Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent

Photo by Shane Walter

Photo by Shane Walter

You’d have to be trying pretty hard to have missed the news over the last couple of years about skyrocketing rents. Landlords, it’s claimed, are the scourge of society, greedy BTLers snapping up property and renting it out for astronomical sums. Having been a tenant for about 12 years before I managed to buy my first flat at the age of 32, I can certainly attest to the old adage that there are good landlords and bad landlords.

The bad

Like the couple who owned and let out a couple of smallish blocks of flats in a town I previously lived in. They were weirdly controlling, insisting that all tenants used their standard issue (horrid) curtains and regularly sent around missives instructing us what settings to have the heating on. Because their office was on-site, it meant they could keep a close eye on our comings and goings. And they did. If you had a visitor, it was pretty much guaranteed that within a few minutes Landlady would find an excuse to knock on the door to snoop. Once, I found myself being interrogated on the identity of a visitor one of my neighbours had. They blithely ignored any requirement for notice before letting themselves into the flats while we were at work – the tenants would often come home to find their post neatly stacked on the side. Sadly, their unofficial surveillance didn’t extend to spotting the scumbag who burgled my flat in broad daylight though they did tell me it was my own fault as Landlord fitted internal window locks with a universal key on the outside of my front door for extra security.

The ugly

Or the crazy woman who owned another flat I lived in. She left us pretty much alone for about four months, then decided to sell the flat at which point her grasp of reality went rapidly downhill. There were the estate agents turning up unannounced to value the flat (six of them), then a constant stream of viewers, none of whom we knew were coming until they knocked on the door. A protest to the letting agent resulted in a shrieking answerphone message from Landlady in which she accused us of telling the estate agents the flat was haunted (yes, really). One night, her brother appeared on the doorstep to inform us that yet another estate agent was expected shortly and that he wanted to come in to wait for him. Our request that he come back at a time more convenient displeased him so he jammed his foot in the door and became abusive. The estate agent turned up at precisely this moment, realised what was going on and offered to make an appointment with us to come back which displeased Landlady’s brother even more.

The good

But on the flip side, I once rented a flat from a lovely couple who couldn’t do enough for their tenants. Repairs were done quickly and without fuss. They’d even installed a spy hole in a frosted glass front door for the previous tenant. Why anyone would need a spy hole in a glass door remains a mystery to me but they did it anyway. The flat was a bit shabby and in need of refurbishment so they asked for my opinion on what improvements I thought they should do. Unluckily for me, the improvements were to be made after I moved out but at least their heart was in the right place.

Some landlords are merely a bit ineffectual rather than actively good or bad. A Grade II listed barn I rented was in dire need of more efficient heating and repairs but although Landlord was very friendly and approachable, he never quite got around to doing any of it. He’d pop round with his electrician mate and they’d mutter in corners with tape measures, he’d then look bewildered and tell me wistfully about all the things he wanted to do with the barn. Though, bless him, he did come over once to reset the boiler for me when I freaked out because the boiler was at the back of a dark shed filled with spiders the size of my hand.

Another barn conversion I rented on a farm was owned by a family who on the face of it were great, but seemed to view me as some kind of staff by extension. Touched that they’d invited me to a big party they were having, I pitched up all ready to throw some shapes on the makeshift dancefloor to find that my role was to serve drinks and hand round food. I was also once tasked with rounding up all their geese and chickens which ended in me chasing 14 hens and some assorted ducks around a small pond for an hour while the geese hissed and flapped at me. Still, the rent was peanuts, I got to feed a baby lamb with a bottle and a door the other side of my bathroom opened out onto an indoor swimming pool.

Shelter report

The real kicker when you rent though, is the huge amount of money you have to pay up front. Six weeks’ rent as a deposit, a month’s rent in advance – which alone could total upwards of two grand for even a modest flat – not to mention the various fees. Credit checks, admin fees, inventory fees. And because it takes a few weeks after you move out to get your deposit back, you can’t even use the money from that. A recent report by Shelter found letting agency fees are forcing tenants into debt.

“Average fees charged were almost £350, with almost a third of agencies charging renters more than £400 to set up a tenancy, and a further seven charging more than £700. These charges are in spite of the fact that letting agencies typically receive separate fees from landlords to set up a new tenancy on their behalf.

  • 1 in 4 people who have dealt with a letting agency in the last three years said they had to borrow money to pay for fees.
  • 1 in 6 reported cutting down on food or heating to meet the cost of fees.
  • 1 in 4 say that letting fees have stopped them from getting a new home.”

So it’s not just the tenants who are being shafted, it’s the landlords too. Read Shelter’s report here.

While I don’t subscribe to the belief that anyone has a ‘right’ to own their own home, people DO have a right to clean, safe and affordable housing. The banks’ clampdown on mortgages post-2008 has meant that many people who might have been able to afford to buy before are now excluded from the market. At the same time, the introduction of new regulators to replace the FSA have got lenders donning their cautious hats.

The housing crisis

Selling off social housing and failing to build more to replace it is an act of unparalleled lunacy, as is the continuing extension of of Right to Buy by successive governments. At the same time, using benefit caps to attempt to curb increasing rents doesn’t make unscrupulous landlords lower their rents, it makes their tenants homeless and costs the local authority more in temporary housing than it would have if they’d just paid the damn rent in the first place. My Londonist colleague Rachel Holdsworth did a series of excellent posts on London’s housing crisis. See here, here and here.

There’s nothing inherently evil about owning property, renting it out and even making a profit from it if possible. Some people only rent their houses out because they’re in negative equity following the collapse of the housing market in 2008, they can’t sell (or can’t afford to sell) and can’t live in the property for some reason. Some of them don’t even cover their mortgage payments, let alone make a profit from it. What does catapult landlords into one of the circles of Hell is failing to maintain their properties, over-charging on rent, harassing their tenants and essentially turning into slum landlords.

But what are the solutions? For one, regulation around letting agents needs to be better enforced and caps on fees set. Landlords themselves could be regulated, though this would involve local authorities being organised and efficient enough to administer it – two traits not often found in local government. People need to accept that not everyone can or wants to buy their own home and stop viewing renting as being some kind of shameful second best.

And stop with the selling off of social housing already.

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