I was going to write an opinion piece on this last year, but kept thinking it’ll be over soon, all of this, so didn’t. But it isn’t, and by all accounts it won’t be anytime soon, much to all of our dismay. I’ve seen and dealt with lots of changes to our business since the Covid crisis hit at the end of March 2020 and thought it might be useful to share some of it here. There have been some pretty strong press articles this year attacking landlords en masse, articles which are pretty unfair really. Whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, we all have to rub along beside each other through this. Confrontational situations don’t help anyone at all, so a little understanding from all sides can only be a good thing. From a landlord’s perspective, I feel we as a profession should be going the extra mile wherever we can at the moment and I’d really hope that our tenants feel that’s what we’ve done.
The singularly most positive thing to have happened during this crisis has been the increased communication between us as landlords and our tenants via our new community WhatsApp group. Our rental properties are fairly unusual in that they’re three Victorian blocks all next door to each other, split into individual, self contained and relatively affordable apartments. At the start of the first Lockdown in Spring ’20, I immediately contacted all our young professionals to say we’re here, get in touch if you need help, if you’re ill, or if you’re worried about your job or finances. Some landlords don’t have that kind of one to one contact with tenants and don’t want it, preferring to use a management agency and be very much hands off, I get that. But in times like these, the personal touch, caring, it can be everything to someone, especially if they live alone, which millions of people in the UK now do. The WhatsApp has been used for everything from delivery package help, isolation shopping assistance, parking moans, wisdom tooth pain killer requests and welcoming new tenants. It’s provided us with direct contact to all residents and vice versa, and I’m sure has genuinely helped maintain good relationships during a very difficult time.
Talking of new tenants, wow, this year has been busy for us in terms of move-ins and move-outs. I expected some increase but it’s been much more dramatic than anticipated, with higher numbers in & out than at any time since 2004. Ten changes of occupancy in one year is unprecedented for us, and unfortunately not everyone wanted to move. There’s been a lot of talk of Section 21’s this year with the Govt banning evictions from rented accommodation during Covid and pressure from anti-landlord groups like Generation Rent. I’ve never evicted a tenant. Never had to, touch wood. Over 17yrs, every exiting tenant has chosen to leave, for whatever reason. In the past we’ve had sad faces when tenants have been moving on and are upset to leave their solo Moregeous pad, but this period has felt very different.
- Two tenants have left to move back in with parents, sensibly saving money on rent and also I suspect for the support and family contact.
- Two have moved in with new partners, met during Covid. I’d rather imagine that many new relationships have formed more quickly than they may have done in ‘normal’ times, during this period when lots of people have felt very lonely and in need of companionship. The incredibly isolating nature of Lockdown is something none of us have ever dealt with before, if you find love amongst all of this, you grab it!
- One of our tenants has upgraded into a larger studio in the same building, wanting and needing more space, even though they’re not having to work from home.
- At least two tenants have felt no choice other than to move to larger apartments, thus paying more rent, because they’re working from home full time and couldn’t cope with life in a studio apartment. There were tears when they left. Prior to the months of living, working, sleeping, eating and relaxing in the same space, they loved life in our rentals but Lockdown changed everything. In Spring 2020, with light nights, long sunny days, time out sitting in the communal garden and walks in the local park it was bearable, but in Winter everything felt very different and very much worse. The contained and constrained new way of life took its toll. I found this so upsetting, people being forced to leave us, to leave our little community. Genuinely upsetting.
The subject of prolonged voids is something we’ve never had to deal with and it’s been quite stressful. Landlord income is historically seen as ‘investment income’ by the taxman and the Govt, harking back to a time when only rich people invested in property and then raked in the profits as extra income. Full time landlords like me who really work at it aren’t seen as ‘trading’ or working, but that one day we’ll reap the rewards of a passive income when we retire – if decades of being a landlord doesn’t kill us off first 😉 So for me, with little actual income remaining once the (large) mortgage is paid, voids are absolutely to be avoided, ‘scuse the pun. Having properties empty for weeks and weeks due to Covid has given me sleepless nights and considerable anxiety. Even though people can view doesn’t mean they want to, enquires are massively down when we list an apartment coming vacant and the number of inappropriate enquiries are up. By that I mostly mean couples wanting to view apartments designed and only suitable for single tenants. They do this to save money, I understand that, but many years of running these buildings have taught me valuable lessons about condensation and occupancy. The mortgage needs paying even when there are voids, and and my financial responsibility remains despite a global pandemic. Don’t advise me to take the 3 month B2L mortgage ‘holiday’, I firmly believe taking one will count as a black mark in the future. I utilise different ways of marketing empty properties such as through social media, and various property portals – even though the world seems to have stopped, landlord life has to continue!
Something else I’ve noticed in this last year has been a real change in the careers of applicants. In the noughties, our tenants were in PR or marketing, junior lawyers or accountants, or self employed. Our rents are pretty affordable in comparison to Manchester City Centre, although rents there have dropped in recent years due to over supply and poor standards. Don’t get me started on city centre luxury apartment living *eye roll*. However a real change has been noticeable in 2020/21. Teachers, emergency service personnel, nurses, university staff, public sector workers, a radical change in the professions of those renting with us. I wonder whether this is due to confidence? That jobs within the public sector are more secure than those in the private sector resulting in a greater sense of confidence in job tenure and thus in housing decision making. Undertaking to live on your own is an expensive step. Electric bills have soared in the last ten years and as for Council Tax, I honestly don’t know how they get away with what they charge, it’s completely outrageous. Couple that with food bills and socialising (though not currently relevant) and it all adds up. Whatever the reasons, we have a far higher percentage of public sector workers than ever before and supporting them right now is more important than ever.
Having an outside space for tenants to use and enjoy was a huge factor in tenant happiness through 2020. It’s been soul destroying for people confined to small spaces, especially in cities, living and working from home and staring at screens all day every day. We maintain a lovely outside space and though tenants obviously don’t use it in the winter, come Spring it’ll be tidied up and there to enjoy. I’m currently making some plans to create another seating area to try and capture some evening sun. Landlords who think about how best to ensure their tenants enjoy where they live are better business people in my opinion, because happy tenants stay longer and good relationships are formed. We should be in this profession to give people lovely homes to live in, not simply to earn money, immediately or eventually.
The working from home changes have been challenging for us to accommodate because our properties are not extensive enough to create large working areas, or even ‘cloffices’ as they’re now known. Most of our tenants have small desks or work from dining tables and we’ve provided those where necessary or requested. I do worry about people constantly being in sedentary positions, working hunched over on their sofa, but I guess that can be the same for homeowners or tenants. Landlords have to be understanding during Covid, to listen to tenants and accommodate reasonable requests, whether that be moving furniture around, allowing tenants to bring in some of their own purchases or investing in upgrades. It really feels like WFH is going to be much more prevalent going forward, whether we want that or not. Newly designed spaces can factor this in, the kind of Build To Let co-living spaces currently flying up in cities, but it’s harder to factor it into older properties with long established layouts. It’s about flexibility, looking at different kinds of furniture, rethinking a room to allow for new ways of living. Communication. It’s often just about communication.
Hands on landlords should also be available – if they’re local enough and not shielding or in a vunerable group – to assist with Covid related issues. Mr M has taken one worried tenant for a Covid text, masked up and with all the windows of the car open. Utterly bizarre to even think that would be a landlord task but there you go. We’ve gone shopping for tenants in self-isolation, and let me tell you, it’s hard sticking to someone else’s list when you’re a foodie / mother hen type. Sadly we have had tenants lose close relatives and have family problems during this time. Never before has it been more important for us all to keep an eye on those around us as we all face the mental health challenges brought about by this pandemic. Good, hands on landlords will always be better that faceless agencies and corporations in these situations. Always.
I’ve also done something new – virtual viewings. This is hard, especially if a property is occupied and full of a tenant’s belongings. The delays over WhatsApp or FaceTime. That awkward moment the camera focuses on someone’s underwear hooked over the door handle. The trying to stop yourself apologising for the mess and instead telling yourself to be super positive and estate-agenty. If we’d all known this was coming we’d have recorded perfect tours of dressed properties in between tenancies, but if you’re anything like me the usual 24hrs between tenancies is a frantic whirlwind of cleaning, sweating and paperwork, not calm, professional video making. I’m resolving to get better at this.
Talking of voids, actually there is something hugely positive we’ve done during 2020-21 – upgrade the apartments which needed a bit of a tickle. If you follow me on Instagram then you’ll see the rubber gloves in action, the painting and decorating, the kitchen hacks and the affordable updates. Don’t waste the time you’re given in between tenancies, look at whether you can give the place a lick of paint, or do those jobs which always pile up and cause a maintenance backlog. Trades people can still work (as the rules stand at the moment anyway) so make use of them if you’re not so handy yourself and update your stock. Who knows, that lick of colourful paint might bag you a wonderful and style conscious new tenant!
Many landlords are considering leaving the profession at the moment, more than the usual and natural process of retirement or selling up. Extreme Government pressure, taxation attacks (grossly unfair imo), changes in Stamp Duty and increased legislation all make this a much more difficult job to do when you’re not a rich investor. But it’s so damned rewarding. Providing young people with decent homes that they love, during Covid and trying to look after them a little bit, to make sure they’re ok, helped get me through 2020. That and gin obv.
It’s a responsibility being a landlord. Not the electrical stuff, not the certification, not all that, the responsibility of housing human beings. Of homing human beings. Nothing gives me greater work pleasure than seeing people happy in surroundings I’ve created, especially in times tougher than many of us have ever faced before. As we move forward into 2021, with seemingly more uncertainty than ever – and despite the fact that the Govt wants us all to sell up and give up – we landlords have to be even more resolved to work effectively, productively and positively.
Bring it on!