Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Context of Our Woes

What’s that high pitched whining noise? Why, it’s tenants, struck by the reality of renting. Renting is horrible, this we know, but it’s not horrible in a vacuum – it’s yet another example of life worsening for the precariat – the buzzword which describes people who’s work and employment is precarious. What sounds like a sustained mass onslaught of monstrous, unfocussed griping must be placed in context.

First off the noble Condem overlord’s Benefit Uprating Bill limits housing benefit rises to 1% per year, even when, in certain places, rents rise at 16% per year. The bedroom tax, and other benefit reforms will also help expand benefit saturation where jobs are scarce but homes cheaper and more readily available.

Remember – many, or most, claimants are in work. Employed but low paid tenants now seem less than ideal to all powerful owners who give an imperial thumbs up - or down - to potential tenants. Low wages thwart us. Many renters battle with two or more part-time jobs. Renters dream of earning enough to buy, or just to rent a more spacious home. That nightmare of unattainability is fuelled by cut price Dairylea, not artisan cheddar, and they end up as couples in home shared with other couples.

Rents are sometimes so high that tenants can’t afford to feed themselves properly or heat their homes, let alone put aside something each month for a deposit to buy somewhere. They rely on the legendary ‘bank of mum and dad’ which assumes we have a Mum and Dad, that they have a ‘bank,’ and are not worried about their own coming under-funded retirement.

Meanwhile, owners no longer retain property for decades, profiting instead on slowly accumulated equity, insisting on a ‘return’ each week in places where demand is high.

Renting is inevitable – rarely is it a choice. Suitable, affordable homes are rare, and by suitable, I mean fit for modern life – room to study, for blended families to invite children to stay, or care for elderly relatives. Victorian villas and even terraces have been sliced in two, and then again, while developers build ‘dovecots’ not family houses or the one-beds with room to live as we need.

Employment is insecure, with vulnerable, desperate workers compelled to accept low paid work, either freelance and those damned, soon-to-banned, zero-hour contracts, or else they weave a complex, mine-strewn path in and out of employment back onto social security. Firms go bankrupt or relocate abroad, and workers are employed by companies who pay them as little as possible and therefore profit from social-security themselves.

There are added complications, like rent-to-let, sealed bids for houses, short tenancies, no rent controls etc. Everyone agrees that letting agents fees are horrendous, but nothing is done, and there’s no appetite for ending retaliatory eviction, or notice issued on a whim.

That unbearable whining is turning into hopeless screeching. It isn’t about unachievable dreams. This is about somewhere safe and secure to live – somewhere we can cover rent without worrying daily in case we are turfed out of job or home. Context, context, context explains that deafening noise you can hear.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Return of Buy To Let

I’m barely numerate. I am starting to believe that economics isn’t really a science, but voodoo. Despite – or because - of this mindset of mine, I soon realised that the last housing bubble would end disastrously.

No matter where I looked, all I could see were masses of the newbuild developments I called dovecots. I realised the madness of over-supply was linked to the easy loans doled out to those desperate for pensions or the investments apparently required to pay for their children’s future home and education. I take not joy in being right, but yes, it ended badly, I think you’ll agree.

Have we forgotten the bad old days of queues outside building societies, of people stockpiling debt, even borrowing from their own impoverished families, before being doomed to bankruptcy and ruin. I went through this myself, with a rentier who had obtained 14 buy-to-let mortgages, and who ultimately lost it all.

Do we want the madness to return? For tenants to face eviction because their buy-to-let landlord is insolvent,?

But like a zombie lurching towards another victim, demanding fresh brains for tea, that hideous ‘buy-to-let’ is back. This is terrible, terrible news. No – seriously. It’s really bad. ‘Why’s that?’ you ask. Surely it’s nice, people, buying houses for poor, homeless, desperate people to live. Owners will nurture tenants. They will house them in luxury, they will be sympathetic, responsive, helpful, and responsible.

You see, that’s the problem. Sometimes it’s like that – just a simple transaction, where people pay rent, and rentiers keep the profit but fix and maintain the place. Idealistically, I’d say it’s usually like that. But sometimes… it isn’t.

Few rentiers are trained, so they are often unaware of the laws regulating their behaviour. They plead innocent when told they must organise annual gas safety checks. They are even quite put out that they must observe legal methods of giving notice. The learned Ben Reeves-Lewis frequently encounters owners who are astonished when informed that they can’t do exactly what they like. They say ‘you’ll be laughed out of court,’ when faced with fines for what is, in effect, eviction by harassment.

In London, with the assistance of the universally derided Tory ‘Help To Buy’ scheme, the market for homes is febrile once more and already lurching towards the precipice. Elsewhere, in the North, Scotland etc, once more, guileless investors will snap up newbuilds, which will of course plummet in value, with sad, life-destroying inevitability. People will borrow from friends and families, ruining everybody’s credit, prospects and their lives.

There aren’t enough homes in the private sector, but what we do not need is another episode of rickety, tiny, dovecots – euroboxes or yuppiedromes, snapped up and rented out by resentful but desperate amateur rentiers. We need family homes, well built places for single people to live in, space for multi-generational and blended families to spread out and live in harmony, with space for cupboards and facilities to dry laundry.

So don’t, please don’t re-inflate that poisonous bubble. It will splatter misery everywhere.





Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Advice For Students.

It’s that time of year when all over the land parents are weeping and clinging to their offspring’s ankles in a vain attempt to delay their departure. Either that, they’re ready to open the bubbly and put out the bunting. Yes, it will soon be time for beloved children to depart the home for several years of study. And also, drinking.

For many it’s their first time of actual independence. Some head straight for halls of residence. Others venture where the wild things are – that is, the private rented sector. Here are some tips. I hope they help.

1. If in Scotland, all – that is every single agency fee, encoded as premiums, is illegal. Don’t pay them – or if you do, it’s easy to reclaim them

2. In joint tenancies, open a shared account for bills, and rent. Or at least pay one bill each to share the load. You’re all friends now, but if someone doesn’t pay up, you’ll lose out.

3. Full time students are not liable for council tax, but non-students will have to cover the bill for the whole house. Complicated for ‘mixed’ households.

4. Life in a rat infested, mould encrusted hovel run by a demonic landlord is not fun, or an adventure, no matter how temporary. You deserve better. Complain to the council, or seek help from advice agencies.

5. Don’t annoy the neighbours, especially if they have kids or are elderly. Befriend them.

6. Watch out for ‘furnished’ flats. Check they have desks, and enough cupboards and fridge space for all occupants.

7. If you return home over the xmas holidays and leave the house empty, leave the heating on low, and check for other measures – like finding where the stopcock is. You don’t want to come back faced with a deluge in your lounge.

8. Put the bins out.

9. When negotiating your rental contract, check that coincides with how long you want to stay. Obvious, but no point signing up for a year if you want to leave in June, at the end of term.

10. Rules are tedious, and an imposition, but at least discuss what you all expect, as things like not washing up can lead to actual bloodshed. Sort out common flashpoints – like bathroom rotas and noise level, before violence breaks out, or the sulking/door-slamming starts.

11. Don’t leave your washing to fester in the washing machine – take it out when the cycle is done. Everybody needs to wash their clothes.

12. Don’t make loads of noise when you come back late, either on the street, or in the house. Yep – could well be your one-off late party, but for everyone else, it’s work tomorrow.

13. Don’t surreptitiously move your new partner without permission. Everybody hates that.

14. Try and meet your new landlord in person. Letting agents do their level best to obstruct this, but it’s best in case of midnight power failures, total meltdown etc.

15. Keep an eye out for each other. Make sure everyone comes home safe, and isn’t ill, or depressed. You’re sort of family now, so look after each other.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


When owners sell a property, they must truthfully answer enquiries about the people who live close by or next door, questions like do you have any disputes with them, has anyone threatened to kill anyone else, etc. So all those years of spite over the fence about leylandii, or parties, car parking spaces, nosiness, noisiness, or just irrational mutual hatred which worsens daily until loud shouting matches are a daily ritual, has consequences. These incidents must be shared with incoming occupants, if they have the sense to ask.

Renters, however, never have good neighbours on their list of priorities. Perhaps because renters can move, it doesn’t seem so important.

Tenants also face a double dose of problems – for example, my own close neighbour doesn’t seem to like Landgirl very much, for reasons best known to herself. There is some sort of simmering antipathy or row about which I know nothing. We met on the doorstep recently, and it was unsettling to listen in as my neighbour badmouthed my excellent rentier who can’t do enough to make life easy, and is professional, even – blimey – kind.

But this is not my fight. I’m not say anything, for fear of offending Mrs. Neighbour and starting a dispute with no hope of ‘plausible deniability.’ I avoid the sort of ruckus, which if it escalates – NB it won’t – enters whole new world of weird. I wonder how many tenants are aware of this, and when neighbours initiate and escalate mindless vendettas, join in enthusiastically, until there’s an actual blood feud. I not joking about the last part, because some disputes end in violence.

Tenants are often alienated from their local community, because they are seen, and indeed see themselves, as transient occupants whose stay is temporary, or else as that coupled with nuisance. People who are allowed longer tenancies contribute more to the community – they take part in neighbourhood watch, chat in a friendly manner etc – maybe even swap cards at xmas.

Many tenants with an Accursed Short Term Travesty never speak to the people who live next door, because they move know they’ll be on the move soon, maybe in six months time. The worst examples enjoy loud parties. There is the issue of students, who move into shared houses where neighbours might be elderly, and for whom even a one-off weekend party is intrusive.

Round my way, the people who live below have moved out. It’s pity. They were lovely, with kids. The new bloke is nice enough, but there is one major drawback to this turnaround. He cooks fish – all the time. Everyday.

But here’s some advice. When you move in to a new place, befriend the people who live close by – chat with them. They could be your friends. Mine are lovely. The other night, I heard another neighbour speaking into his phone ‘Code red! CODE RED!’ Neighbourhood watch can be useful to everyone when there are thieves trying to smash open front doors or break into cars. So be nice. They might be useful.