ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Monthly Archive: August 2022

Wednesday

17

August 2022

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COMMENTS

It’s Bad Out There For Renters

Written by , Posted in Adventures

I have searched for apartments to rent many times in my life. I did it three times in college, once after, four times in NYC, three times in Seattle, and this is now my third time in London. The first time, we had no credit, no rental history, nothing, but I still found a place for us in about three days. The second time, in two days when we had enough with the first place not fixing the illegal gas line in 18 months.

This time? In London, in 2022, amidst dramatic inflation and a serious drop in real wages? It’s something else entirely. We don’t think we have to move when our lease is up in October, but last year our landlord tried to increase our rent 16%. We eventually agreed to an 8% increase, but even that is borderline obscene, so we’re wary about what he’s going to offer this time around, especially seeing what other landlords are getting.

A big caveat up front is that we have two cats, and landlords in London are deeply disappointing when it comes to pets. Legally they are supposed to be open to them, but in practice most are not. We had one estate agent tell us that the landlord’s insurance won’t allow pets. I don’t know if that was true or just an excuse, but if landlords are supposed to be open to a discussion, it seems illegal to have insurance that won’t allow that discussion.

So we know we are already picking from a limited pool. At the same time, we are both employed full-time, and make very decent wages, so we are able to spend more than a lot of people on our housing. Basically, we are in general really well positioned (other than having pets) to find a place, and yet it is still exhausting, depressing, and infuriating.

* * *

Over the last two weeks, we have sought information on 19 flats. Because we are who we are, Austin and I have a spreadsheet with a link to the posting (we scour Right Move, Zoopla, and Open Rent daily), address, viewing, status, date last contacted, and any notes. Thirteen days later, we’ve viewed eight flats, and only one was borderline okay for what they were offering it for.

Austin viewed the first one, and it was fine. Not great, not horrible. Clean (which will turn out to be a rarity) and in generally good repair. But then he received this:

Let’s talk through it.

1. Offer price – I am not buying a home. I am renting a flat. I have no information about it; I cannot get an inspection report, I don’t get references from previous tenants about the landlord. I am 100% reliant on what the landlord decides to charge. If one says it is available for £XXXX/month, I’m going to take that as the price. I’m not going to get into a bidding war to pay someone else’s mortgage.

In fact, just for fun on this one, I decided to look up what the unit sold for, assumed 20% down and looked up the interest rate that year to work out their likely monthly mortgage. They were asking for about £800 more per month than their mortgage. Even if one allows for setting aside a certain percentage for repairs and improvements, there is absolutely no reason to charge that much. None. I wanted to go back with a bid of £100 above their mortgage (so about £700 under asking) but we ended up just moving on.

2. A year is reasonable, and asking people to commit to more than that in a neighborhood they might never have lived in before, living at the mercy of someone they likely will never meet, is not.

3. Yeah, I get this. Makes sense.

4. Another flat we looked at and left after a couple of minutes had a similar process and said that if we wanted them to replace the missing washing machine (which would fit in the current GIANT HOLE in the kitchen), we should put it under requests, but we should really limit such requests. I’m sorry, what? I have a few ‘requests’ that I’ll be making of any landlord – that they have the place completely deep cleaned before we move in, that all expected appliances be installed and in good repair before we move in, that any broken cabinets, busted doors, cracks, scraped up paint, all be sorted out before we move in. None of this ‘as is’ crap, and it is obscene to make people have to accept places as is for fear of not having a place to live.

5. HELL NO. I’m sorry, but a photo and bio? Why? So landlords can pick people who remind them of themselves? So racists can rule out people of color? So ageists can avoid young people or older people? I can’t even believe this made it through because it seems like it is asking for discrimination lawsuit.

* * *

Since then we’ve seen a variety of places. There was one that had a very lovely outdoor space, but the kitchen was janky and the ‘second bedroom’ was maybe the size of one of the small meeting rooms they put in open-plan offices, that could fit a desk and maybe a plant? There was one that was absolutely fine, but there were like 15 other people there walking around and we didn’t like it enough to fight for it. Additionally, while I know everyone can make their own choices, and some people cannot wear masks for health reasons, we are still in a pandemic and would love it if people would wear masks during these showings, but it’s usually just us.

We’ve had a couple just straight up disappear on us. One was rented before anyone had the chance to view it. Another, we signed up for what we were told was the first opportunity to view it, then a few hours before our appointment the viewing was canceled because they had rented it to someone else. Just this week, one was posted in the evening, my partner called first thing in the morning, and was told it was no longer available … because the tenants were renewing. What? How does that make sense?

One estate agency that has posted a couple that we like insists on us completing an ‘application’ before we can even view the place. It’s frustrating because they do have properties that look good, but they want a lot of personal information (including the contact info of our landlord!) that I think is absurd to request just so someone can look at a flat. I don’t want an estate agent calling our landlord for a reference before we even know if the flat has a functioning refrigerator (one didn’t).

By far the most common thing we are seeing are flats that should be 25-30% less than they are due to their size and overall condition. Obviously if someone is living somewhere it isn’t going to be pristine, but these places are almost universally run down and sad, and landlords are asking for basically my entire monthly salary.

Yesterday was the worst so far though. Pictures looked great, and it was in a decent location, close to one of the better tube lines. I got there and knew within 30 seconds it was not the place for us. The two bedrooms were each a decent size, but one of them had a shower in it. Not, like, an en-suite bathroom, but just a cubicle shower in the corner of the room. And in that shower was a toilet. No, this wasn’t a boat. It was an apartment. (And there was no sign this was to accommodate any sort of disability – anyone living in that flat and accessing that shower would still need to go up a set of stairs to get to the kitchen and living room). And the person showing it seemed proud of this set-up.

The actual bathroom reminded me of my college boyfriend’s bathroom he shared with two other dudes. I didn’t go into it.

The main area could have been great – it was really big and open, lots of light. But the kitchen was in bad shape, including missing all of the kick boards under the cabinets. The ceiling had maybe been primed to be painted, and patched a bit, but looked like it was mid-renovation. It was not.

Look, these are not unlivable apartments. The electric, water, and gas all presumably work. I didn’t see evidence of mice or bugs. But they are expensive, they are poorly kept up, and people are fighting over them. This is not an acceptable way to treat people. There is absolutely no need for the housing to be this way. Yes, much of it is very old. But being old doesn’t mean it can’t be kept up well.

* * *

I know that some landlords who read this (lol, none will) will just shake their heads and say I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the thing is, I do! Austin and I were landlords for over three years after moving to London because we didn’t want to sell our home right away in case we had to move back. For the first two years we didn’t have a property manager, and we still managed to get things fixed from 6,000 miles away. The dishwasher broke and leaked, creating the need for some serious repairs. So we cut our tenant’s rent during that time, because they had to deal with construction.

The boiler acted up, and we had emergency repairs sorted out the next day. Meanwhile our first landlord here spent at least 18 months requiring us to run our gas off of giant propane tanks that ran out every three-four days, because they couldn’t be bothered to get the required permits for a legal gas connection to the mains. (They also never properly registered the address for the building, so we didn’t exist on those find my address forms on literally every website.)

As landlords we allowed multiple pets. And the rent we charged only JUST covered our mortgage, to the point that we had to dip into our savings each month. Last summer we agreed to sell because we didn’t like being landlords, it just felt … weird.

And I think it kind of is weird. Like, I get it if someone has to move away from their home but will be moving back. But owning multiple properties? Doing it as one’s ‘job’? Making one’s living off of gouging people who need a safe, secure, healthy place to live? I don’t think it’s okay, and I think it’s why so much of the housing stock available now is so expensive and so very very sad.

We have another viewing tomorrow, and we’re waiting to hear from our landlord next week what he wants to charge next year.

Wish us luck. And please wish even more luck to the people who have very little money to spend on rent and who need to move now. It’s just brutal out there, and we need to figure out a better way.

Sunday

14

August 2022

0

COMMENTS

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who like deep, emotional, thoughtful novels that are more character driven than plot-driven.

In a nutshell:
Klara is an AF waiting to be chosen by a child.

Why I chose it:
Never Let Me Go remains one of my absolute favorite novels. I saw all the great reviews this one was getting and decided to pick it up.

Review:
It’s hard to speak about specifics in this book without spoiling it, so … I think I’m going to spoil it. Before the spoilers begin though, I can say that I enjoyed this book, I thought it was interesting and raised some amazing questions even beyond the one in the blurb: ‘What does it mean to love?’

Okay, now spoilers.

* * *

The only quibble I have with this book is the first part – the part set in the store. I understand why it is there, and it definitely does give us insight into not only Klara but the world that allows for a Klara to exist, but I didn’t enjoy reading it much. Once she was chosen by Josie, however, I was sucked in.

It wasn’t until the end of the book that I actually understood what ‘lifted’ meant (at least, I think), and that the decision to genetically alter the children was what killed Josie’s sister and was close to killing her, and that Rick’s mother had chosen not to follow that route. A society where this is not only normal but apparently a prerequisite for ‘success’ in life is terrifying. And the fact that it can lead to death – that parents are willing to risk death rather than allow their children to exist without genetic modification.

The concept of AFs (I assume Artificial Friends) is also terrifying. I mean, I get it – society seems to have gotten used to AI in things like website chatbots. But having one assigned as a friend, to watch over one’s child, essentially spying on them, but also maybe being their servant? Yikes. Especially given all we come to know about Klara and how she can think and feel. She is brilliant in so many ways, but she doesn’t have a full view of the world, and her obsession with and treatment of the sun as a god is fascinating but also feels almost child-like. She can gain knowledge but it seems as though she can’t quite gain the maturity that would allow her to be more like an adult. And maybe that isn’t a bad thing, because so many people become crueler and less hopeful as adults.

The ‘portrait’ storyline also lead me to actually drop my jaw. Like, the idea that the AF could learn who Josie was by interacting with and studying her for a few years, and then ultimately BECOME her was chilling. I’m not a parent but I still think I can understand the visceral appeal of having a way to not lose one’s daughter (reminds be of a film I watched on AppleTV earlier this year – Swan Song), but wow that seems so extreme.

And the very, very last few pages? Broke my heart.

There is so much going on in this world, and it’s amazing how Ishiguro can build this world where there really are only a handful of characters we get to meet. Nothing is so explicit, and there is very little exposition. And yet I can picture the home, the town, and the society so very clearly.

This book will stick with me for awhile.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend and Donate

Monday

8

August 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer & Angela Kinsey

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of either The Office TV show, or The Office Ladies podcast

In a nutshell:
Jenna ‘Pam’ Fischer and Angela ‘Angela’ Kinsey share stories of their time on The Office, which led to them becoming best friends.

Worth quoting:
N/A (audio book)

Why I chose it:
It was suggested by Audible and sounded fun

Review:
I didn’t watch The Office when it was on – I mean, I’m sure I saw episodes of it at the time but it wasn’t a show I regularly tuned in for. Some of it is just too cringe for me – my secondhand embarrassment is very easily set off – but some of it is really sweet. Once the show ended I watched it on streaming.

The book hits on exactly what I think any fan of a TV show wants. Behind the scenes gossip, interesting little nuggets about different famous episodes, deep dives into the main fictional relationships. This one also has the added bonus of learning about the real-life friendship of the two authors.

Unsurprisingly if you are familiar with these two actresses, the gossip is all kind and sweet. It sounds like everyone who worked on the show was just lovely. Really the only time there’s any tension is when discussing the fact that the show (I’m assuming the network, NBC) provided no maternity leave pay for Jenna Fischer, nor did they come up with ways to shoot around her leave, but they would accommodate other actors who had to be away when filming movies. Not cool, and I really appreciate that she spoke out about this, and the hardship of coming back to work five weeks post-partum because she needed the paycheck.

I’m not familiar with the podcast that Fischer and Kinsey started, similar to West Wing Weekly, but after listening to this book I’ll probably check it out.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend to a Friend (who loved The Office)

Friday

5

August 2022

0

COMMENTS

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for some quality long-form writing about some interesting and disturbing characters.

In a nutshell:
Keefe brings together essays he’s written for magazines over the past decade or so.

Worth quoting:
N/A – Audio book

Why I chose it:
Loved his past two books – didn’t realize this was a collection of long essays.

Review:
This is not a bad book. It was not exactly what I was looking for, but I did still enjoy it. I listened to each essay in one sitting (well, running – it’s perfect for a 4-5 mile run, cool-down and stretch), which I think was the right call, because I would get the full story all at once.

The first essay is one I recall reading when it first came out, about someone who sells what are likely counterfeit rare old wines. There’s some enjoyment in it because one of the people he rips off is a Koch brother.

Other essays cover El Chapo, a woman in witness protection in Amsterdam because she testified against her mobster brother, a famous attorney who takes on notorious death penalty cases, someone fighting to find the truth of the Lockerbie bombing, and others. Also … Anthony Bourdain. I appreciate the title but I think it’s a bit much – some people don’t really fit under the ‘rebel’ theme but they also aren’t criminals. I don’t know – I’m happy they put all these essays together, but the link is tenuous at best.

Keefe is a talented investigative journalist – that is not in doubt. At times I wish he’s choose different words in his writing – sometimes it feels a little like that episode of Friends where Joey uses a thesaurus to try to make his letter to the adoption agency sound fancy. But that’s a choice Keefe makes as a writer, and it only sometimes pulled me out of the essays.

I don’t think anything in particular is gained from listening to this as opposed to reading it, but I do think each essay should be consumed all in one go.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (if I could – it’s an audio book)