Outside of Scotland, older flats are rarely purpose built, but converted from the gutted shells of former family homes. In desirable locations, like Brighton and London, it’s rare to find a house still intact and not remade into a warren of tiny apartments. The consequences are exactly what you would expect from cramming five eccentric, inconsiderate, uninhibited, modern households into a building designed for one genteel Edwardian family, obediently busy with needlework so as not burden mama with one of her heads.
Conversions are frequently done on the cheap, and are insensitive to basic human needs, like privacy and security. Partition walls are made of plasterboard, so noise (arguments, music, sex, dogs) seeps through. Contemporary dividers were designed to limit the muted kerfuffle of a world before electricity and amplified sound, not block out thumping tunage and shouty phone arguments. Thin ceilings do not muzzle a world of home cinema, band practice, and power tools.
Houses in multiple occupation often have bathrooms squeezed into former cupboards, and it shows; damp and mould thrive in confined, poorly ventilated hutches. On the plus side, they have lovely high ceilings, and traces of original features like alcoves (ideal for shelves) and plaster moulding which gives a welcome sense of faded grandeur (sorry – that’s the only good news I can give you). It’s a sobering thought, but your generous two bedroom flat with desirable separate kitchen fits neatly into the parlour of what was once a modest Victorian home.
Rubbish is usually stored outside one unlucky window, so those sultry summer nights are a constant source of joy, what with the maggots, stench, and cats. Post is kept in a common area, so theft is frequent, and personal correspondence shared by all. One morning a neighbour handed over an envelope. ‘Time for your smear test, then?’ he wisecracked.
Conversions often have poor water pressure. They were built in the days when bathing was an annual indignity, and cleanliness implied laundered linen, heavy perfume, or a quick rub with a wet hankie. Every tenant needing a shower in the morning can cause the ancient plumbing to gurgle and splutter in a truly alarming fashion.
Protracted arguments arise over leasehold responsibilities, like who cleans the stair carpet, or pay for roof repairs. Some buildings share the garden access; others allow the dwellers of the dingy basement free run, just for some sunlight and Vitamin D (if not, developers could be sued for the resulting rickets).
Such flats are often hazardous, if not actually falling down. Sometimes there is structural damage, so tenants are evacuated for their own safety, or they spend the summer squinting at the sun from behind scaffolding and banners. The owners say you can move back when it’s all been mended, repainted, and resealed, but soon the building has been upgraded and sold on again. Pressing the landlord about repairs tends to encourage this.