Tuesday, 24 September 2013

DIY Makeover

It relentlessly grim up here in the world of a lifetime of rented housing. Things are worse than ever before - really bad. People still face eviction under the bedroom tax, and there’s not enough one bedroom flats in the private or public sectors, and the benefit cap, rising homelessness coupled with pointless cruel benefit sanctions. It's horrible.

Now you might know that in my 'other' job, I write for a living. Part of that involes outlining proposed articles to harassed, overworked section editors. One of my pitches, you will be unsurprised to hear, concerned how to furnish and decorate a rented home, given the restrictions of nasty furniture supplied, landlords who insist on the dread magnolia, the 'Accursed Short-Term Travesty' and lack of money.

I was commissioned - hooray! But then a following email apologised - another writer was already commissioned, with the article to run within days. Damn. The article which eventually ran was a challenge; I read with amazement. It was written by an interior designer/decorator who seemed not to rent, who recommended turning books into a 'focal point (I'm banging my head on the desk as I write this...) by stacking them in a single pile so high that removing one book from this vertiginous stack would cause certain death.

She also suggested, if memory serves: 'Why not cheers walls up with a bright colour?'

Why not indeed?

Because the owner/letting agents won't effin' let me paint that's why!

Now I read the papers with some distress, seeing no news of rent controls, and Labour promising to end the bedroom tax as if we should be grateful, not appalled they took so long…but here are my tips:

1 You can paint the walls - as long as they are restored to their former colour and condition before you move on. It's best to ask, because during the dreaded, pointless 'inspection' (where especially in London, agents stormtroop their way around looking for any excuse to give notice and raise rents) your creativity will be noted and you could be given notice – no reason is required.

2 If you have any money buy a new mattress and...a four poster bed. You heard me: a four poster bed. They're available online, and will keep out draughts in unheated bedrooms.

3 Buy plants. They're bright, they're alive they're cheap and you can take them with you.

4 Novelty shelving - if you have money - 'lifts a room' and you can take it with you.

5 Rugs and mats. Make the place seem your own.

6 Cover shabby sofas and unsprung chairs with blankets, if the landlord won't replace or remove them.

I think we'd all be better off if property was by let as unfurnished by default. It would be expensive to begin with, but you'd collect furniture etc as you moved around. And you wouldn't need to put your mattress on wooden pallets, because you were certain your next home (and there will be a next home) has a rickety base the landlord won't replace.

I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do. This is so depressing.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Run Away From Letting Agents!

This was sent by a reader: "Okay, call me naive but I find it shocking how poorly London rentals are managed. Our family rented a house that is supposed to be professionally managed by an agency. There is nothing that can be described as professional about it. There was no one to walk us through the property to make sure we understand the details of heating and plumbing. Problems are not handled because the manager cannot get in touch with the landlord. There is no binder or list of which appliances are covered by warranty -- or not --- for either us or the 'managing agent' so it is difficult to resolve what should be done… we are at the higher end of the market, but the neglect and poor management seem to be universal. "

I've noticed that many letting agents will do anything to avoid putting the actual owner's name on the rent contract. I'd been wondering why, when this could leave the agent wide open to legal action in cases of disrepair, since it’s arguable that they have taken responsibility for running the property.

The rewards must be massive. Attempting to hide the name of the owner, agents prevent tenants from approaching the owner directly. Why? Simple - so the tenants and landlord can't become better acquainted, realise they are both reasonable people and opt out of using letting agents.

This happened with Landgirl and myself. She and I met, learned that we were both reasonable people, and questioned why she should lose a percentage of her vital income to pay a firm who were more useless than 'Useless & Co - The Most Useless Company In Uselessville, Uselessshire, Uselessland.' I am trying to get across the following point. The old letting agents were...useless. And Landgirl was contracted to pay them for this uselessness.

Many landlords want to be ‘hands-off,’ which is fine, but letting agents just want to squeeze money from every transaction - like using their own, high cost, contractors, or constant charging both tenants and owners for every renewal. They do little other demonstrate dumbfounding, crass awfulness.

You'd think some governing body would intervene. They won't. My correspondent’s best option is to divorce those evil letting agents. The name of the owner is available, and it costs very little to obtain their name despite her agents seeming inability to contact her rentier. Notable also is the fact the she describes herself as at the 'higher end' of the market. We are all renters at some point in our lives, and even in top-notch properties with enormous rents, there is no guarantee that she will be treated fairly, let alone well. A friend of mine contacted the owner of his flat after the agent went bankrupt. When last we spoke, the owner was deemed responsible for refunding the unprotected deposit, to his utter astonishment.

Especially when rentiers own one or two properties, and they live in the same town or city, all agents do is coin in money. So take a deep breath. Tenants and owners - say hello. Shake hands. Be reasonable. Prepare to deal direct with each other. It's the sensible way forward.

Monday, 9 September 2013

My Own Room

The creepiest track ever made is probably ‘What’s He Doing In There’ by Tom Waits

It reminds of one of the hardest parts of sharing, be it in families or with flatmates; the idea that you should always have a sense of mystery, of having barriers, a sense of seperation, of being able to shut the door behind you and forget the people around you. It's about space - to be yourself...to listen to music. To think. To just be alone. Especially when you are young, and finding your way in life, deciding who you are. Sadly, the notion that we will once more hide in our bedrooms as teenagers is over. The idea that everyone, no matter who they are, deserves a room of their own is dead.

Even Michael Gove realises that we need a room of our own – he’s spoken about how the lack of space to study is detrimental to school students with nowhere for revisision. He’ll soon backtrack and claim he was, in fact blaming people for not earning ‘hard enough’ to buy larger homes, or something. You can’t study in a room where three same sex siblings are gaming, fighting, or making music.

The consensus on the need for space for those on no/low pay collapsed when a Labour Government (yes, a Labour government) introduced what was effectively bedroom tax for the private sector. LHA replaced housing benefit and limits the money paid to cover rent for claimants, by decreeing how many rooms allowed. We've witnessed the demeaning effects of Bedroom Tax’s notorious assault on dignity. You must all be aware of some rules. But did you know that under it’s ludicrous rules, the single sex Walton sextuplets – six of them – would have been forced to share a bedroom? Siblings must share until they are, I think, 12.

That’s much too old - I wonder what Victorian campaigners would make of that, since they argued for 'decency' - or as we might argue, privacy at what is a very sensitive age.

Yep - I know that the great high idiot in chief Grant Shapps says he sons share a room so that he keep an office in his 'modest' home, but when his dueling teenage sons start flexing their muscles, he can just use some of his millions to - ooh, I don't know...move? Build an extension?

Lord Freud (he of the eight bedroom mansion) doesn’t care, that this condensing of permitted space is infantilising when we live we live so differently now. It was Virginia Wolfe who said that women writers were held back in their development by not having a room of their own. Claimants under under 35 must now share houses – how long until they are forced to live in barracks, with bunk beds? We live differently, with music, television, and people come and go -they work in shifts. We need spare rooms. We all need a room of our own.

So to answer Tom Waits- what he's doing there is this: dreaming of some space – of some peace. He’s also dreaming of some solitude.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013


Burglary is an upsetting and horrible crime. Having once lived in an area famous for housebreaking, I know this all too well. I once arrived home in the afternoon, and to my astonishment encountered a man nonchalantly trying to kick down my front door. I was stunned and appalled, but even so - I reasoned with him.

‘Please don’t rob us,’ I said. ‘We’re broke, and we’ve nothing of value – nothing you could sell.’
‘Sorry mate.’ He said. ‘I didn’t know you were in.’
He’d clearly been watching the house. ‘And anyway you’ve got insurance.’

We didn’t have insurance, and what little we owned was cheap but precious to us. I knew he’d be back.

One morning my housemate opened the window and saw another man half-way through the ground floor window. She screamed at him. He swore at her and fled.

We knew he’d back, too.

They didn’t wait long. Our house was emptied of all electrical appliances, including, oddly, an angle-poise lamp, which was an expensive gift. The idea that some spiteful, entitled little scrote rifled through all our personal possessions was truly distressing.

We phoned the police – for all the good it did us. They took a few notes, issued a crime number and left. Then we told the landlord he should repair the flimsy back door they crooks had pushed aside to force their way in.

The landlord’s response was to treat our request as if we were asking him to do us a massive favour. He would do the repairs and even install a burglar alarm if we agreed to let his ‘cousin’ move into the box-room. Well, that wasn’t dodgy at all, was it?

Some owners of furnished homes insist that tenants obtain contents insurance – which is legally dubious, and cheeky. They’re trying to force tenants to safeguard the owner’s property, which is stupid and ill-informed. They should pay to safeguard their own belongings and possessions – those that remain as fixtures, or linger unwanted in the house.

It always makes me wonder why they don’t supply burglar alarms, especially when rentiers previously lived in the homes they’ve just let out. Considering that their property could be damaged by robbers breaking in, you’d think security would be right at the top of any priority list.

But no. Owners seem oblivious to the perils of handing out keys like pass the parcel, and tenants can only change locks if they keep and then replace the original. Security provisions are certainly do not equal what rentiers have in their own homes. They expect tenants to make do with flimsy doors and weak windows where the frame is removed with a gentle shove.

Tenants are helpless here. They can’t really justify the cost, or effort of installing burglar alarms when they might be given two months notice at any time. There is no guarantee they will reap the benefits. So they’re stuck with rickety back doors and precarious windows which do not shut – let alone lock. And there’s very little they can do.