Monday, 29 October 2012

Repairing Relationship

Repairs are a nightmare. Even if you wake up surfing dancing geysers of sewage newly erupted the lounge, many landlords are reluctant to do much about it. The problem festers, as does the flat.

There are some good landlords out there, but many won’t mend stuff if they don’t want to. The grim fact is that after months of justified requests, the landlord might – entirely by coincidence – urgently ‘require the house for relatives’. This is the easiest legal ploy to evict ‘troublemakers,’ i.e. the landlord name for tenants wilful enough to need repairs, however urgent, necessary, and reasonable. Too many homes are uninhabitable: rickety, squalid and damp.

But even if the damage will lead to the house collapsing within days, they really can’t be bothered. The easiest way is to offer to sort it out yourself. Arrange for several high-end contractors to supply written estimates for the task, and politely send off the most expensive, with a note explaining how you appreciate your landlord is very busy, but the property is being damaged by the leak/whatever, so can you have permission to proceed? Sometimes this spurs them into action.

The disruption, discomfort, and health hazards of a damaged flat can drive you crazy. My list of disasters is legendary: the lounge window nailed shut during a heatwave, the leaking ceiling which collapsed, spilling a mouldy waterfall all over my telly. An gas boiler which the landlord’s nominated contractor (and horrified friend) reported to the council. The dangerous shower installed by our landlord’s ‘cousins,’ which could have electrocuted my flatmate.

Landlords often take even the most reasonable requests as a personal slight. One actually whined that he had ‘…even bought us a mop.’ We were, he said: ‘Living in his home, and who had brought us up to be so rude.’ Patiently and wearily, I explained the we pay the rent/he does the repairs bargain.

Another landlord lived in a different city, and if I ever made contact (like sending a telegram to Mars) he’d ask me to sort it myself, and send him the bill. There was no guarantee he’d pay, so commissioning work was worrisome, but in other respects he left well alone, which has much to recommend it.

I was contacted by a reader, whose home has a massive ‘gap’ between the basement and the ground floor flat. It’s freezing - probably rotting the structure, but the agents insist the place was ‘rented as seen’ which is utter bul…rubbish. She’s starting the process of enforcement, which will lead to a nasty surprise for her appalling landlady.

My lowest point haunts me still. I was living in a large, gothic student house, like something from The Munsters. The bedroom was cold. My sleep was often troubled, and one night violent blizzards entered my troubled dreams. As I slept, the glass in the bedroom window had blown out during a winter storm, leaving a gaping hole. I awoke with actual snow blowing onto my face, little drifts settling on my pillow.
When I asked for a repair, the landlord said: ‘Make me…’
And gave me notice me when I did.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Why Would Anyone Become A Landlord?

Why would anyone become a landlord/rentier? Why would they do that? Simple: letting out property as homes for other people to live in was traditionally, and increasingly seen as a certain, sure fire, cross-your-heart-hope-to-die, solid gold, clear cut, guaranteed route to financial security or even…WEALTH!

Rich! Rich you will be! Richer than Croesus, wealthier than your wildest, trippiest, dreams. Totally bling. For sure. Money, money, money!

Except, well…it’s not like that is it? Landlords who bought for, and are entering the private rental sector are doing so not just because they want to be rich…Rich! RICH! (etc…) They do so for security, as state pensions are disappointing, student fees are high and interest rates are low. Put your money in bricks in mortar went the mantra. And that’s exactly what they did.

Landlords do not enter the market to help people although they might choose to be supportive of tenants, but equally they might not. Few choose to be kind: I know this as one of the most common search terms used by new readers is ‘my tenants are scum.’ And recently: ‘need bouncers to evict my tenant.’ Nice.

Rentiers want to own something real, tangible and visible - to possess an object that is literally concrete, because shares are risky, and in some circumstances savers actually lose money. What else is there? Art? Antiques? Gold? Buy a B&B? (Well, you have to work at a B&B, which puts off many, and you can’t by law even be a homophobic bigot anymore.)

People buy property to rent as houses for ‘the future’ or to help their children. They buy up and then rent out property, not as a secure place for a fellow human being to occupy into their dotage, but a block of money to be wallowed in by the owner, a wedge of cash blighted and infested by pesky, flawed human tenants.

And landlords might still be tempted to buy a dovecot (what I call newbuilds) its value dropping by the minute, or purchase buildings outside of their area of knowledge, in a different town or a neighbourhood unknown to them, where wise people and most tenants fear to tread, no matter how ‘well-appointed, convenient for amenities and sensitively refurbished' the place might be.

Landlords sometimes inherit unsellable homes from dear departed relatives, and are forced to rent them out. Others might want to move themselves, but rent because they’ve sold their house and are stuck waiting to buy a new one.

The point is this: very few people actually choose to be, or set out determined to be landlords. Have you ever heard a rentier saying: ‘Ah - landlording – it’s in my blood! My mother’s father’s great-grandparents were landlords - it’s all I know.”

This causes all the problems. Few people want to be landlords, and are rarely prepared for the expense, time, annoyance and panic-stricken calls while on holiday about broken ballcocks (sorry Landgirl!) Few have proper landlord insurance, but many have prejudices, and think their former home is still their castle: often why it all goes so very, tragically, horribly wrong. And it’s usually the tenant who suffers.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Bad Landlord

I am not a fan of campaigns to ‘kick out rogue landlords’ who I believe to be both a minority and a distraction. Personally, I am more concerned about the constant, low-level misery caused by insecurity or short term contracts, and in London, rocketing rents. And don’t forget: many landlords are, like my current ‘landgirl’ (she wants to be called that) superlatively decent and reasonable.

But bad landlords exist. They are out there. A friend had a nightmare experience: she moved newbuild flat, and in the middle of a freezing winter, followed the best instructions on what to do about the pipes, and went away.

She returned to find the flat deluged after a burst pipe, and living in a nightmare of flooded possessions, was forced to leave her uninhabitable home (the one she paid rent for.) The letting agent were singularly nasty and obstructive, and after months spent sofa surfing, my friend could not get back into her flat. The letting agents contrived to blame her for the leak, claiming that pots and pans in the sink had caused water to spill (!) and then refuted their own plumbers report, which agreed that any damage was not the fault of my friend.

The lesson is a common one: she did not feel able to take the landlord to court. She discovered he was not on the local landlord register (she had not, in common with many tenants, checked this before moving in.) And so here’s what she suspects: that her landlord did not have permission to let the place from the mortgage provider, had no insurance (I always say that like drivers, landlords should be insured by law) and so tried to shift the blame onto my friend.

At that point she was held responsible for the flooding, broken down and demoralised. Oh and also: she was homeless. There is no happy ending. She invested her energy in finding somewhere to live: a decision most tenants make. They do not pursue bad/rogue/vile landlords – instead they move out and move on and I don’t blame them. While entirely understandable, it does have the effect of letting the landlord keep on harassing, flooding and tormenting the next tenant.

Elsewhere, even a casual chat with friends has garnered tales of bad landlords who: harassed and tried to kick down doors, refused outright to repair heating in the middle of a freezing winter, went bankrupt, confused the right to inspect with the need to enter randomly at will, collected or reclaimed vital furniture while tenants were out, and the worst of all, who illegally evicted tenants by sending round thugs.

Tenants can be evicted if they misbehave: procedures are in place. But what happens to landlords who terrorise tenants? There should be a licence, withdrawn if landlords act unlawfully, or by actions or omissions cause physical and/or mental harm. Oh – and they should forfeit the property. There really aren’t that many, but increasing reliance on the private sector means more amateur, untrained rentiers and resentful ‘forced’ landlords. Tenants will show their love for which ever party legislates about this by voting for them.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Yoo-Hoo! Jack Dromey!

Yoo-Hoo! Jack Dromey!

Cooee-cooee…I can see you!

Technology is marvellous, and thanks to a mcguffin I can see who reads this blog, where they are and how long they linger over my fine words. Intriguingly, over the past few months, my work is being repeatedly read by persons unknown in the House of Commons.

Now, it might the cleaner, struggling to cover the rent on minimum wage. It might be newbie housing minister Prisk, reading about the trauma of renting, all the better to ignore our woes since he is, like all his accomplices, not keen on ‘regulation.’

Worse: it might be one of the 25% of Condem MP’s who are private landlords.

I am however hopeful that someone, perhaps even Jack Dromey the Shadow Housing Minister is paying attention. If so, I am going to spell it out. This is what tenants want. More to the point – this is what tenants genuinely need.

(1) Security. We want to know we can stay, and we want to know that tenants can only be given notice for a damn good reason, and not because it’s Wednesday, because the owner has thing about Librans, or you know… just because. Currently we can be given notice for whimsical and capricious reasons.

(2) Licence and register landlords. Yep. It must happen. Tattooists need a licence, as do cafĂ© owners – contravening rules leads to losing the business. Currently even in violent wrongful evictions, landlords rarely suffer the full weight of the law, and police often collude in their actions.

(3) Follow Scottish model for banning letting agents ‘premiums’ ie the curious inventive fees charged without cause and with impunity (and no making them ‘transparent’ is NOT enough!) Landlords can pay. Oh – and agents must be trained to degree level and licensed.

(4) Rogue landlords are an attention grabbing minority. But anyone who herds tenants into a shed and or those letting dangerous buildings (ie faulty electrical wiring) should be barred for life whilst forfeiting their property, which then fortuitously passes into council ownership.

(5) Bring back rent controls. I know Shelter don’t agree, but the only real reason for rents to rise is spiralling interest rates (currently at their lowest ever level). It’s greed pure and simple: letting agents ramp up prices because they can and because they want to: there are no genuine reasons. Rent officers should again visit and forbid or allow rent increases.

We are many, we are unhappy and we are learning how to bite back. See the recent actions by Edinburgh Private Tenant’s Action (their marshals visited another letting agent recently) and Housing For The 99% who ‘inspected’ a London letting agents (caught rejecting claimants) in high-vis vests and carrying clipboards.

As long as renters can be moved on every six months for no clear reason, they cannot rest safe. Schools have uncertain numbers of pupils, and few tenants are registered to vote, as we move so much. Hey there Jack - we also feel that nobody represent us. Whoever listens and enables renting to improve might find we vote for them.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Name Of The Landlord

Terminate with extreme prejudice.
Ethnic cleansing.

Just a few of the neologisms and new phrases which have seeped into our daily vocabulary and the collective consciousness. The words we use control how we see the world and alters our behaviour to the people living in it. Some phrases restyle the world for the better, others terms sanitise and mask appalling actions.

Language matters. I am mirroring the esteemed Ben Reeves Lewis, who has mooted changing the names of those who own and manage property they have inherited, or bought to let out to tenants (aka landlords and landladies.)

Say the word landlord and what’s the first image to appear in your mind’s eye? A wry man with a handlebar moustache serving real ale? Or a Rigsby-stile Rachmanite who wallows in your discomfort at insecurity, damp and disrepair?

Landlord is a term loaded with baggage and preconceptions. A landlord sounds privileged – even aristocratic. No wonder many feel they are the actual rulers of their estate (ie our home). The name gives pretensions of grandeur: might be why some owners imagine that inspecting a flat once a month with just one days notice is an absolute right. Some imagine they can turn up whenever they want to. ‘It’s my property – I can do whatever I want’ being the usual excuse.

Or take landlady – a word weighed down by notions of east-end pubs, and doughty woman of uncertain age who can pull a pint with one hand and free-style wrestle troublemakers to the ground with the other. It does not suggest besuited professionals who have invested in several homes while gently accruing equity wealth, managing several homes and rallying recalcitrant contractors.

Ownership is about power, and the power relation between landlord and tenant is complex and fraught. Landlords seem, by all they do, to require constant reassurance that they can reclaim their property whenever they want to. Tenants, meanwhile, want to stay. That little ‘…lord’ makes the situation seem ever more complicated, but tenants should feel no more beholden to their landlord than shoppers do the manager of their local supermarket.

This is a world where some Rentiers (to steal wholesale Ben’s suggestion) certainly don’t hold with this ‘call me Dave’ mentality, and can insist on proper titles (usually Mr, although Sir is declining…along with your Landlordship) that’s if we ever find out the real names of these enigmatic overlords. Landlords are mysterious. We are shielded from them. Letting agents are increasingly hiding owners by assuming their identity on the rental agreement. Research is necessary to ascertain who actually owns the building, while being paid for our right to occupy the space.

But I quite like rentier - Ben Reeves-Lewis’ solution, although my own (kind, fair and responsible) landlady has the last word on this point, and recently emailed to say:

‘I've been thinking. I hate the term landlord (I don't have a wiener), and landlady makes me sound doubled up and old and smelly. So my new title, given my love of all things retro and 40/50s, shall be Landgirl !!!! Plus, that makes me sound all headscarfed and pro-active. That is all :-)’

She wants to be called Landgirl and I would never dare argue. So Landgirl it is then.