A landlord’s life: Why being a buy-to-let property investor isn’t always easy
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Buying an investment property in a block full of elderly owner-occupiers can present unique challenges for a landlord, as Richard Burton discovered.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have bothered to fix a hole in a pub fence, but this one was more metaphor than nuisance.
The pub was a typical darts-and-Sky Sports place that had tried and failed to rebrand itself in keeping with its village green location, and children played footie noisily in the beer garden while their potty-mouthed parents vented even louder over pints of London Pride.
All a bit bawdy and boozy for the elderly neighbours in the two-acre, two-storey block of 24 flats on the other side of the fence. And when the kids kicked out a loose panel so they could retrieve their ball, that was the final straw.
The pensioners wrote a letter. The pub shrugged its shoulders so I went to Wickes in Watford. I bought a few feather edge strips and made a bit of a fuss out of making good, not only the hole, but three or four other panels that had become loose.
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A good deed perhaps, but there was just a little cynicism behind it. I had bought an investment flat in a block exclusively elder-owner-occupied, and despite the misgivings of some of my neighbours, had my eye on another. Surely, it wouldn’t harm my case if I was, er, handy.
The place was run by a management committee and all the residents had shares in the company that owned the freehold. The Chairman, a kindly ex-RAF officer and a bit of a hero in his day, had the respect of all of them but it was the secretary, Jack; stout, straight-backed and straight-talking, who was the most visible. So it was to him I directed my boasts.
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“Very good,” he said, tapping it with the toe of his Hush Puppies Power Walker.
“You know me,” I shrugged. “Always happy to do my bit.”
I was on a roll. “Really.”
Twenty minutes later I was stripping down the tap in his bathroom while Mrs Jack put a plate of Bourbons out with my white-no-sugar. Jack leant against the wall telling me how some of the old dears would try to claim on the insurance for this sort of thing and he’d have to explain in a loud, clear voice how it wasn’t covered. He had such a “case” on the go at the moment, he said. Betty, 85, had stains on her ceiling because Iris in the flat upstairs had let the bath run over again.
“What can you do?” he said. And by you, people tend not to mean “you”, but “one”, anyone. Except, in this case, he did mean you. Or, specifically, me.
I bought some sealant the next day and Iris showed me pictures of her grandchildren while I tubed it along the bottom of the tiles and told her not to leave the tap running while she answered the door next time.
The following morning, the second of two days off from the office, I turned up to work on my own flat when I was accosted on the doorstep. Another pensioner, this one in a hairnet and slippers, frogmarched me with her voice to her front door.
The step was loose, she said. She could have had a fall. Her friend had one and needed a new hip but the doctor said she was too old. She’d told Jack “for all the good that did” and “did he do anything? I could be laying there catching my death and would anyone care?”
I used a bag of ready-mix and told her not to stand on it for the rest of the day. She told me: “like I’ve got somewhere to go!” Her family have forgotten she exists and there’s nowhere to go in the village unless you like Indian or Chinese and she won’t eat anything she can’t pronounce. Phew.
Then it was back to Jack’s. To be fair, the thick pile on the new carpet he’d had laid meant his living room door wouldn’t open fully so I had to take it off, jam it into the Workmate and shave a few millimetres off the bottom.
By the time the second flat came on the market, I’d drilled, screwed, sawed, sealed and tightened my way through half the flats on the block, downed a gallon of tea and heard more life stories than the features editor of Saga.
It was a one-bed ground floor; a mirror image of the one I had upstairs. The elderly lady had died and the family wanted a quick sale. Jack put my name in the frame and the sale was on. They knew I was going to let it so they said they’d let me have it fully furnished for an extra £200. I said yes to be neighbourly and they agreed to give me access once we’d exchanged.
The next day, I stripped the place bare, dumped the furniture at the tip, and six weeks later we completed on a re-carpeted, redecorated and rather upmarket apartment. Hamptons International began marketing it to smart business types who’d appreciate a garage for their company cars.
I had six viewings in a week but it took two more to find anyone I would accept as a tenant; a young couple; she a nurse, him something to do with IT and turning up in a BMW z3. He asked if I’d mind adding a satellite dish so he could watch Newcastle games.
I said yes because they were the right tenants. Not the wide boy with his golf clubs and monogrammed cufflinks or the thick-set Russian in denim who wanted his kids over on access visits but these newlyweds who looked every bit like the grandchildren their new neighbours would be proud of.
Why? Because I’d worked hard to join a community and wasn’t about to disrupt it. Besides, that was the promise I’d made when I’d persuaded them that, if there was going to be a landlord among them, they could do worse than have me. My wife even joined the management committee, dealt with solicitors and handled the tender process for an external painting project.
The humble Indian doctor, the smart French lady with her endearing turn-of-phrase and the bookish philosopher came from a similar mould: quiet, courteous, respectful and more than a little appreciative of their surroundings.
These were the nineties; an era of buy-to-let mortgages and property portfolios where younger investors would “get onto bricks and mortar” and then bore everyone at dinner parties by talking about yields and capital growth. A decade earlier it was only yuppies with loadsa disposable cash who could take advantage of the protection that came with the 1988 Housing Act’s assured shorthold tenancy.
It’s an area that’s grown strongly. More than 1.7 million buy-to-let loans were agreed between 1999 and 2015, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders. Over the past 12 years alone, the private rented sector has doubled in size.
Anyway, any misgivings I had about introducing a younger element to this community were dispelled within 10 minutes of the only management committee meeting I ever attended. Along with all the usual agenda items such as grass cutting and parking spaces, was one about problem residents: a barrel-chested former builder who regularly angered half the block by playing his music too loud and a Captain Birdseye lookalike who persistently refused to pay his share of the monthly management fees.
One was in his sixties, the other in his seventies.