Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Single Room Is Singularly Terrible

When flat hunting, have you ever seen the phrase: single room? In the past, if I have called, the other residents will discuss this boudoirs many excellent amenities, recommending all the lovely features of the house: the dependability and sociable nature of fellow tenants, the lovely kitchen, the heating. It’s great! Except for the size of the bedspace.

If you ask ‘…could I fit a double bed in there?’ the answer is, invariably: no. I am always curious, but the rent for these rooms is rarely, if ever cheaper than the rest.

Double beds are nicer: more spacious and comfortable. Unless the potential tenants is leading a secular monastic life, I doubt a tiny bed, so small you have to sleep on your side, will appeal.

These rooms used to be called box rooms. It was recognised that occupants needed somewhere to safely store – well, boxes, and cases, and these days, the cartons for expensive laptops that go wrong within two months of purchase. They were never intended to be slept in. Some flats I’ve seen ever allowed for tenants of the smallest room in the place to have to ‘box-room’ for use as an office/studio, which made them cramped but useful.

But now, greed means that tenants will be expected to pay the same as everyone else to live in miniature: nowhere to put a desk, nowhere to eat (remember, these days, there might not even be a dining room.) Nowhere to spread work, belongings out on the floor when packing, working, or just because.

I know that we are the generation that not only rents but has supposedly whittled all possession down to one capsule wardrobe and a multi-purpose communicating device/compass/music provider/diary. But we need room to breath – room to live.

And also to shag. People who rent a house are adults. I know I keep returning to this one point, but there’s more to life than storage, you know (mmm…cupboards) and that lonely little bed in the corner is another example of tenants being infantilised and then marginalised and subsequently penalised (along with guarantors, and charges for everything.)

The PRS is out of control, and letting out rooms the size of an actual prison cell is a part of the problem. In London especially, the market driven renting crisis is looming: soon tenants will be crammed into and paying a fortune to exist in what was once a cupboard (no? well it’s happened with garages and sheds.)

There are no rules for the minimum permissible size for a bedroom, and keeping in mind that in most modern urban househares, these spaces are used for eating, sleeping and sometimes working, they need to be of a certain size.

The current Condem no regulation mantra prevents any intervention, and the PRS is out of control. They do things like letting out shelves to live on because they can, occasionally because that’s what is being built and because they can get away with it. Somebody stop them.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Finland Has An Excellent Idea.

Finland’s great idea is a way of renting called ‘Right of Ownership’ and it works like this (seriously – it’s great – prop your eyes open and keep reading…) (Honest – it’s as good as Santa and saunas, and the collected works of director Aki Kaurismaki - even Leningrad Cowboys Go America!)

‘Right-of-ownership housing is an alternative to renting or buying your own home. By paying a right-of-ownership fee – about 15% of the total price of the apartment – and a monthly charge (rent), you get the same rights to your home as if you owned it.

You cannot buy a right-to-ownership apartment outright. However, you can sell your right-of-ownership or change it for another apartment.’

What a brilliant idea: the best parts of owning (the certainty, the security) coupled with the freedom of renting. How many of us wouldn’t pay a hefty lump sum for security? The worst thing about renting is that your home is never your home, and many people endure landlords (usually those who used to live in the property themselves) waltzing through the door without knocking. Farewell to all that!

Renting is now seen by landlords as a much begrudged, fleeting right to infest their home at great inconvenience, a barely tolerated incursion. Renting has always been a right to occupy, but the right to a form of ownership is even better. I am presuming this system permits subletting and renovating by subscribers.

So let tenants pay to ‘live’ in the flats they rent (that’s live, not exist, infest, or blight.) It would spell out to owners that the tenant has the biggest possible package of rights, and that they in turn have renounced many of their privileges accompanying their de facto feifdom. Presumably this puts an end to tenants being given notice on a whim – such as because the owner has taken randomly to disliking you, or because they feel like it. Renters have a greater bundle of rights, and what’s more you’ve paid for them, and can stay long term. Hooray!

I’m quite curious about what happens if tenants cause vandalism or don’t pay rent, and about implications in an era of increasing unemployment. With growing casualisation of work, how would it affect benefit claims, since there is no job security anymore: renters are often in lower income groups (and they’d buy if they could.)

The scheme depends on the house price, so that lump sum could be expensive ie in the entire South East of the UK. That in turn might produce varying tiers of renters: some able to afford and enjoy those coveted extra rights. People unable to pay would be cursed with a lesser bundle of rights, stuck, unable to stay, compelled to move on a whim. A bit like now really.

I am certain there must be problems. I am sure there are drawbacks, but I am also convinced that many pay would pay for clarity and certainty, and money talks. Either that or we could start a root and branch reform/reinforcement of renting rights. Either really.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Clean As A Picture

I like it when readers send me emails like this: I am keen to know what is happening outside of my own world, and to sometimes to write about your concerns. This story told by this particular correspondent was, well…special.

“Long time fan, first time emailer.

We've been renting the same flat for 8 years. It's not the best flat ever but it has it plus points. Our land lady is largely uninterested in the property, we've never met her, so it's low hassle but no maintenance or improvement work either.

The letting agency still carry out periodic property inspections. During the most recent inspection the following exchange occurred:

I showed the agent into the bathroom. She looked around and frowned at our grouting which isn't great but looks OK for it's age.

Her "You scrub the grout on the tiles?"
Us "Um.. yeah. Specifically, if you scrub the grout too much then it starts to fall out."
Her "We have something for this that we give people, and I may have already given you one.."

She began to plough through her briefcase until she found a piece of paper. She handed this paper to us and said "this works really well."

It was an inkjet printout of a photo of a bottle of bathroom cleaner.

Us "Yeah, I think we already have something like this."

We are now left with two choices:

a. Use the printout itself out to scrub at the grouting and then phone up confused when the paper disintegrates and achieves nothing
b Frame the print out and hang it above the bath to see letting agents reaction during the next inspection

I would appreciate your input on this.”

I did smile at the idea of this poor tenant diligently and repeatedly cleaning that grouting with a printed sheet. But scrubbing the grouting until it crumbles: it’s not really funny, is it?

Here’s what causes the problem. Letting agents do not see themselves as managing the property for both tenants (who pay the rent to live there) or the landlord (who pays the agent to manage.) No. Many agents see their role as covering their own tracks, and doing nothing, never organising costly (as they would see it) repairs which maintain and preserve the fabric of the property.

Bad agents avoid spending money. They do not want to work. They garner the percentage from the landlord, and often forward emails direct to landlords, who manage the contractor themselves.

My personal favourite story is a flat I once lived in, which was supposedly furnished. In the bathroom there was no heater at all, no shelves, no hooks – nothing. The owner had painted over the vast patches of damp, which soon burst forth like evil blooms.

I mentioned this to the letting agents (who were, like the above, most keen on inspections.) I said that that bath was leaking, that there was nowhere to put anything. Their response? ‘You could buy something.’ I could. But that’s the point of furnished flat: you don’t buy stuff. Is it too much to ask for a few shelves and a hook, maybe even a cabinet?

All of this might sound trivial. Get a thingammmyjig from Argos, says you. But remember: tenants are penalised for drilling into a wall to put up shelves, have their deposits culled for the costs of regrouting, and be given retaliatory notice of they press too hard even for repairs that will stop the bathroom collapsing down into the flat below, when wooden floors rot.

Agents: do something! My advice to the tenant above though is to frame two Warholised print-outs of the cleaning product, keep one in the bathroom, and send the other to that witless, crassly deluded letting agent.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Meeting A Reasonable Letting Agent (I Know!!!)

The other day, something so amazing happened, my flabber was totally gasted. I had a long conversation with a nice, personable, reasonable letting agent (no this doesn’t end with: ‘…and then I woke up.’) We began to discuss how landlords and tenants should be friends, and how it is that letting agents can get in the way of that friendship.

We agreed that the worst problems are often caused by new landlords with unrealistic expectations of tenants, and also how much money they will make by renting out a flat. How they can snipe, be nervous and find it hard to accept that what was perhaps their own home is no longer theirs.

She stuck to a newly established party line: that tenants should scrub the carpets (hiring professionals – not with a Vax!) and that they shouldn’t really decorate, but should put the place back to exactly how it was, not a trace remaining of their habitation.

Except for reasonable wear and tear: where she said that on training courses, she would insist that landlords must accept a few marks, and stresses to her trainees that they must not consider the check out as an opportunity to make money. Now that was a breakthrough moment.

She said that fear makes many landlords behave unreasonably, but stuck to the mantra that tenants can be a nightmare: this we know, but give people a chance before you start treating them as criminals. Happy tenants stay longer. And then I mentioned retaliatory evictions: yes she said - many landlords just don’t understand that they must do repairs as soon as reasonably possible, and they will lose out if they chuck out tenants on a whim for a tiny misdemeanour.

We didn’t agree on everything - rent capping for example, but then, they would say that wouldn’t they. I am again reminded that the entire system is adversarial. Tenants are customers, and landlords are providers. Many act as is they old style medieval lords, and start by eyeing all renters with malice and suspicion. Tenants, especially young tenants might even view their landlords as ‘parents’ and dutifully obey all orders (I’ve seen this myself) and believe everything they are told. They don’t want to make a fuss even when deposits are not saved properly, or repairs not done.

Unfortunately, many agents I’ve encountered have been hostile, rude, ill-informed, spending many hours inventing new ways to charge tenants for what should either be free or paid for by the landlords. Many agents don’t understand the law about renting, and since they are unregulated and untrained, go unpunished when they mess up.

But still, having spoken with a nice letting agent, who was practical when wear and tear is perhaps the most contentious of all issues between both parties, I realised she was realistic and even reasonable, I think; they’re not all bad, and some of them are even helpful. Why can’t it always be this way?