Monday, 28 January 2013

Not Hot - Very Bothered.

Winter sets in. cross the land, in rented homes, condensation drips down the walls, and tenants spend their days wrapped in quilts and several layers of cheap fleeces blankets, woolly hats, and mittens as they watch plumes of frozen breath snake cross their lounge.

Many tenants face a choice: heat or eat. This all the more difficult as they cannot choose the one thing that could ease and enable economy. Unlike owner-occupiers, renters have their heating is decided for them, and no matter how much heat bleeds into the outside world, they are helpless.

Heating isn’t boring: it’s vital and problematic. Tenants often move in a hurry, and the idea of them making a leisurely selection between masses of flats is a myth. They have no choice about what heating they have, and despite flat hunting with a wish list they must accept what’s on offer.

In many flats, especially at the ‘affordable’ end of the market (a new euphemism for run down) white meter heating and storage heaters is the norm, which makes me all nostalgic. Storage heater, oh my storage heater….Wickedly expensive, but there is no coming home to a cold house. I miss storage heaters.

Gas heating is for families, not shared housing occupied unrelated tenants who use the rooms at different times of day, where heating one room by switching on the whole system can cause midwinter inter-tenant cage fighting.

There is no easy solution. Tenants are often barred specifically in the rental agreement from using portable gas heaters (which are seen as hazardous) and can’t rely on fan heaters (uneconomical) or portable oil radiators (the same.)

And once you’re in, you’re stuck. My friend is lumbered with storage heaters which her landlord seems unwillingly to replace, run from a pay-as-you-go meter, which always cost more. If being a rentier is to become more professional and homes made to suit the needs of tenants and no the pocket of the owner’s profit motive, then supplying energy efficient heating must be somehow obligatory.

Electric heating is ideal for HMO’s: permitting those at home to heat their own space. Which is also its curse (I once found a co-tenant toasting her toes mid-summer using a three bar electric ‘because it felt nice.’

I used to rage about the many defects of the Dovecot I once lived in, but at least it was insulated to the point of being hermetically sealed, and fitted with heating suitable for a one bed flat. Tenements and conversions have solid, not cavity walls, supplied with ancient boilers and no heat in the bathroom, which was often formerly a cupboard and so acts a Petri-dish for fungus.

There are schemes for efficient heating, but they all offer interest free loans, and what tenant would incur enormous debt to pay something that will enhance their landlord’s property, while landlords do not care about the tenant’s bills? Nobody pays for improvements and updates and so everybody loses: landlords when tenants cannot pay to heat a house sufficiently to eradicate condensation, and tenants who freeze. Lose-lose, then. In a freezing cold house.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Legends of the Landlords

New landlords have a complex system belief system, based, like all religious belief, on fear and superstition. No, they haven’t created new pantheon of skygods, and do not, unless I am mistaken, dance naked at midnight around graven images. They do, however, believe some really, really weird things.

Many fear the Great Squatter Devil. Newbie landlords have an irrational fear of squatters, and imagine that if they do not harass renters they can stay put forever, with no hope of eviction no matter what. It’s just plain wrong. Firstly, squatter’s rights were abolished by our Condem overlords, meaning that even empty properties cannot be occupied. But still landlords cling to the belief that hordes of frenzied, drug crazed, benefit ‘scrounging’ thugs are waiting to move in and stay for all eternity.

Some landlords imagine they enjoy an ancient entitlement of ‘Freedom To Roam’ (Into Your Home) The right to wander in at will or the cult of ‘It’s My House I Can Do What I Want’ sustains itself by repetition. Landlords feel that not wandering in at will is a rejection of their ownership, and a negation of their rights as owners, landlords and indeed human beings (I’ve heard the phrase: ‘It’s my civil right’ being used.) It’s also kindness. Wandering in our home at will makes us feel loved and cared for.

That they can do what ever they want. I think it’s the lack of training, but new landlords persistently imagine that the ‘But it’s my house I own it’ defence exists, and will stand up in court. I’ve experienced landlords who have, inter alia: moved their delinquent daughter into a spare room, collected choice pieces of furniture as ‘it’s too good for us,’ raised rent and given notice to quit using telepathy. Because they imagine they can, when they seriously can’t.

The religion of course concerns raising money. Tenants pay a tithe, or tribute, which must cover all the owners expenses – ie everything. And I mean everything. Landlords are forbidden in religious law from paying. If they pay they will go to a burning Hell for all eternity. When I was told, in a furnished flat, that I should pay for and install in the bathroom both a cabinet and heating, this was obviously the reason why. Same reason explains not paying for repairs – they might actually go to actual hell. And if they pay the fees letting agents fees charge them for running whata is their business, they might literally burn for all of actual eternity, so tenants should pay. You’d do the same. Wouldn’t you?

I realise that landlords must be careful, but the emerging philosophy of new buy to let rentiers is that they want the money, the pension, the equity, but they want none of the work, and none of the expense. In truth, they would prefer not to house actual human tenants at all.

Meanwhile tenants have started a new cult: it’s called standing up for themselves. And landlords could save time, money and their own nerves if they listened, learned and followed best practice. It’s your property, but it’s not your home. Let it go.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Criminal With A Key To Your Home

This much we know: prospective tenants undergo multiple, strenuous, onerous, innovative checks and are even obliged to pay for the ‘privilege.’ They provide personal and employer references, credit checks, bank statements: most letting agents and landlords request proof of ID, often kept on file contravening data protection. Soon renters will be obliged to submit DNA samples, and no - I’m not joking.

But you make it through. And there you are sitting safe at home when a burglar enters the lounge. He’s also got convictions for violence, with a talent for fraud. How the hell did he get in? Simple: he used a key.

One pragmatic suggestion currently in circulation would vastly improve conditions and security for renters. Several tenant rights groups have proposed that all landlords and letting agents should be required to undergo Criminal Record Bureau checks (CRB).

Before the crazier landlord trolls comment in a self-righteous froth that tenants should also be checked, hear me out: no matter what they do, tenants never hold a key to their landlord’s home.

The exception is when lodging, and the incoming bedroom tax bomb is detonating, and victims are advised to get lodgers. What if they are single women, perhaps with children? Who’s that living with them, now?

There are many tales, anecdotal, in the press and in law reports of landlords convicted of behaviour indicating they should not have ready access to a stranger’s house. For example, key-holders who have been convicted of rape… not a good sign of being trustworthy with that key, is it?

Cases like the landlord convicted after installing hidden cameras in his female tenants bedrooms, who could have emerged from prison and immediately reconvene his landlording – there’s nothing to stop him. The case below is especially nasty: the landlord was already on the sex offenders register, but raped his vulnerable, fifteen year old ‘tenant’ in return for her being allowed to keep a roof over her head.

One landlord I know let his HMO specifically to models (I sneaked under the wire somehow) and was found creeping into our rooms during the day to sniff our bed clothes. I also have a friend whose landlord offered to ‘go easy’ on her when she was in arrears if ‘she was nice to him.’ (I don’t think he meant baking him fairy cakes.)

And it’s not just the private sector: a housing association once sent round several workmen to renovate a block, and many female tenants, myself included, reported them for grotesquely inappropriate behaviour while working inside flats. No action was taken. It was, they said: ‘our word against theirs.’

All tenants are vulnerable. Sleaziness and intimidation are regular hazards for (especially, but not solely) female tenants. Would CRB checks prevent abuses? Not entirely.

But forcing prospective landlords, housing providers and letting agents to demonstrate a record free of violent crime and sexual offences would at least allow tenants to check their landlord isn’t just violent, abusive and dangerous, but all that whilst holding their front door key. If landlords are to become professional, this is essential. Then we can tackle the harassment.

Monday, 7 January 2013

An Extra Layer of Hell

Life for renters is hard and even The Daily Telegraph agrees (I know!) But what could possibly make life even worse for tenants? Permitting instant, summary eviction by saying ‘I Evict You’ three times aloud? Denying us food? Replacing furniture with a bed of nails in every room, to remind us about the precarious nature of our home, and indeed, life itself?

Almost. Renting is a growth industry. Consequently and inevitably satellite businesses are making themselves a fortune by charging for spurious services, skimming the cream, creating a false need and charging a fortune when exploiting it.

It’s not enough that the private rented sector is dominated by untrained and unregulated letting agents/landlords who cause constant low-level misery with impunity. No. Now tenants must endure a host of newfound untrained feral specialists, all keen to rake in dosh and claim their piece of the renting pie.

First: those self-proclaimed deposit protection specialists. Totally unnecessary, since there exists a perfectly good procedure for reclaiming deposits registered and saved with the various schemes, and all operate a dispute service. If that doesn’t work, there’s the always the small claims court. (FYI I don’t endorse these companies, despite what you might read - legal action beckons.)

Here’s a new one: specialist inventory checkers. My poor Landgirl suffered at their hands: the other superfluous layer ie the letting agency contracted inventory checkers to inspect the flat. They managed to miss inter alia: hair in plugholes, damage and the general filthy state of the place. Landlords and letting agents maintain an unfounded fear that a simple inventory signed and agreed by both parties like in the old days will lead to disputes. It won’t. And they charge a fortune for walking round the place with a list (and then ignoring the list.)

And we have newbuild buy-to-let furniture suppliers. Seemingly harmless, they source stock from IKEA (if tenants are lucky.) Landlords pay inflated prices, and tenants get shoddy, collapsible furniture and cupboards full of cheap chipped glassware. Not the worst example, but costly to both renter and rentier.

But the worst, the very worst and most sinister are so-called ‘Tenant Eviction Specialists,’ aka bully boys. Not lawyers, just thugs paid to scare tenants into leaving fast. One firm asked recently if they could do a guest post hereabouts. My reply was terse.
Also controversial are professional cleaners who come round when a tenant has vacated and supposedly scour, steam and polish the filthy flat until it shines (oh – the tenant usually gets the bill.) Landlords could just as well buy some mops, brooms and lung-dissolving oven cleaner and do it themselves.

Hellooo reference checkers! Come on down! They use ordinary websites to check individual references, with similar dubious results. They also operate ‘affordability checks,’ where a stony computer really does say ‘no.’

The problem is that many landlords do not appreciate that managing property is time-consuming, and rented flats can be brittle and they break. Instead of factoring this in to their business plan (and…landlords always have a business plan… right?) they fall prey to parasites. And it’s the tenant, always the tenant, who pays.