Monday, 31 December 2012

Hooray! Another Awards Ceremony!

It’s the season of award ceremonies. Soon, confused nominees and winners will grin and gaze upon mystifying shiny thingamyjigs before weeping. I want to belong. I’ve borrowed a lovely dress and tiara (I looked somewhat incongruous in Wetherspoons) and am nominating a few of my favourite things. Best pie (my friend Austin’s macaroni offering is a cert to win) best sarcastic remark, and finally, finest acrobatic drunken stumbling and just (just) about regaining one’s balance (which I will not win owing to a sloppy dismount.)

Okay. You got me. You know me too well. Dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel created and endowed a prize for peace, please let me explain the inaugural Rentergirl Awards for heroic letting-agent endeavours/shenanigans.

Selecting winners was difficult. Competition was fierce. The field was so comprehensively, inventively and shamelessly vile I was at times left gasping in awe. The winners needed much more than simply charge fees so creatively expressed and yet so baffling they flummox even Sir Stephen Hawking. No. That’s ordinary business. The winners all went that bit further.

First: the Scottish agent currently claiming to be ‘Licensed by ARLA.’ How reassuring. The office windows contain several posters of dentists, doctors and lawyers, all captioned: ‘You wouldn’t use an unlicensed Doctor.’ And they’re right. Pretend doctors might kill, or cut off the wrong leg, but if convicted could be imprisoned, and bad genuine doctors are banned from practising, because they must indeed be licensed.

Except… except… ARLA doesn’t licence letting agents (I checked.) There is a voluntary code of conduct, meaning errant letting agents face lingering frowns and being tutted at sternly from a distance. Nobody I know has heard of a letting agent being ‘struck off’ by their own trade body, rendering this ‘licensing’ utterly meaningless.

Now for a group award to all the agents who compel new tenants to sign up for and accept their agents designated energy supplier or even contents insurance (companies all ‘chosen’ after agents have accepted a backhander.) This is restrictive and contravenes consumer choice, but probably unenforceable. And yet still they try.

The prize in this category is no shiny-baubly-gewgah. Winners must watch those amusing and highly entertaining comparison website ads! For all of next year! And nothing else! You’re all welcome. Those are tears of gratitude and joy, aren’t they?

Next: a special prize to the letting agent who charged my friend for returning his own money. Respect!

Here’s what happened: he gave notice, and when settling up, the agent invoiced for the wrong amount. My busy friend (he was moving, remember) asked for a refund, but the agency came right back with small print. They would deduct a fee even if it was their mistake. Which it was. Un-effing-believable. The small claims court awaits.

Now to the letting agent who charged several different tenants for the same damage, apparently over a period of years. They passed off estimated costs (think of a number/double it) as actual costs paid to repair the vandalism (their words.)

Only they had met their match. Somebody knew the contractor concerned, who was suspicious at being asked to provide yet another estimate. The tenant contacted the agent and landlord (who had no idea this was going on.) The tenant has yet to tell me how this ended, so maybe it ended with rueful tears, forgive-us flowers and a heartfelt apology delivered by winged, rainbow coloured mini-ponies.

Now, I’d like to thank the following (sniff!) for helping the last few years *cracks up* with advice, comments *just openly sobbing now* and generally being brilliant *explosively blows nose*

So thanks to: Shelter Scotland for their excellent reclaim your fees campaign (and Shelter England), The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Also Nearly Legal, Ben Reeves-Lewis and Jules Birch for wisdom, insight and humour in the face of what is going to be a very, very, very grim year.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Tenants Are Revolting

2012 has been a very, very dark, difficult and oppressive year for tenants. Mercifully, through the gloom of rocketing rents, benefit cuts, bedroom tax, arrogant scamming agents and an increasingly blasé and entitled landlord class, one shard of light pierced the darkness. Tenants everywhere are getting organised, efficiently and loudly.

“What do we want?”
“Longer secure tenancies and no above inflation rent rises (or no rises at all) and also landlord referencing.”

No, it’s not a catchy slogan, but it is heartfelt, and certain heroes are fighting hard.

First up – here’s (ahem…) a massive shout out for Edinburgh Private Tenants Group. Heroes - total legends for protesting in a humorous way, and for getting money back from the bad guys (too many bad guys to mention here, before you ask.) They, along with Shelter Scotland (and me!) have been highlighting that despite Scottish letting agents having been banned since 1984, some still charge stupid, made-up fees. Agents beware: a group of loud protestors might arrive outside your office to highlight the illegality of trying to con £500 for a ‘check-out’ fee out of impoverished.

Blackpool has a tenant’s group, as does Leeds. Londoners are blessed with Hackney Renters and Housing for the 99%. Both did sterling work highlighting the many problems of London tenants who endure a new kind of hell. Even Mark Carney, new head of The Bank of England might be onside, since he requires £250k to find a decent home, what with rents rising.

Aaanyway: here’s a festive, heart-warming and inspiring festive tale about what can be achieved when tenants are united.

It was a snowy winter during World War 1. In the chaos, some profiteering, opportunistic landlords tried to increase rents. Initially, tenants agreed to pay the usual cost but no extras, and landlords retaliated by callously given them notice. The famously, wondrously, empowered women of Glasgow organised the fight back, surrounding courts or blocking roads to stop oncoming bailiffs. The bad guys lost. Tenants won a rent freeze lasting for the duration of the war and six months afterwards.

For 2013, I predict righteous and rising tenant anger finding eloquent - possibly dramatic - expression. Rent strikes are on the cards I think, with rents devouring up to two thirds of income. There is no justification for raising prices other than sheer greed. Rent strikes could be dangerous, and might cause problems for benefit claimants, but it’s one way of making the point. Careful now.

I hope more renters adopt the EPTAG method: targeting specific cowboy operations, organising boycotts of especially shameless letting agents and, less radically, contacting councils over rogue landlords (most tenants simply move on: another hidden misery.)

I wonder if, one day, when I write a blog post and the usual random idiot comments: ‘Stop complaining - renting isn’t all that bad’ that they might be telling the truth, as if all these actions, interventions protests etc are successful, renting might safe, secure, long-term and fair. Thanks to tenant groups this might no longer a dream, but a reality.

Glasgow Rents strikes.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Feeling Validated

Renting is in the news, at long last. According to the latest census results, home-ownership is in decline, and renters are increasing (figures don’t seem to include how many owners possess more than one home ie buy-to let, but we’ll ignore that, shall we?)

Do I feel validated? Or peeved about the people who commented ‘why not buy a flat/it’s not that bad’? I’m trying to be generous, but some of the news agencies now so very angry (or at least vocal) about the existence and state of renting have been whining about house prices falling as if that’s a bad thing.

Now, somebody in Parliament reads rentergirl regularly. Unless Camoron is reading this blog before sloping of to howl at the moon and drink the blood of helpless kittens, I’m thinking it’s Labour enjoying my lyrical insights hereabouts.

And recently, Labour issued a document – having realised that there are votes to grab, with renters growing in number and anger mounting. One policy solution is predictably safe: longer tenancies, therefore mirroring Shelter’s recently proposed Stable Renting Contract and my own much re-stated hatred of Assured Short Term Tenancies (Accursed Short-Term Travesties.)

Labour knows of the evil done by spiralling rents, so I’m suggesting two reasons for their recent embracing of no-higher-than-inflation rent rises: it’s popular with tenants (less so with profiteering landlords). It will also save billions (and I mean billions) in the housing benefits paid over to scrounging, sponging, shirking landlords (sorry, but they reap the rewards of housing benefit/LHA, not tenants, and that’s the language used on claimants.) Rents must rise no more than inflation. All very well and good, but what if inflation rises again (which will happen at some point.)

In stressing the harm caused by insecurity, Labour repeatedly use a phrase that makes me scream: ‘hard working families.’ What about singles/childless couples… etc? I’ve written before about the effect of transience and insecurity on communities, schools and health. So longer tenancies are official policy, which is good, but moving every six months is detrimental to everyone affected, even (or especially?) those without paid work.

There was no mention of restraining feral letting-agents, although the heroic Jeremy Corbyn MP tried his luck with an early day motion. Sad thing is, this is the one thing popular with both landlords and tenants (everyone hates letting agents and they don’t care) but it’s doomed, unless the Libdems agree. Nobody in power seems to have grasped that letting agents are the prime movers for private rented profiteering. It’s not even landlords: letting agents place an inherent above inflation rent rise in many contracts.

So we all agree. Renting must change, and soon. If we all shout together, will parliament hear us? Follow the Scottish model, and ban letting agents from charging tenants: landlords can pay instead.

If you do this, we will love you forever. We will wash your car. We’ll even let the odd little expenses thing slip by. We might even vote for you.

And finally, to MP’s, commentators, pressure groups and think-tanks. Sorry. I can’t resist it.


(I did though. I really did.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

You Are The Landlord

Here is my tribute to ‘You Are The Ref’ a popular cartoon strip in Shoot magazine, I think, where a dilemma about the national obsession with the professional game involving twenty-two overpaid grown men kicking a plastic globe around on some grass is discussed and resolved.

So, let’s play ‘You Are The Rentier’ (my campaign to render landlady/lord obsolete continues.) Pretend you own property (pretend? Dream…) and wish to rent it out. Now let’s try and resolve some recurring and topical issues with the tolerance, wisdom and practicality you wish was used by real life rentiers.

Some decisions are easy for me. Prospective tenants are smokers? Sorry, but no. I hate smoking: it stinks and the place will need redecorating far sooner than for non-smoking occupants. Do you trust people to smoke outside, all the time? So that’s a no.

Next, some excellent tenants have asked if it’s okay for them to have a pet. Here, I am torn: I’m thinking yes, albeit it with a proviso making tenants responsible for repairing, or paying for the inevitable puppy/kitten door scratching. And while I would expect to do post occupancy clean, I’d want the carpets cleaned (I love puppies and kittens, but they can be ‘messy.’) I would ban those poor hairless hand-bag dogettes, just because I hate them. See – power corrupts.

Children? No problem. Children to be actively welcomed and encouraged: in a house it’s also reasonable for the tenant to fit safety gates and other child-protection type things. And yes, they might scribble on the walls, but it’s paint isn’t it.

Would I house an unemployed renter? Yes. Some of this is about ability to pay, and there is a whole LHA minefield, but yes. I know, some mortgage providers ban claimants including the publicly owned RBS. Expect a court challenge on that – moves are afoot.

Tenants with bad credit rating? CR checks are next to useless for assessing the potential reliability of tenants, or their ability to pay. As the wise Sir Ben Reeves Lewis has said, Siralan ‘You’re Fired’ Sugar is a rehabilitated multiple bankrupt. There are many reasons why a tenant might even not have paid a former landlord, so I’d want more information, but that’s another yes.

I wouldn’t ask for a massive deposit: what’s the point? In the event of a default, a huge, albeit protected deposit just delays the inevitable. And if tenants want to decorate, I’d discuss this prior to them moving in, but a coat of emulsion would be fine – horrible wallpaper a no-no. I’d place some hooks on the wall, and like my own Landgirl, and allow personalisation of what is the place they are paying to call home.

Life is messy and people are complicated. I once interviewed an award-winning landlady who was proud of her record with arrears: she had never evicted anyone, having elected insted to stay in contact with errant tenants, made no threats and never tried to kick down a door or employ heavies to menace renters. She always got her money in the end.

Finally: that was never an offside free penalty tackle kick. Or something. Was it?

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Fear

I started blogging when I lived in Dovecot Towers, a new but accursed, prematurely decrepit and chaotic apartment block which now seems like a bastion of sanity and comfort.

I remember the trials of life in that building: there was a murder, after all, and I witnessed the aftermath of a man taking his own life. There were drug dealers, prostitutes, burglaries and assaults. There were evictions, repossessions, thefts and frostiness and distance replaced neighbourliness, not to mention that the building was falling down.

But nothing is as fearful as reading my own statcounter – the tool allowing me to view what search terms used to find me.

And it’s horrible. Every other question shows real fear, with the words ‘I’m afraid of…’ followed by a varying and increasing list of terrifying eventualities and dreadful possibilities. Flatmates, are (as I wrote previously: see links) increasing menacing, especially when they are unavoidable, and claimants (remember, most housing benefit claimants are in work) are paid only enough to share.

Then comes landlord terror, refined and honed, adding phrases like: my landlord is visiting unannounced, scared my landlord will evict me, I can’t pay my rent, they won’t renew my lease, won’t let me stay. Then there’s I am afraid of benefit cuts, I am afraid to move, afraid to go home, afraid of the future.

Letting agents? I am afraid if I ask for repairs, then they will give me notice, scared they will keep my deposit. Scared they will discover I lost my job…scared they will blame me for the stain on the carpet… scared they will find my cat.

Benefit cuts and rising rents mean tenants have not choice but leaving their home (rising rents in the South, or benefit cuts everywhere) and they have need a payday loan with crippling interest to cover another deposit, while they wait for the other one to be returned after the now traditional dispute about what is reasonable wear and tear and what is vandalism.

When did renting start resembling a horror film? Why are tenants living in constant fear? There is mounting insecurity, a feeling that nobody is on their (our) side, and that we have nowhere to go if things go wrong, and had better move as demanded without a murmur.

Research by the World Health Organisation on sound intrusion has shown the detrimental impact of stress on well-being, happiness and health. Perhaps I am over-interpreting data, but any fool knows that feeling constantly undermined and insecure, being afraid all the time makes people ill, since it has a deleterious effect on the immune system (it’s one possible explanation for the premature death of those classed as financially poor.)

I’d love to see a study of the health of long-term, perhaps lifelong tenants, with regard to mortality rates and longevity, as I am certain it wouldn’t be a pretty picture (evidence required, obviously, but that’s my hypo-deductive hunch…)

But the most regularly occurring and consequently, the most upsetting, worrying and sinister search-term, is rarely refined, or re-defined – it’s simply: ‘Really scared of my landlord.’

Another popular term, meanwhile is this heart-warming gem: ‘Tenants are scum.’

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Bedding Down

As from April, there’s going to be a rush for ‘bijou’ and ‘affordable’ one bed flats (aka substandard hovels) and there’s no point calling Kirsty and Phil. Impoverished claimants are being forced out of ‘too large’ social housing, or lose money (and they’ve no money to spare.)

It should by now slowly dawning on even those who routinely call claimants ‘scroungers’ that the incoming bedroom-tax bomb is going to cause so many problems. But I caught one idiot (an expert in his own field, but like many academics, moving on and appointing themselves as experts on everything) saying: Why not just move? My friends must move when they have another child and need a larger place.

But an enforced move into the private sector from social housing when claiming is very different, mainly because of the availability, even in different towns and cities of certain types of housing. Also people must find the money for vans, pay for storage, and find deposits (social housing rarely requests a deposit from tenants.)

Now, I know that developers do not possess psychic powers, but frankly, they are not building homes fit for claimants turfed out their previously stable addresses. Investors in housing are unlikely to care what claimants need, as they don’t even care what private owner occupiers want in the home they acquire enormous debt to buy.

The Private Rented Sector has many peculiarities, and one major weirdness of the buy-to-let boom was the proliferation of twat-flats (or as I call them, Dovecots). Manchester is extremely well-served for one bedroom urban flats; nobody’s sure why, but the developers of dovecots and conversions made homes for a perceived clientele that never really existed. They imagined that enormous hordes of young professionals would pay extraordinary rents for shoeboxes, and bedroom-taxed ex social tenants on benefits won’t afford the rents.

Meanwhile, Glasgow is full of two bed flats, fit to burst actually, but one bedroom tenements and other properties are scare. It’s sobering to remember that old style flats might have two bedrooms, but were crammed to the rafters with occupants like the Monty Python ‘Meaning of Life’ sketch.

Here’s my point. Times have changed, with blended, multi-generational families, needing space for homework, privacy, or silence when sleeping in the day due to shiftwork must be catered for. Simultaneously, claimant tenants (many in work, FYI) need a one bedroom flat when downsizing.

So, why not build what people need, including what they want? Why is nobody asking? And while we’re on the subject, why not build homes featuring what people need, like drying facilities, sound-proofing and storage?

There must be greater variation in any development. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham etc are rammed with sweeping vistas of identically unsuitable one and two bad flats, with nothing bigger. We are increasingly relying on a private sector that builds for easy profit and not with regard to comfortable, sustainable homes. So when suddenly changing the rules, governments should be mindful of the available housing supply. And also, let’s find out what tenants need, and also, and importantly, let’s build what they want.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Petition to End Letting Agent Fees.

Quick new post: excellent e-petition. Hope it makes a difference!

Also - not every browser allows reader to see the links I post. Sorry about that! Here it is in text form so that non firefox users can copy and paste into their browser:

Monday, 19 November 2012

Heading For The Bunker

They say that in the event of a zombie attack, the safest place to hide is in a supermarket, where survivors traditionally congregate for the final showdown. This being the case, I have located the closest supermarket via the quickest route. Why?

It’s going to get ugly out there.

This blog is about the private rented market, but recent setbacks in social housing are hitting everyone, and will have a terrible impact on the private sector.

Have you ever been homeless? I have. Waiting in the neighbourhood housing office is one of the most demoralising experiences life can throw at you. But at least applicants know they’ll be safe, eventually: assessed, placed in a B&B if necessary (a situation I narrowly avoided) until allocated a nice, safe place in social housing.

Won’t they?

I mean, vulnerable people are at the top of the queue for social housing, and would never be batted back into bear-pit of private housing, and then have to face moving again after just twelve months.

Will they?

Except new regulations mean that councils, instead of placing homeless families in social housing are being encouraged (or bullied) into fulfilling their responsibilities by using private landlords. Social housing will be reserved for ex-service personnel and ‘positive contributors’ to society.

Also: here comes the bedroom tax, where people in social housing with a ‘spare’ room (even if saved for step-kids, or shared care of young children) will get less housing benefit or move. Not the bankers who caused this mess then, but those crafty people with a spare bedroom. Damn their selfish ways.

Homeless tenants will be shipped to other cities, where private landlords who love, love love! claimants will welcome them with canapés and champers.

Housing people away from work, schools, family, and making people pay to move when DWP Crisis Loans (covering deposits or moving costs) have been abolished, thereby driving claimants into the prickly arms of payday loans. Oh – and in London especially, rents are sky-rocketing away into space. Did I mention the benefit cap, which will drive anyone claiming, out of London? And claimants are often in work, now, as wages are so low.

And then…

There’s the Universal Credit roll-out which merges housing and living costs into one payment, ignoring the needs of those who are (frankly) not bright or with chaotic lives. When people don’t have enough money (and it will take a brave politician to grasp the reins and say: benefits are much too low) then they must choose between food, energy and rent. It all comes in one payment. In arrears.

Reality is inconvenient. The benefit cap was bought in after Lying Lord Fraud repeatedly banged on about ‘families claiming £100k per year.’ There are thought to be at most, a fleeting amount: those legendary 100k claimants number fewer than five, maybe less (or none). Most already had several children, and probably rented high cost flats in London when employed and but lost work.

It’s an omnishambles. A clusterfuck (sorry: profanity is utterly unavoidable here). A disaster. A catastrophe. A nightmare.

This will hit not in April, when Discretionary payments will ease the transition, but October 2013, when this runs out (just in time for an impoverished, homeless Xmas). Until then, I am heading to the bunker with ammo and tinned goods. Let me know when it’s over.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


I moved again recently, and claimed back one set of fees from one absolute arsehole of an agent, who, when encountered in the street, laughingly explained: ‘It’s just a game we letting agents have to play.’

No. That game of yours is making you a fortune by ripping off and duping vulnerable people. It isn’t a game. They should be tried for extortion: one agent imprisoned will soon stop this egregious practice.

So now for the next lot. To summarise, I explained fee they were insisting upon before letting the place was illegal. I quoted the relevant legislation, and referred to the excellent campaign by Shelter (see links below).

They insisted it wasn’t a ‘premium,’ that they had taken legal advice and that I had to pay. I gritted my teeth, paid and almost immediately wrote offering them the chance to pay me back without going to court. They refused, insisting the ‘admin fee’ (expressly forbidden in the legislation) was fair and lawful. So I begin court proceedings. A waste of my time, but more than anything – that of the already over-stretched court system.

I heard nothing, until getting a call one afternoon and my, but they were shirty. No apology. No explanation. Just a terse and frosty (borderline rude, actually) statement: ‘We’re paying you back. Do you want money off the rent or a refund?’ I was in a café and could hardly hear. I reminded them that they would also need to pay back the court fee, which didn’t go down well.

And then they were gone. How utterly graceless. Even after attempting extortion - they had quite brazenly and shamelessly tried to extract money illegally via an implicit threat (pay up or lose the property) but still had the audacity to be annoyed that they had been caught out.

No there are only two possibilities. One: they didn’t know about the legislation (but I had pointed it out, and provided the relevant links etc, and they claimed to have taken legal advice.) They were also obviously old enough to know better. The second possibility is that they genuinely knew nothing about the fact that premiums (charges, reference fees, renewal fees, admin fees etc… etc…) are illegal, which makes them at best untrained and at worst incompetent. I wonder which one it is?

They kept this up to the very last minute, and narrowly avoided court (which I had been looking forward to, because of their rudeness and contempt.) Fortunately for them, they paid up.

But you know what: an apology was richly deserved, and would have meant a lot. Meanwhile our lovely landlady still has to deal with the company who charge her for the privilege of messing everything up, starting with the inventory.

I should be grateful: at least the charges are illegal and in Scotland I can claim them back. In England and Wales, the agents are growing increasingly powerful and shameless. More on that soon. Meanwhile, that agency is, I imagine still charging illegal fees to less informed and unsuspecting tenants. Who will claim them back. And around it goes…

Monday, 5 November 2012

We Don't Have The Energy

Choosing an energy tariff is the hardest thing in the world ever. Harder than knitting, baking soufflés, achieving cold fusion, or time travel. Even the noble prime minister got confused, but then he is very thick indeed.

Energy is increasingly problematic for tenants, because of yet another emerging con perpetrated by letting agents. When new tenants move in, they try and charge for ‘contacting utility firms about the new occupant’ (no thanks, we did that.) They also try and shackle tenants to one specific supplier, with some making this a term and condition. I suspect it’s unenforceable, since the mantra is ‘choice.’ Why do they do this? Because they are paid commission – even if it’s not the best deal, a practice due to end when agents are regulated into submission.

Tenants do badly when it comes to economising on energy. Many homes, even in the upper price levels are poorly insulated (a Finnish friend was amazed at draughty Scottish homes.) Some councils run schemes which pay for loft and cavity wall insulation, which require landlord’s permission. Why would they refuse? Bizarrely, some do: they are grouchy and uncooperative, seeing improvements as an intrusion.

For private tenants, it’s as if energy saving happens over our heads: we are in extremes bequeathed money-guzzling ‘White Meter’ heating, which we cannot remove. The fact of occupants moving in and out randomly of HMO’s every six months impedes energy saving, economy or switching to lower tariffs.

The fashion for badly laid laminate floors created hurricane-force draughts, and it’s not like tenants, unsure of whether they can stay for longer than six months, will find it cost effective to pay for carpet, curtains and other measures which would make a home warmer.

Also - I am baffled: why are there not more schemes for placing solar panels on roofs (where they work – not all areas bask in the sun) wind turbines and even boreholes for underground heating? Why can’t buildings, especially social housing use natural resources?

Meanwhile, with claimants (including those on a low wage) forced to share houses until they are thirty-five, the situation can be even more fraught, with full out war on anyone co-tenant perceived as wasting energy castigated, ostracised, and asked to leave shared homes.

I know of one HMO where the self-appointed Alpha Male tenant restricted everyone to just two hours central heating in any given day. In a draughty house in Scotland during one of the worst winters on record, his word was law. The place was freezing, and fellow residents were forced to spend evenings wrapped in quilts. On the other, a former fellow housemate was found with an ancient electric heater on full during a heat-wave ‘…as it was nice having warm toes..’

The short-term nature of renting, makes tenants powerless to make choices due to the insecurity of frequent moves. How do you shop around when occupancy is transient and tenuous, and the chances of a house-meeting to sort this out is unlikely when people are working away or enduring shift work? I wish I knew, I really do.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Repairing Relationship

Repairs are a nightmare. Even if you wake up surfing dancing geysers of sewage newly erupted the lounge, many landlords are reluctant to do much about it. The problem festers, as does the flat.

There are some good landlords out there, but many won’t mend stuff if they don’t want to. The grim fact is that after months of justified requests, the landlord might – entirely by coincidence – urgently ‘require the house for relatives’. This is the easiest legal ploy to evict ‘troublemakers,’ i.e. the landlord name for tenants wilful enough to need repairs, however urgent, necessary, and reasonable. Too many homes are uninhabitable: rickety, squalid and damp.

But even if the damage will lead to the house collapsing within days, they really can’t be bothered. The easiest way is to offer to sort it out yourself. Arrange for several high-end contractors to supply written estimates for the task, and politely send off the most expensive, with a note explaining how you appreciate your landlord is very busy, but the property is being damaged by the leak/whatever, so can you have permission to proceed? Sometimes this spurs them into action.

The disruption, discomfort, and health hazards of a damaged flat can drive you crazy. My list of disasters is legendary: the lounge window nailed shut during a heatwave, the leaking ceiling which collapsed, spilling a mouldy waterfall all over my telly. An gas boiler which the landlord’s nominated contractor (and horrified friend) reported to the council. The dangerous shower installed by our landlord’s ‘cousins,’ which could have electrocuted my flatmate.

Landlords often take even the most reasonable requests as a personal slight. One actually whined that he had ‘…even bought us a mop.’ We were, he said: ‘Living in his home, and who had brought us up to be so rude.’ Patiently and wearily, I explained the we pay the rent/he does the repairs bargain.

Another landlord lived in a different city, and if I ever made contact (like sending a telegram to Mars) he’d ask me to sort it myself, and send him the bill. There was no guarantee he’d pay, so commissioning work was worrisome, but in other respects he left well alone, which has much to recommend it.

I was contacted by a reader, whose home has a massive ‘gap’ between the basement and the ground floor flat. It’s freezing - probably rotting the structure, but the agents insist the place was ‘rented as seen’ which is utter bul…rubbish. She’s starting the process of enforcement, which will lead to a nasty surprise for her appalling landlady.

My lowest point haunts me still. I was living in a large, gothic student house, like something from The Munsters. The bedroom was cold. My sleep was often troubled, and one night violent blizzards entered my troubled dreams. As I slept, the glass in the bedroom window had blown out during a winter storm, leaving a gaping hole. I awoke with actual snow blowing onto my face, little drifts settling on my pillow.
When I asked for a repair, the landlord said: ‘Make me…’
And gave me notice me when I did.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Why Would Anyone Become A Landlord?

Why would anyone become a landlord/rentier? Why would they do that? Simple: letting out property as homes for other people to live in was traditionally, and increasingly seen as a certain, sure fire, cross-your-heart-hope-to-die, solid gold, clear cut, guaranteed route to financial security or even…WEALTH!

Rich! Rich you will be! Richer than Croesus, wealthier than your wildest, trippiest, dreams. Totally bling. For sure. Money, money, money!

Except, well…it’s not like that is it? Landlords who bought for, and are entering the private rental sector are doing so not just because they want to be rich…Rich! RICH! (etc…) They do so for security, as state pensions are disappointing, student fees are high and interest rates are low. Put your money in bricks in mortar went the mantra. And that’s exactly what they did.

Landlords do not enter the market to help people although they might choose to be supportive of tenants, but equally they might not. Few choose to be kind: I know this as one of the most common search terms used by new readers is ‘my tenants are scum.’ And recently: ‘need bouncers to evict my tenant.’ Nice.

Rentiers want to own something real, tangible and visible - to possess an object that is literally concrete, because shares are risky, and in some circumstances savers actually lose money. What else is there? Art? Antiques? Gold? Buy a B&B? (Well, you have to work at a B&B, which puts off many, and you can’t by law even be a homophobic bigot anymore.)

People buy property to rent as houses for ‘the future’ or to help their children. They buy up and then rent out property, not as a secure place for a fellow human being to occupy into their dotage, but a block of money to be wallowed in by the owner, a wedge of cash blighted and infested by pesky, flawed human tenants.

And landlords might still be tempted to buy a dovecot (what I call newbuilds) its value dropping by the minute, or purchase buildings outside of their area of knowledge, in a different town or a neighbourhood unknown to them, where wise people and most tenants fear to tread, no matter how ‘well-appointed, convenient for amenities and sensitively refurbished' the place might be.

Landlords sometimes inherit unsellable homes from dear departed relatives, and are forced to rent them out. Others might want to move themselves, but rent because they’ve sold their house and are stuck waiting to buy a new one.

The point is this: very few people actually choose to be, or set out determined to be landlords. Have you ever heard a rentier saying: ‘Ah - landlording – it’s in my blood! My mother’s father’s great-grandparents were landlords - it’s all I know.”

This causes all the problems. Few people want to be landlords, and are rarely prepared for the expense, time, annoyance and panic-stricken calls while on holiday about broken ballcocks (sorry Landgirl!) Few have proper landlord insurance, but many have prejudices, and think their former home is still their castle: often why it all goes so very, tragically, horribly wrong. And it’s usually the tenant who suffers.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Bad Landlord

I am not a fan of campaigns to ‘kick out rogue landlords’ who I believe to be both a minority and a distraction. Personally, I am more concerned about the constant, low-level misery caused by insecurity or short term contracts, and in London, rocketing rents. And don’t forget: many landlords are, like my current ‘landgirl’ (she wants to be called that) superlatively decent and reasonable.

But bad landlords exist. They are out there. A friend had a nightmare experience: she moved newbuild flat, and in the middle of a freezing winter, followed the best instructions on what to do about the pipes, and went away.

She returned to find the flat deluged after a burst pipe, and living in a nightmare of flooded possessions, was forced to leave her uninhabitable home (the one she paid rent for.) The letting agent were singularly nasty and obstructive, and after months spent sofa surfing, my friend could not get back into her flat. The letting agents contrived to blame her for the leak, claiming that pots and pans in the sink had caused water to spill (!) and then refuted their own plumbers report, which agreed that any damage was not the fault of my friend.

The lesson is a common one: she did not feel able to take the landlord to court. She discovered he was not on the local landlord register (she had not, in common with many tenants, checked this before moving in.) And so here’s what she suspects: that her landlord did not have permission to let the place from the mortgage provider, had no insurance (I always say that like drivers, landlords should be insured by law) and so tried to shift the blame onto my friend.

At that point she was held responsible for the flooding, broken down and demoralised. Oh and also: she was homeless. There is no happy ending. She invested her energy in finding somewhere to live: a decision most tenants make. They do not pursue bad/rogue/vile landlords – instead they move out and move on and I don’t blame them. While entirely understandable, it does have the effect of letting the landlord keep on harassing, flooding and tormenting the next tenant.

Elsewhere, even a casual chat with friends has garnered tales of bad landlords who: harassed and tried to kick down doors, refused outright to repair heating in the middle of a freezing winter, went bankrupt, confused the right to inspect with the need to enter randomly at will, collected or reclaimed vital furniture while tenants were out, and the worst of all, who illegally evicted tenants by sending round thugs.

Tenants can be evicted if they misbehave: procedures are in place. But what happens to landlords who terrorise tenants? There should be a licence, withdrawn if landlords act unlawfully, or by actions or omissions cause physical and/or mental harm. Oh – and they should forfeit the property. There really aren’t that many, but increasing reliance on the private sector means more amateur, untrained rentiers and resentful ‘forced’ landlords. Tenants will show their love for which ever party legislates about this by voting for them.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Yoo-Hoo! Jack Dromey!

Yoo-Hoo! Jack Dromey!

Cooee-cooee…I can see you!

Technology is marvellous, and thanks to a mcguffin I can see who reads this blog, where they are and how long they linger over my fine words. Intriguingly, over the past few months, my work is being repeatedly read by persons unknown in the House of Commons.

Now, it might the cleaner, struggling to cover the rent on minimum wage. It might be newbie housing minister Prisk, reading about the trauma of renting, all the better to ignore our woes since he is, like all his accomplices, not keen on ‘regulation.’

Worse: it might be one of the 25% of Condem MP’s who are private landlords.

I am however hopeful that someone, perhaps even Jack Dromey the Shadow Housing Minister is paying attention. If so, I am going to spell it out. This is what tenants want. More to the point – this is what tenants genuinely need.

(1) Security. We want to know we can stay, and we want to know that tenants can only be given notice for a damn good reason, and not because it’s Wednesday, because the owner has thing about Librans, or you know… just because. Currently we can be given notice for whimsical and capricious reasons.

(2) Licence and register landlords. Yep. It must happen. Tattooists need a licence, as do café owners – contravening rules leads to losing the business. Currently even in violent wrongful evictions, landlords rarely suffer the full weight of the law, and police often collude in their actions.

(3) Follow Scottish model for banning letting agents ‘premiums’ ie the curious inventive fees charged without cause and with impunity (and no making them ‘transparent’ is NOT enough!) Landlords can pay. Oh – and agents must be trained to degree level and licensed.

(4) Rogue landlords are an attention grabbing minority. But anyone who herds tenants into a shed and or those letting dangerous buildings (ie faulty electrical wiring) should be barred for life whilst forfeiting their property, which then fortuitously passes into council ownership.

(5) Bring back rent controls. I know Shelter don’t agree, but the only real reason for rents to rise is spiralling interest rates (currently at their lowest ever level). It’s greed pure and simple: letting agents ramp up prices because they can and because they want to: there are no genuine reasons. Rent officers should again visit and forbid or allow rent increases.

We are many, we are unhappy and we are learning how to bite back. See the recent actions by Edinburgh Private Tenant’s Action (their marshals visited another letting agent recently) and Housing For The 99% who ‘inspected’ a London letting agents (caught rejecting claimants) in high-vis vests and carrying clipboards.

As long as renters can be moved on every six months for no clear reason, they cannot rest safe. Schools have uncertain numbers of pupils, and few tenants are registered to vote, as we move so much. Hey there Jack - we also feel that nobody represent us. Whoever listens and enables renting to improve might find we vote for them.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Name Of The Landlord

Terminate with extreme prejudice.
Ethnic cleansing.

Just a few of the neologisms and new phrases which have seeped into our daily vocabulary and the collective consciousness. The words we use control how we see the world and alters our behaviour to the people living in it. Some phrases restyle the world for the better, others terms sanitise and mask appalling actions.

Language matters. I am mirroring the esteemed Ben Reeves Lewis, who has mooted changing the names of those who own and manage property they have inherited, or bought to let out to tenants (aka landlords and landladies.)

Say the word landlord and what’s the first image to appear in your mind’s eye? A wry man with a handlebar moustache serving real ale? Or a Rigsby-stile Rachmanite who wallows in your discomfort at insecurity, damp and disrepair?

Landlord is a term loaded with baggage and preconceptions. A landlord sounds privileged – even aristocratic. No wonder many feel they are the actual rulers of their estate (ie our home). The name gives pretensions of grandeur: might be why some owners imagine that inspecting a flat once a month with just one days notice is an absolute right. Some imagine they can turn up whenever they want to. ‘It’s my property – I can do whatever I want’ being the usual excuse.

Or take landlady – a word weighed down by notions of east-end pubs, and doughty woman of uncertain age who can pull a pint with one hand and free-style wrestle troublemakers to the ground with the other. It does not suggest besuited professionals who have invested in several homes while gently accruing equity wealth, managing several homes and rallying recalcitrant contractors.

Ownership is about power, and the power relation between landlord and tenant is complex and fraught. Landlords seem, by all they do, to require constant reassurance that they can reclaim their property whenever they want to. Tenants, meanwhile, want to stay. That little ‘…lord’ makes the situation seem ever more complicated, but tenants should feel no more beholden to their landlord than shoppers do the manager of their local supermarket.

This is a world where some Rentiers (to steal wholesale Ben’s suggestion) certainly don’t hold with this ‘call me Dave’ mentality, and can insist on proper titles (usually Mr, although Sir is declining…along with your Landlordship) that’s if we ever find out the real names of these enigmatic overlords. Landlords are mysterious. We are shielded from them. Letting agents are increasingly hiding owners by assuming their identity on the rental agreement. Research is necessary to ascertain who actually owns the building, while being paid for our right to occupy the space.

But I quite like rentier - Ben Reeves-Lewis’ solution, although my own (kind, fair and responsible) landlady has the last word on this point, and recently emailed to say:

‘I've been thinking. I hate the term landlord (I don't have a wiener), and landlady makes me sound doubled up and old and smelly. So my new title, given my love of all things retro and 40/50s, shall be Landgirl !!!! Plus, that makes me sound all headscarfed and pro-active. That is all :-)’

She wants to be called Landgirl and I would never dare argue. So Landgirl it is then.

Monday, 24 September 2012

They're Doomed! Doomed!

Such charming people, letting agents. Lovely, warm-hearted, honest and caring.

My friend is still looking for a place, and she’s getting desperate. I saw a ‘To Let’ sign outside a likely property, and called the number to ask about the flat. Now keep in mind that my friend had already called: she thought I had imagined the sign, so strenuously did the agency deny its existence. I thought the agency had re-let the place, but was told ‘they had no property in that area.’ I said forcefully that they might take the sign down. They kept repeating their mantra, and did not apologise for wasting my time, and that of countless others.

It’s that sort of casual, callous disregard for people that made me sort of glad in a way about this related story.

A friend contacted me to ask about his deposit: the letting agent had gone bust. Briefly I mourned the innocent jobs lost, then I got out the bunting: the joy was briefly unconfined. This is going to happen a lot more in the coming months. There are too many agents scrabbling for business, and they are already ‘surplus to requirements.’ Many landlords are using ‘portals’ (which still sound so sci-fi) and traditional agents are going under.

This also explains why they have dreamed up more cruel and unusual fees - aka a premium (officially declared illegal in Scotland – despite another agent telling yet another friend that this would all be settled in November. He paid up and will reclaim the fee in court. What a waste of time.)

My friend had paid his deposit just before the law enforcing the protection scheme in Scotland came in. His landlord is awol. The agency had done that new trick of listing themselves as the landlord, rather than naming the owner on the lease – very dodgy indeed. Anyone out there know why they do this?

My friend located the owner (hooray!) who’s ignoring his emails and letters (boo!) He’s going to the small claims court to take action against the landlord: if he sues the bankrupt agency he’ll be put on a list of creditors, and will be a very low priority recouping a fraction of what he paid.

I am glad that all deposits must now be protected everywhere – and the law was post-dated; it applies to all rental agreements no matter when they started.

The sad part is for those under the yoke of agents who were struggling before this, who have escaped with deposits, which can run to thousands. My friend is desperate for his money. He’s also worried about going to court, but I reassured him that it isn’t expensive and is very straightforward.

I’m left wondering how many agencies are endangered. They can’t run away with deposits now, but will go into liquidation - landlords suffering as incoming rent payments are eaten up. Hey-ho: no pain, no gain. We might be rid of this unnecessary layer of parasitical laziness, con-tricks and bumph quite soon. Seriously – if you work for a letting agency, look for another job.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Nowhere Left To Go

Being lost, and about to be homeless is the sad and inevitable consequence of the housing catastrophe we live in. Many people are googling, and even asking me as a last resort about a simple problem: they have nowhere left to go.

These unfortunates are not roofless (the unofficial reality is that to be accepted as homeless, and therefore housed, applicants must be at the very least sofa-surfing to count, such is the demand.) No – these people are desperate and close to disaster.

The reasons are quite straightforward. Because of benefit cuts and the bedroom tax, tenants are being forced to leave their home and are looking for a new place.

But they are flat-hunting whilst in limited poorly paid employment or claiming, and face referencing, extreme vetting and the need for guarantors. Letting agents, certain landlords and even a few housing associations now require spotless reputations, despite the fact that life is messy and human beings make mistakes.

As Tenancy Relations Officer Ben Reeves-Lewis has said hereabouts, even Sir Alan Sugar went bankrupt a few times before becoming ‘Suralun of You’re Fired Towers.’ And as I’ve said here, people lose money when holding fees are swallowed after non-pristine credit checks, and then…well then where do they go? Find a guarantor, except guarantors are increasingly asked to earn disproportionately high levels of pay.

Next up: prices. Agents and owners conspire to ramp up prices where demand is high, leaving claimants and the low paid struggling to cover their rent, and punished by homelessness for their inability to afford the buttock-clenchingly large sums required in certain areas of the country.

The next reason for the precarious nature of housing is supply, and competition for a limited number of suitable houses. This is getting worse with housing benefit cuts, as many people are in desperate need of one bedroom flats under the cruel and ridiculous bedroom tax (don’t tax the bankers – punish the poor.)

The next spectre pushing tenants into the abyss is that of adverse personal circumstances. Being unemployed, or even on low pay makes for an undesirable tenant, and such people face being turned down everywhere they go: letting agents avoid them, and landlords spurn them – despite there being a depression. As I wrote about previously, having kids is also a no-no. As are pets. And just not looking right.

Something is very wrong in housing land. It’s strange how often these fatal flaws are surmountable by cash: pay six months rent in advance, and all flaws are ignored.

In Manchester, and other areas where there was an oversupply of urban Dovecots, prejudices were immediately and strangely overcome when agents and owners endured a lengthy void. They found their homophobia, loathing of the jobless and kids overcame by need and greed. Elsewhere, the perfect tenant (professional – often arriving as a couple even for a one bed) are welcomed in.

Meanwhile, the gathering storm is swirling in the distance: homeless figures are spiralling. I wrote while back I write that something very bad is going to happen. Well, now it’s begun. Brace yourselves: it’s going to get ugly.

Monday, 10 September 2012

They Can't Away With That, Can They?

I am breaking a resolution, to write again about letting agents. The Scottish government recently confirmed it: all ‘premiums’ charged to tenants are illegal. The courts are currently gridlocked with claims because agents refuse to return the money without a fight. So how, exactly will these parasites skim money from the perfectly workable deal between landlord and tenant, across the UK?

Well, in Scotland, they are (seriously…) still charging admin fees, in the full knowledge they’re illegal. A friend contacted me to say that the agent handling his rental would not letting him read the tenancy agreement until the day he moved in - after charging him a holding fee (that he would presumably lose if, after reading the lengthy legal agreement, he objects to its hidden terms.)

There’s also a massive ‘non-returnable cleaning fee.’ This is mentioned repeatedly, and the redoubtable EPTA (see links) and their amazing protest dressed US Marshalls, won a case declaring that this too is unlawful.

Charging a months rent in advance, six weeks rent upfront as a deposit – all legit and customary then. But also slapping on a charge amounting to a third of the last months rent in advance? The law in Scotland limits the amount charged in advance, and this is a way of circumventing the spirit of the law, while giving the landlord an interest free loan. What if the tenants stays for years?

Also – asking for six months rent upfront.

Demanding a holding fee before a viewing, retained if the tenant turns the property down (so very illegal, that one.) Letting agents are relying in London on scarcity of supply, and elsewhere on fear of contesting claims and lack of knowledge by new, young tenants.

Now, landlords should pay all the costs of renting their own home – actually, they already do. So agents are in effect charging both parties for the same transaction. Make that over charging both parties: £150 for a credit check? Credit checking every year? The tenants credit rating is no concern of the agent, frankly. They pay the rent. So stop unnecessary and intrusive annual checks. Anyway, the reason tenants might be able to afford the rent is simple: rents are usually too high.

Another ploy: during a six month tenancy, agents end the existing agreement, booting out the established tenant. The agent collects a ‘finder’ fees for overcharging another poor soul (and also charges the landlord). Oh, and the rent always increases.

Also – as I wrote about elsewhere, agents seem to have been deducting ‘cleaning fees’ from protected deposits, using estimates passed of as receipts, thereby halving the money returned. Meanwhile, wages, are low, working hours long, and people struggle to feed their children. On top of that, tenants are charged extortionate, random (and in Scotland – illegal) fees.

The good news? Everybody: politicians (well not the condems, but what do you expect) even landlords are in agreement: across the UK, including England, letting agents need regulation. The end is nigh for letting agents – you can’t get away with this anymore. They’re on to you. So run!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Not Suitable For Children

This story is hitting me from all angles: in search terms, emails, friends, and the experiences of fellow bloggers. Quite simply, private landlords will not let to people with kids, be they couples or single parents.

They don’t say so in the property ads of course, but shockingly, they could stress: ‘No kids’ without sanction. Nobody cares: it is discrimination, but not illegal.

One correspondent relocated to the UK and started flat-hunting. They were staying for about a year as mature post-grad students. They had money in the form of state funding, excellent references and (when problems in securing a house became clear) would pay six months rent upfront. Only trouble was, they would become proud parents about four months after moving in.

He’s Canadian, and didn’t say whether this would be tolerated in the USA, but he did seem astounded. They were after a two bed flat, and sound like dream tenants. Why not let them move in? I never heard whether they found anywhere.

Elsewhere, my blogging friend My Shitty Twenties is trying to find a new home, closer to her friends, family, hopefully with a garden for her cherubic son ‘Tom’. Suddenly the landlord suddenly decided she didn’t want a school age child in the house (Tom is 6). Their decision came after she had paid a holding fee and the actual deposit, so the letting agent didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Coincidentally, just after she had viewed her perfect house, a childless couple pulled up outside.

Another potential tenant is a single parent, but her landlord rejected her after some intrusive question, assuming she would be on benefits (she isn’t.)

Really young children can be mischievous, but their misdemeanours usually involve tiny trikes bumping into skirting, or some drawing on the walls (mostly washable now, or covered with a coat of emulsion.)

Social housing is a fleeting, disappearing dream. All tenants will rely on the private sector, including, or rather especially, families with children. Rented houses are often inadequate, and anyway, it’s much more lucrative to let a house as an HMO, as landlords can ‘maximise profit’ cramming in more renters, using the lounge as another bedroom (kind landlords don’t) or rent to a couple.

Blinkered, prejudiced rentiers believe all single parents are scroungers, claiming benefits when really they are in full time, possibly well-paid, work. They assume that couples will not be signing on, as one of them will always be in full employment, when in this climate, that is not the case.

Private landlords must now fulfil a social role, when they are accustomed to exercising whimsical prejudices and capricious choices with impunity. Their word is law. Families can be given notice every six months, with children settled in good local schools (there might be no places if they are compelled to move) or just secure and happy.

It’s the opposite of the odious child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang. Landlords do not gather children, the push them away.
The private sector is not family friendly. It just isn’t.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Many Ages Of Renting

Every now and again, I receive an email asking why I don’t just buy a home. Wow. Great idea! The thought has never occurred to me.

The person cycling around your neighbourhood with a megaphone shouting ‘Hey Einstein: if it was that easy to buy a home, don’t you think I would?’ Yeah - that’s me. If not the for the restraining order…

Renting is a long term, fact of life. Even people who live in exclusive gated country houses do not escape the shackles of renting. Elsewhere, many start as children, surviving with a landlord who understands the needs of families, close to a good school. Ha.Ha.Ha.

Then it’s time to leave home - what an adventure: freedom, privacy, and independence. Also: damp, rogue landlords (who prey on the inexperienced) extortionate fees from letting agents like checks on guarantors (new tenants have no credit history). Say hello to bad furniture, relying on shabby sofas, stained mattresses and rickety tables.

Student housing varies, from grandly appointed ‘rooms’ at Oxbridge, to cell-like student blocks, and horrible houses in multiple occupation. The mushrooms growing close by are not going to make ‘soup’ of any kind (hallucinogenic or not) but are recorded for a lengthy complaint to Environmental Health, who are overstretched and anyway, know you will vacate in June.

So to saving to buy that first home. It’s usually a flat, and what joy it is. Until selling up to purchase the first family home – there might be kids on the way, the neighbourhood might be unsuitable. You try and move but become a forced tenant, reluctant, grumpy and unable to sell up because of negative equity, or saving for a deposit. You sourly scan the property ads and realise that it’s actually cheaper to pay a mortgage than it is to rent a house that meets your needs (ie a room for every child of different age and sex – perhaps even caring for elderly or disabled family.)

Then you might become a landlord: well, the mortgage is paid off, and you can afford a buy-to-let mortgage. Unless that is, you lost your job and were repossessed or never managed to get a foothold on the renting ladder, and are back renting. Or are separated.

With age comes downsizing, perhaps a city-centre flat, releasing equity to help adult kids buy homes. You aren’t renting, but are surrounded by tenants abandoned by amateur, untrained, unregulated buy-to-let landlords, tenants who hold loud parties, sublet the flats and move on regularly. It affects every waking day and every sleepless night. You are left living in a wasteland, as prices drop, and your investment has lost thousands.

Then maybe, a retirement flat, or sheltered housing, rented reluctantly, where residents must discard beloved possessions due to lack of space.

Renting touches everyone, and it is bleak. Even on holiday, in a home that is being let to tourists, rather than house locals, renting embraces and ensnares us all, like an octopus with a grip of doom. Some of us will never be free.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Letting Agent and The Piece of Paper.

It was only a simple piece of paper, but it made me bang my head against the wall. Perfectly ordinary text - casual and everyday, but it made me whine and scream and punch myself in the face as there was no else around to punch.

It’s all Molly’s fault. My friends know I am not keen on letting agents, which is putting it mildly, and that I pass on details of their transgressions to ‘the appropriate authorities.’ Molly is currently house-hunting, and was keen for my opinion regarding a document passed on by her letting agent - basically a menu of charges. Just another piece of paper, then.

But what was written down was outrageous. There were fifteen conditions: one mentions a holding deposit of £150 (supposedly keeping the place off the market for two weeks). Amongst the usual rubbish about a deposit etc. is a £95 ‘check out’ fee (the latest wheeze for cheating new tenants.)

There was also a £30 tenant assessment fee and a short lease premium. Amazingly: they charge £150 for a lease of less than six months. Please remember, this is in Scotland, where all tenant premiums are illegal. That’s right – they can’t lawfully charge for any of this.

But these villains make everything worse by demanding written proof of contents insurance (none of their business frankly, since landlords must have their own insurance and the property is unfurnished.)

What made me scream, lash out and wail is the a mandatory annual rent increase of 3.5% per annum, no matter what. No wonder rents are rising: there is no need for this - none whatsoever. Rents in certain cities are increasing so fast that tenant’s faces wobble with G forces as if riding in rockets headed to space. Rents race onwards and ever upwards because agents demand that they should (and agents earn a percentage of the monthly rent.)

Now, Shelter Scotland are raising awareness of the illegality of these charges, encouraging tenants to reclaim. But Molly didn’t get that far: she calmly questioned the legality of the proposed fees. Her letting agency had compounded their offence by trying to charge both Molly and her partner separately (it’s joint tenancy for a one bed flat, and not exactly Versaille.) The agency agreed to clarify their facts, but rang back saying that entirely by coincidence, they had let the flat to another couple. How odd.

When there is a mass extinction event for letting agents, I truly hope this lot go bust early and with extreme prejudice. They are often conning money from students and first time renters, who know no better and are too scared to use the simple procedure of reclaiming their fees.

When people move home, they are vulnerable. Tenants must leap through flaming hoops to get as far as signing a tenancy agreement and letting agents circle, drooling over the scent of desperation. Vultures, pure and simple. Vultures is what they are.

Who will charge agents with extortion? Letting agents who demand illegal fees in Scotland, or extortionate fees in England (where fees are lawful) could - and must - be jailed.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Share The Joy

Renting is horrible. I am fed up with bad news, and it’s going to get a lot, lot worse in the next year, with benefit caps biting and that dreaded incoming spare room tax. I wanted to be positive, and therefore thank a recent correspondent for this story:

‘After 18 years of being treated like "rental scum", I've finally found a good one. The flat I'm renting belonged to my LL's mum, who passed away nearly a decade ago. So she's not in it for the money. I found it on Gumtree (I know!), and thought it sounded too good to be true (at least £200 pcm less than other flats in the area, idyllic canalside spot with a gorgeous park on the other side of the water), but after 2 months of seeing overpriced hovels through agents, I decided to risk the cauldron of crazy that is Gumtree.’

Lovely turn of phrase for describing G******. She goes on to list why her landlady is ‘awesome’:

’She had the entire flat repainted before I moved in. She also left a bottle of wine and a welcome card on the dining table.

- When I mentioned I had my own bed, she immediately offered to put hers into storage. (I rented this place furnished. When I started renting 18 years ago, unfurnished places seemed to be more common, but now it's the opposite. Up until now I've either had to give away or sell some of my lovely furniture at knockdown prices, or live with two of everything in an already cramped space.)

- The new kitchen cupboard doors Sarah had ordered were going to be a week late, and the shower needed replacing, so on the day I moved in, she gave me a cheque for one week's rent. I tried to tell her that it really wasn't a big deal, most landlords wouldn't have bothered replacing them at all, and the shower seemed to work fine when I'd tested during the flat viewing, but she wouldn't hear of it.

- She happily allows pets. She offers to come round and feed my 2 cats if I go on holiday.

- When I locked myself out of the flat on a Tuesday morning in my nightgown, she sent a friend round in a taxi with a spare key (she was on holiday in Europe at the time). She wouldn't let me reimburse her for the taxi. "It's all part of the service."

- She was over the moon when I had the cream carpets professionally cleaned. "But that's my responsibility. It's my carpet." she said.

- When the previous tenants suffered a break-in, she had an alarm system installed, at her own expense, the following week.

- I've been here nearly 2 years, and she hasn't raised the rent. She could easily get more for this flat, particularly as this area has become more popular in the past 2 years.

I could go on, but there are some good landlords out there. Of course, it did take me 18 years to find one.’

My own landlady is also humane and understanding. She solved my water pressure nightmare by installing a shower (she is a reluctant landlady – blighted by negative equity and must sit tight for at least another five years, I reckon, so she’s broke.) She used up her bank of relative favours, and they were sometimes late or didn’t show, but I have a shower now. As a thank you for waiting, she sent a package of lovely smelly stuff.

The only problem (for her) is this: the letting agents are eating up a massive percentage of her income, despite which she has arranged all the repairs, as she can’t afford to use their contractors. The agents seem to maintain that despite answering my water pressure queries only after I had signed the lease with an ‘but it’s always been like that,’ they are insisting wrongly they not liable. In the meantime, I carry on with minor repairs, and don’t bother her unless its necessary.

But the water pressure was dealt with amicably, proof that we all benefit when landlords and tenants do their best to cooperate. Let’s not fight. Letting agents on the other hand…

Monday, 6 August 2012

Ask Aunty Rentergirl

Over the past year or so, I have noticed something both flattering and disturbing. Readers are beginning to email me requesting advice about certain delicate problems and dilemmas. I don’t mean shy queries about erectile disfunction, etiquette clarification or whether they should marry, but help with various housing difficulties.

I like it when readers share their stories: it proves that I am not alone in finding renting to be, generally, truly awful. But I am not a lawyer - not a trained housing professional. I can only offer what I have learned, underlined by a prominent disclaimer that I am not an expert, not am I a qualified, trained advisor.

Recently, I was consulted by an acquaintance. His girlfriend was being bullied by her ex-landlady, a grasping vicious rentier who sounds truly horrible (even the letting agents agreed.) Despite having scoured the flat before vacating, this tenant was presented with a bill for cleaning. The brass-necked landlady included costs for her own efforts, then added charges for the professional cleaner she was obliged to hire because the place was supposedly so filthy.

Fortunately my friend had taken pictures, keen to challenge the landlady, whose bill (completely by coincidence, of course) came to virtually the same amount as her deposit. I advised her to check if, and where, her deposit was protected, and then use the dispute service.

This tenant backed down, thoroughly intimidated. That’s what agents and landlords rely on: renters feel threatened by the idea of challenging their overlord, especially in court which they imagine is governed by a thundering aristocrat in a white wig, not umpired by am approachable, reasonable person keen to make the process accessible.

Elsewhere, the tenant I have written about in the post below now wishes to relocate – or rather, knows she cannot stay forever, as she is homeless (albeit not roofless) and can’t sublet a room in that nurses home forever. My advice was to tell the truth: that she is subletting casually and temporarily, before seeking a reasonable landlord online who might appreciate a good tenant, albeit one with precarious work security. I am convinced such a creature exists. Don’t they?

Which begs the question: where do tenants go for advice? Legal Aid is being effectively abolished, neighbourhood advice centres, the CAB (where my mixed experiences have been, shall we…’mixed’) and law centres have queues down the road. Council tenancy relations officers are snowed under. Sometimes people just want to be guided through their options, or are seeking reassurance.

While I’m flattered to be consulted, I worry about that many readers are harassed, bullied and given notice but have nowhere left to turn. I will always do my best, and occasionally find your emails upsetting (or with increasing rarity, amusing.)

Once again, it’s the low level misery of renting that proves the most destructive - not the minority, heinous, criminal ‘rogue’ landlords wrongfully evicting and assaulting tenants, but the slow erosion of security and the feeling that there is no help available. Private landlords count on this to avoid responsibilities. It’s horrible.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Could It Be That It Was All So Simple Then?

Remember the good old days, when landlords were professionals, and tenants were secure: no computerised protocols or ‘affordability assessments.’ You found a place within your budget; prices were stable (if they went too high the rent officer would intervene) so nobody really cared if tenants were in work. Letting agents were rare.

But one reader’s situation exemplifies recent changes, notably the appalling ‘bedroom tax’:

‘I lost my job at the beginning of the year and was already renting the house I'm in now and had some money saved that would last me a year if used to top up my housing benefit (I'm in a 2 bedroom house as my son stays with me on the weekends) as they will only pay out for a one bedroom property. 6 months later and still no job so I am thinking I need to move whilst I still have some money left to do so (hiring a van etc) but as you no doubt know the big agents won't take people on benefits (I was respectable 6 months ago but not now apparently?) so I am looking at private landlords.

Thing is they seem to want a guarantor which I cannot get (although I have just found out my sister is still on the mortgage of her ex-husbands house so that may be viable), I suggested I could pay over £400 deposit to make up for it and they could get references from the larger agents I have used in the past and always been a good tenant but still waiting to hear.

Basically I am really worried as there don't seem to be any jobs and if I can't get a cheaper house at all will I be kicked out onto the streets? I seem to be being punished for something that I cannot get around or help.’

Many thousands of tenants will confront such an impossible situation over the next few weeks: no longer allowed to remain in a two bed place, no matter how cheap. If they do remain, they face financial penalties, and are already paid at starvation levels. Desperate, they turn to friends or relatives (whose own financial stability is precarious) for help or somewhere to stay. Frantically, they seek work where there is no work to be had. And are then thrown out of their houses.

This reader contacted me, without self-pity. He was truly worried he would be homeless. I suggested investigating whether his council have a scheme (some do) where accredited landlords house tenants claiming benefits, sometimes accepting any deposit in stages. Social tenants did not pay upfront deposits of perhaps six weeks rent, unlike private tenants, which is a nightmare when forcibly relocating.

I asked my correspondent to stay in touch. He did, and has some positive news. He’s still being forced out (it’s not like he’s a hogging a valuable six bed council house) but he’s found a home:

‘I approached a landlord, who is in a partnership with a group of well known solicitors in my area, with my predicament and they said they couldn't promise anything. Saw 2 houses last Friday and one was better than the other so I approached them on Monday with an offer of paying a large deposit (they only wanted £99 with a guarantor) and they could get references from all my previous landlords. they agreed.’

He makes the point that councils might temporarily cover rent on two places if claimants move into a cheaper home.

But it used to be so straightforward: no meaningless and easily sidestepped credit checks, no massive deposits, no guarantors, no vast array of referees. Although far from perfect, renting seemed better then – easier, with rents at one quarter of income, not two-thirds of earnings as is common now.

So this passes for good news these days: an impoverished man was compelled to provide his landlord with a large loan (that’s the reality of any massive deposit) in order to keep himself off the streets. The son he cares for now has no bedroom. His life was disrupted, money wasted on removal fees and other expenses.

Hooray, and pass the bubbly.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Renting Times Are-A Changing (We Hope.)

I am trendy, it seems. I am so this season. It’s not the length of my ‘trouser’ (why is it always singular in style magazines?) No: I write about renting, which is quite the thing. I have never ever been in fashion before, and it feels good.

There is something in the air. Everybody is talking about renting (except the Condems; still rabidly anti-reform and sticking to their corrosive delusion that rents are falling.) Otherwise, charities, politicians and even tenants themselves are offering suggestions, or holding hilarious protests in the streets.

As you will be aware, there is much to discuss: rents are soaring/rocketing/escalating (or ‘responding to market forces’ if you believe the tories.) Letting agents have gone rogue en masse, charging astronomical fees with Orwellian Newspeak names and as for landlords…

Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey wrote an article containing some significant errors: he misunderstand the nature of protected deposits, but bless him, he means well. Why the sudden interest in tenants from Labour? After all, they oversaw the march of the zombie letting agents, and turned away during the buy-to-let boom which forced rents upwards.

Labour have suddenly begun to care about renting, tenants and abusive landlords, despite having put their fingers in their ears ignored the rented sector for years. Rogue landlords were mentioned: a minority, are bad, but the worst thing about renting is the insecurity. The private sector will house growing numbers, alls saving to buy, forced out through bankruptcy or job loss, perhaps just unable to buy full stop (nobody mentions poor pay.)

But could it be that Labour have finally grasped that many of the voters they lost are tenants? It’s like Shadow Minister Hilary Benn has just woken up. Oh, cynical me. Let’s hope some good comes of it, anyway.

Aaaaa-nway, the common enemy of tenants, landlords, and now politicians are parasitical letting agents, who must be aware that their heyday is over. Charges should be paid only by landlords, just as they are in Scotland. Imposing fees on tenants is like charging an entrance fee to a supermarket. The business must pays the costs, the user pays for the expenses incurred in paying for the service in the cost of the goods (ie rent.) All that’s being mentioned is ‘control’ or fairness when fees charged to tenants when quite simply – they shouldn’t pay fees.

Ken Livingstone also wrote on housing, mostly about the badlands of renting in London, and remembered trying to set up an equitable agency at county hall, where landlords could find tenants. Like everybody, he wants more homes built.

The main problem in London is price, as rents conspire to bankrupt everyone. I am in favour of rent controls. I think a ceiling is now required, as levels are currently set by a pulling a figure out of thin air, and doubling it. Tenants need a return to registered fair rents with increases linked to inflation and controlled by rent officers. The market won’t control prices. The market works against fairness.

I’m glad the world is finally listening. I hope things will change, and fast. But… onwards and upwards, the struggle continues: now for social housing.

Monday, 16 July 2012

It's Plain It's A Studio Flat

I’ve recently seen several articles about building new homes fit for our brave future. Apparently we must design compactly. But whether renting or buying, we must take what we are given. Descriptions use a special, secret code, which using complex computer programmes I have broken, and share with you here.

‘Studio Flat.’ Beware: it’s a cupboard. Definitely a cupboard, but somehow the following have been shoehorned in: a bath (with shower over bath) a fully fitted kitchen with all those new hi-tech appliances you’ve dreamed of, a bedroom featuring a luxurious divan, and a lounge with a sofa and other niceties like a coffee and bookshelves. Yes, they really did cram all that in, but by folding and combining: the bath folds out into a double bed, and the kitchen doubles up for a parking space, and also serves as the bedroom/sleeping space (at night).

‘One bedroom.’ Also a cupboard, but slightly larger. The selling point is that separate bedroom, but beware: it’s certainly large enough for a wardrobe, double bed, chest of drawers, bedside table and chair, but only if your name is Barbie, and you love that cute, pink, plastic furniture.

‘Two bedrooms.’ See above, but with two bedrooms. To be fair, one is larger, but the second is a hollow in the wall, with an inflatable mattress. They used to be called box rooms, and were considered big enough for boxes, or unplanned, surplus children. These days, they are ‘compact’ and rented by four Malaysian engineering students, who exist in shifts and exhale on a strict rota.

‘Three bedrooms.’ Here we are introduced to the concept of ‘The Master Bedroom’, which sounds downright kinky to me. Bedrooms are where mortals go to sleep and fart, or submit reluctantly to clumsy, half-hearted sex, but ‘master bedroom’? The very phrase implies some kind of power relationship, where punishment is assigned, and delivered. The ‘master bedroom’ (sorry - still giggling) is supposed to be larger, but is still only big enough for one double bed, and nothing else whatsoever.

‘Needs refurbishment’? It’s a cave in a valley where the glaciers have only recently retreated. There’s no electricity, space, walls, or water (actually, does an open sewer count as running water?)

‘Ideal family home?’ A sturdy compound, with all rooms separated by barbed wire fencing, or a concrete ‘peace’ wall. The basement provides for secure solitary confinement. There is large room used only on those national celebrations when the family are pretending to get on, say at Xmas, but this is fitted with a sprinkler system, to dampen dissent. UN hostage negotiators and the SAS are constantly on call. Well that’s my ideal family home.

‘City Centre pied-a-terre?’ A shoebox under an expressway.

Basement? Hello vitamin D deficiency!

Penthouse flat? A tiny awkward space at the centre of Pirenesian labyrinth of stairs, with a Jenga of beams on which to bump your aching head.

Ideal First Home? It’s free. That’s everybody’s ideal first home.

Now: go forth and house yourself, tenants. Be happy, and go gently to your ‘master bedroom.’ Architects and developers – I’ll leave you to start the improvements, shall I?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Now - Take My Letting Agent

Scotland (where I find myself living for now) has much to offer: stunning scenery, whisky, thriving culture and haggis (seriously – it’s great.) Even better than that, letting-agent charges to tenants have been outlawed since 1984. It’s quite simple: anything other than a deposit or rent in advance (what the relevant act calls ‘a premium’) is verboten. Illegal. Banned.

Except, since the date of the legislation’s enactment, agents have carried on their own sweet way, levying bizarre, random fees with imaginative names. However, if you point out that the charges, no matter what they are called, are illegal, agents sneer, and basically, extort money by insisting that knowledgeable tenants who refuse, are not granted the tenancy.

What to do? Well, here are two stories. My last agent demanded the best name for a charge I’ve ever heard: ‘a continuous affordability assessment fee.’ Not a premium - no siree bob. And they also wanted £30 for a reference for my next home, which, since I had been given notice my former place as the owners were returning from abroad, I thought was slightly…cheeky. I visited the office, and reminded (or informed) them that such fees were illegal. The receptionist denied everything, went to ask for confirmation, and returned smirking: ‘I don’t know who told you that, but that’s what we charge.’ No fee no reference? ‘That’s what we charge.’

Okay - I paid and (vowing restitution) moved out. During the now inevitable deposit tussle, they tried to retain a chunk of my money for damage caused before I had moved in, so I wrote a very stern letter. Demanding a fee without which tenants can’t secure their next home is extortion (a criminal offence) and their representative was either lying or incompetent when insisting on fees. I quoted the legislation, provided links to various legal sites, and gave them seven days to refund my charges, or be taken to court.

They sent me a cheque even faster than I had asked. I thought: myohmy - somebody doesn’t want to get sued. In their craven submission, they changed tack: fees or ‘premiums’ are not as they had previously maintained legal, but ‘a grey area’ (they aren’t) however they would pay up to ‘stay on good terms.’

I would have taken them to the small claims court: it’s easier than most people imagine, something my newest letting agent will soon discover, having just refused to refund charges purported to cover: ‘guided viewing, reference checks, a welcome pack, and notifying utility companies of change of tenant.’ Brilliant. Seriously: very imaginatve.

Utilities? I did that. Welcome pack? A wad of photocopies, but they even messed that up with an inventory I successfully contested (with photo evidence). My favourite is the ‘guided viewing.’ Have you heard of a non-guided viewing? Also, they say this fee would not have restricted my being able to secure the property. So I paid voluntarily? I could have moved in without stumping up? If only they’d said at the time…

I am wondering if the agent is desperately out of her depth, ignorant or just fancies seeing the inside of a court (my next task is completing the forms.) Shelter have been running a campaign to publicise the illegality of these fees. I shall keep you posted.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Design and Decency

I’m trying to be patient. I am trying to remain calm, but I just can’t (I can’t!) I keep screaming at random passers by. Here’s why.

I once watched a documentary on archaeology, which excavated a Georgian house in Manchester. An enlightened landlord had built what was, for the times, an decent, urban ‘worker’s cottage.’ Sadly his benevolent intentions were subverted by the greed of subsequent landlords, who squeezed generations into every room of what was intended to house one family.

We live in more enlightened times. We care a lot. Nowadays overcrowding, lack of privacy and dwindling personal space is absolutely never tolerated. Is it? It’s just that, this latest housing benefit proposal, which seems to expect claimants under the age of twenty-five to move back in with their parents is cruel, flawed and unworkable.

First all, we have to accept that adulthood begins for real at eighteen: you can drink, vote, and marry without consent (all the biggies.) So why have the Condems chanced upon twenty-five as a good age to force adult claimants to move back in with their parents? They might have left to study and been working for several years. Except…

Except the spare-room tax on council houses obliges their empty-nest parents to relocate. Or mum and dad might have died, gone into a care home (with the age of parenthood increasing, this is situation will increase) or just not want their prodigal child moping around.

British houses are tiny. Many teenagers share bedrooms that are smaller than that permitted for prison cells, and yet this hulking great twenty-four year old must return, pay to move, carrying the possession they’ve amassed in perhaps nine years of independence and cram everything into their tiny bedroom. Unless a half-sibling lives there now.

The mass building of dovecots led to cities packed not with spacious family homes, but one and two bed flats. So where are the homes suitable for families of three generations, maybe more? Those returnees might well have kids. They might be married. They might be ill, and their parents might not be able or willing to act as carers.

It used to be that overcrowding was universally accepted as a terrible thing, because it’s humiliating, and shatters dignity and privacy. Overcrowding thwarts ambition: where are students supposed to study in peace when they have Gove-only-knows how many family members stacked up in the lounge?

Leaving home is a valuable rite of passage as well as, simply, a necessity. And guess what, historically, it always was: young people left home just as they do now to work, then on farms or in service. If things went wrong they ended up not with their welcoming families, but in workhouses, begging or as one of the multitude of urban prostitutes.

If tenants are penalised financially for remaining in council houses deemed too big, then how are their children supposed to move back in? Unless that is, those free-market Georgian and Victorian slumlords are seen as trail blazing social-policy gurus. One family in every room, workhouses, begging: that can’t happen here. Can it?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Letting Agents Again. And Sadly - Again.

As I’ve ranted and raged previously here and elsewhere, landlords, at the behest of their representative toadies on earth – letting agents, successfully demand, inter alia: references, guarantors, years of certificated accounts from freelancers, and five years of previous addresses. And what reassurance do tenants successfully request of their all-powerful overlords? None.

This must end. We need to see landlords jumping through as many flaming hoops as those demanded of renters. Evidence of permission to let from mortgage companies, proof of timely mortgage payments being made, registration and training are all increasingly necessary.

The good news is that Wales will introduce landlord licensing (you can hear the squealing from afar) with Scotland set to follow suit. Landlords need to be regulated so that tenants can have some recourse (even against the evil clowns who would undeniably do their best to avoid being licensed.)

Tenants still complain to me about receiving no guarantee of their landlord’s integrity. Meanwhile, renters submit to numerous checks, including those new-fangled ‘affordability’ tests, which make me extremely angry, as computer protocols ignore the fact that most people go without basics to pay up where are rents rocketing (low wages inflame this problem.) Meanwhile letting agents in high demand areas encourage deluded owners to hike prices until they soar ever skywards.

This reprised diatribe was prompted by the emergence of those promising new rental websites, which allow landlords and tenants to do a deal without letting agents souring relations. Letting agents are increasingly irrelevant; indeed, they are endangered. The oncoming mass extinction event of these predators will finish off stupid fees (already illegal in Scotland) and branded smart cars. No more agents speaking in place of landlords who might have been more reasonable in person.

There’s one problem with all these sites: the references and checks are all aimed at mollifying landlords. Less consideration is given to tenants, currently not empowered to demand evidence of their landlord’s credit history, employment status, whether they actually own or are entitled to rent out the property, any history of threatening and/or abusing tenants, and if they have any CCJ’s – even those with no bearing on their ability to pay the mortgage.

Change is coming. Many letting agents will go bust, but since they’ve bought it on themselves, it’s so very hard to care. Agents have no interest in encouraging long-term occupancy, as most charge fees to both landlord and tenant with every new occupation. But soon, soon, across the land, offices will close, with agents brought down by unrestrained greed, arrogance and incompetence. Why else would they charge from a menu: for references, ‘admin’, and hundreds for credit checks costing a fiver (and which are pointless anyway.)

No: the new sites are not yet perfect, currently intended to placate and attract fretful landlords instead of reassuring and protecting vulnerable tenants. Only when landlords face the same background checks and sanctions as tenants will things be equal, and those days are upon us. Remember bookshops? Remember travel agents? Insurance brokers? Letting agents will be the latest high street casualties, their once flash offices boarded-up, deserted and forlorn. Bring it on!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Flatmate Woes - People Getting Scary

As you might know, I can see the phrases keyed into search engines to find me (and also your location). Recently, I’ve spotted a new trend, in that many of you seem troubled by your co-tenants. I don’t mean you’re all stoking petty little tiffs about the bathroom rota: I mean horrible, destructive rows, sometimes involving threats of, or actual, violence. This new tone is distressingly plaintive and disturbing, with some of you finding me by googling phrases like: ‘I’m scared of my flatmates.’

Observant readers will notice (and sarcastic readers will gripe) but I’ve mentioned this previously: I write again because numbers are increasing, and it’s getting serious. Previously I’ve suggested that some sort of mediation service is needed, like marriage guidance for house-shares.

Anyone under the age of thirty-five and claiming housing benefit must now live in shared accommodation. And remember: when I say claimant, I mean potentially, you (yes – you) as genuine job security is scarce, employees face short-term contracts, very low wages (most housing benefit claimants work) and serial temping is rife, so get used to the idea that at some point that you might be swallowing your pride and signing on.

Furthermore, in some cities tenants must now share for much longer than ever before, due to soaring rents, the low availability of new mortgages, and a lack of suitable housing. Meanwhile landlords are unwilling to let properties long term, which makes tenants nervous. Communal households, who hold regular meetings where grievances are raised and solved together, might be one way forward. This happens on the continent, and might just work (and assist whoever googled: ‘bastard flatmates.’)

Current key-words indicate something truly disturbing: some co-tenants find themselves helplessly trapped in a house with a bully they cannot avoid, terrified and hiding in their rooms. Now if you find yourself unemployed and coping in your own home with someone intent on upsetting, hurting or otherwise intimidating you, where do you turn?

Moving out is the obvious solution, but it’s difficult without money for van-hire, another deposit and rent in advance, so what’s the alternative? If you are actually being hurt physically, then the police are best placed to assist, which might sound extreme. I can’t imagine that landlords are willing or competent to intervene, and who else can help? Council tenancy relations officers are very helpful but I doubt there is much they can do.

It’s a tragic parallel, but these stories are similar to domestic violence, accompanied by homophobic abuse (one charmer keyed in ‘Hit my gay flatmate’) sexual intimidation, and psychological bullying, aimed precisely at those already ground down and impoverished by unemployment and low pay.

The most upsetting phrase I’ve seen was ‘My flatmate punched me.’ I’ve no idea of the context or history to this, but imagine how terrible that must be: dreading the hour of their tormentor’s return with no way out. I think there must be some logical, official way of resolving this and helping victims. All I can do is raise the issue. Any suggestions?