Monday, 29 June 2009

Tipping Point

It was an intensely hot, super sunny day three years ago and flat-hunting had driven me to the brink of madness. After several fruitless weeks of openly disdainful letting-agents asking ridiculous rents for nasty little boxes, one agent actually seemed pleased to hear from me. He could show me a flat immediately (adding, when he remembered himself: “…I’ve had a cancellation, so I can squeeze you in for a quick viewing…let’s see… right now, actually.”)

How odd - he didn’t sneer. Stranger still, he listened to me and didn’t claim that the price had risen over night. Either he was being nice (don’t be silly) or could it be that he was desperate, too?

The agent arrived in the cliché branded Smart car, and ignored me to grandly shuffle some papers. His old-fashioned spiel was complimented by a rapidly dating wide-boy hair-style, erect with gel. He was in a hurry to show me the building which would cast a shadow over my life, a nondescript oblong block of orange brick, set back from the main road.
“They’re going fast, better make up your mind!” he insisted, gamely sticking to his script. My reticence clearly unnerved him.

“I suppose I could show you another one… ooh, you’ll get me in trouble…” he joked in a feeble attempt to get me onside.
The building was mostly empty, so I could take my pick. He seemed to be reading aloud from his own advert:
“You will enjoy a magnificent vista…” Then correcting himself, he continued, “I mean, there’s a view. If you like that sort of thing.”

I smiled vaguely. I was homeless and trying not to appear needy. I mentioned the other flats I’d inspected, all identical, bleak and eerily devoid of tenants, but he pretended not to hear. Louder this time, I said:
“No really; I’ve seen a lot of flats. Too many. Must be making your life quite hard.”

He looked unsettled. I don’t enjoy messing with people’s heads, but I had to make my point. I wonder if at that morning’s team meeting, somebody had suddenly noticed a pile of unlet newbuilds, and he’d been ordered to reach a target.

My phone rang, and I took a call from a landlady who - to my surprise - couldn’t conceal her eagerness to have me move in. I’d left a message answering her ad for a below-par flat well outside my chosen area. Politely, I asked for a discount. She admitted the price was steep and agreed to go lower.

Gel-boy was rattled. The flat I was standing in was already fifty quid cheaper than the original ad, for no clear reason. I decided to look again at the foyer, and then ask for a further reduction. Bartering in tourist markets makes me feel uncomfortable, but rents had been ramped-up by landlords, developers and letting-agents – the usual suspect ingredients in a layer cake of greed.

“Look,” I said, studying that ‘vista.’ “You don’t really need a quick decision, do you? There are plenty more flats just like this one…”

I moved in and spent summer nights on my balcony gazing across at cranes and the twinkling half-lit checkerboard of empty newbuilds in the distance, listening as Dovecot Towers came alive, only for it to die a lingering death.

And now, on another sultry summers evening, I can’t help but wonder if the moment a letting-agent condescended to haggle coincided with the precise time, perhaps the exact second that everything changed, when the rollercoaster property market ride began its perilous descent, careering downwards, out of control.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Shock Of The Nice

It’s amazing. Every day, I am astounded. When I meet people here in Nice Heights, we say hello and share a smile (although the lads who giggled when they saw my tiny, Palaeolithic telly the day I moved in are bastards.) Other than that, I greet every morning like Pollyanna: “Hello neighbours! Hello cleaners! Hello…carpets!”
Sickening, isn’t it?

One girl struck up conversation in the lift, where we discussed how much we both enjoyed living here.
“It’s really quiet, isn’t it – like a posh hotel.” she said.
We had both lived in Dovecot standard newbuilds, and Nice Heights is a revelation.
“Our flat’s lovely,” she continued. “I’ve never heard a peep from the neighbours - and the rooms are ever so bright.”

Another woman stepped into the lift. Dressed immaculately, the interloper admired her own expensive shoes, and sneered as we shared memories of all the nasty places we’d lived previously while the lift loitered on the ground floor (my Dovecot tales won, of course.) Stylish woman pressed the button for the penthouses, and left without looking back. Of course she did. It’s interesting that the storey-based system denoting social-class I recognised from Dovecot Towers (higher=richer) is repeated here in Nice Heights.

I suspect that the predominantly friendly atmosphere is down to the varied nature of the inhabitants. I’ve seen people who are older. Shocking isn’t it? One elderly man said he had downsized, helped his children buy their own homes and moved to Nice Heights to enjoy the city. He liked going to concerts, museums, and the theatre. He also liked exploring, and was off for an urban adventure in sturdy hiking-boots.

Or is it the fact that people own their flats? I’ve noticed just a few people staying temporarily (the wheelie-cases are a giveaway) but mercifully, Nice Heights has no online presence as a party apartment-hotel. The guests here dress in suits – computer specialists and accountants in town for a short contract, and they make a refreshing change from stag-parties.

Does this sound boring? Perhaps my enduring memories of the chaos in my former home conspire to make the peace hereabouts seem remarkable. People with larger flats have terraces, useful for barbecues. No forty-eight hour parties, no squealing girls and boys bellowing like bulls. I’ve heard neighbours say:
“Time to head inside; don’t want to annoy the neighbours, do we?”
Crikey. Consideration.

Nice Heights is an upmarket design, but still lacks anything encouraging a sense of community. I’m not expecting a common room, but we have no communal areas, like gardens, or a seated reception (even in high-spec buildings, entrances are stark.) Encounters take place beside the rubbish bins, which, since they are located underground, gives a simple chat about the weather an illicit appeal.

But right now I am sitting in the sunlight lounge, with birds singing daintily in the distance, as ‘In Paradisum’ from Faure’s Requiem drifts faintly and beautifully into my room. I can almost imagine that behind every front door, there lives a reasonable person. No thumping techno. No random screaming. Is this what normal life is like?

(NB: Recently, there were two burglaries in here. The management company have kept us informed – another improvement on Dovecot Towers. Gangs are targeting city flats. Even our robbers are posh. CCTV footage shows smartly dressed thieves ‘tail-gating’ their way through the (very) secure main door. But at least we have a main door. And also CCTV.)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Strange days indeed. The sun’s turned blue, and in Norfolk, a three headed cow was born. Also: our busy politicians have condescended to (half-heartedly) spend some time discussing private rented housing.

Forgive me for not floating on a lilac cloud of joy, but I don’t believe anything will change. The current situation is labyrinthine and chaotic. We need a powerful agency to monitor and regulate renting, while standing up for tenants. Until then, in order of effectiveness, here’s who you can call now, for all the good it will do:

The landlord? Fine unless the problem is the landlord themselves (which it generally is.) Don’t worry if they’re based abroad - they’ll fly over on their private jet and fix the toilet themselves, pronto. Alternatively, they could ignore you, or commence possession proceedings immediately. Either, really.

The local council? Councils can refuse HMO licences and take action if property is unsafe. First they’ll say: “….keep a diary.” I wonder if this ever leads to housing officers confronted by the following:

“Day begins, as ever with a crafty Jodrell, but still the world seems dark, so very dark (dark!) Nobody understands me (except maybe The Smiths) so I’m running away from home.”
You’re supposed to be recording the misdemeanours of crooked proprietors, like leaking pipes, lack of HMO licences, dangerous appliances, and nefarious neighbourly fly-tipping and drug farms. But thanks for sharing.

Rent officers? In the old days, tenants could ask for a ruling on what was a fair rent. Such a lovely idea. Nowadays they spend their days finding the cheapest rent in any area in order to keep Local Housing Allowance at a permanent low, and they are mighty good at this.

The National Federation of Builders? Royal Institute Of British Architects? Planners? “Hello! This buy-to-let newbuild dovecot I am renting is crap. Please send round a squad to rebuild it and remodel the interior, at no extra cost.” Oh, wouldn’t it be nice…

The police? Horses for courses, obviously; don’t alert the persons in blue if your roof is leaking. They don’t care (and why should they?) The police are the bouncers, the door security-staff of the legal world. They don’t know the rules, they just do the arresting. So even if you are being threatened/harassed by neighbours and landlords, don’t expect too much.

Your spiritual advisor? By your side for all the unpleasant things in life, like exorcisms, funerals and weddings, or worse – when you finally go postal and kill your flatmates/landlord/letting agent. (NB – the last one? Don’t. It. Would. Be. Wrong.)

Relate? There should be some sort of support-group or mediation-service for house-sharers. The low number of flatmate-on-flatmate murder leads me to conclude that humanity is less warlike than previously feared. Isn’t that nice?

Random people on the streets? It doesn’t work. They look at you funny, and afterwards they run away. I know this.

The letting agent? Oh, perrr-leez… No; wait a minute - let’s have ourselves some fun. You could complain, for a laugh, and play letting-agent-repair-response-bingo, where you tick off their most inventive evasion. Big boys did it and ran away? The dog ate the deposit? Ask the landlord? And around we go…

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Taken For A Park And Ride

When I still lived in Dovecot Towers, a well-dressed, nervy gentleman lurking by the main door startled me by saying:
“You have something I want!”
I told him to go away with extreme prejudice.
“But I’m desperate!” he pleaded. “I’ll pay you!”
I escaped.
“Wait! Come back – I’ll give you money!” he shouted. “I need to sublet your parking space!”

Lowly tenants haven’t a hope in hell of obtaining residential parking spaces, so speculative notes pushed under the door, offering to organise parking applications so we can rent them out, are pointless. I don’t own a car. I hate driving, try to be environmentally sensitive, and as for parking nearby, I might just as well drill into my own stomach and dig out an abscess, as city centre parking will give me an ulcer regardless.

Parking wars cause night-terrors and punch-ups. In converted flats, when a building initially designed for one, solitary, Victorian carriage (horseless or otherwise) is transformed with space defying magic into five flats (an attic, a basement, and three storeys) then as many as ten car owners compete to shoehorn their runabout outside, leading to all-in, freestyle, automotive tag-team sardines between the yellow lines.

Buy-to-let newbuilds have unimaginably complex land ownership rights and deciding who is responsible for what is torture. In Dovecot Towers, the car park was owned by a different company to the building’s freeholder. Individual owners rented parking spaces, while non-resident outsiders have bought the freehold on a spot (boy, were they ever smug.)

Drivers flaunted their cars, proudly hoovering and washing windows (which they’d never do at home) while playing loud music, which is their way of saying ‘I am a real man. I own a car. And, yes, it’s a Smart Car, but laydeez love it. You don’t have one. And I do!’

We needed crowd control to marshal the armies of traffic wardens. If you ever thought, even while abroad, of parking briefly on the street, they swooped, bagging doctors on emergency call-out (although I hope they get extra points for catching fake disabled parking badges.) Contractors tried to include the ticket in the bill they gave me, despite having been warned to arrange access before starting work. There was little temporary space for them or guests to park.

Inside Nice Heights, there are two floors of car space in the basement, leased to outside businesses (as usual, tenants are last in the queue.) Outside Nice Heights, side-streets are a tangle of meters and time restrictions. City dwellers live in a transition zone, where the attainable dream of a car-free society is at odds with the primal urge to own even a modest, non gas-guzzling personal transporter.

The real luxury of living and working in the city is that I don’t need a car. There are innovative schemes for shared ownership and vehicle leasing. Public transport, supermarket delivery and taxis tide you over for the difference. I’ve even seen rickshaws for hire. Cars are a problem I avoid by walking. Others, by roller-blading.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Vanman And Supervanman

Riding that infernal conveyor-belt of serial house-moves, when you tire of asking friends for help, and inevitably, they grow weary of assisting, the time comes to employ professionals.

Removal companies work hard. Loading quickly and efficiently is tough. Civilian-shifters have been hospitalised after moving their own furniture, and are now subject to a lifetime of Deep Heat and osteopathy, and friends to their whining. Even something as simple as lifting stuff is liable to leave you with back ache, sanity related issues and a severe pain just below the lower back.

My first experience was the archetypal man and ubiquitous van. Buying a cheap Transit and transporting goods is casual employment for an unskilled gent who (as here) had been made redundant. This Manvanster was morbidly obese. He wheezed, and ruddily complained about the amount of belongings, despite having been forewarned. He stopped regularly for breathe on the stairs, looking so ill that my new neighbours nearly called an ambulance. His co-worker griped, chucking belongings around, but only broke a few glasses (only...)

During the next move, I accepted the cheapest quote. The company phoned later on to explain they had forgotten to include insurance costs. Something felt wrong, but they collected my worldly goods for storage, hauling them southwards two weeks later. Never have I felt so useless; heavy books floated away like feather pillows. I mentioned four small extra boxes; the chief said it was no problem.

Hours afterwards, the MD called, demanding money for “…heavier than expected boxes,” sounding like a villain from Taggart, rejected for being a cliché.

He said: “Listen girlie, you dinnae know who you’re messing with.”
I said: “Well, you don’t know who you’re messing with do you?”
He seemed quite taken aback. I hate bullies, and anyway, I didn’t have the extra money.

He threatened to dump everything if I didn’t pay. The police agreed this was extortion. They visited the company, who changed tack to holding my goods to ransom. So began a fortnight of daily calls from the MD who cackled down the phone like a pantomime baddie, getting his kicks by trying to frighten a “…silly wee girlie,” like me.

After delicate diplomatic negotiations, i.e. him screeching: “Listen girlie: you’re gonnae lose everything if you dinnae gie us more money!” (Can you guess where’s he’s from? That’s right – Scotland!) and me retaliating in kind (without the accent) the lorry arrived. Concerned local police were on standby. Thankfully, nothing was pissed on, smashed, or sold, as feared. No extra money changed hands.

The embarrassed employees apologised for their deranged boss (whose wife had left him recently, and who keeps a plasma mega-screen telly perpetually running full-blast in every room.) They couldn’t have been more helpful. The inevitable losses were annoying but minimal (irreplaceable screws from my bed-frame.) But I don’t have a bad back, which to me is priceless.

(NB: I told this true story to the latest removal man, who was so distressed he bought me a drink, thereby restoring my faith in their noble occupation.)