Sunday, 25 March 2012

Blame Game of Name and Shame

Revenge is a sweet dish best eaten cold by a furious woman, or something. Actually, revenge is generally a waste of time. I prefer the following dictum: ‘If you wait long enough by the river - the body of your enemy will float by.’ I mention this as I’ve had a few readers asking me what I think about those ‘shame a landlord’ websites. You might be surprised, but I don’t like them at all.

When faced with a landlord who is unrelentingly, wilfully obstructive, lazy and vile, it’s tempting to detail those faults vividly online. Many landlords resent their tenants and don’t appreciate the enormity of their responsibility, choosing to evict in retaliation rather than paying up or doing the work.

Owners buy property, and cannot/will not let go of two ideas. First that tenant must subsidise business costs in their entirety including many tangential charges. Secondly that tenants should be neither seen nor heard: even reasonable requests for serious repairs are therefore viewed as a nuisance, by which I mean adequate grounds for lofty non-renewal of tenancies.

Landlords need training and advice, after which, if they still don’t comply with the law or reasonable requests, official sanctions should apply, not the potentially libellous bile of a tenant who’s already been thrown out making unsubstantiated comments and naming their overlord.

Tenants might bad-mouth a busy, or distracted landlord who doesn’t mean to be unhelpful but can’t immediately beam himself into their flat to oil a sticky kitchen drawer. It’s true that legal sanctions against landlords are inefficient, and that swift, severe punishment is needed, fast. But I just can’t see how unsubstantiated bleating can improve anything, especially where property is in short supply and landlords will simply blame the tenant (‘it was self-defence, not unprovoked violence.’)

This is a symptom of devastating problems afflicting the private rented sector: parties cannot meet on neutral ground to discuss any problems, and conciliation or conflict resolution services do not seem to exist. Nobody in power has a clear idea of what to do, preferring to print the legend that most tenants are happy.

Criminally bad (see posts below) landlords should face prison. If they don’t know how to run the business of property management, then someone should provide training and issue certificates to show they have undergone this education, so they cannot plead ignorance.

But don’t post venom on a website: it might be intrusive to families, and don’t forget that owners might be equally appalled that what they believed was a nest egg for their retirement is a dilapidated newbuild hell-hole.

But with extremely bad examples, call your council’s Tenancy Relations Officer, the police (if landlords are violent and make threats) or Shelter. Don’t place unsubstantiated comments online: they undermine what is the beginning of a very long struggle to strengthen tenants rights eg by outlawing retaliatory evictions and extending long-term tenancies, allowing for decorating rights etc.

Being nasty anonymously online helps nobody. I believe that a truly bad landlord should face losing their property, just as bad tenants lose their home, with owners forever banned from letting property. Simple. Effective. Let’s do this.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dovecots For All!

I still can’t work out if Grant Shapps is a genius or a deluded buffoon, because he says really stupid things but people believe him. He must be really clever, right?

By which score, that new housing scheme of his is brilliant. It’s about guaranteeing mortgages for first time buyers who invest in (never buy to live in, never say that) a newbuild property.

But there’sa problem: the money will go to Dovecots. Dovecots are what I came to call urban new build flats, usually one (ridiculously small and Spartan) or two bedrooms, always with one en-suite bathroom no place for storage, loud cheap washing machines placed in what is the lounge, no privacy, no sound insulation, poor internal workmanship and fittings.

Let’s also remember what caused residents the most phenomenal problems, that ubiquitous communal post room where all letters were so easily intercepted causing missing payments, lost credit and ID theft. I have seen these places sell at first instance for £180k, then appear at auction for £70k - every such ‘bargain’ a heartache of repossession and eviction.

I’ve written before about landbanks, where developers hoard empty plots wondering what they intend for them when they realised that one to two bedroom euroboxes were no longer selling. Older houses are far from perfect, and there is a lack of supply. Conversions must be sensitive, and do not count as new. And so it seems that the government is subsidising dovecots and euroboxes. Twat flats for all.

Now keep in mind that many Housing Associations and councils have already ruled out buying up empty dovecots to provide much needed social housing. Here’s the problem. This is about subsidising developers and the building firms. It is not about providing safe, permanent well-regulated, well managed housing for newcomers.

What people need is a strong private rental sector, with affordable rents by which I mean under a quarter of income, as it used to be so usefully and brilliantly, so that all of what we earn (and seem required by the laws of economics to spend and ‘revivify’ the economy) is not devoured by housing costs. We need to know that Assured (accursed) short-term tenancies (travesties) would no longer be used to evict tenants on the whimsical say-so of capricious landlords angry that their surly mortgage paying surfs dared ask for vital repairs.

We need well-built houses and flats which suits our needs, with regard to storage, space, location, sound-proofing, energy efficiency, price and quality. We need protection from eviction, and then we might stay long-term in the property, which is better for everyone.

What we do not need is unmanageable debt owed on a rickety, jerry-built dovecot, which can be slowly and inadvertently dismantled by disgruntled residents like kids who pull at a thread on an old jumper.

We need proper homes, not corrugated cardboard monstrosities we will be unable to sell on. That is a not a first foot on a property ladder: it is paying money directly to developers. They don’t need it, but we do need a good home.

I lived in a newbuild: it’s what I wrote about at first. Sometimes, I forget how bad it was in Dovecot Towers.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Bought Up

I am so perpetually and constantly aghast at certain developments in the world of renting that I must look like that ‘Scream’ mask. To explain, renting practices are constantly changing, usually when creating new systems detrimental to the well-being and security of tenants. Recently a reader emailed me this story, and I am so completely flabbergasted that my lower lip currently rests in the basement. Read on:

“We signed our agreement with the agency, they are our landlords - the owner of the property lets it to them who then sublet it to us.

A few months ago the owner of the property approached us asking how much we paid the agency. We talked and it turns out he's paying them £100/mo in fees, plus fees for finding tenants and drawing up new contracts when the fixed term tenancy expires. He suggested that if he could get management of the property back from the agency then he'd reduce our rent by £50/mo and he'd still be better off.

Nothing much came of this until a week or so ago when he told us that the agency had been back in touch with him, giving him 4 options:
1. We carry on with the tenancy as agreed, nothing changes
2. They kick us out and find him new tenants at a cost of £400
3. He takes over management of the property for £1,400 (+ VAT)
4. They return the property to him, empty.
Now he's understandably a little unhappy at this, however it's all in the agreement that he signed (we have a copy of this, it's awful for the owner). He now wants nothing more to do with the agency which rules out options 1, 2 and 3. He seems to be of the opinion that he'd rather lose a current good tenant and a regular income "because of the principle of the thing".

I talked to him about this and, told him that the course of action he'd taken was going to lead to us leaving, and not through choice. He didn't really say anything, so I think he either doesn't understand the problem thoroughly, or he is too wrapped up in "the principle" to care about the impact it will have on him and us.”

The tenant is moving house in April. He wasn’t asking for advice, but wondered if I’d heard of this happening, and the answer is: yes I have, but not to this ridiculous extent.

Estate agents are slowly but surely establishing a monopoly on housing. I once answered a seemingly private ad, but the owner redirected me to his agent. On asking why he was placing ads, I was told: they’re not doing a very good job, which begged the question – why use them? Agents aren’t helping anyone here, and are simply trying to make money for themselves, not safeguard landlords and serve the best interest of tenants.

But the above situation is an outrage, and a new problem: in areas where demand is not as febrile as London, it seems like a good idea. But what happens when, as here, it goes badly and stupidly wrong?

New landlords always fret and worry, so when a smooth-talking agent promises to end costly voids (tenantless properties lose money) this must sound like a gift. But beware of silver tongued estate agents promising you the earth because they’ll charge you for it. And everybody loses.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Jointly, Together and Simultaneously

In shared housing, how do most tenants begin to their renting adventure?

Do they arrive together, watches co-ordinated, pull up in matching vans wearing identical outfits? And the decision to leave: is it taken at a house-meeting, and (everyone in unanimous agreement after a vote) they all move out at exactly the same hour on the same day?

Of course not. Many tenants don’t even like each other very much, and were unacquainted before moving in. When renting shared homes, people move around a lot, settling in gradually and are out again in stages: one occupant moves in with a mate, finds some co-tenants, and then they stay, or move, sometimes separately, sometimes together. According to the interruptions of life, residents move on to buy, or for work related reasons, or just because they fancy a change, while others stay put because they can’t afford to move up or join that housing ladder, or return when relationships end, and move in to replace someone who has left. It’s vague, and used to be informal.

Why is this important? I’ve noticed something, a problem that will increase as larger numbers of people under the age of 35 are forced to share houses. Fixed Term Joint Tenancies are being used as a cheeky way of getting tenants to stay for fixed periods (meaning they have to pay to renew their agreement) and or are responsible for finding someone else if they move out. It’s that Assured (Accursed) Short-Term Tenancy (Travesty) again.

I am never surprised by what I hear when it come to property professionals trying to do no work and make loads of money, but this is creeping up on tenants. How many people live their lives in regular six monthly cycles? What if you want to move out, or your co-tenant wants to stay, or you can only stay for another three months, when six months is being demanded?

The reason why is simple: with fixed term tenancies agents can demand fees for every renewal: there is little incentive for letting agreements roll over, which is more convenient for tenants, especially where houses are being rented by multiple occupants who rarely know each other and move in and out at different times.

I know of friends who share and dread their other flatmates moving on, as they will have to either accept responsibility for the rent and try to find replacements, or else move on themselves.

Some tenants are lucky and the agent/owner allow stranded occupants to sign individual agreements, so they can negotiate their own dates to leave. The easiest method is what is known informally as ‘rolling over’ of tenancies, where after the initial period the tenancy runs on unhindered by interventions like further agreements to be drafted and signed and…

But I’ve answered my own question haven’t I? That’s why it happens: someone, somewhere is making money. If people could move easily in and out of a place, then agents don’t make so much in regular fees (fees that in Scotland are illegal anyhow.) Why make a situation easy, when you can make it lucrative?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Blowing My Own Trumpet

Some good news: The Telegraph has placed rentergirl at pole position in their home and property blog list. Blimey.

I am also written about favourably here:

I am number 4 on this list of the best property sites, as well!

Thanks to all concerned. It won't change me.

(I don't know why Safari/blogger won't let me use links, and it's starting to get on my nerves.)