Tuesday, 26 May 2009

It's A Jungle Out There

Recently, a house-hunting acquaintance asked for some advice. I did my best, but afterwards found myself thinking that flat-hunting should be simple and mundane, like popping out for a pint of milk and a paper. Instead, it’s a daunting task, one requiring tireless bravery, ingenuity and dogged persistence.

When preparing for such an expedition, I’d recommend the following equipment: dry rations, water, satnav, mace-spray (or as we call it here, Lynx for Men) bullet-proof vests, rounders bats (for rounders, and/or clubbing assailants) night-vision goggles and flares (emergency beacons, not trousers.)

Then you’ll need a mule-train to carry lawyers, guarantors, referees, previous landlords, counsellors, UN negotiators, body-guards, and an accredited local guide/fixer.

Apart from that, here are some tips.

1 Avoid letting agents. Seriously, as far as possible, stay away. They charge random and bizarre fees. My favourite is a Finance Fee – basically, a fee to collect and charge fees. Brilliant! These financial machinations are so complex that even famous professors of quantum physics weep for their own stupidity (convincing evidence suggests that certain particles appear randomly from nowhere; how is that also true of agency fees?)

2 Try post-offices, local papers and supermarket notice-boards, friends, and workplace intranet message boards, or online (NB see previous post.) Anything but letting-agents!

3 Landlords ask much of tenants in terms of information. Don’t be afraid to ask back. You need to know whether they have a commercial, buy-to-let mortgage, because so-called ‘forced’ landlords are by nature temporary, intending to sell up the moment they perceive the teensiest green shoots in the property market. Where mortgage are personal, and should the property be repossessed, the first you’ll know is when the bailiffs come hammering. Having tenants under a personal mortgage can invalidate landlord’s insurance. So, ask away. Then, if they ask for two years worth of bank statements (the latest wheeze) casually, request a blood sample ‘…for your private collection.’ That’ll freak them out.

4 Landlords are obliged to possess various documents - HMO licences, and energy efficiency certificates being the most prominent. Cynics insist these papers are worthless, but compliance indicates a landlord who is mindful of regulations and doing things properly. Maybe.

5 Don’t sign the S.21 Notice. Don’t do it. Don’t! Agents (if you are found in their dreadful embrace) and landlords will try and convince you that it’s nothing - just a silly piece of paper, which doesn’t allow them to evict tenants on a whim. If it’s unimportant, why are they so keen for you to sign?

6 Ensure deposits are immediately registered with the Deposit Protection Scheme. Carefully point out that if they don’t, courts can oblige owners to cough up three times the deposit. Tell them this.

7 Give the place a forensic once over. Take photos, and send a ‘snag’ list, documenting any problems, marks and flaws. Don’t wait a few weeks, as they’ll argue that previous damage is your fault.

8 In apartment blocks, check flats aren’t listed on Apartment Hotel websites, avoiding regular disruptive stag-parties (in short read up on Dovecot Towers.)

9 Get everything in writing, always, no matter how decent landlords seem.

I hope this is helpful. Now, go get ‘em.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

There's Something About Gumtree

Sensible landlords and tenants are wriggling free of letting agents (aka conniving, monetary-succubae with horns, tentacles and ancient property databases.) Consequently, when renting or letting, we stumble into a world of strangeness, the far side, where the weird people are: a mysterious land called Gumtree.

Take this ad, for example. It was headed: Room In House £2 Per Week.
“Well I'm trying to be a writer. English is not my first language but unfortunately the 2 next books are both going to be in English (for reasons too long to explain here).”
Like, we’re in England?

Still, so far so, bohemian. She continued:
“They are both going to be very big fascinating projects. One is a novel, a journey through past lives, the other is another "feminine" version of the tale of Camelot ("The mists of Avalon" will pale in comparison).”
Self-belief is an admirable quality. Anyway…

“I need someone mad and creative to assist me, chapter after chapter, proposing new ideas, helping in editing etc, and possibly help me type when I feel too sick to.”
Oh, you mean, write it for you?

It gets better:
“I cannot pay upfront but I will pay a percentage of my royalties, which will increase if you will also want to function as my Agent. (don't need to be qualified, just a lot of enthusiasm). If royalties are not of interest I can offer a free room in my house until September. The most important thing is that you have enthusiasm, dreams, are good at writing, and possibly have a sparkle of genius and madness.”
Also: gullibility?

She also mentioned that her home was close to a 24-hour garden centre; so handy for those late night water-feature cravings. I wonder if anyone accepted? And will they share the inevitable Booker prize?

Other ads make the previous example seem postively fusty. A friend placed a flat-wanted notice, mentioning that she was a single parent, and in reply received a lengthy, lyrical plea to care for her, promising she’d want for nothing. Daily emails followed, offering unlimited kindness, culminating with the phrase: “Incidentally, I enjoy light, consensual anal intercourse.”

I like the word ‘light.’ Would the dark version involve being rogered up the rear by Darth Vadar? I also spotted an ad where a landlord didn’t want a tenant, but a leather-clad gimp to serve him (“…light duties only – obedience essential.”) Remember, this is all in the property section.

Before I knew better, I placed an ad requesting a one-bed flat, specifying a city, but potential landlords plagued me with offers of three-room wicker maisonettes in Truro, caves in Wigan, or a lean-to in Aberdeen (available eventually!) anything but what I wanted.

I waited in despair, until a man offered a ‘hardly used, mostly empty’ flat (both caveats were unsettling). He was evasive about rent (‘We can work something out,’) and even if he owned the place. I held back with answers. Then he said, tentatively: ‘…In your ad, you describe yourself as a professional female. That’s an interesting phrase…’
Just the standard wording, I said.
‘It makes you sound like a working girl. Would you be interested in male company?’
Only a festering, man-size wart would interpret ‘Flat Wanted’ as ‘Hey ugly guy! Me love you long-time for garret in hovel.’

So beware. I found Nice Heights on Gumtree, but others might end up with more than a des-res.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bit Of A Domestic

Modern flats have something missing. In apartments across the land, from luxury to Dovecot, there’s nowhere to dry washing. Some very strange assumptions were made when designing and managing buy-to-let newbuilds. Many prohibit drying laundry on the tiny balcony. Tenants are different; they never sweat – but fragrantly, they glow.

It’s worse in developments completed more than five years ago, way before the energy price hike made everyone so keen to economise (oh and also save the environment.) It’s still assumed that we are cash-rich and time-poor, so desiccate our clothes in money-guzzling washer-driers, when actually we roast our socks over the heater, which is dangerous. Rooms are small, with airers crammed between the sofas; bad enough for solo renters - a nightmare where two or more people share.

When I worked in welfare rights, it was widely, and rightly accepted that drying laundry in the living area causes respiratory problems. In poorer rented homes, central-heating is often either absent or unaffordable. I’ve been offered badly insulated flats with just a temperamental Calor gas heater in every city I’ve visited. It’s a fire hazard, and leads to soggy clothes mouldering when the meter runs out.

In olden days, houses were sensibly fitted with drying-racks suspended from the ceiling. Nowadays, I am rendered senseless with nostalgia as I recall ‘gardens’ complete with what were known as ‘clothes-lines.’ In shared housing, laundry left to rot in the washer is a flashpoint for many a senseless killing spree.

Forward then to the recent past, when planners understood the basic human need for clean underwear. In social housing, communal drying areas were placed at the top of tower blocks, for maximum exposure to the elements, which sounds like a good idea.

But there was a major and appalling problem, worse than the obvious snag of having your lingerie snaffled and suspecting the neighbours. It was this: significant numbers of people jumped to their deaths, so the drying rooms were closed.

In case you think Nice Heights (should I call it Naice Heights?) was made in paradise by nymphs, there is one snag, which I only noticed after moving in. We have loads of cupboard space for gadgets, crockery and food, but unbelievably there is no draining board. Perhaps this is evidence of what I hoped was an urban legend. Those blokeish architects assumed that we hip urbanites wouldn’t do anything as basic as cook and eat at home, so there’d be no disgusting dirty crockery (in fact I’m amazed they supplied us with toilets, since we are too marvellous and grand for that sort of thing.) It takes days for one person to fill the dishwasher until it’s economical to use.

In upmarket flats, tenants perch on their Eames recliners counting their Alessi, and (having returned from some chi-chi new restaurant) they gaze around with satisfaction, appreciating all they have amassed. Then, as they negotiate their way delicately around the washing, which is drying, slowly and precariously, on an array of rickety clothes-horses, a thought occurs: those Mr Men knickers are starting to look a bit shabby.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A Mole For Newbuild Holes

I had a depressing conversation with a builder recently. He was funding his post-grad by working on one of the many developments currently on a bizarre game of build-as-slow-as-you-can. I mentioned that I had more than a passing interest in newbuilds; sort of a hobby, you might say. I wondered what he thought of my suspicions that they are built to a very poor standard (see; I can be tactful when need dictates.)

He offered his technical appraisal of urban newbuild flats, which I’ll try and convey. I’m not an expert, and he was using jargon and complex terminology. He described them as being (what was it now?) ah, that’s it: “crap.” Or did he say “shite?” Oh dear, I could kick myself. You must think me so unprofessional.

I suggested, and he confirmed, that many flats are constructed under the laws of Blue Peter craft-sheets and the wonderful game of Jenga, using balsa-wood, paper-clips and cling-film, and that developers meet planners and building inspectors with fingers crossed behind their backs while kissing a crucifix (inverted of course.) When applications are successful, shame-faced architects slope off to wail, while developers sacrifice a goat (letting-agents drink the blood.)

Bob The Builder (not his real name…) used insider knowledge when he noticed a widening crack in the walls in his former rented home. He assembled housemates in the filigree lounge/kitchen/study/laundry-room/diner to reason with them, in a calm and understated manner: “Run away!!!” he said, adding: “Save yourselves!!!”

I thought it might be plaster shrinkage. He said: don’t be silly. When I told him about Dovecot Towers, he was blank, until he realised that I was expecting him to be shocked.

Whenever I mention the appalling state of modern domestic architecture, its inherent design inadequacies and common structural defects, people think I am making it up, or joking. I’m not. But if anyone reading this is working, or has worked on a building site, could you just confirm that I’m telling the truth. It’s like being the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes: I can see the Emperor’s hairy arse, and newbuild flats are terrible.

What’s needed is a friendly, informed mole to help us out of this hole. We need a public-spirited builder who has worked on these monstrosities to become a whistle-blower, and reveal the regime of institutionalised cost-cutting and standard skimming that is the true monstrous carbuncle defacing contemporary architecture, and blighting daily life for tenants.

Incidentally, when I heard that one of the worst culprits for building these miserable hutches is in financial trouble, I laughed so hard that tea came out of my nose (apparently, a similar trick is performed in Bangkok.)

If justice is to be served, that particular firm will go bankrupt, its directors forced to rent a flat where the washing-machine is effectively next to the sofa, where you can hear neighbours whisper and piss, where you worry about falling through ceilings if you tread too hard, and where your post is stolen. Nice Heights (my final decision on the official nickname btw) is proof that great buildings are possible, so let it be done more often.