Renting a home: what every tenant should know

By Penny Anderson
Read the Full article on The Guardian Website

During my seven years of blogging as Rentergirl – and decades renting – I have experienced the joys and woes of the UK’s broken private rental sector – from soggy sofas to sudden eviction. Here’s what I’ve learned…

I‘ve been a tenant my entire adult life, which is hardly unusual. After all, there are currently nine million renters in the UK. We all rent property at some point in our lives: as students; when saving to buy (which, for many, is rapidly transforming from stopgap to permanent); while on holiday; and, finally, when we are elderly, in sheltered housing.

For seven years I’ve written a blog about this vast, fascinating subject. I began Rentergirl as a lodger, after a landlady who regularly drank three bottles of wine per evening, and who roundly admonished me for using the lounge, gave me one hour’s notice to “get out of her house”.

My weekly posts about the experience of being a tenant proved extremely popular, consulted by owners and tenants, charities, academics, councils and even parliament.

I have experienced the various joys and woes offered by the UK’s broken private rental sector: revenge eviction, disastrous shared homes, being a lodger and social housing. I suffered in the buy-to-let boom and subsequent crash, when my rented home was repossessed because my landlord went bankrupt, and, in common with many tenants, have occasionally been homeless (once, just hours away from the street).

As a result, I loathe the inappropriate, semi-aristocratic terms “landlord/lady”. Given the servile nature of renting, “Your Majesty” might be more appropriate. I prefer the term rentier.

Now I’m ending Rentergirl. There are several reasons: one of which is that I plan to write a book about it, but also because renting is now firmly on the political agenda. Campaign groups such as Hackney Renters, Edinburgh Private Tenants Action group and, nationally, Generation Rent argue that renters could sway election results in several marginal constituencies next May. Wise politicians will court the renter vote.

During my rollercoaster years of writing Rentergirl and decades renting, here’s what I have learned:

London is property’s wild west

It is where common abuses and scams are born. Supply is limited, causing rents to soar out of control (reintroducing council rent officers who set fair rents would be useful). Scandals such as beds in sheds (greedy owners place beds in fire-hazard, freezing outhouses), rent-to-rent (property is divided then re-let for more money, perhaps without the owner’s permission) and sealed bids for rented flats all begin in London (but are less lucrative outside such a cut-throat and febrile market). London renters routinely suffer from having no communal area, because all rooms are converted into more profitable bedrooms. Tenants dry laundry in minuscule bedrooms, while eating meals and entertaining guests in that same, tiny, damp, inadequate space. Worst of all are the accompanying insecurity and overseas buyers snaffling all the new buildings. I’ve lived there. It was hell.

Wear and tear is inevitable

Letting agents and owners expect renters to float like fairies on gossamer wings or else dangle, suspended on wires, like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, never touching the floor so we don’t erode the carpet. We must not ruin the incongruous white carpets certain villains insist upon, likewise cream sofas that invite coffee stains. A portion of our rent pays for use of the furniture, which could never be returned in pristine condition. One of my friends had their deposit withheld when ancient, decaying velvet curtains disintegrated after being dry-cleaned as mandated in their post-exit cleaning regime. Owners, you need to accept something. There will be fraying. There will be stains. Just like there would be in your own home – if you were foolish enough to put cheap, white carpet in the kitchen.

Tenants and owners hate letting agents

Bad blood festers mostly because nobody is entirely sure what letting agents do. If tenants request repairs, they are usually referred straight back to the owner, and owners wishing for help with delinquent tenants are left to cope alone. Growing animosity is fuelled by the enormous fees paid by both tenants and owners, sometimes for the same service, such as £300 for photocopied contracts. I know from contacting previous landlords that expensive references are frequently not pursued, and yet we still pay for them. I’ve paid a “continuous affordability assessment fee” – that is, the agency charged to see if I could afford the rent I had been paying. Thankfully this was in Scotland, where charging fees to tenants is illegal, so I swiftly reclaimed the money. My favourite ever charge by a letting agency: the “finance fee”. It was a fee for collecting all the other fees. Seriously, the nerve of these people.

Furnished flats are the pits

Consider what the reality entails for tenants, lumbered with kitchen cupboards crammed with chipped glassware, and the owner’s treasured collection of string, or half-empty paint tins blocking what storage space remains. Then there are biohazard mattresses. When I recoiled in revulsion at one especially decorative and lively example while viewing a house, the owner shrugged: “Yes, I know – art students.” I’ve endured saggy sofas with troubling damp patches, wonky tables and white plastic wardrobes. One friend’s landlady supplied (and so she had to keep) two rickety hostess trolleys, both sprayed gold.

Flat-shares are hell

They are. Tense bathroom rotas, passive aggressive notes about “borrowed” carrots and rows about musical differences (one former flatmate was an ardent Barry Manilow fan) will be with us for ever. Where renting used to be a rite of passage, it has now become permanent for many people, affecting tenants into their 50s and 60s (if they can find anyone share with). Mortgage restrictions, benefit cuts, lack of supply and the decline in social housing compel desperate people to share homes. Renters could queue for the bathroom next to abusive bullies with chaotic lives and severe behavioural problems, subsequently threatened or even assaulted. There’s nowhere to turn for advice or mediation, and the only remedy is to move out. Sometimes, communal living works. But it’s no way to live when homelessness is the only alternative.

Landlords should be licensed

Anyone can become a rentier – people with a bad credit rating might be refused finance but could still let inherited property, while tenants buckle under the weight of the references they must provide. I’ve been fortunate with landlords who are kind, supportive, and diligent; my current rentier is a star. Elsewhere, they’ve been negligent and threatening. Remember: these occasionally dubious strangers possess the key to your home. They could be convicted sex offenders but can let themselves in whenever they please (I’m not being melodramatic – rentiers could be violent ex-offenders). A properly funded, efficiently enforced register would solve this. As happened with the man in Edinburgh who threatened to shoot his tenants, and was eventually banned.

Owners should stay away

Renting is a form of temporary ownership. Rentiers must not, as happened to my friend, let themselves in and cook breakfast because their own kitchen is crowded one busy Saturday morning. Let it go.

Buy-to-let flats are a nightmare

Buildings designated “ideal for investment” are often precarious hovels (nicknamed euroboxes or “twat-flats”). They dominate cities across the UK, and are practically identical. Containing no more than two bedrooms, they’re tiny, sometimes with hardly enough space for a double bed. These flats are insulated thoroughly by law for heat, but not so carefully for sound (one developer omitted double glazing in flats on a main road, since the fine for not doing so was cheaper than the windows). In the block I christened Dovecot Towers, I could hear the man upstairs every time he coughed.

Buy-to-let owners are the worst

They sometimes live hundreds of miles away. Consequently, many struggle to organise repairs and supervise problem tenants. Often, they are the most resentful of all, regarding tenants not as the poor souls subsidising pension plans, but as vermin infesting their delicate, porcelain piggy bank.

We need long-term tenancies

Renting spawns parasites

It is a profitable, growing and unregulated industry, with many attendant businesses including “tenant eviction specialists” – AKA thugs. They are often former nightclub bouncers, and intimidate renters into vacating quickly and without resistance. Elsewhere, specialist firms supply buy-to-let owners with furniture, and there are inventory checkers. Next, we have costly removal firms, storage centres and hostels used if we act on the advice: “If it’s so bad, why not move?”

Discrimination is rife

Not overtly – few letting agents or owners are stupid enough to shout: “We don’t want your type living here.” But bigotry, prejudice and unreasonable, capricious aversions affect the housing of not just lesbians (one correspondent met a leering potential landlord who liked “to watch”), gay men and black or other ethnic minorities, but also: disabled, working and unemployed claimants, single parents, manual workers (why? just because) part-time employees and students (for or against). See also applicants with a less than spotless credit record (just one late-paid utility bill), freelancers, people with beards (one correspondent was told he looked like “a bloody hippie”), the armed forces. People just back from living abroad. Older people. Younger people. Couples with children; couples without.

The list is endless; it’s a wonder anyone can find a home. Tenants must pay for references from employers, banks and previous landlords. We are often required to supply a guarantor (no matter how old we are, and those in their 60s can hardly ask their parents.) It used to be that we would view a place, decide if we liked it, pay the deposit then move in (and yes, I know tenants are not always perfect).

Occasionally, the system works

Many tenants are content – or I suspect subdued by the futility of their predicament. Others are fortunate, blessed with angelic rentiers who are well-funded, responsible, compassionate, reasonable and just. The homes they let are spacious, warm and well-furnished. Renters can stay securely in long-term homes, permitted (indeed encouraged) to decorate, and rent is fair. Flat-mates are quiet and peaceful but friendly. The birds sing, church bells chime, and it’s sunny all the time.

I’m dreaming, aren’t I?

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