Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Stu-Stu-Studio Flats

The future is here. We’re living there now. Just like Tomorrow’s World predicted, we’re living in pods and eat our food in tablet form. Fully clothed, we enter space-age washing stations for a fast drying hose down, and float to work on hover-boots.

Actually, only the pod part is correct. I’ve been researching different cities online. Everywhere has a similar, even stereotypical development: it’s a block of bijou, futuristic shells, or super-space-age, designer pads (studio flats, in reality.)

They are proving very hard to let, anyone who imagined that tenants will choose, freely and willingly to live that way long-term are avaricious wishful-thinkers. You can always find a studio flat. They are everywhere. There’s always a vacancy, but I wonder if developers are asking why they are so unpopular, and why the turnover is so rapid.

In telling and related news, I understand that the Irish government, when not trying to haul itself out of that notorious financial mess, has also heroically banned bedsits. I’ve always thought this was an especially miserable way to live: everything crammed into one tiny room, with a shared bathroom on a landing. I realise that finances dictate how others live, but they’ve always struck me as grim and unhygienic: drying clothes in the same room you cook, eat and sleep, is not a good idea.

Studio flats are at least granted a separate bathroom, although I am scanning the ads for a ‘shower-room/kitchen-diner’ because you just know it’s going to happen one day. Some studios are better designed than others, allowing space for vital fittings, like desks, which are compact rather than absent.

Apart from well-placed, well-managed, well-built, well-designed flats and homes, occupiers want room to manoeuvre. Urban newbuilds are small enough as it is, and so the idea that we might actually choose to live in a studio, and not be compelled to move in through desperation and then get the hell out asap is ridiculous.

Compromise is essential. T’s flat was tiny, but well thought out on his part. He didn’t collect music, or books, but had to decide between a cupboard (mmm…cupboards) and installing a dishwasher. The dishwasher ended up in the cupboard. In newbuild studios, everything folds up into the wall or into itself until the whole thing folds up into the developer’s arsehole. It’s like Inspector Gadget goes to IKEA, and it’s not conducive to modern living, happiness, or long term occupancy.

Actually, I’m being too reasonable, aren’t I? I mean seriously, what are these developers thinking: are they stupid, or are they as small as The Borrowers, and assume that everyone else is the same size? That’s the only possible excuse.

Builders have stopped building, and most developers have stopped developing. So: in the meantime, please can architects keep on…architecting? I mean, ask tenants of buy-to-let flats how they want to live. They may well have a checklist, like I do. Close to the top will be separate rooms, and enough space for energetic star-jumps. Or is that just me?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Invasion Of The Private Landlord Snatchers

It’s creepy. Private landlords, renting independently have all but vanished. You could be forgiven for thinking they’ve been abducted by aliens, or chased away by angry villagers brandishing pitchforks. Apparently, over the past few months, while we were asleep, nearly every flat in town has been taken over by letting-agents (and you know how I feel about letting agencies.)

Why does it matter? Well, sadly this could indicate that most, if not all private landlords are either too afraid to stay in business alone, or have gone under. Imagine the personal misery: the bankruptcies and evictions. Apart from that, dealing with agencies can be difficult for both renter and owner alike, since they can be lax about collecting rent and pass tenants straight back over to landlords when repairs are needed, while charging fees apparently at random.

But total corporate control of the private rental sector is fused with another emerging complication. It’s this: there are so many newbuilds in urban areas, and so much rented property flooding the market, that some letting agencies are even refusing new instructions. In certain blocks, entire floors are empty.

Smaller owners (silly; I don’t mean short landlords, but people who own just the one flat) are scared. And they have every reason to be: there are too many flats and not enough tenants. I suspect that when they are accepted onto the books, landlords are either grateful or over-confident and wait, as advised, for higher rents even where opportunities are shrinking.

I suspect that landlords are promised high occupancy levels by agents making free with the ‘c’ word i.e. certainty (although I’ve heard agents called a different c word altogether.) Mercifully, they’ve stopped ramping up the rents, but now they’ve added a flourish to their game. They’ve set an artificial ceiling on the cost of a one or two bed flat (as for studios, the prices are totally weird).

If agents have accumulated similar flats, what impetus is there to lower rents when knowledgeable prospective tenants barter? Instead, they hold out, to maximise their potential income. Consequently, rents are falling, but more slowly than might reasonably be expected.

Letting agencies do very little for the money, other than operate the Tenant Find service (even I think it’s a good idea for landlords to use this option to screen incoming tenants.) But with regard to prices, agents sit tight until the bitter end, playing poker for higher rents. They’ve far less to lose than a landlord who might willingly accept £50 less per month (still a reasonable income) in return for a good night’s sleep. It’s the callous and greedy leading the terrified and deluded.

In the future, perhaps landlords could stick together and form a co-op, or a gang, because the options for landlords are twofold: either (a) drop the rent or (b) go bankrupt. It’s that simple. In option (a) the only party losing out will be the letting agency, and my eyes are already damp with tears of laughter.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

They Walk Amongst Us

My epic quest, my odyssey of a house-hunt is progressing in a stately manner, and I’ve developed a world-weary sixth-sense about property people and their duplicity. I’m also starting to wonder if I might be better off using a medium, a psychiatrist or a private detective to discover whether or not landlords and letting agents are trustworthy, reliable and solvent, because sometimes they can pass for human.

Having grasped that tenants are suspicious of corporate letting agents, they disguise themselves as private operations. One ad from an apparently friendly amateur wanted their lucky tenant to be: “…as happy in the flat as they had been.” Turns out, this was lie. They’d never lived there; they didn’t even know where it was.

Any flat where the rent is lowered when you’re hardly through the door, and where crockery and other kitchen items are supplied smacks of desperation. That’s because these items are supplied by companies kitting out buy-to-let portfolios. The price drop should be good, but it’s the last desperate ploy of a landlord who can’t cover the mortgage and is consequently teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and about to topple over. Whenever I see cheap glassware, I can smell an Inside Track Seminar property, purchased in haste, regretted at leisure, repossessed behind your back in an instant.

There are other warning signs: being asked for repeated assurances that you’ll definitely, absolutely always pay on time (without fail, honest; no really) is worrying. An acquaintance’s landlady is paid via the letting agent, and calls if the rent is as little as a few days late to panic down the phone about being in the red, which does not inspire confidence. There are other signs that you won’t get along. Some time ago, one landlord asked, quite casually to see five years of audited accounts and all my bank statements. I said: I’ll you mine if you show me yours. He was most indignant.

Another landlady was upfront, mentioning some minor snags (and what she intended to do about them) whilst joking that she had excellent references from former tenants. She’d owned her only property for years, and offered to drop the price admitting it was a renters market, and that times were hard. The flat of course, was snapped up.

Most of all, beware this latest scam. I saw a flat advertised online. It looked lovely (totally ideal, actually) but something was odd, not quite right, or perhaps too perfect. I thought I might as well enquire, and received the following reply. The owner wasn’t sure if his former home had one or two bedrooms. He was busy with missionary work in…Nigeria (can you hear the warning bells?)

He couldn’t organise an actual viewing but was willing to email pictures of the flat (clang!) and I could move in after I had sent him my personal details and paid the deposit, when the keys would be sent by courier (DING DONG!)

Think of these ads as providing a useful service when there’s no bin close by to chuck away your money, or no match to burn your wads of cash.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

We're As Mad As Hell

Reklaw left this comment recently on quite an old post, so you might have missed it:

“We have been renting for the last three years and have had to move three times in that period. Two of the landlords decided to sell the property that we were living in, one after only three months into the tenancy - even through the property was advertised as "long term". Unfortunately the third move is now imminent. We have contacted our local council in the hope that they may be able to offer a solution only to be told that the wait for any property would be in excess of five years with no guarantee and at the most a one bedroomed flat may be offered. It would seem that we are destined to be nomads heading into retirement. Would be grateful for any comments/solution!!”

I don’t know much about Reklaw, but you know what; this comment really upset me.
Even though I try and put a positive spin on things, all renters, myself included, must accept that the genuine possibility that we might have to move every six months for the rest of our lives. What are we supposed to do? Move to Europe, where renting is the norm, and tenants are treated with respect, rather than as some freakish cash-cow/cockroach hybrid, to be milked dry and then eradicated?

It’s infuriating when people say: “…so move.” Do they imagine that magically, we beam our possessions from house to house like on Star Trek, and that the diligent flat-hunt is undertaken by the property fairy-grandmother?

Moving is always fraught and difficult, and letting agents still insist: of course it’s a long term let. Even my all time best ever landlord demanded assurances that I was in for the long haul, which I took to be two years. He gave me notice when he decided to sell after just eight months.

Moving is also inconvenient and unsettling. There are agency fees to be found, removal vans to hire and pay for, and the time-consuming task of multiple views. There’s overlapping deposits alongside rent in advance, and references to wheedle from lazy or reluctant landlords, who might be going bankrupt. That’s alongside the inevitable loss of internet, phone, and in extreme cases, water and power. Worse for me is the constant packing, unpacking and repacking, time after time after bloody time.

Social housing is scarce. We have no choice but to live this way, and successive governments have decided the private sector must build and then run rented housing. Tenants who stand up for themselves are portrayed as whining and belligerent.

You’d think we were demanding caviar, fresh flowers delivered daily, and stables for the miniature Shetland Ponies we’ve requested, all died pink, when all we want is security and fairness: things like repairs, and the freedom to remain unless there’s a genuine reason to turf us out. The right to vacant possession is regularly abused. When it is, landlords should be fined, and heavily. Owners shouldn’t invest in rental property unless they intend, and have the means for, long term lets, by which I mean decades, not months.

Tenants need a serious official body to protect our rights. The Health & Safety Executive (look upon their name and tremble) is regarded with respect, and a healthy measure of fear. Tribunals overseeing disputes in Employment, Disability and Equality are a proven, powerful and efficient way of making sure obligations are honoured.

But ultimately, what’s needed is a new law: “The Tenants Being Generally Maligned, Abused and Totally Shoved Around (Prevention) Act 2009.” I am aware this blog is regularly read in The House Of Commons. For the sake of people like Reklaw, can we get a sponsor? Because we’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.