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Social Affairs: A Cry for the Tenant

Recent mainstream news media has reported that house prices have fallen significantly over the past few weeks, but whatever the fall, it isn’t enough. The cost of having somewhere to live in the UK went beyond parody some years ago and remains so today. The most basic necessities of life are somewhere secure, reasonably comfortable and safe to live, along with the means to have food, water, clothe yourself and put shoes on your feet.

Few would argue with that – so why are there so many homeless people around?

The main thrust of recent discussions over housing have centred around what it costs to buy one’s own home, with much of that discussion being of ‘young’ people and their inability, because of the absurdly high prices being demanded, to buy their own home.

Mentioned less often is the cost of renting. If one hasn’t got the money to buy then there is only that one option left. Yet the cost of renting a home, be it a one-bed flat, or a two-up-two-down terrace, has, like the cost of buying, gone beyond the ability of many people to pay. Why?

I once asked an estate agent in London why having a home there (my home town as it happens, Fulham to be more precise) costs so much. He replied with one word; ‘Demand’.

During the ‘Credit Crunch’ a few years ago, I asked a similar question of another estate agent, this time in the County of Kent and he explained to me that, when the market for buying is slow, as it was at the time, rents go up. Again – why, and the reply was the same, ‘demand’.

Let’s put that more accurately; nobody is buying, so they are renting instead. Demand has nothing to do with it. The real answer is greed; nothing else – just greed.

The interesting part of this is that when the market for buying homes picks up again, rents do not go down – they stay ‘up’. Why - because people are greedy.

That greed is fuelled primarily by estate agents, both commercial and residential. With current talk of the death of the High Street, and the closure of a number of well-known stores around the country, the question of store rents being too high has come up quite prominently. The same applies to houses.

Have a look along your High Street – whereas once we looked at the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker (as well as those well-known chain stores), now we see fast-food shops, pound shops, charity shops, betting shops and – estate agents.

Clearly we, as a nation, have lost sight of our priorities.

The result is the ever-rising cost of Housing Benefit and an equally ever-rising number of people, unable to buy their home, renting them so they have somewhere to live - yet still having to claim Housing Benefit because, even with a job, they can’t afford the high rents now being charged.

One of the side-effects of the numbers now renting is the way in which many tenants are treated. There have always been a number of rogue landlords who need no help at all from estate agents in ripping people off. Over recent times fortunately, tenant’s rights have been strengthened but many, afraid of losing their only home, tend to be a little reluctant to make a fuss when a landlord or agent behaves unreasonably. It’s hard to blame them. Fortunately bad landlords are far fewer in numbers than good ones but even some of those good ones can be let down by the greed of the average estate agent.

Most estate agents will ‘encourage’ landlords, especially those new to being so, to impose numerous conditions on tenants. Common examples include no pets and, increasingly over recent years, no smokers (that includes not allowing any visitors to smoke).

Either restriction can be said to impose an unreasonable condition on prospective tenants, particularly those of more mature years. Older tenants tend to have a way of life that comes from their own upbringing, their own past, which is why older people tend to be smokers as opposed to younger generations, who do not. The same applies to pets; an older tenant may well feel the need, established over decades, to share their life with a dog or cat. And in the case of a dog, it is also an additional means of safety and security. Yet even a cat can help in this respect; there have been numerous instances of pets alerting their owners to something being amiss, either within their home or immediately in the vicinity and potential tragedy has been avoided. So why don’t estate agents like pets?

Because it means they have to work a little more in terms of conducting regular inspections and ensuring that any work needed is actually done and estate agents want their fees for as little of that as they can get away with.

To the average estate agent, the perfect tenant will be short-term, either for six months or at most, one year. The tenant will have no possessions and will be limited to a bed to sleep in, a table to eat their food from and a chair to sit on. Nothing must be put on the walls – no pictures, no decorations of any kind, and those walls must be kept clear of anything and everything.

The agent will tell you that this is so they can check to make sure that there is no damp or anything else and that everything is working okay. What they really mean is that they don’t want to actually have to do anything. They will still charge the same high fees to the landlord for ‘managing’ the tenant’s home, they will still charge the tenant high fees for signing the tenancy agreement, along with a fee for anything else they can get away with, but the reality is they will do as little as possible.

Except make money.

One of the more bizarre things estate agents tried to do a short while ago was to browbeat tenants into allowing them to take a multitude of photographs inside the home, ostensibly to provide the landlord with a record of everything being okay. This was nothing more than an intrusive attempt to intimidate tenants into submission and agents do not have the right to take such photographs – unless of course, the tenant is genuinely happy for them to do so. There is a case to be made for a photo to be taken of a specific area, such as a repair that might be needed, but otherwise, just what is it the agent is taking a photograph of?

The personal possessions and property of the tenant.

Ask yourself this – if you buy your house, with mortgage, would you expect your mortgage lender to turn up one day and take pictures inside your home? Of course not. So why should a tenant be treated differently?

Tenants are treated differently simply because they are there and there is a lot of them, along with a lot of estate agents, all of whom are after fast bucks. To get those bucks means behaving in a way that subjects tenants to things that a mortgage payer isn’t.

But tenants are not second-class citizens. Tenants are real people, on real incomes and have real rights just like everybody else. They are however, being ripped off on a daily basis.

So here is a little prediction for anybody who works for an estate agent, or for that matter, who owns and runs an estate agency; not too long from now, you will look and laugh at the homeless while you jack the rents up some more. Then, and probably quite suddenly, you yourself will be homeless because nobody can afford to pay the rents you are pushing ever-upwards and out of business goes your business.

Rents have to come down, just as the price of buying a home has to and they have to come down to previously unheard of levels. If they don’t, there really will be a large number of homeless people.

More on housing can be read in the author’s book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’, available from Amazon.

© Kevan James 2018.

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