Sunday, 10 January 2010

Renting ~ when someone elses house is home

Since leaving home at the age of twenty I've moved so many times I sometimes wonder if I'll ever settle down. The longest I've stayed anywhere was about eight years and the shortest just weeks, but for the time I lived at each of these places they were 'home'.

The most common length of time I've stayed put has been about two years; stretching it out to three has more than once come to seem like overstaying the value of the place. It's nearly two years since we moved to this place - uh-oh, I wonder if the green light will be coming on soon, meaning the green light 'to go'. I am even a known customer of an especially good-to-deal-with removals company, Conroy Removals, which has handled the job for me four times now, and I know to within a couple of metres exactly how much stuff I have to move from one place to the next. I have the whole routine down pat, down to the boxes stacked flat in the end of the garage all ready for next time... What a lot there always is to do, and once moved such a lot to adjust to: new place, new landlord, new neighbours, new places to explore and get the hang of...

I've been a tenant all this time, not by design, but rather from the lack of it, because for many reasons, some practical, some mere distractions, I've never been sufficiently motivated to buy my own place. This is a pity because the opportunity to do so has now passed, for the meantime.

All this has left me with a lot to say about renting, and given that I'm looking back over several decades it's taken me a while to pick my words. I want to talk mostly about renting a whole dwelling rather than being a flatmate as this is the situation I've been in most frequently in recent years.

Overall I've been relatively fortunate in that I've usually found something suitable when I've needed to, but there have been times when it has seemed like a close shave between that and nothing as most rentals I've looked at have been impossible, to put it mildly.
I have my list of requirements of what a place must provide even to be considered: proximity to shops and transport, good access, the right number of rooms, and it must be clean, sunny, warm and quiet. And have a garage. Then there's the landlord requirement: if I don't like him or her it's a 'no' as this is one relationship that needs to go well. It's all a lottery, but if I start out by having gone through my list to my own satisfaction it does increase the chances of us being comfortable there.

Thank God and the previous Labour Government for mandatory standard tenancy agreements, yet even with these in place there are always details to be worked out which can test the nerves of an anxious tenant or wary landlord. I've had my share of tense moments and had to argue about what seemed to me to be very basic issues. Fortunately so far these problems have been able to be worked through.

For me by far the greatest area of difficulty and disagreement has been to do with different perspectives about maintenance, but as I said in my earlier article, this priority has been bred into me. What's important to me may well seem insignificant to a landlord, not worth bothering about or an unnecessary expense. However, from my point of view as a tenant these things may be the cause of daily annoyance and / or concern. Here is a random list of things I've encountered which I've had trouble getting attended to: first the small stuff: stiff taps, kitchen drawers that stick, windows and doors that either bind or rattle, deteriorating paintwork in critical places, toilet seats that come off (it's true!), cisterns that don't work properly, door handles that fall off, curtain track that doesn't run properly, not enough towel rails, and never enough house keys, to name a few. On the level of requiring more significant financial outlays I've been confounded by out of date locks which really aren't considered secure any more, decaying bathrooms, and not enough power points or phone jacks. Then there is the question of d├ęcor in which tastes differ so greatly: awful curtains, depressing light fittings, ghastly carpet, and so on and so on.

Over the years I've got better at handling this sort of thing, of making changes where possible, such as replacing curtains and light fittings, and doing what maintenance I can myself, and in the face of landlord indifference, have attempted to disregard the rest.
But this is silly. Why isn't the landlord seeking me out and asking me what needs doing, what would make a difference to me? I'm actually paying him (or her) and yet relentlessly get the distinct impression that despite my best efforts of communicating with politeness and tact that my point of view and my needs are acknowledged grudgingly, or worse, drift off into some kind of void. I find this extremely irksome. I hate having to ask for anything, even directions. I'd far rather own my own place, but since that isn't possible I have to make the best of what amounts to someone else being much more in control of my home than I am happy with. And yet when I leave they are happy to write me glowing testimonials in which they volunteer that we treated their place "as if it were their own home". This is a compliment, by the way, a fairly large one. So why haven't they been coming to the party a bit more significantly while we were living there?

From what I've seen of other tenants carryings-on being a landlord can carry quite high risks: a smallish portion of tenants are rowdy and disruptive, dirty or simply stop paying the rent, all of which is onerous, yet those of us who are careful, clean, considerate and always pay our rent on time get charged the same amount, and seemingly receive the same level of service, if you could call it that. I would call it the 'as little as possible' service. Sigh... And yet on the whole, we've done okay; there has been and is much that is good. I'm just being realistic about these particular points.

Of all the landlords I've had over the years, one set stands out: R and E: have a bouquet, you know who you are! If only there were more of you. You could show the rest a thing or two!

In three instances in which home owners have generously rented me room in their homes I have been more than fortunate and indeed have formed lifelong friendships: V and J, a bouquet to each of you also. And Rewi, well, we just keep on being friends, for which I'm grateful. You've been getting your bouquets! Thanks to all of you for all the laughter and good times as well as for your kindness and generosity in the less rosy patches.

Perhaps because our daily lives were more closely entwined there was more of a sense of us doing things together, not just revolving around day-to-day living, but also doing things for the property, making it nicer. I felt included, which felt good. I would like to see a great deal more of this approach in landlord-tenant relations generally. I've always contributed a lot to the places I've lived in; now I want more back for me.


penelope said...

You're writing about things no one else seems to ... good on you. Thought-provoking. And I'm imagining that I'd be a provoking sort of landlady if, for example, we let our own house. We live with rattly doors, fraying curtains and shifty toilet seats ... it'd be tempting to tell the tenant to toughen up if they complained. No wonder you quietly do it yourself!

ElizT said...

Gad! We held back half the bond of the next people.

Leigh said...

Then I'm sure you had good reason to!!!

Leigh said...

Responding to Penelope's comment above: You raise a good point, thank you. For me it's about choice: if I choose to live with household imperfections (which I do!) that's up to me, but if it's someone else's choice that's a different matter. We all have different things that bug us! But it's like mess, dirt or noise - if it's our own we either do something about it or ignore it, whereas if it's someone else's...

Grace Dalley said...

I think It's high time there were mandatory standards for rental properties in the areas of heating and insulation. I've lived in so many flats and houses that were damp, inadequately insulated, and having methods of heating which should have gone out with the ark (coal burners that filled the neighbourhood with smoke, open fires, radiant heaters...) And sometimes I've had to battle to get even these fixed or repaired when they needed it (in one flat I had to really argue to get an open fire provided with a grate, for crying out loud!)

In this part of the country where winters are cold, good heating and insulation should be a requirement, not a luxury extra.

Leigh said...

I absolutely agree! Tenants are not in the position the landlord is in of being able to apply for insulation and heating subsidies, which it seems convenient to disregard - doesn't affect them... This falls into the category of the 'as little as possible' service.

Leigh said...

I must follow that with a comparison of two very different landlord responses to a similar scenario:
In the more recent incident I pointed out that there were only two power points in my bedroom both of which were in the same awkward place. The response was "What people do now is run a multi-board off an extension cord". I gave up. The result was a daily treading on or tripping over the damn thing, and I have to say, resentment at being fobbed off like that.

In the other instance from about ten years ago when I was a tenant of Elizabeth and Ron's, I said to Ron, that if he was having any electrical work done he might consider getting some of the power points changed to double ones as there weren't many in the flat. He asked me to show him which I did, and then followed it by a moderating remark that things were okay as they were, to which he responded: "That's not acceptable nowadays, just work out how many and where and we'll get it done". Magic!