Monday, 27 February 2012

Cashing In On Places To Crash

Finding somewhere to stay for a while used to be so random. When looking for a place, we would casually ask acquaintances via that old renting telegraph called word of mouth, and people with a spare room might let you stay for a while, payment being arranged (if at all) by negotiation. Guests would stay and then move on - no big deal. Now it’s a full on proper business.

I suppose this could improve safeguards by regulating a situation with huge potential for being tricky for both parties; tenants could be vile as might temporary landlords. The bad side is people ripping other people off. A friend was recently charged by a former landlady the exorbitant cost of £100 per week for crashing in a cramped room, crushed between stacked boxes and piles of other personal effects.

The perils are obvious: to begin with, these rooms are often found via Gumtree, which in my experience is an internet holding pen/meeting zone for all the oddballs in the world, and so caution is advisable.

I have heard of one woman attempting to rent out her own bedroom to begin sleeping in the lounge because she needed to make some extra money, which would be extremely awkward. Others are just trying to make money and do not wish for long term tenants, others are testing the water to see how they get on with potential long term renters.

There are now many websites which organise this for both parties, and might allow for some security at least (you can rate hosts and guests online.) However: I’ve noticed flats in desirable parts of popular cities which are kitted out with bunk beds, so this is hardly casual renting made safe, but a commercial venture (or a stealth hostel). That’s an extreme of course, but it won’t be long until there’s a fire escape issue, or some other safety peril.

I have stayed in temporary places which have ranged from extremes of diligent kindness, to narrowly avoided weirdness: one did the usual trick of offering a room over xmas as long as I was absent for the entire festive season (yeah…) and another when giving details of excellent local amenities mentioned a 24 hour garage. Wow! I can buy mini-barbecues and compost whenever I want!

Because of the recession, what used to be so easygoing is now following a strict ruthless business model, with websites and appraisals. And here’s something surprising perhaps: the people who are in danger, according to some sources are the ‘landlords,’ fondly imagining they can be rid of tenants whenever they want. Problem seems to be that even temporary tenants enjoy more rights than anyone knew, meaning owners could find themselves facing costly court eviction proceedings unless they use a proper legal renting agreements (the rules seem to be different in Scotland the rest of the UK.)

Life was easy and innocent. That’s the point I suppose: this is all so new, really, but property prices and rent increases have turned into a business something that used to be informal, with some very negative possibilities waiting round the corner.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

It's Getting Damp In Here

It’s like having your very own private Eden Centre in the lounge. New forms of lush flora bloom on walls, while nearby a pretty waterfall cascades softly into a babbling stream.

Many rented places inflict one horrendous problem on unhappy occupants: damp. This ranges from rivulets flowing down walls and mould growing on everything, to a little condensation and a few discreet dark patches in the shower.

Damp has an impact on owner occupiers too - this isn’t just a problem for renters. But tenants cannot make the repairs necessary to alleviate the situation, and landlords seem to forget they own the place, even if they lived in it previously or intend to do so again. In many cases, they’ve even painted over the worst so that prospective tenants have no idea about the horrors incubating beneath five layers of emulsion.

Try contacting the letting agent and they will generally redirect the problem hurtling it right back to blaming the tenant, and often don’t even raise this with the owner. Landlords claim that drying laundry on radiators causes damp. Well, it’s hard to know where else laundry will dry without garden access and no utility room, especially with energy being so expensive, even if the landlord provides a washer-dryer.

And yes, condensation alone does count as damp (I have this on good authority from bigwigs in the world of Environmental Health.) You can’t expect tenants to install vents, because they might face being penalised with deposit deductions for making such a substantial change to the property.

Landlords generally require tenants to leave windows open (one word: burglary) and blame failure to do this in winter for the mushrooms, the stench of decay and rotting textiles rather than not properly converting the place.

In hermetically sealed newbuilds with double glazing but no garden and no drying area, what are tenants supposed to do when the weather is so bad it rains for forty days and nights? It goes back to reasonable behaviour and good design (there should always be a place to hang clothes indoors) and hanging your jeans on the radiator should not cause an entire new eco-system to grow on the walls.

It’s one argument every renter dreads, causing a ping pong of blame played out with emails, letters and recriminations, with the owner finding reasons to load it all on the tenant and avoid paying, while tenants (unless they have installed an open steam room in the lounge) are unable to do much about condensation, and are left thinking: if I owned this building, I would pay for the repairs that will make this house last longer (damp destroys the very fabric.)

Apart from the fact that it’s miserable and disgusting to find clothes and belongings covered in revolting fungus, the health consequences are well-documented. And yet landlords skimp on extractors, providing cheap crappy examples, repeatedly blaming tenants by using logical somersaults that defy belief.

It’s simple: really really simple. Landlords hear me now: damp is not the tenants fault. It just isn’t.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Secure and Insecurity

‘You know what I hate the most? That arrogance that comes with knowing that, he can click his fingers, and I'm homeless.’

The above words come from a reader and occasional correspondent, and concern a subtle form of misery I am hearing so much about at the moment: that of being a lodger, something I’ve written about before but which is growing.

I am seeing that many people find me here by asking for advice on how best to rent out a room, not just those suffering under the lodging jackboot. It must be the recession, but many people are seeing that guest room as an asset rather than somewhere for friends to crash or to store random stuff.

The rules governing treatment of lodgers are very different to tenants. Most people who live in a two bed home (like those ever-loving Dovecots I write about) don’t regard the people paying them shed loads of money for their spare room as tenants. No. they are lodgers, and in England and Wales, they seem to have no rights. Letting a room is encouraged by government policy, and there are tax breaks. What is never mentioned is that you have no right to stay, and live on a licence.

Examples of recurring pernicious misery are hard to overstate, and increasing. It’s bad enough needing only two months to evict a tenant on a whim, but imagine what it’s like to live even on a weekly basis never knowing if your tenancy will be renewed, or if you will be given your marching orders.

Renting a spare room is ‘encouraged by the state’ but lodgers are expressly forbidden in housing association/council houses, which makes lodgers even more insecure in case they get found out.

It seems that there are ‘lodger’ spare room crimes. Being unemployed is one – so don’t lose your job. There are harsh penalties for staying in residence over xmas holidays (one tenant was asked to clear out as the owners family were coming for xmas dinner: they were overseas students). disobeying loftily issued decrees about time limitations on kitchen and bathroom use, and forget having overnight guests: there are also restrictions on which chair lodgers may use. One landlord, in those newbuilds where one bedroom is en suite claimed the room with a bath, but used the tenant's bathroom with extremely unpleasant olfactory consequences.

Another lodger crime inviting eviction is just not being perfect, with perfection being a state that can change capriciously on a daily basis. And yes, the nature of a someone living in your spare room is hard whether you are friends with the owner or not, especially in a growing sense of resentment develops, aimed at the poor tenant who is paying rent while simultaneously reminding the owner they can’t quite manage to hang on to their castle without help, and it can be ugly.

The poor lodger who emailed me seemed really distressed. I hope her landlord changes his mind about clicking his fingers and throwing her out.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

That Unlucky Beige Carpet

It’s one of my favourite ever Vic and Bob Sketches: Bob needs a lucky charm. Vic boasts about his ‘lucky’ ten foot long roll of beige carpet and honours it with an hilarious song (which is also oddly inspiring.)

I have written before about the curse of the rampaging non-colours used when decoration is imposed in rented housing. The only creativity being shown is in the rainbow of new names invented: oatmeal, greige, beige, toast, ivory, magnolia, cream, apple white, rose white etc etc.

The mantra when letting (or especially selling) a property, so as not to frighten potential takers is ‘neutral tones,’ condemning renters to a bleak empty world of non-colour, where bright hues are banned and vibrancy disdained and forbidden. You’d never imagine that something so simple as a bland floor-covering could cause so much misery.

But it does. The reason for its omnipresence is thrift (aka miserliness): such carpet can be bought in bulk and is easy to replace while still charging tenants for the privilege.

Cream/beige (even white, for crying out loud) carpet has a magnetic effect on espresso and red wine. Landlords: I ask you, would you put pale carpet in your kitchen? Would you put carpet in your kitchen at all? It’s another common landlord habit: putting carpet in the kitchen, as moppable lino/tiles are more expensive, lumbering tenants with a problem: they are fined from the deposit for dirty conditions, and if you cook, then you spill - on to a beige carpet, which will never clean, since it is the cheapest carpet ever, and is put there solely to beckon grease and blueberries (they stain when crushed into the floor) and anything that drops and leaves a mark, with the renter kissing that intact deposit goodbye.

Now I’ll make the case for tenants to argue reasonable wear and tear here, when laminate resonates and amplifies every step, whisper and sniff. But in a kitchen? In a bathroom? In the hall on the way through from the muddy untended garden?

There are so many better ways of covering a floor, something which matters in these days of contested safe-guarded deposits and long-term renting: it’s not homely. It’s not how people live. It makes life nerve-wracking: factor in a house with kids, or a muddy garden, and you have disaster of permanent footprints and a row with the owner about why, why, why on earth for god’s sake why they put uncleanable, easily stained cream to beige carpet in the house at all, let alone (good grief) in the kitchen? As you step over traces of dinners long past: borscht, tomato sauce, red currents every mark, every stain is money lost.

Tenants often pay up to keep a good reference and landlords deploy another swathe of that vast roll of carpet stored in the property (this is a true story: tenant fined in the knowledge owner had bought and stored bulk carpet in the tenants loft.)

So: don’t put that cheap, unlucky beige carpet in the kitchen. Don’t put it anywhere at all. Then tenants won’t need to carry around a roll of ‘lucky’ beige carpet.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Landlord Boot Camp?

Some people would turn landlords into squaddies, and have freshly shorn newbie landlords forced marched over rough, snowy terrain then vigorously barked at by sour Sgt Majors, and afterwards made to pass exams that last six hours (no break) to test whether or not they’ve learned the correct notice period for an Assured Short Term Tenancy (Accursed Short-Term Travesty).

They would then be marched repeatedly at gurkha speed shouting the requirements of good practice in rhyme like trainee US marines ‘I don’t know but I’ve been told/Two months due if flat being sold! (to a close relative…’)

Or, I’d like people working in the profession of being a landlord to go through regulated, tested, compulsory training (albeit with some shouting. If they are naughty.)

Here’s the problem: landlords have an enormous impact on the daily lives of vulnerable human beings. Buying a place and renting it out endows each and every landlord with enough power to undermine daily security, living standards and happiness. Newbies commonly know nothing, imagining that it’s like a fabulous new hobby/money-making sure-thing, not a business with implications and inherent risks; one requiring some knowledge of law (or a willingness to follow legal advice).

Anyone with enough money can become a landlord. Architects aside, much of the property industry is ruled by unregulated amateurs, with no real possibility of this changing (at least not in the current reality in which we are living.) The Private Rental Sector is gathering up most available properties and clutching them to its bosom, so small-time landlords are increasingly common.

Landlords should be trained at proper courses, maybe at night school (can’t find the time/cost? Well then you don’t get a licence and will be barred from landlording.) They will learn about needing the mortgage lender’s permission before letting a property, and will appreciate the benefits of reasonable, lawful and tolerant behaviour, such as doing timely repairs, or not waltzing breezily through the front door whenever they have the urge to say hello to/harass their tenant, or indeed at all.

They would appreciate the need for insurance, in case things go wrong/payments go awol. This would help them out, and might make the process less stressful. They would also save money on letting agents, encouraging longer tenancies thereby causing less of the dreaded voids (where you can hear tumbleweed rolling softly across the newbuild parks.) They would also learn that things can and do go awry.

They would learn which type of property is best suited to which type of tenant (better when buying and means they won’t expect families to cram into newbuild flats) and when to trust their instincts. They should also be taught about how to make a realistic profit, that is - not by cranking up weekly rents.

I would teach them how to be reasonable, how to behave, how to save themselves from loss. They would be less likely to be standing outside a court scratching their heads wondering aloud: ‘…what just happened?’ Everybody wins. Quick march…