Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Homeless Scrum

Flat hunting is a competitive contact sport, played by landlords and tenants using elbows and sheer force of will. Prospective renters are on show. Every word and mannerism, even the tiniest gesture is assessed for clues as to character, potential criminal inclinations, and basic ‘will they pay the rent-ness’.

Landlords have a firm idea of who they want. Despite a legal agreement, you are nothing more than a house-guest, and they are a ghost that stalks the building. As they guide you on the dreaded tour, you must look eager, unruffled by sights which normally have you screeching with mirth or terror, like (as I once noticed) an enormous tube of KY, left casually, in plain sight, on the coffee table.

The golden rule is: get there first. Agencies only really care about references, credit checks etc. Provided you look presentable, and are not ostentatiously shifty or demented, there’s nothing you can do, as the flat goes to the first in line. Private landlords, however, must be wooed. They must be convinced you are suitable, if not downright fantastic, while you are summing them up to see if they seem slovenly, unreliable, or unexposed serial killers.

At one viewing, the landlord explained that someone had recently tried to kick down the door, even though it was directly opposite the police station. Next, he showed me the kitchen. There was no oven, cooker, or hob of any description, and when I wondered why, he pointed grumpily at the ancient microwave. It was also filthy. The bathroom stank (can you guess what lurked in the toilet?) The tiny lounge was crammed with an enormous cracked grey vinyl sofa, perilously close to the gas fire. It was hard not to express my dismay by screaming. I didn’t move in.

Some owners just don’t have a clue. I was once shown a room so dirty, you’d need a tetanus jab. The mattress’s previous incumbent was obviously a busy, active, fun-loving type of guy. ‘Yeah, I know…’ the landlord ruefully explained. ‘…art students.’

I’ve also seen the other side. I was showing the vacant room in a shared flat, and watched with amusement as a very proper gentleman/prospective co-tenant ran his finger over some imaginary dust on the mantelpiece. His first question was about the cleaning rota. His shoes sparkled and shone on a rainy day. He would never have fitted in. Some flats actually have proper interview panels, where people are sized-up like potential marriage partners rather than transient flatmates.

Tenants are allowed very little time to inspect their future home. Ask for a repeat showing, and you’re treated like a burglar casing the joint. After living in Dovecot Towers, I have some pertinent queries about crime levels, door locks, etc. Since I am practically asked for my DNA to check on the database, I think I’m entitled. So why then do agents glare at me, huff and puff and sigh? And why, when I’m polite and reasonable, do they evade my questions? With so many empty flats, you wouldn't think they'd still be so prickly.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Happy Renter

There are many positives about renting a flat. (Therearetherearethereare.) There are!

As I repeat this mantra, I am rocking slowly backwards and forwards while humming a rousing anthem. Once again, to boost my spirits, and strengthen my resolve: there are many positives.

When horrible neighbours move in, or monstrous, ugly, buildings block a once clear view of the misty mountains in the distance, then we can get the hell out, sharpish. Being able to move quickly on a whim is very liberating. One months notice in writing is all it takes, and with one bound, I am free. No chain, if you’re lucky, and a whole new environment, organised in weeks.

Despite the sloth of landlords, management companies and agencies, all fighting shy of repairs, it’s nice not to have that responsibility. Dealing with repairmen (and they usually are men) is a bane of modern life, and it can really get you down. Being called ‘love’ is hardly a hanging offence, but being swindled, fobbed off and treated like an idiot is certainly irksome. For most tenants, it’s just not their problem.

The vagaries of the property market have a different effect. In fact the cyclical boom/bust cycle can sometimes work to our advantage. In a crashing market bourgeois dinner party chatter turns from massive increases in value towards the shameful burden of negative equity, we usually have more security and choice. Owners are unable to liquidise their assets. At this stage in the slump, they should be learning to swallow their pride, and nurture, value, even treasure reliable tenants, at least until the bust ends, when they can revert to type. Unless they go bankrupt, or suddenly sell up (best not think about that.)

Tenants can be bold. We can take risks, live life with a sense of adventure. Renters can take a leap of faith, embarking on career changes that our home owning brethren are loathe to undertake, as we don’t have to sell up, or let our homes, or worry when we are away (except about our stored belongings.) I listen to my home owning friends speak wistfully of plans to travel, downsize or study. These tales of perfectly reasonable dreams usually end with the refrain: “…but then, I’ve got the mortgage.” Property can be a ball and chain.

Some people like not having to own furniture and other fittings. If you are moving around, or broke, or just not interested in homemaking, then having someone responsible for maintenance and furniture is a massive plus.

In truth, nobody really owns a house; it’s a notion, an idea. You can pass property on to your children; that’s if you haven’t sold it to pay for care in your old age. Some of my friends have made a deal with the security devils. Mortgage versus freedom: perhaps only the poor and landless can afford a sense of liberation, and adventure.

Isn’t renting great, though? No; I’m really, really really happy to be tenant. (You don’t believe me, do you?)

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

To The Suburbs! (...and back again.)

At the moment, I am between homes, and staying temporarily in a proper house in a suburb. Actually, it’s more of a neighbourhood, which is a subtle but important distinction.

I am living in a house, not a flat, with different rooms on different storeys. A house has stairs, and corridors, which is disorientating and inconvenient after years of having everything so close at hand. Friends have suggested that I could rent a whole house for the same price as a flat, but why would I want to? I don’t need the space. Even though my frugal belongings exceed the confines of the tiniest dolls-house newbuild, I still miss the convenient, compact layout of a fair-sized flat.

What’s worse, I have to travel. The act of waiting for a bus and then the slow, dreary journey back to the city wastes two hours every single day, which is new experience for me. Somehow, I always sit next to a gifted yet disturbed individual ranting in my ear about their magic hands, or other special talents. When I walked everywhere, at least I could escape to other side of the road. Now I race for the exit clumsily falling over those poor women with no choice other than carry their children in unwieldy pushchairs.

It’s better to live close to work (family and schools are also important, before you say it) but I feel adrift. I suspect my friends (well, the ones who live outside the city) thought I’d see the light and make my future away from town. Suburban rents are mostly the same as the city. However, add in travel costs (taxis etc.) and it’s actually more expensive to live here. And I don’t want to live here as it is.

Being positive, at least it’s peaceful. I don’t miss the pandemonium of nocturnal urban streets but I do hate the cold. Houses are draughty: newbuilds have many faults, but they are usually warm and snug, with constant hot water. It’s not like that here. Even with the central heating on full, I’m usually wrapped up in a duvet.

Cities have everything I need; urban life suits me, and a flat is attainable. Is a friendly café too much to ask for? Café Nero, never reached this far. The (now closed and derelict) restaurant which advertised tomato soup as if it was a rare, luxurious delicacy gets me every time. Around here the only remaining businesses are betting shops and dodgy travel agents, next to electrical goods stores which specialise in unlocking mobiles and probably unlock other secured objects for the right price. Pods of churlish scallies brandish rottweilers. The pubs are scary. I’m missing the bars.

Like the man in The Shawshank Redemption I am screaming in the night: “I don’t belong here!” City living isn’t an exotic fancy notion I will outgrow. For me, it’s entirely sensible.

And the difference between a suburb and a neighbourhood (make that a ‘hood)? Well, a man was shot and wounded five doors down from here recently. Recalling the body count in Dovecot Towers, I wonder if death walks beside me. Or is that just the way of things now?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

If I Ruled The World

As the flat hunting odyssey grows urgent, I’ve decided that I should rule the property world. I’d be reasonable and fair. Here are my decrees:

1 Landlords are obliged to submit to the same credit checks and investigations as their tenants. They should also provide references from former tenants, testifying to their suitability, efficiency and professionalism.

2 For tenancy deposit protection to apply to landlords, who will pay an amount equal to that paid by their tenant into an account, withheld if they are naughty.

3 For there to be a requirement that, in any development aimed at the buy-to-let market, or any scheme that ends up dominated by these tenancies by accident or design, or indeed at all, for the relevant management companies to be compelled to treat tenants as the primary occupier, even if they don’t pay the ground rent.

4 For landlords to pay the council tax. They paid the old style rates. Why was it changed?

5 It is presumed that tenants are able to stay for as long as they pay rent, and that two months notice must be given. However, tenants can give one months notice. Oh, stop whining and snivelling, landlords!

6 For tenants to be allowed, within reason *, decoration rights. It used to be the case that on taking up a tenancy, new residents would be granted one weeks rent free to cover the cost of paint (more on production of reasonable receipts.) No more magnolia, no more greige. Hooray!
* Fuchsia gloss on the walls is not reasonable.

7 For there to be an effective fair rent forum, with tenants encouraged to use it. Landlords are legally prevented from giving notice if the rent is deemed too high, and legally and physically restrained from bleating about it.

8 For all landlords to nominate a caretaker and contractors on duty 24/7. Overseas owners must have a local representative. These representatives or caretakers must respond to urgent repairs within one day, or less in cases of water or gas leaks and the potential explosions, obviously.

9 Rogue owners, such as those who let flats as hotel apartments are deemed to have forfeited the lease. And then tarred and feathered.

10 In the event of forfeiture in the above instance, or bankruptcy, or sale, for it to be presumed that the tenant is a ‘sitting’ tenant, and for notice only to be given to them, well never.

11 Landlords who do not control their tenant’s anti-social or illegal behaviour will be entertained at length in their own home by a crack team of Ethel Merman impersonators who shall perform an avant-garde opera based on the life and works of Celine Dion. Loudly.

12 For Newbuilds to be subject to the approval of a nominated panel, rules set by me, who will not (and I’m telling you, they will not) approve: communal post rooms, no storage, poor sound-proofing, dodgy main doors, thin walls, and shelf-like balconies.

13 For architects to be forced to live in anything they design, and builders what they build, and management companies what they manage, and for their children to live there, and their friends to live there as well.

14 For all developments to have lovely gardens. With flowers.

15 Tenants shall be provided with a wet mackerel, for the purpose of slapping landlords and letting agents to emphasise the following point: “This (slap) is a home (slap) and not (slap) a museum (slap, slap, slappety-slap slap!) That (slap) is wear and tear (slap) and not damage (more slapping…)”

16 The moon is to be given to me on stick, wrapped in a delicate pink silk ribbon.