Turned Down Flat by Karen Phelps
Thousands of people – students, job seekers, families - are on the hunt for housing in Auckland. Karen Phelps joins the fray.
Opening the door at an open home for a flat I see literally hundreds of people crammed inside all clutching white application forms. I push my way past, through the hallway and into the living room.
“Hey, wait your turn, we were here first,” hisses one woman as she elbows me in the ribs.
Bursting through the final row I am finally standing in front of the landlord. He smiles and reaches for my application. It is then that I realize I am totally and utterly – naked?
OK, so maybe this is just a nightmare, I reason wiping my bleary eyes the morning after a weekend of intensive house hunting. But it is not too far from the truth. Finding suitable rental accommodation in Auckland is like attempting to win the lottery.
As some sort of fatally flawed early Christmas present our landlord informed us last year that he was not only putting up the rent up by $80 per week but also wanted to do some renovations as well. Just a “few small things” - like totally re-lining the garage and fixing the leaky toilet (and consequently the entire rotting wall behind it). Only a couple of months earlier he had professed that even though a real estate agent had informed him he could get a great deal more for the place it was more important to have good tenants like us living there:
“It’s give and take isn’t it?” he had said smiling smugly obviously biding his time so we didn’t move out over notoriously tricky Christmas/New Year period.
The consensus was that we would all move out. I can’t say I was overly concerned, as several months back two of my flatmates’ partners had moved in. Ain't love grand, I thought as night after night I listened to the sound of rhythmic squeaking over my head as I was trying to eat dinner in the kitchen while the odd shriek, bang and crash regularly punctuated my attempts to watch Coronation Street in the living room.
Going on the house hunt in Auckland is akin to beating off packs of rabid dogs all fighting for the same bone. It brings out people’s most basic survival instincts. It is not uncommon to encounter people urgently calling their mates on cell phones while their cars block the driveway, staking a claim like a cat spraying its territory to ward off any other flat hunters.
It made me long for the good old days in Christchurch where you could wake up late morning, casually flick through the ‘to let’ section, throw on whatever happened to be at hand, look at a place while the landlord did the hard sell then make the decision on whether you wanted the property (and more often than not talk them down in price in the process).
Not so in Auckland. Here going to look at a house is not unlike going to a job interview. Appearances do count and you must dress carefully in order to give your potential landlord the impression that you:
a) earn lots of money
b) have a steady job
c) are reliable and conservative (but not boring after all you do want them to remember you out of all the others)
d) friendly and trustworthy.
And forget whether you want the property or not – you will be chosen from a list of other potentials, need references and more often than not be required to fill out a form of some sort wanting to know everything from where you work to how soon you can move in.
Just a week before a friend of mine called Julian had been required to fill out an extensive application for a house and had rung desperately begging me to be his reference. He said he had been chosen as the “preferred tenant” but all his other references were unable to be contacted by the estate agent. Putting aside the question of why I hadn’t in fact been his first choice I agreed. The estate agent called my cell phone while I was in the supermarket. Admittedly trying to answer her questions while juggling cans of baked beans, potato chips and a watermelon was not an ideal situation. Is Julian, she wanted to know, a tidy person?
“Incredibly almost to the point of being anal,” I joked thinking a bit of humour never goes amiss.
“Pardon?” she asked crisply.
“Oh yes, very.” I cringed thinking how I could make it up to Julian now that he would inevitably be homeless and forced to sleep on my couch.
More questions followed such as – how long had I know Julian for? What was my relationship to him? Where did he work? Did he have pets? And would I be happy to have Julian stay at my house? Not entirely seeing the point of the whole process (Julian was my friend and therefore I was unlikely to say anything that would jeopardize his chances of getting the house) I dutifully gave her the answers I knew she wanted to hear. He got the house and a comprehensive six page contract banning him, among other things, from putting pot plants on the deck and smoking anywhere on the property (his flatmate is currently relegated to a spot on the footpath beside the letterbox for his nightly ciggie).
This weekend my flatmate Dave and I decided to bite the bullet and begin the arduous search. The criteria were simple – nothing too expensive, nothing too scummy and nothing too far from the center of town (read within 30 minutes drive).
I quickly found that the main frustration when looking for a house is to even be able to contact the potential landlord and obtain an address – answering machines, endlessly ringing phones that no one picks up and cell phones turned off seem to be de rigueur. I hopefully left messages on several. They rarely rang back.
At the few addresses I did manage to obtain I felt a bit like a stalker as I tripped over foliage trying to peer through 5cms of open curtain to see how big the rooms were all the while hoping that I did indeed have the right address and that the previous tenants were not still actually living there. One was but agreed to show me a flat where an overwhelming scent of cat pee permeated the air. The tenant then informed me he had just been burgled twice within the past week thus his reason for moving. I politely thanked him and left.
Another flat seemed too good to be true when we drove up. It was modern, had a small garden and was inexpensive. Congratulating ourselves on our good luck at discovering such a gem we paused briefly from jumping up and down to investigate a curious buzzing sound in the air. Walking round the back of the house we encountered two large power pylons situated right in the back yard.
I had visions of the situation that my friend had experienced recently when her flat was sold and she had to move out just before Christmas. She, and her three flatmates only found somewhere a day before they would have been effectively homeless and she stated she was in full agreement with whoever said that moving house was up there with the stresses of divorce. She is now happily situated in a flat where her bedroom is positioned right next door to the toilet and every morning she wakes up to the dulcet sounds of her flatmates’ bodily functions.
‘Ellerslie/ Mt Wellington near new three bedroom house with two bathrooms, double auto garage, off street parking, excellent location, non smokers $380 per week’, read the ad in the newspaper the next day. Dave and I drove to the open home to meet the landlord Graeme. The only detectable flaw in our plan was Dave’s hair – fluffy, unpredictable, messy. Not exactly qualities we wanted to convey to a potential landlord. He attempted to smooth it down but as we walked up the driveway it still resembled a feather boa floating around his head.
“Remember – we like Graeme. Graeme likes us. We are the perfect tenants,” I chanted like a mantra. Quite frankly the pressure of attempting to make landlords instantly like me was taking its toll.
At the door Graeme welcomed us, requested we remove our shoes and showed us inside. It was rental nirvana - all the rooms were huge and one even had its own en suite bathroom. Our eyes glazed over like someone on a strict diet faced with a glistening chocolate cake.
“My precious, my precious,” sci-fi fantasy freak Dave joked under his breath.
“Just fill this out and fax it back to me – the sooner the better,” said the landlord thrusting a piece of white paper at us while keeping his eyes fixed firmly on a cutesy looking family with a baby that had just come to the door.
“I don’t think we’re going to get that,” said Dave as we were walking down the drive.
“Maybe the baby will cry really loudly or fill its nappies and soil the carpet while they are there,” I suggested hopefully. Dave didn’t look convinced.
“I’m afraid it’s bad news,” said Graeme the next day when he rang. “We had so many suitable people, including yourselves, but I’m afraid you didn’t get it.”
Dave blamed his hair: “I knew I shouldn’t have washed it the night before…” he lamented.
A house listed at Kohimarama seemed a steal at $450 for four bedrooms. There were downsides – nosy elderly neighbours (“Are you thinking of moving in?” they enquired while peering over their balcony to get a better look at us), the fact the flats were joined and that it was two up, two down (it sounded like elephants were stampeding overhead in the downstairs bedrooms when someone was walking in the kitchen). It was undeniably older style (1970’s) but not in bad nick with a spanking new kitchen complete with dishwasher and water purifier. I did the hard sell on Karen (luckily she had the same name and so was unlikely to forget me). They rang up later that night keen to meet Dave. By now I was unsure – yes, it was a great location but did I want to live in such close proximity to my flatmates? Like most older houses I suspected the walls were paper thin and there was a cupboard that for no obvious reason provided an access way through the two upstairs bedrooms. Could I live with the sound of Dave blowing his nose, coughing or passing wind in the night I asked myself. Our indecision was our downfall and the flat went to someone else.
The final house we looked at was on a busy road, had inadequate car parking and was a tad too small. In others words as close to perfect in Auckland as you’re ever going to get. I marched up the driveway with newfound enthusiasm (there were only three cars parked out the front) and slipped my shoes off at the back door.
One could be mistaken for thinking there was a party going on – people were milling in the kitchen smiling cheesily at a rather young good looking male (real estate agent) while others lined up in the hallway not waiting to actually use the toilet but just vying for a glimpse of it. Looking around was not unlike being stuck in an Auckland traffic jam – what should have been a 30 second trip round the facilities took ten minutes as I waded through masses of people.
As I put my name on a page with thirty others I couldn’t help but wonder how he would choose a tenant. I remembered that one landlord had admitted to me he had put everyone’s names into a hat.
On the way out we encountered a hopeful young guy. I smiled and gestured inside.
“Welcome to the lottery.”
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES
- do you have pets
- hold parties
- are you a student/know students or are likely to have a flatmate who is a student
- are you unemployed/self employed or between jobs
- do you plan on moving in the near future if ever
- do you have no references
YOU ABSOLUTELY LOVE
- quiet past times like knitting socks and crocheting.
- everything about the house
- one year fixed term leases that still allow the landlord the option of increasing the rent
- moving in immediately
LOOKING FOR A FLAT?
- Be prepared to think outside the square – try word of mouth, looking in local newspapers, on notice boards, in publications such as Trade and Exchange and Loot.
- The Herald website can save time and money – it’s updated daily and allows you to search specifically (say, by number of rooms or location).
- Don’t rely on real estate agent’s websites – a great deal of houses are taken before they even have time to type them in.
- Ring up real estate agents daily and request their latest listing.
- Get up early and get in first – wait at your own peril!
TIPS FROM AN EXPERT Want to impress that landlord and get the flat? Trevor Elwin, Manager of Rentals for the City Branch of Barfoot and Thompson, who has 37years experience in the industry, offers his advice.
- The situation usually improves after March as demand drops slightly. Prices rose last year but now seem to have settled. At present there are few houses (as opposed to flats and apartments) for rent in central areas. This has led to ‘auction’ type situations where the house will go to the highest bidder.
- Generally real estate agents will also be managing properties. Ask them if there are any suitable properties they know of coming up for rental in the near future.
- Putting a ‘wanted’ ad in the newspaper can draw the attention of agents who have a property coming up. Make sure the ad sells you as a desirable tenant and be certain to put ‘agents ok.’
- 3-5pm is a good time to ring real estate agents. You’ll get first dibs on whatever they have advertised in the paper for the next day. Ads for Saturday’s newspaper have to be in on Thursday so you will have all day Friday to get in first.
- Agents control the bulk of rental properties. Only around 20% of these properties are actually advertised and these are usually the ones other people have turned down. By the time you read the ad in the paper 2/3 of those houses will have already been let.
- Go and see a real estate agent renting houses in the area you wish to live in person – it is to your advantage if they can put a face to the voice over the phone. Remember estate agents rely on repeat business and if they put a bad tenant into a house they will not get the listing again. Get their name and business card and then sell yourself as a desirable tenant.
- When viewing a property the same rule applies – sell yourself and make them remember you in a favourable way. Be sure to give the landlord or estate agent as much information as you can. Tell them why they should choose you over other people.
- If there is a group of you looking for a flat together it is important that you all go along to view the property and meet the landlord/estate agent together. The more people turning up impressing them the better. When choosing who will get the house real estate agents will look at applicants background, job etc. If having trouble deciding they have been known to toss a coin!
- Dress appropriately and tidily. Be pleasant and polite. If you have tattoos or piercings it can be a good idea to cover them up as not all real estate agents and landlords are open minded.