Outsourcing my accommodation: my attitude to renting

I live in a rented house, and the lease ends next month.

A couple of months before this happens, the real-estate agent ask me to sign a form saying whether or not I want to renew, and for how long. The form includes a warning that there may be a rent increase, but it doesn’t say how much. If I say I want to renew, they send back the lease papers for me to sign.

I send the form back saying yes, I want to renew for six months, and I add the words, subject to the rent remaining affordable.

Last time, to my surprise, the rent did not go up.

This time, what happened was interesting. The agent emailed me saying they wanted to increase the rent by $20 per week — twice what I’d budgeted for — and asking me whether that would be affordable. She also said that it was still cheap compared to other rentals.

I did some research online to see whether this was true, and concluded that the suggested price was in the same ballpark as similar rentals nearby, but certainly not ‘cheap’, especially considering the house is kind of like an apartment stuck on a large piece of land: it’s very small, and unlike much of the competition has no patio, shed or carport, all of which I could use.

I replied pointing that out and politely reminding the agent of some of the other deficiencies of the house. And I told the truth, saying I had budgeted for a $10 per week increase. And I asked, politely, whether she thought the proprietor would be prepared to come down a little? (From being a proprietor myself in the past I know perfectly well that it is the agents who suggest the rent increases to the proprietors, not the other way round!)

It took me at least an hour to compose that short email, last Friday. I’ve lost count of the number of times one of my emails has unintentionally offended someone who has misinterpreted my tone. However, eventually, heart in mouth, I pressed Send. The agent replied saying she would pass on my request to the proprietor. I sent a quick thankyou and tried to forget about it for the weekend. I expected the reply would either be ‘no’ or ‘let’s split the difference and make it $15’.

The government and banks are putting out a lot of propaganda trying to get renters to borrow money and buy houses. ‘Escape the rental trap.’ ‘Live the dream.’ People here say things like, ‘I’m just renting’, ‘I’m only renting’. It’s as if you’re not really an adult unless you ‘own’ a four-bedroom detached suburban house (an apartment being no good for the ‘Australian lifestyle’, which apparently involves a lot of barbequing and lazing about on outdoor furniture). And for most people owning a house means that for their best years they are tied by a gigantic debt to the ultimate feudal lord — a national or global banking corporation.

When I was married I was the joint owner of a house, and for a while we had a second house that we rented out. Now I’m divorced and renting. It’s not ideal, and I may not want to do it forever, and I might write something later about alternative ways to access shelter and land. However, if I’m honest with myself, despite the propaganda, I’m happier renting than owning.

What I dislike about renting:

  • I can’t get a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I have to talk to a property manager instead of calling a plumber.
  • I can’t paint or alter the house.
  • Once every three months the agent comes in to check things are clean and tidy, and writes an inspection report.
  • I might have to move in six months or a year, if the proprietors decide to move in or put the rent up more than I can afford.
  • Sometimes I get scared that I could end up homeless because of economic rationalism, which doesn’t value wisdom and stories, which believes that the old, sick or disabled have nothing to offer in exchange for accommodation and support.

What I like about renting:

  • I don’t have to look after a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I can just call the property manager and leave it to her to find a plumber and send the proprietor the bill.
  • I don’t get tempted to paint or alter the house. I don’t waste my precious creative energy worrying about renovations — I can leave all that to folks who actually care about it.
  • Once every three months I have to make the place spic ‘n’ span, so it never has a chance to become squalid. (And when things don’t belong to me I tend to take better care of them. When I was married with little kids, the oven, which I owned, didn’t get cleaned for nine years.)
  • I might get to move in six months or a year. Once everything’s organised, moving is fun. I enjoy setting up house in a new place and exploring a new neighbourhood. And I tend not to accumulate junk because there’s a good chance I’ll eventually move.
  • And… well… the less I own, the lighter and freer I feel. Having no debts feels good, too.

So anyway, what happened about my rent?

On Monday the reply came back. The rent’s going up by my budgeted amount, $10 a week. This is a surprisingly good result, considering the state of the rental market around here, and the way people talk about proprietors and agents as if all of them are predators from the depths of Hell, when in fact they may well be human beings with mothers, fathers and cultural baggage, just like any of the seven billion. (Seven billion? WTF? No wonder rents are so high.)

My particular agent and proprietor are pretty good about unblocking the toilet, too. So, am I just lucky? Or, apart from being assertive, have I done anything unusual?

Well… I hesitate to make such a claim, but maybe I have.

During my two years in this house I’ve deliberately set out to establish and maintain a good relationship with the agent and proprietor. Where ‘good’ means friendly and businesslike. To put it another way, I’ve consciously done my best to make them like and respect me.

You’ll notice I’m not using the word ‘landlord’. The agent uses the word ‘owner’, but I prefer ‘proprietor’. ‘Landlord’, and to some extent ‘owner’, have connotations of status left over from the feudal system and the industrial-revolution class system where the ‘common’ (ie, working) people were told that the ‘noble’ (ie, monied) people were their ‘betters’ — were somehow more deserving in the eyes of the big Daddy in the sky.

But I don’t believe in status. To my mind, the proprietor and myself are equals, and the lease is a business agreement. The lease and the local tenancy laws contain a fair bit of detail, but, basically, I’ve agreed to pay the rent regularly and keep the place clean and tidy, and they’ve agreed to maintain it in a habitable condition and respect my privacy.

I think of renting not as some second-best way to live, but as outsourcing my accommodation. Like all outsourcing, it’s pretty expensive, and a little precarious, but it saves me a lot of bother and and allows me to focus on my real work.

Don’t get me wrong — if I had enough money to buy a house outright, I would. Actually I wouldn’t — I’d buy the smallest flat I could fit into, and do something useful with the leftover cash.

But I don’t have that much money. What I do have are a few suggestions you might find useful if you’re renting in the private market. (Disclaimer: I live in Australia, and the legal situation of private tenants is probably better here than in many parts of the world.)

  • Remember that renting can feel insecure for the proprietor, too. If you’re a good tenant (who pays the rent reliably and looks after the place well) you are by no means powerless. It’s no fun to lose a good tenant and have to worry about finding another one. There are a lot of bad tenants around. A good tenant is worth hanging onto. Put yourself in the proprietor’s shoes and look after their place like you’d want someone to do if it were yours.
  • The proprietor and agent are not bosses, parents, or authority figures. Both you and the proprietor are the agent’s clients. It’s a business arrangement. If the agent or proprietor are condescending, remember it’s just that they don’t know any better (yet!), and don’t let them intimidate you. Remember, you have something they want, too. Remain friendly and businesslike.
  • Know your legal rights and insist on them. Read the websites that explain the tenancy laws.
  • Never sign anything without reading and understanding it. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  • At the beginning of your tenancy, go over the place in detail and make sure the property condition report accurately describes the condition of the property.
  • If something breaks, say so. (And if it’s your fault, admit it, even if that means you have to pay for it.) Presume that the proprietor wants to maintain their investment.
  • Be patient if necessary, and don’t whinge and whine, but if something isn’t being done, speak up.
  • Once the toilet has been unblocked, email the agent to say thank-you. If they have been prompt and friendly, say thank you for that.
  • Don’t do stuff that isn’t your job. If the proprietor has agreed to mow the lawn, don’t do it!
  • Wear a smile when you’re on the phone so that you sound friendly. Say ‘how are you’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’.
  • Be friendly in emails, too — wish the agent a nice weekend, for example.
  • Keep the place fairly tidy and clean all the time so that the rental inspection cleanups aren’t such a burden. This is easier said than done, but it’s much easier if you don’t have much stuff!
  • Pay the rent on time. (Set up an automatic direct deposit.) This can be easier said than done, too — but if you don’t pay the rent, nothing else you do is likely to count. The downside of it being a business arrangement is that the proprietor is unlikely to listen to your pleas for leniency. Anyway, pleading for leniency gives them power over you.

 And, last but not least, luxuriate in the good aspects of renting. Such as relaxing in your kerb-shopped deckchair while you watch the neighbours sweat over their renovations.

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