Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Stair Mistress

Another new flat, and so far, it’s basic but reasonable: properly sound-proofed and sturdy, with separate rooms and even a bit of storage. It’s in an old warehouse which was converted decades ago, so even if the area can be slightly ‘challenging’ at times, I am happy here.

Except wouldn’t you know it, there’s one problem: it’s position (on one of the highest floors) is starting to become an issue. Yes, I realise I sound ungrateful, and yes I know that the higher the flat the warmer it is and the cheaper the bills, but you try carrying a heavy bag of books, and then stocking up on groceries, after grappling with an amusing collapsible umbrella in a wintry storm and obliged afterwards to climb upwards and onwards.

Where I live, these hallways are called ‘closes.’ The less salubrious examples have no door, granting strangers the freedom to wander in, look around and do whatever they want to do. Once inside it doesn’t matter how luxurious the flats are: even if they house spendthrift millionaires, with d├ęcor and fittings both sumptuous and grand, the close always looks like a dodgy alleyway in a notorious slum. Walls are covered in cracked ceramic tiles, or painted in diarrhoea coloured splatters with mysterious oily stains on the chipped concrete steps.

Fortunately, my close has a locked door. Even so, for some reason, even in the middle of snowstorm, someone usually opens a window – so bracing. The cold, grey stairwells become like a film-set, with shadows and plumes of frozen breath contributing to the eerie atmosphere.

This lay-out has an chilly effect on residents. We never linger and only meet when taking steps three at a time, or, when and panting and shattered we rest our red and stripy hands after lugging bags of spuds and washing-powder up the steps.

Occasionally I meet the people who live beside me, or their guests, like the girl who had stayed the night with a neighbour. She was grinning and blushed when I greeted her: she rushed down the stairs, stopping on every level to fasten a button, check the time, or tie back her hair, obviously remembering the night before and smiling again before checking her diary and laughing out loud at a text message.

Later I noticed an elderly lady stranding helplessly beside her front door as relatives carried heavy groceries to her kitchen. Stairs make these buildings impossible for anyone whose legs are slowing down.

My new home’s not that high, but already it seems like quite a daunting trek. In my vagabond life, drifting around has led me to formulate a list of must-haves. Thanks to Nice Heights, I know the value of a thoughtful lay-out and a concierge. Thanks to this place (I can’t think of a name) I also want a lift next time. Well, it’s something to aim for, isn’t it, and we all need a dream.

(NB: I’ve had some contact with an admirable and determined rental-rights campaigner from Texas, who issues standard forms to help tenants battle the combined forces of agents and landlords. One is headed: “Record of shots fired.” It’s different over there, isn’t it?)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Just A Rentergirl Who Can't Say No.

Scotland has sorted out those whimsical, onerous and imaginative letting agents admin fees good and proper. They’ve made them illegal. Agents caught charging fees are transported in chains to Rhyl, beaten about the face with cabbages and obliged to record a sincere, humble and profuse apology broadcast on youtube before repaying all the money and then some.

Yeah, right. There is a law, but letting agents brazenly ignore it, and have done for decades.

When I was sorting my current home (a great flat I might add – I seem to have been lucky for the second time) I raised the whole fees-being-illegal-thing, but you know how it works: no fees paid=no flat.

So: here are some other stories. The tenant who moved into a flat, and was told that she would be charged a £50 admin fee. It’s a three bed flat: that’s £150 in total. An online credit check costs about a fiver, and they didn’t contact her referees.

She asked me what she should do. I suggested that she should mention casually and chattily that the fees were illegal. She was told: ‘It’s a grey area.’ Only in so far as a minority opinion argues that ‘reasonable’ fees may be charged, to cover actual expenses.

Another prospective tenant queried the purpose of that £100 ‘key-money’ (this scam operates under a multitude of different names.) She was told it covered the onerous and time consuming duty of hauling in written references from her nominated referees (perhaps they live on the moon; rocket fuel is costly which might explain the rates.) Can you can guess what happened next? Just as with myself, none of the referees was actually contacted.

My agency justifies these mystery monies: “...as we have to pay to run our office.” Moving left me out of pocket, what with storage, removal vans to hire, and deposits to find. Perhaps I should send them an invoice?

I was also ambushed by sudden news of six weeks in advance for the deposit. I queried this, as tenants/customers are entitled to prior warning of any extraordinary costs, but was told by a snide letting-agent: “…this is just what charge; it’s what we charge. You can always say no.”

What would happen if I had stood my ground, looked the agent in the eye, and in my firmest stentorian tones declaimed: “No! I will not pay your illegal charges! Vive la revolution!” But I was technically homeless, and when people say: be strong and refuse to pay it’s hard even for me and I know my rights. I am aware that a charity did some secret shopping, and discovered that the majority of agencies openly and contemptuously break the law.

There is an obvious course of action: the courts, for a possible case involving fraud, extortion and charging illegal fees, but if I choose that path, I might lose the flat. Oh, this mountainous dilemma. What would you do?

(NB: I’ve been away from blogging. Sorry, but that broken memory stick sideswiped me. I need to get it repaired – all advice welcome.)