Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Landlords and villains

Yesterday day I drifted into the weird world of those mysterious beings who dwell on The Other Side, the dark side, the outer edge of the property map marked ‘….here be dragons’.

Actually, I was looking at some blogs posted by landlords, researching what these creatures of the night were saying about me and my fellow landless peasant scum.

Most landlord sites are quite straightforward, posting and answering queries about tenancies, rogue traders, and insurance, etc. Their current concern (or obsession) is staying strong and not selling up in the face of ‘The Oncoming Crash,’ believing that if too many of their comrades sell up in the face of fear, a chain reaction will begin, and they will lose everything in that dreaded scenario of plummeting house prices, and worthless investments.

Others are vile. One suggests boosting rental income by advertising a flat without stating the precise rent, but requesting sealed bids. The highest offer wins the flat. One blogger refers to his tenant casually throughout his posts as ‘that bitch’. She paid her rent late; not good, but part and parcel of the landlord experience, for those who know. Now she’s paid up, he is set on evicting her, seemingly because he can. This attitude is pretty rich considering the great evil landlords themselves are occasionally known to do.

Many landlords openly despise even blameless tenants for no clear reason. They assume we are evil. Where does this resentment come from? We need a home. They need our rent (we pay their mortgage, and ergo their pension fund) and usually this works out fine, so why the hostility?

Elsewhere, there are innocuous hints on improving the property, confirming what we all know: effectively maintained properties decorated in neutral colours, supplied with sturdy, pleasant furniture and decent white goods will raise more consistent rental. One site basically agrees with many points made here: don’t skip repairs, don’t abuse the tenant relationship, don’t be a bully and turn up unannounced.

These pointers are presumably aimed at dilatantte landlords, dimly aware there’s a flat somewhere around these parts, which they vaguely remember acquiring, which would account for the money that comes in sometimes (how lovely!) These hobby landlords must fondly imagine that repairs are done secretly at night by kindly elves, and anyway: just who are those dreary ‘tenant’ people squawking about the leaks and collapsing ceilings?

The majority of landlord sites discuss methods of securing a mortgage; there's much less chatter about the benefits (and obligations) involved in keeping the property in an appealing condition. What landlords need is consistency; encouraging happy, settled tenants to remain in place and reliably pay rent must surely be their aim.

We are in this together. Tenants need well constructed homes, intelligently and sympathetically fitted out. We need flats we can live in for some time, a sense of security, but above all else, a home, a real home, not rat runs for lab animals. Landlords would also benefit. In so many ways, we are on the same side. So let’s not fight.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

If The Tenants Are United

Bluebirds are flying over Dovecot Towers. Peace has been declared. Love rules once more.

Last night, the man in the flat below screamed up from his balcony, demanding that I turn down my music, except I wasn’t playing any. It emerged that he’s just moved in, and his predecessor - who had tormented me with shouting and appalling musical choices - has gone.

In an instant, more shouting heads had appeared over each railing; inquisitive neighbours wondering who was playing the nasty, thumping techno loathed by us all, admitting that we’d all been blaming each other.

In this increasingly Pinteresque scenario, a growing multitude of disembodied faces popped out of windows to join the debate. None of us had ever met before. People don’t normally speak round here. Tenants are more than naturally unfriendly; some are actually scared.

And so began the weirdest tenant’s meeting ever, where we discussed repairs, rubbish collection, and just who was responsible for the truly awful thumpage rentergirl has complained about many times here, with more and more heads speaking out.

A representative from the now numerous array of talking heads ventured down to visit the noisy culprit, and stated our case for some quiet. The thumping horror house was turned off. I could hear myself think for the first time in months.

It can be scary in Dovecot Towers. I never answer my door, as visitors know to call before they get to mine. People who bang on doors and ring bells randomly late at night are always trouble, and I often wonder what could be done to make life a little more hospitable.

Tenants/residents associations seem like a great idea: everyone working together against the evil management company/council/rogue occupant. Unfortunately, my only experience is of such organizations is that they are run by people who are strange and misguided. They convened meetings in the pub, and negotiated cut price real ale as refreshment. The first resolution they agreed concerned solidarity with Cuba. Then they came round at closing time to rustle up interest in their organisation, calling on the younger, female residents.

Buy to let owners are appalled by the intimidating atmosphere in Dovecot Towers: prospective tenants and purchasers have been glared at, or sized up as potential victims for later on, at the muggers convenience. Residents avoid eye contact in the lift, and I never use the stairs (especially at night.)

But it pays to be cautious. One neighbour ostentatiously greeted me everyday, until he became quite threatening. Tetchily, he ticked me off for being ‘stand offish’ and was later found loitering outside another female neighbour’s flat, playing hangman with her name on the wall outside before launching into inquisitorial chatter whenever she emerged. They came for him in the night.

That night though, I listened to my own music, with no invasive thumping house ruining my happiness. Then, the man who had complained loudest about the rogue music, and who had ventured down to arrange its cessation, turned his telly up full volume, but - realising what he had done - immediately lowered the sound again. No actual bluebirds, and not quite peace in our time, but hopefully a change in attitude.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

In The Neighbourhood

I live in the city, not a village. There are no elegant spinsters cycling sedately to evensong, no cheeky cherubs playing hopscotch in the street. I live on what is practically a motorway. It discourages humanity. We don’t even have a Spar.

My new, temporary neighbourhood is experiencing a large influx of new inhabitants, which is causing some resentment. The established locals pass through the buy to let developments as they walk from the estate on their way to town, and consequently the comments, and shovings, seem to be increasing.

Recently, the newest buy to let block was ‘dressed’ for sale, with primary coloured bins placed outside, presumably empted of flowers. At night, I saw four scallies on bikes heading off into the sunset carrying one bin apiece on the back of their bikes.

Perhaps I am doing them down. Perhaps they said: ‘…I say Tarquin; you know those bins we bought from Heals that we keep on the patio? Well those would make a perfect match - let’s offer to buy one, pre-owned, and ready distressed?’
But that’s not what happened, is it?

A local shop opened up. Gratefully, I called in for my Sunday paper, telling the owner how good it is to finally have some useful amenities - like his shop. He grunts, and ignores me. I think – well, that’s me back at Smiths. The miserable news agent stares at the wall. His Thai bride stands outside in the rain with her feet in a bowl of warm water. He sells vegetarian food, you know.

One local pub offers ‘accommodation’ more as a threat than a promise. Another pub was just put up for sale. Its windows were smashed every Sunday, and during Karaoke Tuesdays, the same rugged matron belts out ‘I Will Survive’ with tears rolling down her face. Friday afternoon they have an Elvis impersonator. A few houses down, the pub exquisitely decorated with Edwardian tiling is still boarded up.

There is a beautiful church, which manages to maintain stained glass windows and pretty flower beds. This area was formerly a Georgian slum, and salvaged gravestones exhibit the engraved names of god-fearing labourers, dead at thirty five and all called John, or infants killed at six months by weaning (one family mourned successive babies named Ann). The bells ring out every Sunday, summoning a congregation consisting mostly of sumptuously dressed African families, who don’t seem to live in the new flats, or the estate up the road.

It’s not as if hordes of incomers and blow-ins have edged out the locals. There weren’t any locals. There were no flats around my way; for years it was bleak, and desolate, with busy main roads, some small industry and warehouses, but no housing. Many years ago the Georgian hovels were demolished to make way for roads, a stadium, and car parks; it’s only recently that homes were built again. In time it will be lovely - or rather, lively - round here, with bars, and restaurants, and people mixing. As it is now, there’s a sense of different tribes suspiciously passing by, rubbing each other up the wrong way, but never really meeting.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

They're all mad.

People with a spare room for a while are always mad. It shouldn’t be true, but it is. Just as drug dealers are from Salford, and even in Orkney, Socialist Worker sellers have cockney accents, so it is that people with a spare room for a while are always certifiable.

Over the years, I have enjoyed their temporary rented accommodation when in between homes, but just days after moving in, I’m sleeping with a chair wedged under the door, and 999 on speed dial. Maybe my room had previously been their special secret friend. Perhaps they spoke to it at night: (‘…Hush now, liebling, I have found you a human! And this time – a real one! Hahahaha!’)

And yet, when plans go wrong, they are extremely useful. ‘Katie’ was thirty-something, with a posh job in marketing; I was new in the big city and she was a friend of a friend. Always immaculate herself, and very correct, her boyfriend was an incongruous seventeen year old lout in a hoodie. What does she see in him? I wondered, as he farted openly and repeatedly in the lounge, monopolising the remote control after snatching it from my hand.

Late at night, the truth emerged. Increasingly desperate cries of ‘Ohmygodohmygod!’ proved she didn’t like him for his conversation. Stumbling out to the loo one night, I saw she had left her bedroom door wide open during one especially loud session, so I shut it. I was given notice the very next morning, which I found a little harsh. After all, it's not as if I peered round the door to ask for a hand out with the bins.

Given such emergencies, you may find that some spare roomers live alone through choice. Others because it’s better for humanity. One landlady kindly rented me a room while I was again between homes. She was a ‘character’. Missy (let’s call her Missy) kept a small museum of historical tampon boxes on the coffee table, shown proudly to visitors. When she went away for the weekend, and removed the batteries from the remote control, I said nothing (I was paying rent, remember.)

Missy liked her booze. One night, I was drunkenly locked out of the flat until three pm the next day. At first I thought I was being melodramatic for worrying she might have suffocated. Just as I was poised to call the police to break down the door, she appeared with no explanation, other than that she was pissed.

For Missy, the world was paved with eggshells. Not anticipating her every whim was interpreted as warlike. I was soon given notice for unreasonably ringing the doorbell while locked out. Missy is probably at home right now, howling at the moon, dancing naked around a shrine devoted her beloved Lloyd Grossman pasta sauce. Missy wanted to be a naturopath, but she was already as naturopathic as a hat-stand.

I can laugh about it now, but it didn't seem half as funny when I was sitting in the council offices declaring myself homeless.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The property crash is coming!

The Property Crash Is Coming – everybody run! Like headless chickens, the buy to let owners are retreating, and the joy (okay then schadenfreude) is unconfined. I first noticed this phenomenon when my own landlord paid lip service to wanting to keep me on as a tenant.

Prospective tenants have cautiously bargained down local rents. One landlord placed a notice on the front of my building, offering his vacant flat. The initial rent required was comically optimistic, but gradually fell to a reasonable level. Eventually a free parking space was included. Nobody wants to live in one bedroom new build dovecots. As investment properties, they are the one property option failing to swell in worth, resulting in negative equity, making this, for the first time, a tenants’ market.

Owners will be grateful for good tenants (well any tenant) willing to live in the pigeon holes they’ve chosen as their investment. Instead of tedious dinner conversations of how much their property has increased, it will be the shame of negative equity, and they’ll have the gall to feel sorry for themselves.

Oh, it’s like knowing that Wall Street is going to crash, and selling all your stock beforehand. Buy to let owners are nervous, but might learn to treat tenants with a little more respect, and perhaps become more reasonable about deposits, decorating and repairs.

Perhaps building quality will improve. You’d like to think that more houses, and two (or even three!) bedroom flats will be commissioned. Future developments could feature larger living areas, and (am I being crazy here?) might include some space gobbling creature comforts, like separate kitchens, and cupboards.

One thing is for sure: rents won’t spiral downwards at the same rate they increased. Landlords need to pay the mortgage, and that’s the problem of negative equity; owners pay a mortgage on property worth less than they gave for it, leaving rental as a desirable solution. But with a glut of one bed flats, landlords might become less pernickety and capricious.

The main drawback for tenants is insecurity: renters must be aware that in cases of insolvency, their home could be sold underneath them. They might be able to remain as sitting tenants, but this is the economic climate where property magnates swoop and establish a portfolio of property. Wouldn’t it be nice if ethical social housing trusts intervened, and bought up some housing while the market is favourable?

I know my gloating is unseemly, but over the years, I’ve been provoked. Even if smug property owners stop being so self righteousness, their whining about negative equity will replace the boasting about the rise in value. I’m sure it won’t be good for landlords owning flats with negative equity, but they’ll have the likes of me to tide them over and pay their mortgage. They might even appreciate landless peasant scum such as myself.

Cities like Brighton and London enjoyed a huge property boom. The inevitable bust gave tenants a brief window of security. But when the boom came round again, many tenants returned home to find a ‘For Sale’ sign in the garden. Happy days were here again, and they were out.