A feudal life

It’s nearly time to move house. Again. Just like last time, I’m quite happy living where I do, but my landlord has decided to—oh, I don’t know, realise the capital sequestered in their asset, or some such bullshit—so they’re selling it, and I’m shortly to become homeless unless I find a new dwelling.

When I was a child, my father was in the RAF. We had to move every two or three years as he was posted to somewhere else (invariably a rather godforsaken part of the UK, cut off from civilisation). I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of life. As a result, I was quite determined that once I became an adult I’d take control of my own life. No one would tell me where to go. And yet, here I am, forced to move every few years, only this time it’s capitalism rather than the military that wields the power. Freedom of choice is so illusory.

The common truth of buying houses is that location trumps all other considerations. This makes sense: once bought, you can’t move a house, but you can steadily replace the previous inhabitant’s avocado bathroom, flock wallpapers, or whatever other peculiar solecisms they may have left behind.

For renting, it’s different. In a sense, the same holds true as for buying: price is related largely to location and number of rooms, and is indifferent to the quality of the fittings. However, as a tenant, you’re stuck with the fittings and décor. For the fastidious tenant (such as your author), this is potentially a bonus: one simply has to decide on one’s requirements, then find somewhere that suits.

But this is harder than it sounds. Letting agents categorise things in terms of features—like the watch section of the Argos catalogue, enumerating each timepiece by the preposterously abyssal depths to which it is purported to function—but pay no heed to whether the kitchen is a fetid galley redolent of Trainspotting or a spacious hall in which a TV chef could happily swing a cat. But they all have ovens, for some definition of oven.

You’d have thought that letting agents were wasting their time gaining access to and showing people around properties that don’t meet their needs, and yet the information on their websites is always incomplete, and the pictures are always shot with techniques that disguise the actual size of rooms. Floor plans are very rare.

Furthermore, properties don’t sit around waiting for tenants for long. If you like somewhere, you’d better take it: it won’t be there tomorrow.

And then, you have to balance viewings with work.

All this adds up to an awful exercise in game theory—and I’m really not a gambler. Whatever the gene that codes for the vice of gambling is, I don’t have it. Usually, this saves me money, but when it comes to renting, I’m at a disadvantage: an ingénu thrust into a murky casino.

After seeing a whole load of inappropriate flats, I finally saw one that was actually nice. Overcome by relief, I decided to take it. I put down a week’s rent as a holding deposit.

And then I spent the next two nights racked with anxiety: debilitating stomach pains, and a heart rate more appropriate to a terrified rodent. It wasn’t quite a panic attack, but it was pretty awful nonetheless.

My subconscious was correct: the flat wasn’t right. Nicely fitted out, but not right. Too close to a busy road. Too little storage space. Too little space in general. The worst thing to do would be to end up stuck there for six months to avoid wasting my deposit, so I had to write it off. A week’s rent. Not a vast amount, but still, not insignificant. A waste. Maybe an education. Just another expense on top of all the other incidental expenses of moving house.

And I still don’t know where I’m going to live. I’ve got six weeks left to work that out. In a sense, I’m in a good position: my end date in my current flat is flexible. All I have to do is hold out until I find somewhere I want to live. But it’s a stressful way to exist.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We could have decent conditions for renters in England, as they do in other countries. We could have better-regulated agents, better rights for tenants, control of rent increases. But all that would get in the way of the rights of the property-owning class to make profit off us lowly plebs. It’ll never happen.


  1. Lee

    Wrote at 2012-11-05 20:50 UTC using Chrome 22.0.1229.94 on Windows 7:

    Wow, bitter post! Why does everything these days come back to the good old “them and us” argument. Why is the word pleb thrown around nowadays by people who think the big bad class system (which doesn’t really exist any more) is out to get them?

    Renters in the UK have plenty of power. Why shouldn’t the owner of the property have the right to sell their own possessions? At the end of the day you could refuse to move out and it would take the owner months of hassle and legal wrangling to actually have you removed….from THEIR property! the law is skewed towards renters already, if anything it needs to swing back to the landlord a little.

    Not every landlord is a wealthy baron with hundreds of acres of land at their disposal….get over it.
  2. Paul Battley

    Wrote at 2012-11-06 00:12 UTC using Chrome 21.0.1180.89 on Linux:

    Lee, the word ‘pleb’ was a satirical reference to current politics. Don’t get too upset about it.

    You’re right that the old class order doesn’t exactly apply any more. However, there is a division between those who own the housing stock, and who are able to profit simply by virtue of that ownership, and those who don’t, the fruit of whose labour is transferred to the first group every month. Anyone with enough cash to put down a large enough deposit can be a member of the first group, but as property prices increase, and rent increases unconstrained, it becomes harder and harder for people to move from the second group to the first group, especially when banks now require a greater principal on any mortgage: they’re doomed to be forever subject to the whims of the people from whom they rent.

    However, that’s not really my issue. I do recognise that there is social value in the provision of rental accommodation. It’s where it’s mixed with a vigorous housing market that I find a problem, as properties end up being bought and sold on a regular basis. This is not good for the tenant who simply wants to get on with their life quietly.

    Yes, I could simply refuse to move out. The landlord would then have to obtain a Possession Order from the County Court, I’d be given a period of time in which to move out, and everything would continue as before. Except that now, I’d find it even harder to rent next time, without the benefit of a good reference! Whether I go quietly or with a struggle, all I can be sure of is that at some point in the next few months, I’ll have to move.

    But I’m not so badly off. At least I can afford to move house. It’s not cheap, considering the need to pay agent fees (not necessary as such, but most housing is only available through agencies), incidental expenses, and six weeks’ rent on a new place before having received the deposit back from the previous place.

    It’s the hassle and uncertainty that’s gnawing at me. And that’s all I mean, really: all this buying and selling, a quarter of a million here, a third of a million there, has consequences on the quality of life of those of us who are pushed around by the process.