Moving Notes #3: Paperwork, Service Providers, Xenophobia

This is part 3 of a series of posts talking about moving apartments, after me and my wife moved, the past October.

So, in spite of most agents we worked with, and in spite of Rightmove letting them lie out of their teeth on their pages, we eventually found a place we liked, and that we could actually rent. To be honest, we were a bit scared because we ended up renting on the higher end of our budget despite finding only a two bedroom flat, but it gave us a good impression, and in particular it didn’t involve dealing with a property management agency.

Unfortunately, it still required dealing with the real estate agency to make sure the paperwork was taken care of: referencing, credit check, and finally rental agreement. Even more so because our actual landlord is once again overseas, and they instead rely on a family member to look after the apartment.

Tenancy Agreements

As I already noted previously, this agency required us to pay a deposit when making an offer — the only one that we have found doing that. This deposit would have been refundable if our offer was not accepted, or if they proven to be “unreasonable” in their demands during the rental negotiations. If we decided to withdraw the offer, then we would have lost the deposit. But if the offer was accepted, and we completed the paperwork, that deposit would add up to the normal rental hold.

As we completed the offer, and the landlord had been reasonable throughout, we had no problem with this particular hold. It also seemed to give the whole process a bit more “propriety”, although obviously it’s also a privilege to be able to just provide the hold deposit on the spot without knowing that beforehand.

But of course, it wouldn’t just go completely smooth. After the offer was accepted we had two main objectives: completing the referencing process, and signing the contract. Neither was successful on the first try.

The Referencing Process

The referencing process was something that we partially feared, due both to our previous experience with Dexters, and because of at least one of the previous agents saying that me being on probation at work would be an issue. Unsurprising, given the current situation between lockdowns and Brexit, my wife had been left without a job at the time, and we were wondering how that would fly through — as it turns out, that was not an issue, possibly because we have been married for nearly a year already when we started the process.

What turned out to be a problem there was our “old friend” institutional xenophobia. The referencing process needs to be started directly by the agency, who types in your name, and the system does not let you amend it, but rather just note additional names you may be known by. Turns out that English agents are not very good at either typing, or splitting in different components, foreign names. Not that it it is a surprise, and that’s not something I would call xenophobia in and by itself, but you can see how it becomes an extra burden, after receiving a half filled-in form, having to go back and say “Yeah, no, that’s not my name, please write such-and-such into it.”

Where I do apply the label of xenophobia is the service provider not even considering this option, and not allowing for the referenced person to correct the spelling of their name, despite requesting them to swear they are providing truthful information. And just like I said previously about the three years of addresses in the energy supply switch group, that’s not to say that it would have been a problem for me to fill it in as “Diego Pettenò” instead of “Diego Elio Pettenò” – half of everything appears to know me as the former, and that sweet tech bubble job insulates me from most of those problems – but there will be people who get in trouble for silly stuff like that.

Thankfully, of the two sets of referencing issues, only mine had further problems, and for once they had nothing to do with my nationality — just my place of work. When they asked me to provide the address of my employer, it was through a postcode lookup…

Let me explain postcode lookup for those who are not aware of this works in the UK, as it’s not common in many other countries. Postcodes in the UK designate a very limited space — a handful of buildings in most cases. In other cases, they may designate a single building, or – like is the case for my employer’s London HQ – a single address. Which means it’s not uncommon for services to ask you for your postcode first, then show you the list of addresses that correspond to that postcode. In our flat’s case, this means around eighty different addresses for the 80 flats in the building.

… and, since the postcode in my contract only has one valid address, that should have been easy. Except, when I tried submitting that, the second postcode field – not the one for the search, but the one in the actual address – complained that it was not valid. Well, turns out that the reason is that the postcode was a non-geographical postcode, because the office used to be the Royal Mail’s headquarters, and so it was issued a custom postcode to replace their original W1A 1HQ special one.

Quite a few back-and-forth with the agency later we managed to get all of the paperwork through and we got our references, so it was time to look into signing the tenancy agreements.

Tenancy Agreement Templates

So it turns out most tenancy agreements are based on some kind of standard template, which is not surprising. Even in Ireland, the Private Rental Tenancy Board (PRTB) provides a base template for the landlords to use. But here, it looks like different agencies use significantly different templates with similar, but not identical terms.

Most of these templates have a specified section for an “additional schedule”, which include additional requests from the offer – e.g. we wanted a couple of rooms emptied out, a new mattress, and authorization for a few changes – but what is not obvious to many is that additional clauses can also be waived if you agree to it. And indeed, on the original tenancy agreement when I moved to London, the consultancy company that was helping me asked a number of clauses to be explicitly voided, including all of those that wouldn’t apply anyway, such as talking about gardens.

So when I received the agreement draft, I went through with the fine comb to figure out if any of the clauses would make sense to remove. And I did find a few interesting ones. For instance, the tenancy agreement required us to be cleaning internal and external windows every month. We live on the twelfth floor of a high raiser — there is no way for us to clean the external windows and even if there was it wouldn’t make sense for us to be responsible for that. I got the clause removed, together with a number of other ones.

Most importantly, I was looking for references to the headlease. And this is yet another thing that appears to be very UK specific and not sure if I have all the context to explain. You see, in the UK most flats are not outright owned by the landlords who rent them out, but they are on a so-called “leasehold” for often hundreds of years. Add to that a complex system of shell companies in partnership between the leaseholder of the land, the development company, the management company, and the whole set of leaseholders of the flats in the building, and in addition to the tenancy agreement you’re subject to the terms of the headlease between the … nebulous set of shell companies and your landlord.

I found this out by chance, by the way. When I moved, the consultancy company didn’t say much about it. When Dexters then eventually sent me a hot water charge bill, and I fell of the sky without having heard about anything like that before, I was informed that most likely that bill was referenced in the headlease, and as a tenant it was my right to request a copy of it, to verify it. I did request the copy — Dexters sent me a scanned PDF, except that whoever scanned it put it through the machine in the wrong angle, so it was showing a “landscape” page on screen, with only two thirds of the page visible, while the right side was blank. They had to get a new copy for it — they didn’t even check before mailing it out.

So of course the tenancy agreement had a clause that said “If this tenancy agreement is subordinated to a headlease, you will find this attached” (phrasing to the best of my knowledge). Except that no headlease was attached, so I asked for it, only to be told that no headlease was involved in the agreement. That would be surprising! Buying out a leasehold into a “freehold” is expensive, and not usually done for flats in high-raisers. But so be it, I asked then, if they are absolutely certain that no headlease would be involved, to remove the clause… which they did!

But here’s a trick a former colleague (Andrew) told me about: in the UK, you can find information about leases via the HM Land Registry, for a nominal fee (of £3 when I used this). With that, you can find out who holds the chain of lease of an apartment. While this did not answer the question of “is a headlease involved?” it did make it make clear that it was not a freehold, and at that point the agency was convinced to ask the landlord whether a headlease was involved, received it, and forwarded it over. The clause in the tenancy agreement was not re-established, though — they had already sent the lease to sign, and they didn’t want to wait the turnaround of re-signing the contract.

And just to make this clear, that doesn’t mean that we want to ignore the headlease — we just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be surprised if requests came through that we were not aware of. Your mileage is likely to vary, but I hope that this kind of information might help someone else in the future. It’s not all of my own invention — it’s applying the lessons from Getting More: I did my homework and showed it to the agency, and instead of circling around whether something was immutable or not, we made it business.

Suppliers, Addresses, Banks

Once we signed the agreement, it was time to sort out the various bills, addresses, and stuff like that. These mainly fell into three categories: utilities, banks, and stores. There’s a few other cases beside those, but those are the big ones. The ease of updating addresses between these ranged… drastically.

When it comes to utilities in particular, it’s important to know the start and end date for the services, and most of the providers that supply a flat will handle overlaps in the supply, with more or less care.

So Energy (affiliate link because I like them, and recommend them for a simple and ease to use interface) requires at least six weeks notice to the start of the new furniture, allows overlap and will roll-up the due on the old account into the new one, but it required all the interaction to happen with a person, rather than through any automated system. This was not terrible — once I gave them enough notice and the address of the new supply, they didn’t have any hurry in providing the remaining details, since they were just accounting issues. Also they preferred email over phone, which as a millennial, is always a plus.

Thames Water also supported overlapping supply, but in their case the start date had to be no more than four weeks in the future, when requesting the move. And while the process can be kicked off from their website, their website is prone to crashing. Like So Energy, Thames Water creates different “accounts” per supply – even if you only have one online account – but unlike the other supplier, they don’t carry over the amount due, and indeed require a different direct debit to be set up, which I nearly missed.

Hyperoptic, which is an awesome Internet provider, doesn’t support overlapping supply. But on the other hand they did switch the supply from one port to the other while on the phone. Yeah the irony of the Internet provider being the one requiring me to stay on the phone is not lost on me. But the whole thing took less than half an hour start to finish. Except for one issue with the MAC address.

Indeed, the MAC address of my UniFi Security Gateway appears not to work to connect to their network — I solved the problem by changing the address on the gateway. I actually have been convinced there might have been some MAC filtering going on, though Hyperoptic has repeatedly told me they have none… until the last time I rebooted the gateway and realized it’s not that it needs the MAC that they used to have over here — it just doesn’t work with the MAC of the gateway itself. I now start wondering if it might be a routing table cache somewhere.

Most banks (and yes, between the two of us that’s… a few of them, because it’s not usually worth closing old accounts) were not eventful at all. Except for two, in both direction. M&S Bank, which is operated by HSBC, was the only bank that allowed you to provide a date from when to change the address on file. I wish I had noticed that earlier, because then I would have put it on in time to get at least one starting proof of address.

The other case was the Metro Bank, and this is worth talking a moment about. All of the other banks we had to update the account on allowed us to request the change online. Except Metro Bank. Their solution involved either going into one of their “stores” (branches), or calling them on the phone. Given that I’m still avoiding going out, I opted to call them. Unfortunately when you call, they need to confirm your identity with a bunch of questions followed by an SMS OTP. The SMS didn’t arrive within their expected timeframe, and they pretty much just said goodbye and told me to show up in store.

I’m not sure if the problem was due to coverage, or if the 4G/LTE support on my phone means I can’t receive SMS while on the phone (I heard rumors of that, but it’s outside the area of my expertise). But the end result was that the messages only reached me the moment I disconnected the call. So I had a decision to make — clearly, with the current pandemic, going to a branch to fix the address wouldn’t be a good idea.

I could have ignored the address change until the pandemic situation improved, since most of the mail would be forwarded by Royal Mail at least for the next year. But then I looked around, and found that at that point NatWest had a £125-one-off offer for new customers (even those with other NatWest group accounts, like me — I still have my Northern Irish Ulster Bank account), when requesting a current account switch (which implies, closing an old account).

And yes, I managed to open a new account – a joint account while we were at it – with NatWest without having to talk with anyone on the phone. It did take a lot longer than a simple address update would have taken, and now we have two more of the annoying EMV-CAP devices, but it also meant that the new account paid itself for the time taken — and it didn’t require us to leave the flat, or even speak with anyone on the phone.

Oh Yeah, The Stores

So I said above that we had to make sure to update the addresses for stores as well (and a few other things). Well, that’s not the hardest problem of course — most of the communication we get is electronic, very few of the stores will send us mail. So instead of proactively going out of our way to update stuff, we did what everyone does: we procrastinated. With exceptions. I wrote down on a piece of paper all of the sources of mail that sent us something in the last month at our old address, and those, together with whatever would be forwarded to the new address, would get their address updated immediately.

I say immediately of course, but it still takes time. My wife’s membership of Cats Protection was updated fairly quickly on their backend, but the mail merge source they use to send the membership letters out takes a few weeks to update. So we received a few of those letters addressed to the old place. The only annoying part is the waste of purrfectly lovely return address labels that are for the wrong address now.

After those are tackled, there’s the matter of the mail arriving for the previous occupants of the flat, who did not set up Royal Mail redirection. As it turns out, we didn’t have to do much work for that — they have a friend living in the same building (just as we have in the old building), so we were just asked to drop it off on the other mailbox. But we noticed that we kept receiving, every fortnight or so, the Harrods catalogue.

So here’s another trick for those who might not be aware: if you moved into a flat, and the previous occupier keeps receiving subscriptions, offers, discount, and similar things, it’s perfectly reasonable to contact the senders and ask them to cancel those mail. Most will ask you to prove you have access to the mail (not your proof of address, but the proof of having the other person’s mail) and will then remove the address from the file. Turning this around, if there’s something you really care about and don’t want someone else to unsubscribe you from, make sure not to throw away the address label in one piece. If you don’t have a shredder at home, at least make sure to tear up the address in half.

And to finish off the post with a note of levity, in December I also received a surprising letter from Amazon, to our old address. I say surprising, because we made a number of purchases to the new flat (even the week before moving into it), and so there’s no reason for them to reach at the old address. Even the credit card I got from them just before Prime Day had its address updated on file very quickly after receiving it.

Well, it turned out to be addressed to me, but not quite to the old address. It was addressed to the address I used on AliExpress — slightly different formatting. It was addressed to the Diego Elio Pettenò who has an account to leave review of terrible, cheap products, as part of the usual brushing scam. Once again, Amazon is unable to deactivate the account created in bad faith that happen to use my name (and possibly my profile picture, I cannot tell).