Many negligent landlords are modern equivalent of ‘absentee landlords’

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Landlords should be very familiar with their properties – not with tenants’ private circumstances

The key point to understand about property investment is that it is not a passive activity like owning shares, but a constant hands-on responsibility. File photograph: iStockPhoto The key point to understand about property investment is that it is not a passive activity like owning shares, but a constant hands-on responsibility. File photograph: iStockPhoto

 
 

 

 

A recent BBC series called The Day the Landlords Moved In followed a range of landlords as they moved into their tenants’ accommodation and tried to live like they did.

The narrative arc of each episode was almost exactly the same: the landlords were shown up to be complacent about the grim state of their properties and lacking in understanding of the difficult lives of the struggling people who lived there.

It was only by being placed in their shoes that the scales were lifted from their eyes and they could finally see all the faults and repair needs at their properties – and the unfair rents they were charging for them.

The set pattern in these shows makes for engaging human drama, yet while revealing of some of the issues in rental accommodation, it manages to draw entirely the wrong conclusions.

The meta-narrative of a show like this is that landlords should engage more personally with their tenants in order to be motivated to look after their properties. But the problem being exposed is simply that the landlords do not know or care about their properties. The key point to understand about property investment is that it is not a passive activity like owning shares, but a constant hands-on responsibility.

Repair requests

Many negligent landlords are the modern equivalent of “absentee landlords” and invest in houses and flats that they never visit or inspect, and often fail to respond to repair requests on them.

One of the big problems of the sector is that for too many years the idea has been promoted that you can simply buy property, entrust it to an agent (or even no one at all) and forget all about it, inspiring some people to buy property in parts of the country, or foreign countries, they have never even visited.

Responsible investment requires that you know your property and take pride in its upkeep. Yet, do you also need to personally get to know your tenants, and will this improve your business? The answer to that question is emphatically “no”.

There will of course be some (usually small-scale) landlords who love to become friends with their tenants. I once knew an elderly lady who loved to have a drink and listen to Irish music in her tenants’ rooms.

But generally speaking, professionalism requires that you divide business and pleasure into separate spheres. This does not of course mean that landlords and tenants cannot maintain friendly relations – just that the private and personal circumstances of tenants are not factors with which an accommodation provider should be involved.

Should a landlord stop looking after a property if there is someone dislikable living there, or suddenly raise the rent if an overly affluent professional moves in? No, a tenant should expect exactly the same professional level of service, regardless of their circumstances in life.

Personal circumstances

No matter how much you dedicate yourself to the professional management of a property and observe the personal privacy of tenants, there are inevitably occasions when the personal circumstances of tenants will suddenly spill out into the life of a property manager.

Furious fallings-out between groups of friends living together in a house can lead to your phone ringing with differing accounts of the disagreements and where the responsibility lies – quite often with parents of young renters calling and emailing in with their support for their loved one in the dispute.

Then there are the often fractious split-ups between couples sharing a flat, with one moving out mid-tenancy and refusing to have anything more to do with their hateful ex – regardless of the fact that they still have a mutual responsibility for the tenancy.

The landlord in such cases – without being overly judgemental – needs to carefully negotiate a settlement as rapidly as possible. On a few occasions I have felt the emotional trauma of my tenants spilled over into my own life and caused me personally a certain amount of stress.

Then there are tenants who have medical accidents, financial difficulties or mental health problems, meaning they cannot continue with a tenancy and sometimes arrive on your office doorstep in tears. In these circumstances, while not wishing to be a judge-cum-social worker, you sometimes have little choice but to make judgements about sincerity and take decisions that will lead to practical, reasonable resolutions that will not accentuate stress for the tenants or you.

Calculating advantage

A minority of tenants is not above exploiting such appeals to a landlord’s better nature for calculating advantage. I recently had a couple living at a flat break up and the girlfriend leave the property mid-tenancy, refusing to pay any more rent or responding to any emails. The boyfriend and his father were soon on the phone demanding a rent reduction due to changed circumstances, and pointing out how unfair it was that the boyfriend should be left with whole responsibility for the flat.

When it came to the end of the tenancy it was assumed that the joint deposit would be used to clear any rental arrears, but the girlfriend – from whom there had been no contact for months – suddenly re-emerged, claiming back her half of the deposit. When asked why she had not been contactable earlier, she revealed that she and the boyfriend had split on amicable terms but the boyfriend had specifically asked her not to respond to any landlord emails so that he and his wealthy father could engineer pressure to get his rent reduced.

There will always be a percentage of “rogue characters” among both landlords and tenants, but an attitude of professionalism means that making moral judgments about other peoples’ lives is not something which should often occur.

What renters really want is not that property providers “understand” their private lives, but that they show a professional dedication to looking after the properties they live in, utterly regardless of the circumstances and lifestyles of the people living there.