Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Rents Are Falling!

Any day now, the 6pm bulletin will announce: “…news just in. We’re all completely screwed. Try not to panic!”

But there is one positive story: rents are falling. Well, at least, that’s what they say, but here, on the ground, I’m afraid it’s not quite so straightforward. Letting agents would rather die (no; really - they’d choose death) than admit that rents are shrinking, which is why they are still clinging to astronomical asking prices.

There are legions of flats, and increasingly, renters are opting to be a little more choosy, especially where there are masses of empty newbuilds. Even where it's nicer - close to town, away from the nastier developments - prices are still dropping. You can find a medium spec flat (solid but nothing fancy) and some of them are approaching fair to realistic levels, because wise, more experienced landlords are requesting down to earth prices.

Elsewhere, there’s no denying the overwhelming evidence for a freefall, but everything depends on where the flat is situated. On arterial routes out of town, close to an area of relative deprivation things are harrowing. Many of these flats were built using the extremes of developer greed, with disastrous cost cutting in room size, management standards and build quality. Rents here are plummeting, but you wouldn’t want to live there at any price.

Even in well designed, higher spec flats, prices have fallen. There are stories about landlords with empty newbuilds trying to lure tenants by offering cleaners, Playstations, inclusive internet and payment holidays to those sign up for a long term stay. Beware landlords bearing gifts, however. If they seem desperate, they could turn out to be behind with mortgage payments. You might not be there for long.

My own current landlord initially consulted some Letting Agents (collective noun: a plague?) who insisted he could demand £150 over what I am paying. Fortunately, he is a decent, straightforward man (so far…) astute enough to realise that the market is contracting. He’d rather deal with tenants himself, as agencies will elevate rents and he’ll still do all the work. Clever landlords have grasped that if they ask for too high a rent, tenants in a shrinking market will quickly find somewhere cheaper and leave, causing those dreaded voids.

Remember the old days, when buy-to-let was new and exciting, when investing in property promised riches or at least financial security for landlords (and renters paid the price?) Those heady dreams of giddy profits sent prices for a rabbit hutches racing skywards. Easy mortgages have vanished and house building is in stasis. Meanwhile, rents are either moribund, falling, or actually so low that eventually, landlords will find themselves subsidising tenants to live in their property.

This is a welcome, and necessary adjustment. Rents are hitting the actual level ground on planet earth, where real human beings (i.e. actual people) live, as opposed to fantastical, imaginary ciphers created for an Inside Track seminar. But what if letting agents, landlords and developers had asked for fair prices to begin with? Would there have been so many evictions, repossessions and bank crashes?
Ah, what if.
If only…

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Our Lady Of The Banana Boxes

In Glasgow they called me The Banana Box Lady of Gallowgate. Children stared at me and pointed, watching awestruck from a safe distance as I collected cartons from the kerb. Once I found myself idly gathering up strong boxes discarded outside a wedding goods shop, as the owner looked on, in wonder and fear. Collecting boxes has become an obsession (not as all consuming as my hobby of cupboard spotting, but slightly worrying, nonetheless.) I’m hoarding them for when I move again.

I’m settled and happy here in my new home. Even so, I haven’t been unpacking properly and I still have some boxes in my lounge. I don’t bother filing my vinyl meticulously in alphabetical order anymore. What’s the point? It’s currently hidden in the one cupboard, stacked in carrier bags awaiting digitisation. It’s been that way for years.

That’s how it is with short term lets: a short term mindset develops. Everything I hire, join or subscribe to, like phone, internet, societies, libraries anything really, is always chosen for the ease with which I can extricate myself. Many people live this way, but urban nomads like me are penalised for moving, and obliged to commit to eighteen months when realistically, they might stay at the same address for six moths. Everything is temporary. Even reduced rates for paying electricity monthly are misleading, as when the rental agreement has expired, you’ll end up pursuing utility companies for the amount you’ve overpaid, and they do like to hang on to your cash for as long as possible.

I unpack reluctantly, with half an eye on boxing everything back up again. My possessions re-emerge gradually, as I am wary of needlessly liberating belongings that will inevitably spend few halcyon months free from a swaddling of crunched up newspaper. I also maintain a stack of newspapers, just in case. Whenever I buy anything new, I have learned the hard way to hang on to the box it came in, as even a cheap tinny stereo will smash outside the box it called home. Perhaps that’s why I adore cupboards.

For your information, crisp boxes are no good, unless you reinforce them with parcel tape (look – ask me for advice whenever you want. I am an expert.) I wonder if the day will ever come when I can unpack completely, and throw all my boxes away. Actually, I’ll probably celebrate by burning them, dancing around a huge ritual bonfire with roaring flames visible for miles around.

But I dread packing. Every time I move I dread it even more. Every time I move, something loved or valuable is smashed or missing when I look for it. My best tip though is banana boxes, begged from the supermarket. I hoard banana boxes. In fact, I love them. They are strong and big enough for most things, yet small enough. You can’t overfill them and break your back, and removal men will acknowledge you as an insider, and appreciate your consideration. It’s scary that I know that.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Hell In Happy Valley

A new slum is rising. I knew of its reputation as somewhere even worse than Dovecot Towers, but only recognised the extent of its decline recently, when letting agents never offered me a flat there. Let’s call this place Happy Valley.

Before I moved into Dovecot Towers, the letting agent (who, to be fair, was unaware of the horror that greeted tenants there) mentioned a flat in Happy Valley quizzically, half-heartedly, with one eyebrow raised. When I said no, he seemed relieved.

Now Happy Valley is notorious. It’s the worst of all possible worlds: the last gasp of the property boom at its meanest, with costs cut to the dry white bone. Built near an area you wouldn’t want to live, the surrounding neighbourhood is often mentioned in news reports linked to the phrase gang-related activity. Developers must have known that.

Happy Valley’s investors were often hubristic out-of-towners, bamboozled by talk of proximity to entertainment and the city’s delights. Stupidly they never visited, having bought off-plan. That was a few years ago now, but the unfolding disaster is worse than anyone could have imagined.

One letting agent, who had previously lied through his iridescent capped teeth about a booming rental market, said of Happy Valley: I never offer flats there. Don’t go there. I wouldn’t like my girlfriend living there.

Why? The extremes of the crash hit Happy Valley hard. Entire floors are unoccupied. Landlords are desperate, and have dropped any pretence of vetting tenants. Tellingly, the letting agent abandoned all attempts to say apartment, admitting: when you move in, you don’t know how long the landlord will hold on.

Another day, another repossession. The corridors echo with burglaries on a scale that made Dovecot Towers look like Walton’s Mountain. The approach is notoriously dodgy, and muggings are increasing. Squatters are arriving. This is where neighbours from hell go to practice and refine their evil ways.

What’s to be done? There is no plan. The council have already declared that newbuilds better than Happy Valley fall short of the standards necessary for their adoption or requisition as social housing. They won’t be snapping them up at auction to house the desperate, as there are far too many badly built, unpleasant, tiny, badly planned, poorly finished flats.

Meanwhile, the legions of hell have stormed the gates of Happy Valley. Soon, people who live there will be tainted by association, when they’ve only moved in because they’re poor. Some buildings are still being completed. The owners have tried to change the tarnished name (all these parishes of doom are christened whimsically with foolishly optimistic names redolent of hope, countryside, or arty edginess.) It won’t work. The stench of that rotten reputation precedes it, blighting lives until it is demolished

My question is this: if councils don’t want these budding sink estates, and have ruled the flats as not fit for their purposes (too small, too badly built) then why allow them in the first place?

(N.B. In my new home, residents have doormats outside their flats. Nobody steals them or anything. How posh is that?)

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Exceptional Extras

My quest is over. I’ve found a place to live, and it wasn’t easy. After leaving Dovecot Towers, and indeed because of Dovecot Towers, I had a list of cast iron requirements. Sadly, what I now consider essential in a home is in reality up there with diamond encrusted door-handles and platinum floors.

I was only asking for basics, like a strong door. When I lived in Dovecot Towers and discovered that miscreants had stolen the main door, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but my new block has a good door on it. A fine door. A safe door.

The post room is still communal with shallow boxes, but it’s safe. The building has a proper concierge (hooray!) which isn’t as grand as it sounds. They’re caretakers, really; the difference is, they will sign for post. The idea of having someone sitting at reception acts as a deterrent to people forcing their way in, but then the architects and developers have also hit upon a totally sci-fi innovation, usually found only on spaceships. It’s a main door that actually closes properly.

Regular readers aware of my proclivities might be curious for details of the cupboard situation. The news is not all good. I am not overburdened with yawning storage so vast that suitcases look lonely, or acres of shelving (sigh...) but there is a utility cupboard, for my mops, brooms and washer-drier. Let the joy be unconfined!

There’s a separate kitchen. Old-fashioned tenants accustomed to boiling their smalls on the hob appreciate separate kitchens. Personally I am not so inclined, but even so I’m grateful that I can shut the door so the entire flat doesn’t reek of whatever I am cooking.

There’s also a small balcony with a door that opens inwards so you don’t knock visitors over the edge, and a view. Hardly a stirring panorama of snow-capped mountains, but at least I’m not staring into someone else’s flat with a distance of just five feet between us.

And it’s larger than the average flat, but unfortunately, it’s painted white throughout and must stay that way. There were nails ready in the walls begging to be hung with pictures. I can’t hear my neighbours music, or their toilet flushing or any other diverting Dovecotian delights. There’s a recycling bin, and a water meter. There’s a well-posted fire assembly point (but with a decided lack of arsonists hereabouts, I doubt I’ll find myself standing there at dawn in my curlers.) The landlord seems to be a reasonable man who simply wants to let his flat and therefore needs a tenant.

Speaking as a former resident of the gruelling dystopia that was Dovecot Towers, I know from bitter experience that these matters are vital, even in buy-to-let developments. Security, a good, sturdy design and efficient management should never be considered as indulgent extras beyond the reach of renters. Safety is not a luxury.

So that’s a great flat, an apparently secure building, in a quiet area (all it needs now is a pseudonym; any suggestions?) What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Lower Than A Letting Agent

My flat hunt has convinced me. There is nothing lower than a letting agent. Traffic wardens, bankers, slugs, and tax inspectors all have their detractors, but letting agents are special.

I was trying to avoid them, but they’ve established a virtual stranglehold. And so, I opened the door of one office. Ignoring the whiff of sulphur I waited, hoping to be invited to take a seat (I’m old-fashioned that way.) I waited. And then I waited some more as the agent took personal calls, shuffled papers and glimpsed slyly up at me.

“Yeah-esss…” he said, like a cross between Jeremy Paxman and Basil Fawlty. He didn’t look up, and smirked when I mentioned my requirements and the price I would pay. He asked for my details but didn’t appear to be writing them down.

Another sneered at me and even giggled. Then she regained her composure and reached for a hefty file of vacant flats. As she opened it, bats flew out, and the dust choked us all. It was the collection of one beds and studio flats. She did what they all do: offer me crap to see how high I’d go on the gullible meter. I haggled. She refused, as there are plenty of tenants. I said: how come there are so many vacancies, then.

One fine, arrogant chap looked me in the eye, insisting that, in a booming market, flats are snapped up as soon as they come in. He’s never been so busy. His best customers were (you’ll like this…) Saudi princes. I know; awash with money, they select the luxury of a cheap, nasty newbuild.
He reiterated the buoyancy of the rental sector.
He’s a big fat hairy liar.

He offered me a flat, £100 over my starting price, and £50 more than it was worth for a one-bed newbuild with no trimmings. He knew he could get the landlady to go lower. I knew he could as well. That’s because he had persuaded her to ramp up her rent; she was panicking because the flat had been empty for weeks (I’d checked.) I agreed to view the next day, time to be confirmed later. He never contacted me and never returned my calls. That flat is still empty.

It gets better. Another agent said: “I’ve got just the thing.” It was a bargain: lovely area, great building, well-managed.

He showed me a picture of Dovecot Towers.

I took a deep breath. Then I told him (oh, the nostalgia) about the crime, the security, the door, the management etc. The one sliver of his psyche that was human, not lizard, took hold, and he appreciated my explanation of a turnover so high they might as well have removal vans on standby like taxis. The rent has dropped another £50 per month. That’s a full £150 from what the letting bastards had initially tried to squeeze out of me.

By the way, I’ve noticed something else. When Letting Agents stand in front of a mirror, they don’t have a reflection.