There can be no doubt that given the option, NG7 is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice of residential postcode. Walking past a car full of balaclava-clad gentlemen on Lenton Boulevard last week was proof enough for me. Despite this, Lenton and Dunkirk still remain the student hotspots, because us students can’t bear to be parted. Once kicked out of halls we huddle up Derby Road like a gaggle of giggling girls who insist on visiting the Ocean toilets surgically attached together. And this ‘studentisation’ is a goldmine for landlords, who can charge the earth and get away with murder, because there will always be a need for undergraduate accommodation in a city which is home to 52,000 students.
My own landlord rakes in a casual £50,400 a year for just two properties he owns in Lenton. Such figures explain several instances of students asking parents for houses in Lenton as their 21st birthday presents. (Yes unbelievable I know, but we are one of the most notoriously middle-class-dominated universities, second only to the ultimate boarding school alumni haven; Bristol University, I salute you…) But given the current extortionate rent charges in Lenton, who wouldn’t want to become a student landlord? It’s well worth reaping in hundreds of pounds a month for the cost of a few annual repairs.
While there are many reasonable landlords trying to make an honest living, the odd swine takes advantage of students’ inexperience in the property market. A Facebook group called ‘Crap Landlord/House Awareness’, set up in 2006 by ex-Nottingham student Tim Banham has provided students with invaluable horror stories to warn potential tenants about the dangers of dodgy landlords. Banham explains, “I had issues getting a damage deposit back from a landlord for unjustifiable reasons. I seem to remember that the landlord in question had some other houses advertised on the University’s records at the accommodation office. I concluded that if he was on there, then there must be countless other landlords of dubious reputation also being recommended by the accommodation office.”
We all read and reread our tenancy agreement before signing on the dotted line, but few people would think to search for specific details of appliances in their contract. Raj Vora, a graduate last year, explained how upon moving into his house on Lenton Boulevard in September of last year, the veiled gulf in the contract soon became evident in the form of two glaring empty spaces in the kitchen… Where the fridge and washing machine had once been. When the group had looked round the house before the summer everything had been in its place, however, “three irate phone calls with the landlady later, it was soon established we had no recourse as there was no mention of the goods in the lease”. Without a fridge, freezer or washing machine the group were forced to buy or cook everything fresh or order takeaways and make endless visits to the laundrette down the road.
“Furthermore throughout the year the landlady never answered her phone and when she called back a day later she always said she couldn’t do anything personally as she lived in Essex. Beware of landlords who aren’t local.” Like many a relationship between landlords and tenants, any civility rapidly vanished along with their damage deposits. Since research began, I have heard from many miffed students regarding their landlords’ unjust behaviour; huge deductions from damage deposits for “unclean skirting boards”, mouldy walls concealed with paint jobs, rent irrationally demanded in advance and even landlords who feel the need to let themselves into your home at any given moment.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, then how about a touch of animal infestation for good measure? Many student tenants seem to share their homes with all creatures great and small and few proprietors have been exactly forthcoming about solving the problem. Alex, a third year student, awoke one morning with a sociable member of their spider infestation exploring her face. Another student, Anthony, sarcastically described the frustration of dealing with a slug infestation, “Our landlord double booked the house this year so we’ve had to share with these other tenants. It’s OK because they live in the damp walls and don’t make much noise. They eat our food though, and leave the kitchen in a mess.” When their landlord failed to fill the substantial hole in the bathroom wall, the slugs multiplied and began wreaking havoc. Not only did the tenants frequently find the slugs inhabiting their kitchen cupboards, one night the slimy co-habitants crawled into the back of their fridge leaving it irreparable.
There are several agencies and landlords who have a vast number of tenants willing to speak of their unpleasant experiences. Nottingham letting agency Shields and Co, an independent Nottingham estate agent and letting agency, is one such company with many unhappy customers. I spoke to Edward Myton, a former tenant of a Shields property who explained what went so wrong; “There were huge leaks in two of my housemate’s ceilings which were obviously worrying. In one of the bedrooms, when it rained it was pretty much like a tap running on full, not just the occasional drip. We warned Shields twice about the problem and their unwillingness to act resulted in one of the ceilings collapsing. It took Shields so long to send people out and eventually when they acted, we were told we’d have to have the heating on full all the time. Needless to say, they didn’t offer us any compensation for the enormous heating bill. In addition the doors had become warped because of the leaks. After months of pestering them they finally conceded, but we were forced to live extremely uncomfortably for several months.”
In cases like this, it’s important to remember that there are other routes to take if your landlord won’t carry out repairs. Just because it’s not a council house doesn’t mean the council can’t help; if you feel disrepair is making your house unreasonable to live in, you can contact the Environmental Health team who will organise an inspection of your house. If they agree that the disrepair is severe, they will order your landlord to carry out repairs. If they don’t do it, the council can get the repairs done by an external contractor and send your landlord the bill.
Along with Shields, another agency IMS Lettings got a bad rap; one particular tenant was more than willing to share her story with me; “Without my knowledge the agency had kindly put me on a “rolling contract” which meant that when I came to give my 30 days notice they had already “rolled” me onto an additional month and were holding me liable for an extra £500, which frustratingly I had to pay. When I had moved into the property it had crayon all over the walls and radiators, and the garden was a jungle. With the help of my dad I repainted the place, replaced the carpet and landscaped the garden, bird bath and all! Needless to say, I had improved the property more than you can imagine… Not according to the agency!
“With a £1600 deposit riding on it, I photographed all the rooms before I left, with a date stamp to prove the condition I’d left the property in. I returned to the property a few weeks later just to do a final check. Infuriatingly, the agency had let themselves in and walked all over the carpets in big, muddy boots. I was blamed for the mess and subsequently lost £120 of my enormous deposit.”
Again, there are routes you can take to avoid this situation. The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) can resolve any disputes between tenants and landlords regarding how much deposit should be returned. Also, your landlord is legally obliged to protect your deposit, and provide you with evidence; otherwise you have the right to take him to the small claims court to claim back your original deposit plus three times the amount.
Faye Swanwick, Accreditation Officer at the University of Nottingham Unipol office explains that if landlords aren’t reported, then they will remain on their website’s list of approved landlords www.unipol.org.uk/nottingham. “Landlords have to apply for accreditation and by doing so they must agree to abide by our code of conduct in terms of physical and management standards; given that this is voluntary it tends to be the good ones that do so. We then inspect their properties and speak to some of their tenants to ensure that everything’s OK.” Incidents of accredited landlords not complying with these rules cannot be addressed if the students who experience such problems do not report them, hence the landlords will remain on the list for other unknowing students to walk blindly into a binding contract with a dodgy character, complete with leaky ceilings and mice infestations.
Melanie Futer also acknowledges the dangers presented to students on the house hunt, for example those who are accosted by taxi drivers offering to chauffeur groups around potential properties. She urges that we start using our common sense and don’t even consider these as an option.
By far the most dramatic tale of troubled tenancies I discovered was from a fourth year mechanical engineering student who was repeatedly physically and verbally threatened by his landlord. Relations with the group’s proprietor got off to a bad start when they arrived in September to find the house in a poor state. “Most of the electrics didn’t work, the carpet was coming up, there were no banisters on the stairs and the washing machine ate clothes instead of washing them. When we tried to contact him about these problems we always got his answer phone and he never rang us back. These problems continued throughout the whole year and we eventually spoke to people in the SU. They said they had had a lot of complaints about his properties. We decided to not pay him the final month’s rent and said he could keep the damage deposits in exchange.
“He didn’t react well to this, becoming extremely aggressive on the phone. He told us to have the cash ready for him as he was coming around with his ‘boys’ and he would be taking our personal items as deposit. Hastily we moved all of our stuff out of the house until it was completely empty and waited for him to come around. He arrived with 3 large guys and demanded the money. When we refused he started to threaten us so we called the police; our landlord quickly advised his band of heavies to make themselves scarce.
“Subsequently he threatened to visit our separate family homes, which of course he had the addresses for in our tenancy agreements. He threatened to send debt collectors to our home addresses. He also sent letters explaining this to our parents. We all knew he didn’t have the capacity to do this so we took a chance and ignored him. We vacated our house weeks before the end of term and stayed at other friends’ houses until eventually he was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to get the rent.”
Such stories come in the wake of the conviction of notorious Dunkirk landlord Anthony Carroll, otherwise known as Uncle Tony. Carroll was fined over £62,000 and received a suspended prison sentence for his treatment of two student tenants. The court heard how his Dunkirk houses were in an extremely poor condition with mice infestations, extensive mould on the walls and dangerously exposed electrics. Furthermore he illegally evicted two of his tenants by changing the locks on the house without notice. Additional charges of harassment and threatening behaviour against Carroll were eventually dropped. The trauma of these events had a profound effect on the students involved, even driving one to attempted suicide.
Confusingly however, several of Uncle Tony’s tenants from other properties have rushed to his defence, keen to paint a picture of a kind, diligent gentleman who far exceeded a landlord’s call of duty. Reports have emerged of Carroll offering lifts in his car, taking his tenants on quotidian outings to Sainsbury’s and even visiting one of his tenants who was in hospital. One website comment from a former tenant and international student read, “He will be our friend forever! Tony, be strong! We are all here to support you all the time!!” The website for ‘Uncle Tony’s Accommodation’ is now eerily bare, and the phone numbers provide a lead to a monotonous answer phone message. The message for website visitors simply reads “Unfortunately we do not have any properties available at the moment” and surprisingly “There are currently no testimonials listed.”
But amongst all the doom and gloom of mice and mould there is the odd landlord who reawakens our faith in the human race. Dominic Parr was far and away voted the best landlord in Lenton due to his friendly manner and reasonable nature. One tenant posted on the Facebook group explaining how Parr had “replaced the back door (which had 7 locks on!) with an even more secure one, without us even asking for it.” When we contacted Parr to congratulate him on his (extremely unofficial) title he duly explained his success: “If we are popular I think it is firstly because I like my tenants – I start with the premise that I am lucky to have you so I want to return the favour by giving you a house you are proud of. WIth regard to damage deposits, I don’t think it is very fair to worry about a broken chair that cost me £10 when you have just paid me £3,000 or more over the year. Secondly, all my tenants know that if they have a problem I am only ever a phone-call away at any time of the day or week and I will take a genuine interest in whatever is concerning them. Lastly unlike some landlords, I don’t like being hated!”
If you have any problems with landlords contact Unipol or Notts Housing Advice (NHA), formerly Shelter, on 0845 2 414 515.
Images by Bruno Albutt