Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Battered By Butterflies

There’s a proverb suggesting that apparently insignificant actions can have disproportionately large consequences: a butterfly flutters its wings and on the other side of the world, a million people die.

Throughout my time in Dovecot Towers letters were stolen from the communal post-room. My landlord seemed extremely sympathetic, but to be honest, I was never sure if he took the problem seriously.

Earlier this year, I tried to withdraw cash but my card was declined. I had no phone credit, no food and no fare to reach my friends and ask for help. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t pay my rent. I emailed my landlord explaining: my post-box robbed, my cheque book stolen, my bank account emptied, then a debit-card was taken despite banning my bank, or anyone from sending post to my home.

This might still look bad on my part, but remember that William’s side of the ‘pay rent – maintain property’ bargain is habitually broken. Previously, he admitted that he wouldn’t want me to leave, acknowledging that I’m a good tenant. Even so, he didn’t bother to get his arse into gear and organise repairs. However much he needed my money, I think he was overwhelmed by the demands and responsibility of managing property.

As forcefully as I could within the boundaries of carefully assertive tact, I said that if he didn’t make a fuss, if he didn’t really cause a commotion and press the management company, nothing will change. The management noted, but ignored his requests. He claimed to know them, but I don’t think they were his friends; for once in his life, I think he felt important. Emphasising that I couldn’t sort this problem out myself, I added that the situation won’t vanish of its own accord and reminded him that even if I do reach the end of my tether and leave, subsequent tenants will be equally irate and then move as well. He agreed, and offered to fit a letterbox on my front door. Remaining sceptical, I thanked him.

Meanwhile on Wall Street, vultures, not butterflies were flapping their wings. Soon, William’s many mortgages were in arrears. Interest rates had risen dramatically and he was clinging to financial life by his over extended fingertips. Along with a vacant flat elsewhere, my missing a payment had pushed him over the edge. The bank has delayed replacing my money since (I suspect) they think I am somehow complicit. Those repairs are not his fault, but most definitely his responsibility.

When William and I met up, he asked what it would take to make me stay. I think he intended to muddle through the recession, but now he knows that Dovecot Towers is thoroughly unsafe, and that I couldn’t stay even if I wanted to. William should have sorted out the post-box situation, the unlikely tipping point which nudged him towards financial catastrophe.

And so, a butterfly fluttered by. A door was broken, another remained unlocked. A post-box was crow-barred open. Life became difficult for me, while an admittedly ineffectual, but otherwise decent man was devastated. Nothing is ever simple.

(NB: This morning, there was a sign, marked urgent, on the post-room door, from our new caretaker: ‘Persons have gained access and levered open the post-boxes, stealing the mail. I have informed the police.’ Then someone delicately explained that it’s been like that for over a year. Bless him for caring, though.)

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Sympathy For The Devil

I am surrounded by boxes. My belongings are all packed up and ready to go but I’m wondering about my landlord. ‘William’ is a decent man: jovial, down-to-earth, compassionate and reasonable. Admittedly, he never got round to sorting out those blinds (by the time I had completely lost patience he was obviously going bankrupt) and I always organised repairs, which, while not ideal, hardly adds up to a Rachmanite reign of terror.

William is in trouble. He isn’t stupid, but then neither does he possess a rapier-like business mind; he’s no ruthless, highly driven tycoon. He simply followed accepted wisdom: invest in property. Many others did the same, a decision which has condemned them forever, as serial investors like William are burdened with around £750,000 of debt, if not more. He’ll never repay his creditors. I understand that even when you’re discharged from bankruptcy, they never let you go.

Nor was William unhinged by greed. Like many people he realised that we are all living longer, while the state pension, upon which we reasonably intended to rely, is shrinking by the day. Sensibly (it seemed) he accumulated flats to safeguard his future. Swiftly and easily he expanded his newbuild portfolio until he owned twelve buy-to-let properties. Who financed all those mortgages? The now infamous Northern Rock, that’s who, currently the official Emperors of Repossession, despite having been nationalised.

I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that William was based abroad: he’s not. He lives in a different town, far enough away to explain why he misunderstood the dodgy nature of this particular neighbourhood. When he bought my flat in Dovecot Towers the market was booming. His perhaps cannier friend was purchasing the flat next door, but quietly backed out.

William visited just the once, and gazed approvingly at a then modest building-site opposite, before announcing his ambition to invest there as well. He appreciated that the surrounding area was ear-marked for development, but was never told exactly how many better quality blocks were planned. Obviously, the widespread and ill-timed completion of nicer ‘apartments’ has devalued his stock.

We met recently on neutral ground. He wanted me to stay. I begged him to seek legal advice and stressed the dire nature of Dovecot Towers, emphasising the troubles I’ve detailed here. He was devastated, and actually started to sweat as the magnitude of his predicament hit home. Afterwards, I sent him a formal document detailing the many problems in this building which have decreased its value, intended to support any claim against the idle and ignorant management company if it allowed him to claw something back from this catastrophe.

My compassion is currently under strain, however. William has vanished without providing the promised reference. I know there’s a lot on his mind, but it’s impossible to find a flat without such assurances, and I don’t even know how long I can stay here. The bailiffs could arrive within the next month. I was living in the devil’s own piggy-bank, and somebody has smashed it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Lying Letting Agents and the Lies these Liars Tell

Letting agents wouldn’t know Truth if it punched them in the face shouting: “I am the truth!” wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Truth” in sequins, whilst holding an official truth certificate, written in blood. That much at least is true.

Shameless mendacity informs their new hobby: ramping up prices. The market is so febrile and confused that bizarrely, for any given flat, there are three possible rents and guess what: agents reach for the stars.

First is the sky-high, crazy-mad, stupid and deluded oh-be-serious rent, the amount that avaricious, neophyte, na├»ve buy-to-let speculators were promised on those now discredited ‘How to Be a Millionaire Property Magnate’ courses. For a standard one bed flat, this is up to £100-£150pcm above the norm, and matches luxury privately rented flats, which are larger, and properly fitted out. I retain a small amount of sympathy for floundering landlords which evaporates whenever I discover that yet again, they or their representatives are still trying to exploit and over-charge tenants, even in this desperately saturated market.

Next up is the middle amount, requested by landlords who bought at the height of the ‘boom’ to cover their escalating mortgage which (including the agents cut) is still a silly £75-£50pcm over acceptable levels.

There is a fair and realistic price. It’s used by owners who bought at auction, or those who understand that they can either endure bankruptcy, or stump up their own cash to subsidise the mortgage when interest rates rise.

Astonishingly, if you check online, you can find all three prices applying to the very same flat. I’ve seen similar prices asked for: one beds, two beds, penthouses, houses, upmarket, downmarket, inner city and suburbs. It’s madness and demonstrates that the rental market has entered the realm of fantasy. Allow duplicitous, cynical letting-agents free-rein in this disastrous downturn, and the results are confusing if not actually strange.

Online prices are usually more grounded, but sometimes vanish once inside the office/lair. Having ascertained that I’m not a student, they assume I can afford the higher prices. At one letting agent I walked by and laughed. They’ve advertised the same exorbitantly priced ‘apartment’ for months now, causing a gaping void in income for the owner. You might imagine they’d attract passing custom by displaying the cheaper prices, when instead they keep the dearest flats posted up brazenly outside: a last gasp attempt, perhaps, at quelling the impetus to drop prices and reduce their own percentage.

Wise landlords who gained a foothold before property prices got totally stupid (five years ago?) have stayed on planet earth, and make money by accruing equity, and not by inflating rents. Unfortunately, urban newbuild values are widely predicted to fall by fifty per cent. One year ago, sale prices in Dovecot Towers had already dropped by a third, and are even lower now (I’ve checked.) Sensible owners avoid rip-off rents by topping up the shortfall thereby escaping insolvency, and letting agents should advise them to do so. Even the moustache-twirlingly ruthless agency responsible for letting most of Dovecot Towers accepted this some time ago.

If you think I’m unfairly maligning those kindly, righteous and angelic, agents, then here’s my worst encounter so far. I answered an ad for a privately rented flat, and was told that others were viewing.

Reader, I fell for it. I hurried over to the address in a taxi (and I’m broke). To my disgust and amazement, the address supplied wasn’t a flat, but an agency office (they “…thought it would be good to meet me.”) The agent was what we poets call “a right wanker,” having lied about the flat’s location, and its price. Elsewhere, agents lie about everything from A to Z reaching all possibilities in between, and I really wish they’d stop.

(NB: One online ad appeared to tick all my boxes, so I phoned the landlord for more information (you’re way ahead of me aren’t you?) The flat was in Dovecot Towers.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

How The Other Half Live

My house-hunt is urgent and I’ve seen my dream home. It’s perfect, but even with falling prices is frustratingly just out my league (I think the owners/developers have yet to accept the changing property market.)

Slighter more upmarket flats are bigger: not monumental caverns, but a judicious extra ten feet here or there makes all the difference. I’d like enough room for a coffee table in between two sofas in the lounge, nightstands next to the bed, a dining table and chairs (all in the same room, without falling over). Dovecot Towers was obviously planned by misers, as most ‘extras’ don’t cost that much to build. It says everything that a properly locking door and safe entrance hall is a luxury, and not for oiks like me.

While viewing my ideal flat, I opened a door. To my delight, it was a cupboard. Not just any old cupboard, but a utility cupboard with room for a washer, mops, brooms, and even a bin. Heaven lives in that cupboard, and all the other cupboards are outposts of paradise. There is an inbuilt wardrobe, another random cupboard (joy!) and even an enormous mirrored bathroom cabinet, which covered the wall. It was love. I must have sounded like a hick: ‘Yeeh-haw Ma-am! Those high-fallutin’ cupboards y’all have sure are fancy!”

The main appeal though is the balcony. You can stand on it. In Dovecot Towers, visitors must duck the door which swings across the outdoor space. My dream home has sliding doors, so the terrace can be used as another room. And the door tilts (yes, tilts!) so you can open it like a window.

The post room was disappointing, however. It locks (I know!) with a glass door (all good to see) but crucially, even here you can easily dip your hand in the post boxes. The sales-woman (let’s call her Zelda) made it plain that my suspicions and questions were a fatuous affront to the sheer unbridled fantabulousness of the building she was peddling. I explained that even neighbours nick your post: she humoured me, explaining that parcels are accepted by the twenty-four hour concierge.

A concierge? Now I have a new fetish alongside cupboards, utility rooms, space and proper balconies: concierges. I can’t stop saying concierge. Please, sir, may I have a concierge?

But here’s the terrible irony defeating my quest: I wish to avoid developments dominated by tenants with few resident owners, despite being a tenant myself. I quizzed the odious Zelda, who persistently insisted that most residents were owner-occupiers.

Was she absolutely sure?
(“Yes!” she swore, as her wooden nose grew.)
No really: can you assure me that this development is not specifically marketed at the buy to let market?
(“It’s not!” she promised faithfully as fire-fighters doused her pants, which were on fire.)

She chucked me a brochure and when I got home, out fell the ‘Ideal For Buy-to-let’ blurb, along with a flyer advertising a company furnishing flats for landlords. She also claimed that all the flats are sold. Zelda will be a wooden puppet forever more.

(NB: Yesterday, there was a strong smell of burning in my corridor. Someone had set fire to some newspapers, and the charred traces were left outside of a few front doors (thankfully not mine) as if they’d been trying to set the doors on fire. No smoke alarms went off. Unusually, the main door has being locked for days, which that means the putative pyromaniac probably lives here. Seriously: what is it with this place?)