Three Friends, a Breakdown, and a Lawsuit

Two and a half years ago, James Siddle moved to London for a new job; in two weeks time, he'll be moving out to a small town in the country, defeated.

Two and a half years ago, I moved to London for a new job; in two weeks time, I’ll be moving out to a small town in the country, defeated.

I love London, and I’m not tired of it yet, but I am tired of trying to live in London. This is the story of the three flat rentals I’ve had in north London, and the dysfunction, exploitation, and misanthropy I’ve encountered in two of them.

It’s also the story lasting friendship, a girl losing her mind, and a flat with skirting board mushrooms.

1

It started out well.

I found a really nice top floor room in a lovely new house share with three Italians. We got on well, had some awesome parties, lots of fantastic home cooked Italian food (not so much English home cooked fare), and lived life to the full.

Eventually one of my housemates managed to scrape together the deposit to buy a flat, bought his own place, and moved in with one of the other housemates, an old friend. The house share broke up, and I had to find a new place to live.

2

My second London rental - and the one where things started to get interesting - was cheaper, well within budget and again lovely. Admittedly the room was a bit small, and I was joining an existing house share rather than a new one. Also my landlord, Simon, had a relaxed approach to the formalities and logistics of managing the flat … in contrast my previous experiences. But it seemed like a reasonable compromise because I’d be able to save more, plus the location was ideal for commuting and for visiting my preferred rock climbing centre.

Great, I thought.

Things started to turn sour a couple of months in, when I returned from short holiday. One of my housemates, Lana, appeared in the kitchen and told me that her mother was extremely unwell, and had been diagnosed with cancer. Not really knowing Lana that well, I didn’t see anything amiss and gave my support as best I could, before heading out to meet friends. A couple of hours later, Lana called me. Things had gotten much worse: her mother had died suddenly, and it sounded like she really needed someone to talk to. It never occurred to me that this sudden death was suspicious, or why she would call on me rather than family or friends; I assumed there was a good reason, and she just needed a friend and a shoulder to cry on.

I headed home to try to help. We bought a few beers, ordered a takeaway, and chilled out in the communal living space, listening to music, chatting. I listened, Lana talked. My own mother had passed away many years ago so I offered whatever advice or kind words I thought would help.

But as more beers were drunk, stories about Lana’s life started to emerge. Stories about her mother, and her success as an artist back home. Stories about Lana’s brief, short lived, but surprisingly successful musical career. Stories about her twin brother, who had died many years ago; in fact had committed suicide by hanging himself. About the fact that she'd been raised by an aunt, who one night she'd woken to find standing over her bed, wielding a kitchen knife. About how her mother had done exactly the same thing to her.

It dawned on me, later than it should, that she was lying to me, and perhaps to herself. To what extent, I didn't know ... maybe it was all true, and she'd been horribly abused, led a life of tragedy. Maybe there were half truths: the lie being more believable when it's based on truth. Maybe it was all bullshit, and I was just an unwitting actor in her paranoid drama. But once I knew what was happening, I did the only thing I could. I put some distance between myself and Lana, and tried to find her some professional help.

I checked some of the more outrageous stories that night, and quickly discovered they were fabricated. I learned from my other housemates that she'd tried similar things with them, though they had clicked sooner that something wasn't right. I also learned from the landlord that she'd had some sort of interaction with the contractor who'd decorated her room, and that he'd run off, refusing to return and finish the job. He also revealed to me that she was a recovering alcoholic, and had a history of booze fueled binges.

Over the course of the next few days, as I tried to find her some help, the Big Lie continued. Lana told me that she would be heading home for the funeral. The day of her flight came and went, and she was still there, drinking solidly, alone in her room. She broke down and said that she'd missed the flight home, that she wouldn't be there in time. I empathised, but could only watch in horror as she went and got more beer and continued her descent.

It's a terrible, sad, thing to witness, and a hard thing to know how to handle. If I'd involved myself more, I knew I'd be dragged into Lana's personal hell and I'd be taking responsibility for saving her. Instead, I tried hard to get her to take that responsibility, and hoped that she would.

Lana left, eventually, and we learned that she'd gone home to her family. They managed to find the money to send her to a clinic for some time, and told us that her Mother was alive and well, living at home in France.

She never returned. A few months later, I moved out.

3

My third London rental still has a couple of weeks left to run, and while Lana's story is one of personal tragedy and the risks of house sharing with strangers, this one is about exploitation. I can't tell you if it has a happy ending yet.

I couldn't face living in the same place where I'd witnessed Lana's breakdown - it was intimately tied to that event and no longer felt like home. So I found a new place just before Christmas last year. A cosy one-bedroom basement flat, freshly renovated, with all new kitchen appliances and wood laminate flooring.

I rushed to take it. Partly I was desperate to leave the memory of Lana behind, but I was also scared to miss out on what looked like a good deal, and ready to have my own space again. The letting agent assured me there was a great deal of interest and the flat would go quickly. I paid my holding deposit, and committed to moving in. Unlike the previous flat there was a shorthold tenancy agreement this time, and a fee payable to the letting agent for reference checking and credit checking.

The problems started as soon as I moved in.

I quickly discovered that the ceiling was paper thin, and I could hear everything from the flat above me. The noise of footsteps just above my head felt incredibly invasive. I knew I'd made a mistake, and negotiated the option of terminating my agreement early, at the cost of losing my deposit.

At the same time, I found out that the boiler was malfunctioning, and so spent the first two weeks living in a freezer with no hot water. The letting agent eventually got round to getting it fixed; all the while my calls and messages were ignored. I think he assumed I'd be leaving shortly so thought there was no point fixing anything.

Things settled down; the heating was working, and I adjusted to the noise from upstairs. It wasn't that bad, and only got noisy every now and again - the mornings especially, as my neighbours were tromping around getting ready to go to work. But it was OK.

Unfortunately the worst was yet to come, because the flat had no damp course.

Over the course of the next five months, practically every wall succumbed to the slow encroachment of damp, drawn up through the bricks from ground water, until the paintwork throughout has been ruined and there are serious mould problems in several areas. The stench is pervasive, and I've had to kiss goodbye to a few items that succumbed to the mould too. To get a sense of the reality of the problem, included in this article are few photographs of the walls of my flat.

While this was bad in itself, the actions of the letting agent and landlord were truly appalling, and depressingly appear to be the norm for London.

These include:

• charging spurious fees for reference checks (my previous landlords tell me no-one has contacted them)
• unauthorized entry into the flat (which I discovered by arriving home and finding a newly opened packet of loo roll, and a freshly used toilet)
• refusal to take responsibility for problems with the flat (my landlord says the damp is caused by condensation)
• failure to protect my deposit in a protection scheme (which every landlord is legally required to do within 30 days of receiving the money)

The most outrageous and distressing thing, in my mind, is a refusal to take responsibility. A specific consequence in my case was that my landlord was willing to terminate the agreement early so that I could move out: but only if I sacrificed all of my deposit.

You may be wondering - and I would be - whether there really is a damp problem, or if it's just condensation as my Landlord claimed. Thankfully, a very helpful individual from the Private Section Housing Department of the local council paid a visit, took some measurements, and agrees. It's rising damp, my landlord is screwing me over.

You may also be thinking "I'd have moved out as soon as it was clear what was going on". Sadly it's not quite that simple when tenancy agreements have a minimum term (mine is six months), and there are strict circumstances defining when a Shorthold Tenancy Agreement can be terminated early. It either needs to be agreed between both parties, or there has to be clear evidence that the flat is not fit for human habitation. It took me a while to sort that out - letters need to be sent, time needs to be given to sort things out, visits need to be arranged, and orders need to be issued. I'm about to move out, but the process for getting the flat repaired is only just really getting going.

Thankfully, the weight of evidence is on my side, so I'm suing my landlord to claim back rent for the time I've been living here. I'm reasonably confident I'll win, but I'll only know for sure later this year. A refund of rent money will be welcome, but far more important: if I win, my landlord will have to live with a County Court Judgement against his name. He's also going to have to repair the flat, or risk further punitive action from the council.

So I'm hopeful that there will be Justice, when this is all over.

In a couple of weeks, I'll be joining the ranks of London commuters crammed onto trains every morning as they head to work in the city. It will just be a single short journey for me and I'll have a reasonable chance of getting a seat. I'm more than happy to live with the additional cost and the daily grind of commuting given that my home will be twice the size of the smelly dungeon I'm currently living in. It's been refreshing to work through a good letting agency; my references and credit history were actually checked this time by a third party. Of course there are no guarantees that this latest flat won't also have it's problems- but I'm hoping this is the end of the story.

If you're thinking of moving to London, or you already live here and are thinking about moving, here are a few things to look out. Hopefully the following advice will help you avoid the more dysfunctional aspects of London renting that I've encountered:

• Finding the right house mates is essential, and you can make lifelong friends. Ideally spend a long evening with prospective housemates before committing.
• Never never never rush. It's hard not to - the fear of finding yourself without a home is compelling, and letting agents exploit this, pressuring you to make snap decisions. It can help if you have a Plan B to kip on a friend's floor for a few weeks.
• Do your homework to find letting agents or landlords with good reputations; it reduces the risk of the snap decisions you may have to make.
• Have a good understanding of what you're looking for before you start looking, and look at lots of places.
• Don't rent a basement flat unless the landlord provides strong evidence of damp proofing [link], and even then, don't.
• Learn your rights and obligations as a tenant, knowing what you and your landlord are contractually obligated to do can give you some confidence or protection if you decide to do something drastic.
• Make use of the council's Private Sector Housing Department. They can help you understand problems you may have with your flat, and can force your landlord to make repairs.
• Use the small claims court to reclaim rent, deposit money, or other damages. You can submit a claim using the Money Claims Service; it's fairly straightforward, and you can do it all online. It will take time, and you'll need to be committed, but it's a good way of taking control of your situation if you feel powerless.

Also please consider supporting Shelter's campaign to fix broken renting. As the campaign says: "Renting isn't working – we’re having to live with soaring costs, rocketing agent letting fees and poor conditions. We deserve better."

ADDENDUM

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the skirting board mushrooms … sadly, I didn’t get a chance to get any photographs of them. I came home the other day to discover a fresh coat of paint covering some of the worst damage, and no more mushrooms. I can think of two potential reasons for this:

a) Mushroom-eating, interior-designing spiders
b) My landlord tried to hide the evidence.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is more likely.

Published 6:20 am Mon, Jun 3, 2013

26 Responses to “Three Friends, a Breakdown, and a Lawsuit”

  1. j.black says:

    English landlords are THE WORST. 

    I hope the Shelter campaign is successful. 
    Fingers crossed!

  2. Glenn says:

    If your landlord has not protected your deposit, you can sue them for 3 times your deposit. It’s a fairly simple process through the county courts and the award is almost automatic.

    • MiG says:

      Can you explain what ‘protecting the deposit’ means?  Putting it in a bank account?

      • Simon Bradshaw says:

        No – since 2007 it’s been a legal obligation in England and Wales for private residential landlords to put your deposit into a statutory escrow scheme:

        https://www.gov.uk/tenancy-deposit-protection/overview

        Failure to do so means that the tenant is entitled to sue the landlord for three times the deposit.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Commingling “is a breach of trust in which a fiduciary mixes funds that he holds in the care of a client with his own funds, making it difficult to determine which funds belong to the fiduciary and which belong to the client.”

  3. agraham999 says:

    Where was this article 3 months ago…

    ;-)

    As transplants from the US, we’ve had quite an eye opening experience in our first rental. Let’s recap what we’ve experienced so far to date…

    We found a flat after several weeks of searching in the Kensington area…a basement flat because it had a patio and was in an amazing neighborhood between the two high streets. After a ridiculous amount of paperwork, large deposits, credit/background checks, etc…we agreed to take the flat if certain repairs were made. It’s one of those things where everything looks okay until you move in and start experiencing the daily life in the flat. Those repairs are still going on into the third month.  

    After moving in we discovered after a load of wash the washer didn’t work and we were left with a washer full of water and clothes that was going to mildew quickly. We complained to the agent who sent a repair person out. When the washer was pulled out from counter area, we learned the counter was never mounted properly and was instead simply sitting on the appliances…not to mention that someone had removed the top of the washer, exposing the electricals. We also discovered that the contractors never installed the gas line properly, and didn’t properly ground the outlets (we have 35v of stray voltage going through the sink). 

    But we’re not done. Both showers broke. During those repairs they found the pipes had never been installed properly. Looking behind the toilet we found that the waste pipe was held in place with duct tape painted white to look like wood. 

    The outside grey water drain was clogged and we had sewage draining onto the patio. 

    The previous tenants had tampered with the gas meter and tried to roll it backwards. 

    There was a water pipe out in the storage room that someone had (instead of capping off) pounded over with a hammer to seal it, so it had been leaking into the ground for lord knows how long. 

    And then we just discovered about “damp.” I had no knowledge of this type of problem in London until we moved in. The appliance contractor told me about it and how what this flat would need at some point is to be excavated and properly vented to prevent damp and mould. 

    Not to mention all the little ridiculous bad carpentry mistakes all over the place that one wouldn’t notice until after one lives there…and on and on. And this for a flat that costs more than your average 2 bedroom in San Francisco. 

    To their credit…the managing agents have been very good when I request something, but I’m a bit surprised this flat could even be rented in this state. By the time the next tenants move in, we’ll have been through a complete renovation. 

    ugh. 

  4. Duncan Howe says:

    If those are electrical cables in those pictures; that maybe illegal too… As they’re exposed. 
    Also given it looks like the skirting board could be expanding away from the wall due to the salts from the brickwork crystallizing out behind them; the cables maybe being stretched; if they partially break inside, maybe a fire hazard.

    You look well out of it though! Good luck getting the cash back!

  5. I don’t know if other people are hell, but rented accommodation with strangers definitely IS. 

  6. knoxblox says:

    As for the bad roommates, living in a college town is the worst.

    I lived with two Greeks (from Greece), one who was very nice, and one who was very loud, opinionated and boorish. He would spend his nights yelling at his mother in the middle of the night over the phone in a deep baritone voice. Hardly any sleep for two months.
    After, a further series of roommates with no manners…one would come home drunk and play the stereo full blast while he slept. Turning it down would result in Drunk vs. Sober arguments, which are rarely logical or sensible.
    Another enjoyed hosting traveling bands overnight without consulting me, and I woke up to find a roadie for a mid-90′s B-list alternative rock band shooting heroin in my kitchen one morning.
    The shortest roommate stay was the raging alcoholic who, in the space of two weeks — would constantly watch Independence Day and never make it to the end before passing out, threw up on the brand-new mattress I bought and turned it over rather than cleaning it up, and was stashing empty beer cans in the oven because he couldn’t find the trash can stashed in the only closet in the kitchen (an entirely different sort of door, but reasonably the only one that might have a tall kitchen trash can behind it). Let’s just say he was quickly evicted with the help of a couple of friends.

    There have been more, like the guy I suspected of abusing my cat, and I’m thoroughly amazed at what lengths people will go to to hide their behavior until they feel fully settled in. I really don’t think spending a long evening with them is sufficient enough to choosing a stranger to be your roommate.

  7. tfd2 says:

    your diary sucks.

  8. mandina says:

    tfd2: that’s constructive, well done.

  9. Smart E Pantz says:

    Still kinda scratching my head at how this post made it onto BoingBoing.  This is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff, isn’t it?  I look to BoingBoing to discover unique material–what is unique about this?  I and almost everyone I know have experienced some variation of this.  If the author is trying to make the case that this happens in London on a scale and to a degree that it doesn’t in any other large city–say, New York City, where I live–he didn’t offer any kind of analysis of that.  THAT would be interesting.  But this is, as they say, just life in the big city.

  10. eastblock says:

     Not exclusive to big city – happens regularly almost anywhere in the UK. Many landlords and letting agents will charge obscene amounts for sub-standard housing.

    • fakefighter says:

      What’s the most effective way of dealing with it? Being extremely cautious?

      • phuzz says:

        Being lucky really.  I’ve never had a flat quite as bad as the above examples, but I’ve seen friends who have.
        Most things you can notice when you first look round the place, but when you need somewhere to live pretty quick and there’s only a handful of flats in your price bracket you tend to compromise.
        Last time we were looking at flats we were shown round one, which was quite small, and a long way from the area we wnated to live in, and as we’d finished the short tour, ending up in the tiny kitchen, that was next to the lounge one of my flatmate pointed out to the estate agent “you said this was a four bedroom flat, but we’ve only seen three”
        “oh, well they’re going to turn the kitchen into a bedroom, and move the kitchen onto the lounge”, this was just over a month before we wanted to move in, and would have lead to a pointlessly small bedroom, and a cramped lounge/kitchen.
        Fortunately we’d seen another house, right where we wanted to live, for the same price with four decent sized bedrooms. We’re still there, it’s lovely.

  11. Rezeya Montecore says:

    Sigh, another way in which Boston is just a displaced British town… It was London-bad there, too!

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      San Francisco’s the same.  It’s damp enough that there’s ubiquitous mold.  And plenty of terrible landlords.

      At the house that I lived in for 12 years, some grout fell out of the shower.  So I told the landlord.  He refused to deal with it.  Three years later, the tub was almost ready to fall into the garage.  The bathroom had to be rebuilt, including the floor and wall framing, at great expense.  He tried to up our rent to cover the costs.  Fortunately, I kept copies of all my letters warning him about dilapidations.  He lost his case.

    • teapot says:

      Sydney too…

      I’m thinking it’s more a case of the better-off maximising their investment returns by neglecting their responsibilities to their tenants. IMO the property tax on a 3rd dwelling should be prohibitively expensive so asshole investors don’t snap up all the available housing and then do as little as possible to maintain them until they renovate and flip.

      Being a stubborn a-hole can help, but they typically will respond by upping your rent after the contact expires. The attached picture is of the ceiling in a place I rented. After telling the agent I was going to take them to the ACCC (consumer affairs) if they didn’t do something the owner coughed up for a dehumidifier.

      Also: can has non-pixellated cover graphic plz? The pixels make me sicker than the mold!

  12. teapot says:

    Sydney too…

    I’m thinking it’s more a case of the better-off maximising their investment returns by neglecting their responsibilities to their tenants. IMO the property tax on a 3rd dwelling should be prohibitively expensive so asshole investors don’t snap up all the available housing and then do as little as possible to maintain them until they renovate and flip.

    Being a stubborn a-hole can help, but they typically will respond by upping your rent after the contact expires. The attached picture is of the ceiling in a place I rented. After telling the agent I was going to take them to the ACCC (consumer affairs) if they didn’t do something the owner coughed up for a dehumidifier (after originally refusing).

  13. rahubound says:

    My favorite dodgy London landlord owned a ramshackle Islington block near that Church that was converted into flats in the 90s.  Around the same time my boyfriend and I found Bob or whatever his name was lurking at the top of the short flight of stairs that led to outside.  He advised us to get to get our important belongings out of our basement flat as we wouldn’t have access until midnight of the following day.  Bob had a scam going to avoid Council Tax.  His crew would be drywalling over the corridor entrance to our shared accommodation to qualify for the single occupant discount — he’d been getting away with it for years.  We were both late to work but got a laugh out of it and half off the next month’s rent.

  14. Beanolini says:

    in case you’re wondering about the skirting board mushrooms

    Yes, I was, actually. Were they Domicile cup fungus? These occasionally grow in the toilets in my workplace.

    I’ve rented some pretty unsavoury flats, and in my experience disagreeable housemates or neighbours are far worse than any amount of damp, noise, pests, or non-working utilities.

  15. Nick says:

    Nobody alive has had as much bad-luck and hoodoo vibes in share houses than Australian author John Birmingham.  His books about the subject “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” and “The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco” are some of the most cringeworthy and entertaining you’ll ever read.  The film of “Felafel” starring Noah Taylor is one of my favourite Australian films of all time, and Wikipedia tells me the stage play of “Tasmanian Babes” is the longest running stage play in Australian history.

  16. Snig says:

    In suburban/rural/stripmall Illinois, I lived in a second floor apartment of a three story building.  Whenever it rained, one wall got damp.  I explained it was a leak. They explained a leak couldn’t possibly occur on the second floor of a three story building, they thought it was condensation from the air conditioner.  It didn’t happen on days when it didn’t rain, it didn’t happen on humid hot days when condensation was expected.  Every time it happened, they sent someone out to paint the wall.  They did this three times, and I pointed out that eventually the apartment was going to be smaller and smaller, as more and more of it would be taken up by layers of pain.  They eventually found the leak.  In retrospect, they were half right in that it was condensation, they just got the location of droplet formation wrong.

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