guess where’s he’s from? That’s right – Scotland!) and me retaliating in kind (without the accent) the lorry arrived. Concerned local police were on standby. Thankfully, nothing was pissed on, smashed, or sold, as feared. No extra money changed hands.

The embarrassed employees apologised for their deranged boss (whose wife had left him recently, and who keeps a plasma mega-screen telly perpetually running full-blast in every room.) They couldn’t have been more helpful. The inevitable losses were annoying but minimal (irreplaceable screws from my bed-frame.) But I don’t have a bad back, which to me is priceless.

(NB: I told this true story to the latest removal man, who was so distressed he bought me a drink, thereby restoring my faith in their noble occupation.)

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

It's A Jungle Out There

Recently, a house-hunting acquaintance asked for some advice. I did my best, but afterwards found myself thinking that flat-hunting should be simple and mundane, like popping out for a pint of milk and a paper. Instead, it’s a daunting task, one requiring tireless bravery, ingenuity and dogged persistence.

When preparing for such an expedition, I’d recommend the following equipment: dry rations, water, satnav, mace-spray (or as we call it here, Lynx for Men) bullet-proof vests, rounders bats (for rounders, and/or clubbing assailants) night-vision goggles and flares (emergency beacons, not trousers.)

Then you’ll need a mule-train to carry lawyers, guarantors, referees, previous landlords, counsellors, UN negotiators, body-guards, and an accredited local guide/fixer.

Apart from that, here are some tips.

1 Avoid letting agents. Seriously, as far as possible, stay away. They charge random and bizarre fees. My favourite is a Finance Fee – basically, a fee to collect and charge fees. Brilliant! These financial machinations are so complex that even famous professors of quantum physics weep for their own stupidity (convincing evidence suggests that certain particles appear randomly from nowhere; how is that also true of agency fees?)

2 Try post-offices, local papers and supermarket notice-boards, friends, and workplace intranet message boards, or online (NB see previous post.) Anything but letting-agents!

3 Landlords ask much of tenants in terms of information. Don’t be afraid to ask back. You need to know whether they have a commercial, buy-to-let mortgage, because so-called ‘forced’ landlords are by nature temporary, intending to sell up the moment they perceive the teensiest green shoots in the property market. Where mortgage are personal, and should the property be repossessed, the first you’ll know is when the bailiffs come hammering. Having tenants under a personal mortgage can invalidate landlord’s insurance. So, ask away. Then, if they ask for two years worth of bank statements (the latest wheeze) casually, request a blood sample ‘…for your private collection.’ That’ll freak them out.

4 Landlords are obliged to possess various documents - HMO licences, and energy efficiency certificates being the most prominent. Cynics insist these papers are worthless, but compliance indicates a landlord who is mindful of regulations and doing things properly. Maybe.

5 Don’t sign the S.21 Notice. Don’t do it. Don’t! Agents (if you are found in their dreadful embrace) and landlords will try and convince you that it’s nothing - just a silly piece of paper, which doesn’t allow them to evict tenants on a whim. If it’s unimportant, why are they so keen for you to sign?

6 Ensure deposits are immediately registered with the Deposit Protection Scheme. Carefully point out that if they don’t, courts can oblige owners to cough up three times the deposit. Tell them this.

7 Give the place a forensic once over. Take photos, and send a ‘snag’ list, documenting any problems, marks and flaws. Don’t wait a few weeks, as they’ll argue that previous damage is your fault.

8 In apartment blocks, check flats aren’t listed on Apartment Hotel websites, avoiding regular disruptive stag-parties (in short read up on Dovecot Towers.)

9 Get everything in writing, always, no matter how decent landlords seem.

I hope this is helpful. Now, go get ‘em.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

There's Something About Gumtree

Sensible landlords and tenants are wriggling free of letting agents (aka conniving, monetary-succubae with horns, tentacles and ancient property databases.) Consequently, when renting or letting, we stumble into a world of strangeness, the far side, where the weird people are: a mysterious land called Gumtree.

Take this ad, for example. It was headed: Room In House £2 Per Week.
“Well I'm trying to be a writer. English is not my first language but unfortunately the 2 next books are both going to be in English (for reasons too long to explain here).”
Like, we’re in England?

Still, so far so, bohemian. She continued:
“They are both going to be very big fascinating projects. One is a novel, a journey through past lives, the other is another "feminine" version of the tale of Camelot ("The mists of Avalon" will pale in comparison).”
Self-belief is an admirable quality. Anyway…

“I need someone mad and creative to assist me, chapter after chapter, proposing new ideas, helping in editing etc, and possibly help me type when I feel too sick to.”
Oh, you mean, write it for you?

It gets better:
“I cannot pay upfront but I will pay a percentage of my royalties, which will increase if you will also want to function as my Agent. (don't need to be qualified, just a lot of enthusiasm). If royalties are not of interest I can offer a free room in my house until September. The most important thing is that you have enthusiasm, dreams, are good at writing, and possibly have a sparkle of genius and madness.”
Also: gullibility?

She also mentioned that her home was close to a 24-hour garden centre; so handy for those late night water-feature cravings. I wonder if anyone accepted? And will they share the inevitable Booker prize?

Other ads make the previous example seem postively fusty. A friend placed a flat-wanted notice, mentioning that she was a single parent, and in reply received a lengthy, lyrical plea to care for her, promising she’d want for nothing. Daily emails followed, offering unlimited kindness, culminating with the phrase: “Incidentally, I enjoy light, consensual anal intercourse.”

I like the word ‘light.’ Would the dark version involve being rogered up the rear by Darth Vadar? I also spotted an ad where a landlord didn’t want a tenant, but a leather-clad gimp to serve him (“…light duties only – obedience essential.”) Remember, this is all in the property section.

Before I knew better, I placed an ad requesting a one-bed flat, specifying a city, but potential landlords plagued me with offers of three-room wicker maisonettes in Truro, caves in Wigan, or a lean-to in Aberdeen (available eventually!) anything but what I wanted.

I waited in despair, until a man offered a ‘hardly used, mostly empty’ flat (both caveats were unsettling). He was evasive about rent (‘We can work something out,’) and even if he owned the place. I held back with answers. Then he said, tentatively: ‘…In your ad, you describe yourself as a professional female. That’s an interesting phrase…’
Just the standard wording, I said.
‘It makes you sound like a working girl. Would you be interested in male company?’
Only a festering, man-size wart would interpret ‘Flat Wanted’ as ‘Hey ugly guy! Me love you long-time for garret in hovel.’

So beware. I found Nice Heights on Gumtree, but others might end up with more than a des-res.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bit Of A Domestic

Modern flats have something missing. In apartments across the land, from luxury to Dovecot, there’s nowhere to dry washing. Some very strange assumptions were made when designing and managing buy-to-let newbuilds. Many prohibit drying laundry on the tiny balcony. Tenants are different; they never sweat – but fragrantly, they glow.

It’s worse in developments completed more than five years ago, way before the energy price hike made everyone so keen to economise (oh and also save the environment.) It’s still assumed that we are cash-rich and time-poor, so desiccate our clothes in money-guzzling washer-driers, when actually we roast our socks over the heater, which is dangerous. Rooms are small, with airers crammed between the sofas; bad enough for solo renters - a nightmare where two or more people share.

When I worked in welfare rights, it was widely, and rightly accepted that drying laundry in the living area causes respiratory problems. In poorer rented homes, central-heating is often either absent or unaffordable. I’ve been offered badly insulated flats with just a temperamental Calor gas heater in every city I’ve visited. It’s a fire hazard, and leads to soggy clothes mouldering when the meter runs out.

In olden days, houses were sensibly fitted with drying-racks suspended from the ceiling. Nowadays, I am rendered senseless with nostalgia as I recall ‘gardens’ complete with what were known as ‘clothes-lines.’ In shared housing, laundry left to rot in the washer is a flashpoint for many a senseless killing spree.

Forward then to the recent past, when planners understood the basic human need for clean underwear. In social housing, communal drying areas were placed at the top of tower blocks, for maximum exposure to the elements, which sounds like a good idea.

But there was a major and appalling problem, worse than the obvious snag of having your lingerie snaffled and suspecting the neighbours. It was this: significant numbers of people jumped to their deaths, so the drying rooms were closed.

In case you think Nice Heights (should I call it Naice Heights?) was made in paradise by nymphs, there is one snag, which I only noticed after moving in. We have loads of cupboard space for gadgets, crockery and food, but unbelievably there is no draining board. Perhaps this is evidence of what I hoped was an urban legend. Those blokeish architects assumed that we hip urbanites wouldn’t do anything as basic as cook and eat at home, so there’d be no disgusting dirty crockery (in fact I’m amazed they supplied us with toilets, since we are too marvellous and grand for that sort of thing.) It takes days for one person to fill the dishwasher until it’s economical to use.

In upmarket flats, tenants perch on their Eames recliners counting their Alessi, and (having returned from some chi-chi new restaurant) they gaze around with satisfaction, appreciating all they have amassed. Then, as they negotiate their way delicately around the washing, which is drying, slowly and precariously, on an array of rickety clothes-horses, a thought occurs: those Mr Men knickers are starting to look a bit shabby.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A Mole For Newbuild Holes

I had a depressing conversation with a builder recently. He was funding his post-grad by working on one of the many developments currently on a bizarre game of build-as-slow-as-you-can. I mentioned that I had more than a passing interest in newbuilds; sort of a hobby, you might say. I wondered what he thought of my suspicions that they are built to a very poor standard (see; I can be tactful when need dictates.)

He offered his technical appraisal of urban newbuild flats, which I’ll try and convey. I’m not an expert, and he was using jargon and complex terminology. He described them as being (what was it now?) ah, that’s it: “crap.” Or did he say “shite?” Oh dear, I could kick myself. You must think me so unprofessional.

I suggested, and he confirmed, that many flats are constructed under the laws of Blue Peter craft-sheets and the wonderful game of Jenga, using balsa-wood, paper-clips and cling-film, and that developers meet planners and building inspectors with fingers crossed behind their backs while kissing a crucifix (inverted of course.) When applications are successful, shame-faced architects slope off to wail, while developers sacrifice a goat (letting-agents drink the blood.)

Bob The Builder (not his real name…) used insider knowledge when he noticed a widening crack in the walls in his former rented home. He assembled housemates in the filigree lounge/kitchen/study/laundry-room/diner to reason with them, in a calm and understated manner: “Run away!!!” he said, adding: “Save yourselves!!!”

I thought it might be plaster shrinkage. He said: don’t be silly. When I told him about Dovecot Towers, he was blank, until he realised that I was expecting him to be shocked.

Whenever I mention the appalling state of modern domestic architecture, its inherent design inadequacies and common structural defects, people think I am making it up, or joking. I’m not. But if anyone reading this is working, or has worked on a building site, could you just confirm that I’m telling the truth. It’s like being the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes: I can see the Emperor’s hairy arse, and newbuild flats are terrible.

What’s needed is a friendly, informed mole to help us out of this hole. We need a public-spirited builder who has worked on these monstrosities to become a whistle-blower, and reveal the regime of institutionalised cost-cutting and standard skimming that is the true monstrous carbuncle defacing contemporary architecture, and blighting daily life for tenants.

Incidentally, when I heard that one of the worst culprits for building these miserable hutches is in financial trouble, I laughed so hard that tea came out of my nose (apparently, a similar trick is performed in Bangkok.)

If justice is to be served, that particular firm will go bankrupt, its directors forced to rent a flat where the washing-machine is effectively next to the sofa, where you can hear neighbours whisper and piss, where you worry about falling through ceilings if you tread too hard, and where your post is stolen. Nice Heights (my final decision on the official nickname btw) is proof that great buildings are possible, so let it be done more often.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Talking To Strangers

Knowing your neighbours is a really lovely idea. In streets with proper houses, you can see people come and go, even speak first without them looking at you funny and backing away slowly.

You rarely see other people in my new block (nickname urgently needed now, btw.) It’s not like Dovecot Towers, where alienation was born of fear. In my new block, things are different. The inhabitants cross a broad spectrum of society: young, old, owners, and some, but not too many tenants. There are students, a few creatives working from home, teachers and business people. And unlike Dovecot Towers, where people ignored each other or stepped back inside when they hear footsteps on the corridor, we rarely see each other.

Whenever I write about modern urban social dislocation, some wiseacre usually comments, well, do something. I don’t want to be mates, but I would like to know who they are. I do talk to people when I see them, but it’s hard to do without sounding needy and a bit creepy.

Neighbourly interaction can be kick-started by random events. In one former flat I was having a clear out, and packed a box of unwanted, but readable paperbacks, too heavy to take to the second hand book or charity shop, so I left them in the corridor by the stairs, where everyone passed, with a sign saying ‘Help Yourself.’ Not only did people take them, but they donated books of their own. Still nobody spoke. We didn’t even see each other, but for a while, there was an informal book swap network running. People even borrowed the books temporarily, and then replaced them.

Back home, I have seen some of my neighbours, from the balcony on a sunny day, so I know they exist. One man was sunbathing, eating tomato soup for breakfast (each to his own.) I have joked with the caretaker about the man living below me. I’ve never seen him, and the effective sound proofing means I never him, either. I asked the concierge, who hasn’t seen him for a while. He joked that if smell anything strange to let him know, which made me think of Dovecot Towers.

There is a tenants association here, but here’s the funny thing: it rarely meets. Since the building is well managed, and complaints are rare, there’s no need to convene a gathering. The worst building I lived in, we only ever met at furious tenants association meetings, where we would be thinking: “…so you’re the bastard shouting in the foyer at 4am.”

At the moment, I can’t alter my hot water timer, and it’s costing me a fortune; I’d like to ask my neighbour how to reset it. In my heart, I suppose I’m worried about the things our elders warned us about: don’t speak to strangers, and the memory of Dovecot Towers, where every front door hid a problem. So, when you’d like some help, how do you summon the courage to knock on a the door?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Flatmate (un)Wanted Ads

Over the years, my experience of flat-share ads has shown them to need extensive interpretation. Either deliberately deceptive, or in code, they disguise the neurotic, slap-inducing tendencies of your prospective co-tenants, so pay attention.

Beware the word ‘executive’ in all its guises. Only a complete arse would describe their home (or themselves) this way, and consider it a positive. ‘Executive’ means they have done the Alpha course, and will try and winch you in. They own the flat, and regard you, their lowly sub-tenant, as a loser for not racing up the property ladder from the age of fifteen. While their room is ensuite, they will continue to vindictively use your bathroom. They return home late, bitter, tense, coke- up and spiteful. They will go home to Wigan for long breaks, claiming to have been in Chicago. On ‘executive’ business.

‘Gay friendly’ can be a minefield. It might simply mean that gay people live there, and are preferred. A frightening alternative is that residents will assume the same frantic, and altogether terrifying mental state of the characters in ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme,’ compulsively re-enacting key scenes, screeching with mirth. For a friend of mine, it meant a lovelorn lesbian housemate who looked like Wee Jimmie Krankie.

‘Friendly, lively house’? The devil in disguise; it’s all back to mine, gone mad: baked beans everywhere, lager cans in the sink, no cleaning at all, ever, and friends on the sofa, in the hall, and in your bed if you get home a minute after midnight. After weeks spent ankle deep in take away cartons, and the same track will boom and thump courtesy of the bedroom DJ in the next room, until your eyes swivel in time to the music, and the pores on your forearms bleed spontaneously.

‘Communal House’ Hmm… with the rest of house populated by skunk loving anarcho vegan hippy eco warriors who don’t believe in mousetraps, and threaten regular weekly and accusatory house meetings/denunciation sessions, you will emit a whining sound. Then you’ll go mad, but find redemptive sanctuary in a pond.

‘Creative’. That means cacophonous, gurning, experimental musicians rehearsing in your kitchen. Arty types, such as fashion students will cast a critical eye over the design values of your knickers on the line, and decode the aesthetics of your shoes. In a flashback from my student days, I still view sculptors as violent thugs, because they were, leaving a trail of giblets, blood, ears etc after nutting and gouging each other on the dance floor. I don’t know why; they just did.

‘Quiet.’ Another loaded phrase. ‘Quiet’ means a passive-aggressive, forlorn shadow who will hiss “shush!!!” you if you watch anything other than the Antique’s Roadshow, and judge you as a harlot for having overnight guests. You will live your life under a solemn ticking clock (a prize possession) every beat of which marks the passing seconds of your life.
Until you run screaming from the house.
And the whole, hideous cycle starts again.