Please don't put a price on my soul.
My burden is heavy,
My dreams are beyond control.
When that steamboat whistle blows,
I'm gonna give you all I got to give
- 'Dear Landlord' by Bob Dylan
Renting accommodation can be a bit like dealing with the devil himself. Landlords have a reputation on a par with despotic leaders of corrupt republics, and letting agents... well, what can be said of letting agents that hasn't already been said before1? But the experience of renting accommodation in one country can be vastly different to that of another. What's it like for you where you live?
And what about the properties themselves? What should you look out for when you get shown around a house or a flat for the first time? What are the danger signs (dodgy boilers, heaters, no fire alarms, overbearing landlords, bad location)? What things should be present and correct? And money - what about your hard-earned cash? There's all sorts of financial things to think about, such as deposits, rent, bills (council tax and water rates in the UK) and general maintenance stuff.
Renting a house can be a pleasant experience. It can also go horribly wrong. Forewarned is forearmed - so read on! Let the Community be your guide!
Good Questions to Ask Before Renting
If you live local then you're likely to know whether it's okay to move there or not. If you're not local, then you won't. Ask people. One thing that you really want to find out is how safe or dodgy the place is. Ask neighbours about previous tenants. If possible ask to look around the property while the present tenants are still there. Do they look like they will have looked after the place?
We found out about a month after we moved in here that not the previous tenants didn't even own a vacuum cleaner and it seems that they never cleaned the cooker either, and the people before them were evicted for drug dealing from the house.
How are the locks and windows?
Check the locks on the doors. Do they look like they've been kicked in and replaced? Look at the door frames themselves. Are they sound? Look at the window frames. Are they sound, too? Do they let a draught in? Get somebody to go outside and talk to you through the window; do they let in much noise? Do they actually open?
What's the carpet like?
Next check the carpet, is it new? If not, what condition is it in? Carpet isn't cheap, so can you live with one that has lots of tears or a really horrid pattern? Does the floor actually meet the skirting board?
What condition are the walls in?
Run your hand along the wall and feel if it's sound or not. Look for flaking, stained or peeling paint. Most landlords have the whole place repainted just before they let them, and then it's hard to tell if there is any damp around. But if a wall is cold while the rest of the house is warm, then ask the landlord outright if there ever has been any damp in the place, and if so, what has been done to fix it. They aren't allowed to lie. They can forget to tell you something, but they can't lie. If damp turns up at a later date, then you can get in contact with the previous residents and see if there was indeed a problem with damp.
How much DIY/decorating are you allowed to do?
Some landlords will ask you to contact them before doing anything, including putting up picture hooks. Others don't care. Check to make sure that there are fittings and space for things like the washing machine and fridge/freezer. If there isn't, will the landlord fit one?
What sort of heating does the place have?
Storage heaters or central radiators? Make sure that all the heating works. If you can, try it while you are looking around the place. Often this isn't practical as the gas/electricity has been turned off. But make sure that the landlord knows that if they don't work it's his responsibility to fix them.
Which companies supply the gas/electric/water?
It took us just under a month to get the water company sorted for this house, just over a month to sort out which gas company would be sending us the bills, and we still haven't been able to figure out who is supposed to be charging us for our electricity, and we've been here two months.
Are the amenities paid by bill or card?
If it's a token/card meter, where is the nearest place to recharge the card or buy tokens? And do they open 24 hours and are within a distance that you are prepared to walk to on a freezing cold night when you're having a party and have just run out of electricity.
Can you afford the house?
Remember, it's not just the rent that you have to pay, there's the council tax, the water, the gas, the electricity. All these change as you move around the country.
And most importantly...
Can you get broadband Internet in that area?
I had to give up my cable modem connection when we moved here and go back to 56.6k. Hmmph.
When you move into rented accommodation, more often than not you will be given an inventory of contents. It's wise to have your landlord/lady go through this with you at the time, so you both agree on what's there and the condition its in. Get this in writing. At the end of your lease, go through it again, with the landlord, so you can both agree exactly what's missing/damaged etc (if anything). Don't rely on them accepting your word for it, and don't rely on them making an accurate assessment and letting you know the result.
Also, it's wise to have some sort of proof as to the condition of your accommodation before you move in - the decor, state of windows, carpets etc. Take photos if necessary - give your landlord a copy. Find out exactly what upkeep you're responsible for, and make sure you maintain this as per your contract (you did sign a contract, didn't you?!)
At the end of your lease, assess the state of the property in detail with the landlord. Get them to tell you exactly what they aren't happy with (if anything), and what they're going to charge you for, or take out of your deposit. Point out that they should expect reasonable wear and tear, especially if you've been there a while.
We had real problems when we moved out of our last rented place. Although the place was damp, with the windows rotting in their frames, the landlord did nothing about it, despite promising repeatedly that he would. There was no central heating - just a gas fire, so it was impossible to keep the place heated sufficiently to keep the damp out. When we moved out, he tried to charge us the costs of having the damp treated, new windows put in and furniture replaced (beds etc) because of the damp. Needless to say, he didn't get the money!
Council Houses in England
These are a very good way to rent, as they are cheap, well looked after, and the older houses are big with big gardens. The council come round and do all the things that landlords are supposed to do like fit smoke alarms and check the gas appliances. They check the houses every five years to see what maintenance needs doing, and if anything goes wrong they are normally fixed fairly quickly. They are let unfurnished, so you'll need furniture, and probably carpets as well, but it's a secure tenancy, so no need to worry about being kicked out for no reason. If you're an OAP they will even decorate the rooms on a cycle of a couple of years.
Unfortunately, there's normally a big waiting list for houses, and they'll fit you into a flat until one comes up, but the wait is worth it, even though it can take up to ten years. The area you get can only be chosen very vaguely, so you get what you're given, but apart from that the council can be a very reasonable landlord.
Given that the landlords agents are not working for you, it is important to get an independent inventory done before you move in - the more detailed the better. If it is left to the agency they can (and will) accuse you of causing wanton damage and unless you have an inventory, it is difficult to argue that you didn't do it. It is also a good idea to have a good look around the place before you move all of your stuff in (with the inventory in hand if possible) and check for things like dents and marks on the walls, stains on the carpets, areas not properly clean, cupboards and drawers not opening/closing properly etc. Taking a photo of each room can be useful as evidence too.
Send a copy of your complete list (and/or photos) to the agency in the first couple of weeks so that when they come to make deductions from your deposit because of damage, or cleanliness you have some grounds to argue against things that weren't your fault.
Here's one beleaguered Researcher's experience:
I rented a room in a shared house. When I arrived, the building was in a poor state of repair, with major subsidence in evidence and other signs of general neglect.
Within 28 hours of arriving, the house was broken into and some of my property was stolen. The agent didn't seem that bothered. He eventually agreed that replacing the glass that was smashed wasn't actually our fault.
A few months later, one of the kitchen taps disintegrated. It was plastic, rather old and due for replacement. The agent treated this as if it was an act of malice on our part. Later, when the heating failed completely, he took two months to organise repairs. When Transco arrived, they more or less condemned the water heater on the spot. By this time, there was water coming through the kitchen ceiling, including one of the light fittings, and signs of the electrics falling apart. Given that all of this was the responsibility of the landlord to replace or repair, the agent caused further amusement at his regular inspections.
Being an obsessive/compulsive type he would turn up and criticise us for living in a 'pig sty'. At each occasion, the house was squeaky clean. He would also refuse to turn up if anyone was ill. During one period, I had flu and managed to buy us an extra two weeks to make some running repairs. In short, when renting accommodation it helps if the person representing the landlord is not barking mad.
Hear it Through the Grapevine
It's not all bad. Here's some nice advice for students:
I don't know if this has been said before, but my student house (rented) has been passed from friends to friends for at least three years now. It's in an okay location, medium-priced, I think the landlady is quite good, and we only have one slight problem with it.
It was good knowing the people who lived there before because we got access to the landlady before it went on the market; we got to leave stuff in there before our contract started because we knew the people who were moving out, and we also got to know all the little idiosyncrasies of the house because the people were our friends. Also, because of the 'friend factor' the price didn't get put up when we moved in.
My advice to students is, if you know people who are living in rented accommodation already, find out if they like their house etc, and if its a good house ask for the landlord/lady's number as soon as possible. Make sure they were planning to be listed with your university's accommodation office if you get at them before they put the advert in, because the accommodation office would force them to meet various criteria, and obviously don't slack over checking out certificates for all of the appliances (especially gas)
A Special Place in Hell
Here's a lovely little dialogue concerning hell and who should go there!
My friend is positive that there's a special little corner of hell reserved for landlords. She's also convinced that there's a secret school somewhere that teaches them how to avoid responsibility, feign ignorance, and cultivate a faulty memory when it comes to remembering problems.
An important thing to find out about when renting a house is who will be responsible for taking care of the outside of the house. At one time, I rented the upstairs of a house, and the downstairs tenants and the landlord were always arguing over who was responsible for upkeep. Meanwhile the backyard 'grass' was chest high. I once got so disgusted with the way it looked that I raked all the leaves. It was embarrassing.
There are pros and cons to live-in landlords. They tend to take a bit more pride in the appearance of the property, and if they live there, they usually do something about leaking roofs and such. But the downside is that they're always there! I had very nosy landlords once. Not a lot of fun.
And here's the reply giving the flip-side of the coin, so to speak...
I am a tenant and I would like to send my landlord to that corner, too (at least sometimes). But there's also the other side. My grandfather is a landlord. The tenant lived in the house peacefully for some ten years. All of the sudden he decided not to pay the rent anymore (even though it was arbitrated in court that the other guy - the tenant - has more than enough money). But after ten years paying rent the respite for throwing tenants out is two years!. After two years he paid the rent for one month, and got himself another two years. (My grandfather could not allege subsistence because he already lives in another house.) After that period he could finally be thrown out - after four years only paying for one month! So - guys like this one deserve the same corner.
In Germany there's a law for everything. The problem is that most people do not have the time to attend a five-year law course in university and specialising in 'right of abode' before renting an apartment or a house. The other problem is that most landlords haven't attended the five-year law course, either...
If you took the time to look up the laws in Germany (which in some instances vary slightly from community to community) you'd find out that renting - in theory - is quite simple. The square-metre prices cannot exceed 10 or 20% of the average square-metre prices of the vicinity. There's also a certain minimum of conditions a residence must fulfil before it can be put for rent: hydraulics must work; electrical installations must conform to the standards and be fully operational, and so on. The tenant can obviously exercise their right of abdication (eg, if they decide that the electrical installation is OK anyway), or try and negotiate a lower price (which is pointless in communities where the demand exceeds the offer - like in Munich). There are many other laws that were - in the best of intentions - created, so that everyone is happy. Everything is regimented.
In Germany there's also an association of tenants called Mieterverein for many communities. These guys know everything and help out with counselling. They know most of the laws and have connections to lawyers for difficult cases. Membership costs between 70 and 40 Euros per year (at time of writing).
Especially in apartment buildings there is also a thing called Hausordnung, which are the 'rules of the house'. Commonly it is a piece of paper on which you can read from what time to what time you are allowed to make noise, how many dogs you are allowed to have simultaneously and when you are supposed to open or close the windows in the lobby. Tenants should look at this carefully - the biggest problems concern pets.
The deposit or 'caution money' is also tightly regimented. The amount of deposit you pay must correspond to the value of three month's rent - this is a common thing in Germany.
In Estonia the conditions can be very different. Usually the landlords are people who have got their properties back after the Soviet period and with all the people who were living in the houses. These houses are usually in a very bad condition, quite often without plumbing and with stove heating. If you're lucky you can find a place for free but of course, like anywhere, there are places that cost a fortune - your average Estonian monthly income, for example.
This is important: if anything has to be repaired or cleaned before you can move in; do not trust the landlord on his word that 'of course this will be done'. The moment you have signed there is a good chance he will forget all about it. See the following example:
One of the first places I lived after I moved from home was a nice little flat... or rather it could have been. When I first inspected it they were in the middle of installing the kitchen and making a shower corner in the room where the washing machine was going to be placed. It looked like it was going to be nice and I signed. Well, one month later when I moved in nothing further had been done. The kitchen was non-existent. The shower was not there. The washing machine was not there. The sink was not there. The place had not been washed and the old furniture had not been removed. The landlord claimed that it was not his fault and he gave me a little reduction in the rent and promised that everything would be in order within a month. I was allowed to use his family's shower and collect water two floors up.
When I finally gave up and moved out after three months nothing had been done. The landlord acted insulted that I did not trust him and wanted to deduct a lot from the deposit since he claimed I had given him a lot of extra work. Then he made a big show of starting to work on the kitchen the day I moved out. He claimed that everything would be ready in a week and that he had new tenants moving in. I wonder how long they stayed...
Some Final Little Things to Think About
Rent prices vary greatly city by city, and even within cities. Consider if you can live a little outside where you actually want to be for a fraction of the cost and greater apartment size. Phone booth sized apartments can go for big bucks in an inner city, but won't even be worth the materials they are made from in the country.
The Lease and Smoke Detectors
When you rent a property, you should be given a lease agreement to sign by either the landlord or his agent. Make sure that you read it and if possible get it checked by an independent solicitor (you can get a 30 minute free appointment with most solicitors in the UK) before you sign it. If it's done through an agent they will use a general lease for all properties, no property is identical and there may be parts of the lease that do not have anything to do with the property you are renting, make sure these parts are removed before you sign it.
Make sure there is a smoke detector in the property, there should be one in any UK rented property by law; if there isn't make sure the agent/landlord fits one before you sign the lease.
At a barbecue I held this summer, I realised that the fire extinguisher in my rented house was manufactured in 1971 (and expired in 1976). Had a conflagration ensued, I would have had the dubious delight of tackling the blaze with equipment that is older than I am.
Posters and the like...
When looking around the house, take a look behind any posters/pictures or anything else hanging on the wall. They could easily be covering something unwanted...
In the UK, your landlord is legally obliged to have gas appliances tested once a year, and produce a valid gas certificate. Make sure you get this - it's your life at risk if you don't. Peculiarly, they have no special responsibilities for oil-fired appliances.
Go to the Pub!
Check out the local pubs in the area when househunting - your feet will need a rest, you'll need a beer and you can suss out the atmosphere and the locals.
'It's a bit cold in winter...'
If the guy showing you around the flat/room says, 'It might get a bit cold in the winter', do not get the room. It generally translates as, 'You are going to get -50°C temperatures'.
I was given an electric heater, which I had run on my own money. (I had a electricity meter). It didn't even heat 2cm from the fan.
And at the risk of being obvious...
You should never indulge in, er... relations with your landlord or landlady. It gets way too complicated...
Related BBC Links
Find out the essential facts on renting accommodation.
Rent arrears of £48 million? Surely there must be a mistake!
Find out about the scheme designed to protect students living in rented accommodation in Northern Ireland.