Sunday, 28 March 2010

Renting In LA

Recently, a deceptively simple comment from a friend living in Los Angeles revealed all that is wrong with renting in the UK. She replied to a rentergirl posting with the words: “So after all this time, I finally realize you don't have rent control. Don't kill me. Here, renters have rights that would be a paradise compared to everything you describe. You can't even throw someone out for not paying. You have to be very careful when renting out here.”

That’s right, to my totally dumbfounded, jaw-gapes-to-breaking-point astonishment, tenants in the USA (at least in California) have more rights than over here. How the hell did that happen?

W is about to let a room in her home, and as a prospective landlady is concerned that renting there has shifted too far in favour of the (admittedly rare) but more devious sort of tenant. A keen fan of Judge Judy, she watches cases bought to arbitration where even toxic lodgers haunt the property forevermore. Even repossession due to non payment of rent is fraught with legal constraints, to the extent that occasionally landlords pay bad tenants to leave and write them a glowing reference, just to see the back of them.

How different from the UK, where all that’s needed is a coy whisper accompanied with a nuanced shrug, and renters are out – end of. Over here tenants must be demonstrably wealthy and then outline their ancient lineage in blood on parchment, before paying massive deposits in advance. Friends in New York say they always use the upfront deposit as the last week of rent, which means the time between tenancies is simpler, and deposits less likely to be withheld. If only....

Which brings me to rent control, enshrined by law in LA, but the stuff of legend over here. This mythical protection against overcharging used to exist way back in the olden days when knights were bold, but was legislated away by an evil dragon (aka Margaret Thatcher.) Landlords were prevented from charging over the odds for property, under a system where Rent Officers could be invited by tenants to assess a property’s rental worth.

Imagine if we still had fair rents, and all those amateur buy-to-let chancers had known that the only profit to be made comes from the slow increasing value of the property, and not from ramping up prices to ludicrous (ie Inside Track ‘Get Rich Quick You Deluded Fool’ Seminar) levels of stupid greed.

Oh, and as for repairs, if landlords don’t do them, then City Hall gets very angry indeed - not the feeble tut-tutting and finger wagging you meet over here - but massive fines for persistent non repairs.

So in LA, a place we imagine to be populated by silicon-based life-forms and loopy, macrobiotic rich people has created a system where it’s accepted that tenants stay for years, not weeks, and renters rights are both respected and enforced, whereas over here, I am treated like a termite. For tenants, renting is better in Lalaland. I also hear that it’s pleasantly sunny all the time.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Just A Simple Country Tenant

I have always believed that cities were invented to save us all from the horror of living in the countryside, but others disagree with my sentiments that ‘the land’ is sticky, smelly, and steep. They dream of that elusive bucolic idyll, and choose to rent homes in our green and pleasant pastures, in amongst the tractors, thatched roofs, and feral cows (a childhood spent being frogmarched up the Brecon Beacons has clearly scarred my soul.)

I am convinced that on every village green, there sits a man with six fingers playing the banjo. I also know that the idea of the countryside being carefree, with little lambsies skittering about, and rosy cheeked, respectful children who sing traditional nursery rhymes whilst playing cricket and drinking warm beer, or something like that, equates with a substance country-folk risk treading in with alarming frequency.

The reality is like Trainspotting, only bleaker, more nihilistic, and more desperate. But still people dream of living ‘on the land’ (as opposed to the sea?) which causes the following problem: a lack of supply of affordable rented housing.

This doesn’t just blight the lives of people who want “…to get away from the city and live an organic lifestyle” but ordinary mortals who simply want to…well live. Unfortunately, in ‘the countryside,’ letting-agents and landlords are not kindly, holistic and natural - they are mean, mean, mean. Country tenants/peasants/serfs are forced to kowtow to landlords, under the real and present danger of being ordered to get “…ahff moi land!” or more accurately out of the house they pay extortionate rent for the dubious privilege of living in.

The fact that local people are priced out of buying or rented property is common knowledge in rural areas. Perhaps less known is the power this situation bestows upon those rare and elusive creatures – landlords who choose to rent not to holidaymakers, but to real, permanent residents.

I know of families who live and work in rural beauty-spots, where housing is sparse. Perhaps as a result, their landlord thumbs his nose and ignores any requests for repairs, even if the quality and value of his property is damaged. If renters do assert their rights, retribution inevitably follows in the from of punitive rent rises to cover the costs of “improvements” (that is – the essential repairs.)

If they don’t like it, or can’t pay, they are told to “…go elsewhere.” Except they can’t: it’s that nasty circle again – rent too expensive-saving up for a deposit impossible-houses too dear in any case-so it’s back to renting then. There is no escape from that infernal treadmill, and some rural tenants have taken to paying for such repairs and improvements required to bring them into the twenty-first century, like showers and double-glazing.

A lack of decent, affordable, available homes to rent in the country has created a fresh and cruel, modern droit de seigneur: landlords can screw tenants over whenever and however they want, and boy do they make the most of it.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Hellish Flatmates (Slight Return)

Here’s another popular keyword people use to find this blog: “I hate my flatmate/what rights do I have in a shared house/my flatmate is crazy,” and other infinite variations of the fresh new up close and personal hell that go with human contact.

In my circle of friends, the traditional problems are still doing the rounds, from minor vexations such as variable recycling standards, right up to entering a shared lounge and tripping over smelly drunken blokes crashed out on the sofa of a morning.

When it’s good, flat-shares are a marvellous idea – they’re cheaper, you have the chance of some companionship - someone to share bills and maybe even the occasional meal. But when it’s bad, it’s horrible – and uniquely uncomfortable for many unusual reasons.

In one previous house-share, one girl had an especially arrogant and imperious boyfriend. His parents seemed to own much of the county, but despite his wealth, he refused to pay his way, and drank all the coffee, used all the toothpaste etc etc.... This is a common problem in house-shares: moving in a partner who isn’t officially a tenant. When are they deemed to have moved in: when they’ve left a toothbrush in the bathroom, contribute willingly to the leccy bill, or even have their name on the cleaning rota?

For ‘Steve’ it was none of the above - in fact at one point he brazenly suggested that we should insure our house, as in the event of burglary, he didn’t want to be losing his precious stereo, now did he? (and no he didn’t offer to pay.)

Don’t worry – though: we had our revenge, but it was anything but sweet. We left the house one morning and waited at the bus stop opposite. A female acquaintance noticed us and said: “Oh – you must share a house with “Steve’ – I had a fling with him over Easter.” As our jaws bounced on the pavement like space-hoppers, she explained that she’d spent Easter in bed with him. In our house.

So…we waited until his girlfriend was out to have a little chat. His face was like a bright red deflated balloon and initially he denied it, until eventually he confessed. We ordered him to move out, explaining that we would be telling our friend about his little fling. For my friend it was horrible, but to skewer such a lazy, bumptious, supercilious snobby leech was extremely satisfying.

Other flatmates in different lives have been lazy, crazy, omnipresent or eternally absent (which can be extremely unnerving.) Another friend, when a mature student, shared a flat with a young and immature first year bloke. He didn’t mind being a father figure, until one day he got a text, which read: “Quick - how do I undo a girl’s bra with one hand?” The mental picture of the lovelorn lusty lad trying to romantically disrobe a young lady, phone in one hand, girl in the other, is memorable and evocative, although at least he didn’t untangle himself so as to move over to his laptop and google the answer.