A landlords’s life: What I’ve learned from letting out properties
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There’s much more to being a landlord than just sitting back and watching the rent roll in - something Richard Burton found out the hard way...
The first time I became a landlord, I asked the agent to do two things: line me up a tenant or two and let me choose which one gets the keys.
No problem, I was told. You can’t be too careful – I just wish all landlords were as hands-on.
By the time you get back from your week away they’ll be forming an orderly queue.
Nice sentiment, I thought. Although I wasn’t expecting an X Factor audition, just a chance for some input.
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Instead, I returned to an answering machine message that defied belief: Your tenant wants to move in this weekend (the message was three days old) and she’s getting worried that you haven’t signed the contract.
It was the third call of three. The first was made the Monday after I’d left.
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By contract, she meant the tenancy agreement.
The one on the floor with the rest of the post.
The one with a complete stranger’s signature barely dry and a moving-in date you’d need a time machine to meet.
Oh, and it was littered with factual errors, including the name of the road the flat was on and the fact that it was unfurnished (it wasn’t).
If this wasn’t a family newspaper, I’d reveal exactly what I said. Just know there’d be lots of explanation marks.
Anyway, it turned out that the moment I’d left her office the market had mysteriously changed from buoyant to “pretty dead” and, besides, this is a “nice lady”.
And desperate. Her husband had an affair. She needs a bolthole. You know how it is.
I didn’t. I’m a landlord with whom you had an agreement.
Not Oprah – or Jeremy Kyle.
Anyway, long story short, she kept her job but not my business and the whole “scenario”, I was assured by her boss, was going to form an emergency training session for all staff.
Three years later, another flat, another tenant and, oh yes, another agent.
This time, alarm bells rang when the glowing reference arrived and I rang to query how a tenant with a “great job in Cardiff” could manage the commute from a flat near Watford.
Didn’t spot that, admitted the young lad who’d called with the enthusiasm of someone announcing a timeshare raffle result.
Do you want me to check? No, I will. I called the would-be tenant direct.
He was a junior doctor with a temporary placement at Watford General and his Welsh health trust were picking up the tab.
How do I know? I called the consultant too and his PA took my call.
Then there was the luxury apartment. On the river at Canary Wharf with a balcony overlooking Gordon Ramsay’s pub. This is a premium rent jobbie, said the agent.
We can hold a viewing day. Would this Saturday do? How many are we likely to get? Loads, I was told. An address like this? Seriously?
I went away thinking bidding war: multiple offers in sealed envelopes. What’s the word? Ker-ching?
Except... Saturday came. We went out and left them to it only to get a call 20 minutes later saying a couple who’d had a sneak peek two evenings ago had made an offer and wanted to sign now.
But it’s only 10.30, I said. Your colleague told me last night you had 10 people interested? Ah yes. But my boss cancelled them. No point in wasting time if we have an offer.
Thankfully, no-one reading this will recognise themselves. For one thing it all happened a few years ago.
For another, none of the agents involved were local to our readership area, much of which has been thriving for the past four years on a combination of quality properties, high demand – and agents who tend to know what they are doing.
One such is Philippa Dowson, of Collinson Hall, who visibly cringed when I told her my horror stories.
“We all know those sorts of things go on,” she said.
“But fortunately they don’t tend to be around here.
“The local market is strongly defined by corporate agents.
“There are very few one-man bands and people are very good at what they do and all that raises the bar. And expectations are high.
“Landlords want to know they are leaving their properties with good quality agents and that everything is covered off.
“Regarding references, they are vital which is why we absolutely pay top dollar to the sort of firms that deliver on this.
“Having said that, I’m constantly turning away cold calls from all sorts who ring and say we’ll do your referencing for five pounds – so they are out there and someone’s using them.”
UK-wide, the market is strong with some 4.7 million households living in privately rented homes.
Good news for landlords, as is the fact that the industry has been “struggling” with the issue of rising rents – a knock-on effect of a fluctuating market and the fact that tax and regulatory changes pushed many landlords out of the market, limiting supply.
The Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) recently noted that the tide has slowly been changing as more rental properties come back on to the market.
But CEO David Cox observes that, while that’s a positive sign, “it still isn’t anywhere near enough to slow down the pace of rent rises, which are continuing to climb”.
In thriving cities such as St Albans with strong London connections, landlords have been reaping those rewards but tenants here do have choice, thanks in part to the number of new builds and office conversions adding to the stock.
Phillipa Dowson agrees that “prices went mental” a few years ago but have “softened” a little of late.
And there is always a steady flow in terms of properties and demand for them.
Interestingly, 90 per cent of landlords opt for the fully-managed service, over the tenant-find.
Many are well-heeled, either live or have moved abroad and want the comfort of being able to hand over the keys knowing their investment is in safe hands.
So how can you guarantee that trust? “Well, we don’t do students,” she said.
“All the candidates we put forward are solid professionals and don’t tend to give any real problems. But you do have to be careful and I like to think we can spot issues early on.”
“Simple things that don’t add up and ring alarm bells.
“One couple for example, viewed a place twice with different negotiators and their stories were different each time.
“Then they wanted to get around the referencing by paying cash upfront for a quick move.
“It’s not something we’d agree to without a guarantor in any case but in this case we weren’t wholeheartedly convinced.
“And if we’re not 100 per cent we’d relay that to the client.
“It’s all about being informed and keeping them informed.”
Such instincts worked well when I let my second flat and, hardened by experience, instructed the high-end agency, Hamptons International to let it.
A smart, articulate woman in her forties did the showing with me on hand to answer the odd question.
When one single loadsamoney twentysomething swaggered in and said: “Two questions: where do I put the golf clubs – and where do I sign?” she turned to me and whispered “Let’s just see what he rest of the day brings...”
Contrast that with the one further north a few years ago; all big smiles, nodding head and cutting me off every time I so much as hinted at my cynicism over referencing.
“Let me just say,” she said. “Tenants often get frustrated that we insist on a full two weeks to complete them. We are honestly that thorough.”
Odd then that, a mere four days later, she had a “lovely young lad” who’d come in off the street ready to move in immediately. What about the two weeks? No need.
He’s paying cash upfront. What about his previous landlord? Doesn’t have one to contact. He’s been away.
Here we go again, I thought. Leave it with me, I’ll do it myself.
It took 24 hours to discover who his last landlord was and I didn’t need to ring to see if he’d paid his rent on time.
You don’t pay it when you’re in prison – for aggravated burglary.