/ James Siddle / 6 am Mon, Jun 3 2013
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  • Three Friends, a Breakdown, and a Lawsuit

    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.

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