Monday, 25 June 2012

Letting Agents Again. And Sadly - Again.

As I’ve ranted and raged previously here and elsewhere, landlords, at the behest of their representative toadies on earth – letting agents, successfully demand, inter alia: references, guarantors, years of certificated accounts from freelancers, and five years of previous addresses. And what reassurance do tenants successfully request of their all-powerful overlords? None.

This must end. We need to see landlords jumping through as many flaming hoops as those demanded of renters. Evidence of permission to let from mortgage companies, proof of timely mortgage payments being made, registration and training are all increasingly necessary.

The good news is that Wales will introduce landlord licensing (you can hear the squealing from afar) with Scotland set to follow suit. Landlords need to be regulated so that tenants can have some recourse (even against the evil clowns who would undeniably do their best to avoid being licensed.)

Tenants still complain to me about receiving no guarantee of their landlord’s integrity. Meanwhile, renters submit to numerous checks, including those new-fangled ‘affordability’ tests, which make me extremely angry, as computer protocols ignore the fact that most people go without basics to pay up where are rents rocketing (low wages inflame this problem.) Meanwhile letting agents in high demand areas encourage deluded owners to hike prices until they soar ever skywards.

This reprised diatribe was prompted by the emergence of those promising new rental websites, which allow landlords and tenants to do a deal without letting agents souring relations. Letting agents are increasingly irrelevant; indeed, they are endangered. The oncoming mass extinction event of these predators will finish off stupid fees (already illegal in Scotland) and branded smart cars. No more agents speaking in place of landlords who might have been more reasonable in person.

There’s one problem with all these sites: the references and checks are all aimed at mollifying landlords. Less consideration is given to tenants, currently not empowered to demand evidence of their landlord’s credit history, employment status, whether they actually own or are entitled to rent out the property, any history of threatening and/or abusing tenants, and if they have any CCJ’s – even those with no bearing on their ability to pay the mortgage.

Change is coming. Many letting agents will go bust, but since they’ve bought it on themselves, it’s so very hard to care. Agents have no interest in encouraging long-term occupancy, as most charge fees to both landlord and tenant with every new occupation. But soon, soon, across the land, offices will close, with agents brought down by unrestrained greed, arrogance and incompetence. Why else would they charge from a menu: for references, ‘admin’, and hundreds for credit checks costing a fiver (and which are pointless anyway.)

No: the new sites are not yet perfect, currently intended to placate and attract fretful landlords instead of reassuring and protecting vulnerable tenants. Only when landlords face the same background checks and sanctions as tenants will things be equal, and those days are upon us. Remember bookshops? Remember travel agents? Insurance brokers? Letting agents will be the latest high street casualties, their once flash offices boarded-up, deserted and forlorn. Bring it on!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Flatmate Woes - People Getting Scary

As you might know, I can see the phrases keyed into search engines to find me (and also your location). Recently, I’ve spotted a new trend, in that many of you seem troubled by your co-tenants. I don’t mean you’re all stoking petty little tiffs about the bathroom rota: I mean horrible, destructive rows, sometimes involving threats of, or actual, violence. This new tone is distressingly plaintive and disturbing, with some of you finding me by googling phrases like: ‘I’m scared of my flatmates.’

Observant readers will notice (and sarcastic readers will gripe) but I’ve mentioned this previously: I write again because numbers are increasing, and it’s getting serious. Previously I’ve suggested that some sort of mediation service is needed, like marriage guidance for house-shares.

Anyone under the age of thirty-five and claiming housing benefit must now live in shared accommodation. And remember: when I say claimant, I mean potentially, you (yes – you) as genuine job security is scarce, employees face short-term contracts, very low wages (most housing benefit claimants work) and serial temping is rife, so get used to the idea that at some point that you might be swallowing your pride and signing on.

Furthermore, in some cities tenants must now share for much longer than ever before, due to soaring rents, the low availability of new mortgages, and a lack of suitable housing. Meanwhile landlords are unwilling to let properties long term, which makes tenants nervous. Communal households, who hold regular meetings where grievances are raised and solved together, might be one way forward. This happens on the continent, and might just work (and assist whoever googled: ‘bastard flatmates.’)

Current key-words indicate something truly disturbing: some co-tenants find themselves helplessly trapped in a house with a bully they cannot avoid, terrified and hiding in their rooms. Now if you find yourself unemployed and coping in your own home with someone intent on upsetting, hurting or otherwise intimidating you, where do you turn?

Moving out is the obvious solution, but it’s difficult without money for van-hire, another deposit and rent in advance, so what’s the alternative? If you are actually being hurt physically, then the police are best placed to assist, which might sound extreme. I can’t imagine that landlords are willing or competent to intervene, and who else can help? Council tenancy relations officers are very helpful but I doubt there is much they can do.

It’s a tragic parallel, but these stories are similar to domestic violence, accompanied by homophobic abuse (one charmer keyed in ‘Hit my gay flatmate’) sexual intimidation, and psychological bullying, aimed precisely at those already ground down and impoverished by unemployment and low pay.

The most upsetting phrase I’ve seen was ‘My flatmate punched me.’ I’ve no idea of the context or history to this, but imagine how terrible that must be: dreading the hour of their tormentor’s return with no way out. I think there must be some logical, official way of resolving this and helping victims. All I can do is raise the issue. Any suggestions?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Don't Forget Your Toothbrush.

Having just written about the previous occupant of my home leaving handfuls of hair in every sink plughole, friends have been entertaining me with their own memories of random items left behind in their own rented accommodation. Consequently, I now have slightly (slightly…) more sympathy with rules decreeing that property must be professionally cleaned when tenants move out, although of course, landlords must pay (as they always used to.)

Anyway. A friend rented a furnished flat, and settled down for a night in front of the TV. Sadly, he dropped the remote down the back of the sofa, and after rummaging around emerged screaming, clutching a full set of dentures. ‘Who left these here?’ he demanded of his unfazed, unsympathetic flatmates. There were no takers.

Elsewhere, I’ve heard tales of rotting food, suspect socks, and some strange women’s Y-fronts under the bed, possibly not as disturbing as the tin of Edwardian pilchards found elsewhere. Or a repeated problem: tenants who move out, and leave everything in the bathroom, including mugs full of discarded, toothbrushes wedged in chipped mugs full of stinking, murky water, half-used bars of soap, face-cloths, loofahs, empty shampoo bottles etc. Yuk.

Once I found my then landlord’s stash of porn, which he’d hidden in the airing cupboard before I moved in (none of your weird stuff – straightforward bare naked ladies) so I returned everything immediately. Well, I didn’t want it. What if they were collectors editions? What if he’d borrowed them? He didn’t know where to put himself, and afterwards, his brother collected the rent.

When venturing into those cupboards under the stairs, I’ve found bags of clothes, letters, and the most boring diary in the world. As much as I disparage newbuilds, at least you know you are the first in. Or so you’d think. In one newly converted home, a kindly builder left me an unflushed toilet, generously overfilled, along with the old copy of The Sun he’d used as toilet paper. Clearly a man of taste.

Kitchen goods are always a problem. Much of what I am writing about here is discarded rubbish, but the kitchen stuff, we are supposed to retain, even cherish. Moving in and finding the cupboards stuffed with your landlord’s possessions is always annoying. One especially lovely former landlord was a hoarder, and insisted on keeping balls of twine and punctured air mattresses in my only storage cupboard. I found other random thingummyjigs kept ‘just in case.’

Some landlords fine tenants for leaving anything behind: one occupant left a good quality nearly new toaster and kettle, with a note attached saying the new occupants should feel to keep and use them. The landlord charged £50 for disposal. Another friend moved into a flat and discovered a Marie-Celeste of clothes, half-eaten meals, rubbish and even unreleased tracks from a now quite famous singer-songwriter, who had done a runner.

Mostly though, I’d still like to thank the kindly Wendy who once bequeathed a working television (the note wishing me good luck and happiness was even nicer.) Mercifully, she also remembered to pack her dentures.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Under No Pressure

I moved into a new flat. Gimlet-eyed, I inspected before accepting. Years of experience (much of it detailed hereabouts, if you recall) mean that I know what to look for. Despite being in a hurry (previous landlords having returned from abroad and now want their home back) after looking around, I signed a new agreement. I felt uneasy. Something was wrong.

I asked if I could attach the shower-spray to the wall. The Letting Agent (smiley, smiley! chatty chatty!) said yes while admitting that the water pressure is a ‘a bit weak.’ That’s like saying The Niagara Falls are known to roar slightly.

Having dutifully cleaned the previous place in a haze of bleach fumes until it gleamed and germs retreated in fear, I moved in and prepared for some light, preparatory dusting. And now…only now after several days of anger and despair, am I able to describe the horror, the horror.

The previous occupant had left freshly-cut clumps of thick black hair in all the sinks: bath, bathroom, kitchen etc. That’s normal right? Thought not - another new item for the checklist: inspect plugholes for alopecia-related detritus. Oh and the bathroom door and window do not shut, let alone lock. Also, when I first looked around, the weather outside was so hot my teeth began to itch. Now, in June, the bathroom is so cold, I fear it might be haunted.

The place was filthy: nothing had been cleaned, and my sight problems led to a vision of filth hitting me quite unexpectedly. The oven was rank, and the light fittings are frankly, furry. The agreement states I must have the place ‘professionally cleaned’ on vacating. Ha. Never going to happen, which I’ve pointed out to the chatty-happy-martinet she-agent (who boasted about having a power shower at her home).

And dimmer switches are so romantic aren’t they? Just not when they are ancient, and attached to low energy light bulbs. When this happens, they are hazardous.

But back to the water pressure. After nearly ending up in Stoke Mandeville following the contortions required to reach the bathroom mixer-tap, and observing the sad, pitifully slow trickle of water from the bathroom sink, I scalded myself under the kitchen tap. The letting agent’s response took several days. There’s a long history of investigations; in fact an entire creation myth with fluid-deities, mythical pipe workmen and phantom plumbing engineers explaining why the water pressure is so weak. After observing me signing on the dotted line, that damned she-agent wrote: ‘The owners tolerated it when they lived there, and so you just have to accept it too.’

I shall yodel from beyond the grave: ‘Yeah but the owners eventually get to OWN the bloody house!’ Yep: amateur landlords again, trapped (or forced) amateur landlords, with property in negative equity which must be rented out, resentful sulky landlords who can’t/won’t pay for repairs, treating maintenance requests as an affront to their human rights. And another thing: this didn’t emerge in the survey?

I’ve asked for a meeting with that heinous she-agent, who breezily chats over and deftly ignores me, batting off all complaints. I shall keep you posted.