Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Many Ages Of Renting

Every now and again, I receive an email asking why I don’t just buy a home. Wow. Great idea! The thought has never occurred to me.

The person cycling around your neighbourhood with a megaphone shouting ‘Hey Einstein: if it was that easy to buy a home, don’t you think I would?’ Yeah - that’s me. If not the for the restraining order…

Renting is a long term, fact of life. Even people who live in exclusive gated country houses do not escape the shackles of renting. Elsewhere, many start as children, surviving with a landlord who understands the needs of families, close to a good school. Ha.Ha.Ha.

Then it’s time to leave home - what an adventure: freedom, privacy, and independence. Also: damp, rogue landlords (who prey on the inexperienced) extortionate fees from letting agents like checks on guarantors (new tenants have no credit history). Say hello to bad furniture, relying on shabby sofas, stained mattresses and rickety tables.

Student housing varies, from grandly appointed ‘rooms’ at Oxbridge, to cell-like student blocks, and horrible houses in multiple occupation. The mushrooms growing close by are not going to make ‘soup’ of any kind (hallucinogenic or not) but are recorded for a lengthy complaint to Environmental Health, who are overstretched and anyway, know you will vacate in June.

So to saving to buy that first home. It’s usually a flat, and what joy it is. Until selling up to purchase the first family home – there might be kids on the way, the neighbourhood might be unsuitable. You try and move but become a forced tenant, reluctant, grumpy and unable to sell up because of negative equity, or saving for a deposit. You sourly scan the property ads and realise that it’s actually cheaper to pay a mortgage than it is to rent a house that meets your needs (ie a room for every child of different age and sex – perhaps even caring for elderly or disabled family.)

Then you might become a landlord: well, the mortgage is paid off, and you can afford a buy-to-let mortgage. Unless that is, you lost your job and were repossessed or never managed to get a foothold on the renting ladder, and are back renting. Or are separated.

With age comes downsizing, perhaps a city-centre flat, releasing equity to help adult kids buy homes. You aren’t renting, but are surrounded by tenants abandoned by amateur, untrained, unregulated buy-to-let landlords, tenants who hold loud parties, sublet the flats and move on regularly. It affects every waking day and every sleepless night. You are left living in a wasteland, as prices drop, and your investment has lost thousands.

Then maybe, a retirement flat, or sheltered housing, rented reluctantly, where residents must discard beloved possessions due to lack of space.

Renting touches everyone, and it is bleak. Even on holiday, in a home that is being let to tourists, rather than house locals, renting embraces and ensnares us all, like an octopus with a grip of doom. Some of us will never be free.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Letting Agent and The Piece of Paper.

It was only a simple piece of paper, but it made me bang my head against the wall. Perfectly ordinary text - casual and everyday, but it made me whine and scream and punch myself in the face as there was no else around to punch.

It’s all Molly’s fault. My friends know I am not keen on letting agents, which is putting it mildly, and that I pass on details of their transgressions to ‘the appropriate authorities.’ Molly is currently house-hunting, and was keen for my opinion regarding a document passed on by her letting agent - basically a menu of charges. Just another piece of paper, then.

But what was written down was outrageous. There were fifteen conditions: one mentions a holding deposit of £150 (supposedly keeping the place off the market for two weeks). Amongst the usual rubbish about a deposit etc. is a £95 ‘check out’ fee (the latest wheeze for cheating new tenants.)

There was also a £30 tenant assessment fee and a short lease premium. Amazingly: they charge £150 for a lease of less than six months. Please remember, this is in Scotland, where all tenant premiums are illegal. That’s right – they can’t lawfully charge for any of this.

But these villains make everything worse by demanding written proof of contents insurance (none of their business frankly, since landlords must have their own insurance and the property is unfurnished.)

What made me scream, lash out and wail is the a mandatory annual rent increase of 3.5% per annum, no matter what. No wonder rents are rising: there is no need for this - none whatsoever. Rents in certain cities are increasing so fast that tenant’s faces wobble with G forces as if riding in rockets headed to space. Rents race onwards and ever upwards because agents demand that they should (and agents earn a percentage of the monthly rent.)

Now, Shelter Scotland are raising awareness of the illegality of these charges, encouraging tenants to reclaim. But Molly didn’t get that far: she calmly questioned the legality of the proposed fees. Her letting agency had compounded their offence by trying to charge both Molly and her partner separately (it’s joint tenancy for a one bed flat, and not exactly Versaille.) The agency agreed to clarify their facts, but rang back saying that entirely by coincidence, they had let the flat to another couple. How odd.

When there is a mass extinction event for letting agents, I truly hope this lot go bust early and with extreme prejudice. They are often conning money from students and first time renters, who know no better and are too scared to use the simple procedure of reclaiming their fees.

When people move home, they are vulnerable. Tenants must leap through flaming hoops to get as far as signing a tenancy agreement and letting agents circle, drooling over the scent of desperation. Vultures, pure and simple. Vultures is what they are.

Who will charge agents with extortion? Letting agents who demand illegal fees in Scotland, or extortionate fees in England (where fees are lawful) could - and must - be jailed.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Share The Joy

Renting is horrible. I am fed up with bad news, and it’s going to get a lot, lot worse in the next year, with benefit caps biting and that dreaded incoming spare room tax. I wanted to be positive, and therefore thank a recent correspondent for this story:

‘After 18 years of being treated like "rental scum", I've finally found a good one. The flat I'm renting belonged to my LL's mum, who passed away nearly a decade ago. So she's not in it for the money. I found it on Gumtree (I know!), and thought it sounded too good to be true (at least £200 pcm less than other flats in the area, idyllic canalside spot with a gorgeous park on the other side of the water), but after 2 months of seeing overpriced hovels through agents, I decided to risk the cauldron of crazy that is Gumtree.’

Lovely turn of phrase for describing G******. She goes on to list why her landlady is ‘awesome’:

’She had the entire flat repainted before I moved in. She also left a bottle of wine and a welcome card on the dining table.

- When I mentioned I had my own bed, she immediately offered to put hers into storage. (I rented this place furnished. When I started renting 18 years ago, unfurnished places seemed to be more common, but now it's the opposite. Up until now I've either had to give away or sell some of my lovely furniture at knockdown prices, or live with two of everything in an already cramped space.)

- The new kitchen cupboard doors Sarah had ordered were going to be a week late, and the shower needed replacing, so on the day I moved in, she gave me a cheque for one week's rent. I tried to tell her that it really wasn't a big deal, most landlords wouldn't have bothered replacing them at all, and the shower seemed to work fine when I'd tested during the flat viewing, but she wouldn't hear of it.

- She happily allows pets. She offers to come round and feed my 2 cats if I go on holiday.

- When I locked myself out of the flat on a Tuesday morning in my nightgown, she sent a friend round in a taxi with a spare key (she was on holiday in Europe at the time). She wouldn't let me reimburse her for the taxi. "It's all part of the service."

- She was over the moon when I had the cream carpets professionally cleaned. "But that's my responsibility. It's my carpet." she said.

- When the previous tenants suffered a break-in, she had an alarm system installed, at her own expense, the following week.

- I've been here nearly 2 years, and she hasn't raised the rent. She could easily get more for this flat, particularly as this area has become more popular in the past 2 years.

I could go on, but there are some good landlords out there. Of course, it did take me 18 years to find one.’

My own landlady is also humane and understanding. She solved my water pressure nightmare by installing a shower (she is a reluctant landlady – blighted by negative equity and must sit tight for at least another five years, I reckon, so she’s broke.) She used up her bank of relative favours, and they were sometimes late or didn’t show, but I have a shower now. As a thank you for waiting, she sent a package of lovely smelly stuff.

The only problem (for her) is this: the letting agents are eating up a massive percentage of her income, despite which she has arranged all the repairs, as she can’t afford to use their contractors. The agents seem to maintain that despite answering my water pressure queries only after I had signed the lease with an ‘but it’s always been like that,’ they are insisting wrongly they not liable. In the meantime, I carry on with minor repairs, and don’t bother her unless its necessary.

But the water pressure was dealt with amicably, proof that we all benefit when landlords and tenants do their best to cooperate. Let’s not fight. Letting agents on the other hand…

Monday, 6 August 2012

Ask Aunty Rentergirl

Over the past year or so, I have noticed something both flattering and disturbing. Readers are beginning to email me requesting advice about certain delicate problems and dilemmas. I don’t mean shy queries about erectile disfunction, etiquette clarification or whether they should marry, but help with various housing difficulties.

I like it when readers share their stories: it proves that I am not alone in finding renting to be, generally, truly awful. But I am not a lawyer - not a trained housing professional. I can only offer what I have learned, underlined by a prominent disclaimer that I am not an expert, not am I a qualified, trained advisor.

Recently, I was consulted by an acquaintance. His girlfriend was being bullied by her ex-landlady, a grasping vicious rentier who sounds truly horrible (even the letting agents agreed.) Despite having scoured the flat before vacating, this tenant was presented with a bill for cleaning. The brass-necked landlady included costs for her own efforts, then added charges for the professional cleaner she was obliged to hire because the place was supposedly so filthy.

Fortunately my friend had taken pictures, keen to challenge the landlady, whose bill (completely by coincidence, of course) came to virtually the same amount as her deposit. I advised her to check if, and where, her deposit was protected, and then use the dispute service.

This tenant backed down, thoroughly intimidated. That’s what agents and landlords rely on: renters feel threatened by the idea of challenging their overlord, especially in court which they imagine is governed by a thundering aristocrat in a white wig, not umpired by am approachable, reasonable person keen to make the process accessible.

Elsewhere, the tenant I have written about in the post below now wishes to relocate – or rather, knows she cannot stay forever, as she is homeless (albeit not roofless) and can’t sublet a room in that nurses home forever. My advice was to tell the truth: that she is subletting casually and temporarily, before seeking a reasonable landlord online who might appreciate a good tenant, albeit one with precarious work security. I am convinced such a creature exists. Don’t they?

Which begs the question: where do tenants go for advice? Legal Aid is being effectively abolished, neighbourhood advice centres, the CAB (where my mixed experiences have been, shall we…’mixed’) and law centres have queues down the road. Council tenancy relations officers are snowed under. Sometimes people just want to be guided through their options, or are seeking reassurance.

While I’m flattered to be consulted, I worry about that many readers are harassed, bullied and given notice but have nowhere left to turn. I will always do my best, and occasionally find your emails upsetting (or with increasing rarity, amusing.)

Once again, it’s the low level misery of renting that proves the most destructive - not the minority, heinous, criminal ‘rogue’ landlords wrongfully evicting and assaulting tenants, but the slow erosion of security and the feeling that there is no help available. Private landlords count on this to avoid responsibilities. It’s horrible.