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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Landlords:one:UK

It appears I am forever cursed to have inept and daft landlords. They have become a recurring theme whenever I have to rent property from someone I don’t know.

My first muppet landlord experience was, as it no-doubt is for most people, with the owner of our university digs. Dave, Ben and Chris (Bryce too if you read this) you may be forgiven an involuntary shudder when I mention the name Simon Whittaker.

Being at University in the small west-midlands town of Alsager was tough enough without being troubled by idiot landlords. For a start there were the locals who were almost universally hostile until you had either been a regular in their pub for at least a year or allowed them to gatecrash your party. Even then there were a few I wouldn’t like to meet on a dark night, or even on a summer’s afternoon come to think of it…

Mostly though the difficulty I experienced living in Alsager was the general feeling in that time there passed more slowly than in the rest of the country. We were there from 1996-99, the dot.com technology boom and subsequent bust was about to happen, it was just before the turn of the millennium, and the rest of the country was alive with a buzz of energised anticipation. In Alsager it was still 1976 and time shuffled forward in gloomy apathy and total ignorance of the progress in the wider world.

Our house wasn’t bad as far as student accommodation goes, we even had a suitable cupboard to hide Bryce in. The bugbear with renting it was the landlord. Simon wasn’t a bad person; he wasn’t malicious and didn’t do anything out of spite particularly. He was just a tit.

Take as an example what happened when the oven gave up the ghost. We ring Simon and tell him that the oven is broken and receive the answer: “I’ll get my father in law to come round and have a look at it this weekend.” Fair enough. A week goes by and not a whisper from Simon. We ring again:
”Hi Simon. Can’t help but notice that the oven is still knackered and we haven’t heard anything from you.”
“Ah, yes sorry about that I’ll pop round this weekend and get him to look at it.”
Simon arrives on the Saturday morning, half an hour late. Simon collects rent checks and we talk casually pretending that there isn’t a pungent whiff of marijuana in the air. Half an hour later a venerable old gent in dressed in tweeds complete with matching flat cap rides his ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bicycle up to the front door and announces his presence. This could go one of two ways we think. This guy is either going to bring out an ancient Swiss army knife and rebuild the kitchen with it or install a Victorian wood fired cooking range. After a fortnight without an oven either one of these will be a bonus.

The venerable old gent removes his cycle clips, puts on his half-moon specs and fiddles with the controls on the oven. “Hmmmm”, he says, bends down and takes a look inside. He puts a hand in his pocket; here comes the Swiss Army knife we think. He takes out a handkerchief and stands up cleaning his specs. Simon asks:
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well it it’s broken isn’t it.”
Oh for pity’s sake.

Simon had a habit of arriving unannounced and bringing his children with him. Thankfully as we had a Playstation we had a ready-made way of keeping them quiet and out of the interesting array of stoner gear that was artfully semi-concealed around the house.

It was when he brought around the baby that I think I finally gave up trying to be reasonable and discovered that I couldn’t stand the man. When collecting rent cheques and checking the house for damage you need both hands free. The activity is incompatible with holding a baby, so he gave the wretched infant to me! I found another reason not to have children that day: they’re bloody heavy. Fighting back the urge to rid the world of Whittaker’s progeny, and trying to suppress revolting speculations as to the bore and capacity of Mrs Whittaker I stood there struggling with the boss-eyed baby for about an hour. I was only relieved of one drooling freak by the other when it became abundantly clear that I had categorically had enough.

The last straw with Whittaker came when we were in the last term of our three years and were about to move out. The phone rang:
"Hello Simon"
"I’m going to send round some people to look at the house"
"That’s fine just let us know what day next week they’re coming round and we’ll make sure everything is ready."
"Er, in about twenty minutes…"
"WHAT?!"
"Er, um…"
"Simon you will note from the contract you signed that you are required by law to give us 24 hours notice before any visit. We have spoken about this before."
"Er, um, er…"
"We will do this just the once on the concrete understanding that we get at least a day’s notice in future is this absolutely clear?!"
"Er, yes um er…"
The doorbell sounds before I have put down the phone and 7 wide-eyed 18 year-olds are stood on our doorstep blinking in the sunlight. The house was just about big enough for the 5 of us. I have no idea how they fared with 7 people. We left them in no doubt as to what they are getting themselves into with Whittaker.

The second landlord …er… landlady was not a problem being a very houseproud and efficient person. Unfortunately the reason we were able to rent her flat in Stratford in East London was because she was moving to New Zealand. A fact which meant she left the management of the place to the local branch of Winkworth Estate Agents. These people managed to combine laziness, incompetence and ‘English as a second language’ difficulties in one disastrous package.

When the boiler broke it took three weeks of arguing with them to get it fixed. I don’t know if you have ever tried to do without hot water for three weeks but it isn’t much fun. Cold showers are not invigorating in February, they are life threatening. Naturally we refused to pay the rent that month and made the estate agents explain to the landlady exactly why. She wasn’t pleased and they eventually lost her business.

Winkworth did not cover themselves in glory and like most estate agents wanted to the minimum amount of actual management and still collect the money for it. A pity then that the plumbing in our upstairs neighbour’s flat began to leak eventually leading to the ceiling of our bathroom falling in leaving a hole into our flat you could easily have climbed through. Net result, we can’t use the bathroom for showers or baths, again. Whilst the insurance certainly covered this, the estate agents were so hopeless that we had to organise the vast majority of the work that had to be done on the place ourselves. By the time we moved from Stratford I had truly had enough of renting.