Moving Notes #4: Fixing Up A Flat You Rent

If you thought that after signing the lease for the new flat everything would be done and dusted, you’d be wrong. In what is definitely not a surprise to anyone, things didn’t go quite as planned once we started moving in, and not all of it was a fault of our landlord.

When we saw the flat, it was definitely in need of some freshening up, as the previous tenants lived there for a number of year and had clearly given it quite the run down. Most of it was taken care of before we entered, but as you can imagine with a pandemic going on, and the country still being in lockdown months later, not everything was fixed in time, and we have been understanding of it. Indeed, unfortunately a few months later we’re still talking about some of the issues, among other things because we stayed in the same development, and the companies involved in maintenance stayed the same — with the related lack of touch.

Now, this part of notes is going to be fairly generic with lack of details — that’s because the situation with the flat was particularly… peculiar, and our landlord is an individual, not a company, and doesn’t use a management company either. Which means that most of the issues we had to resolve were matters for just the three of us. But there’s a few lessons we learned that I thought I would share with others — because I’m sure many people already know these, but someone won’t, and maybe they’ll get the idea.

Keep Track

When we received the keys to the flat, not all of the work was completed. As I said, the reason for that was due to further lockdown happening in-between our signing and the move, among the other things reducing the pool of workers to fix the various issues.

Because of the number of issues, some minor and some more involved, we started tracking them with a shared spreadsheet. This was a great advantage — particularly as our landlord was very appreciative of the approach, as he could himself tick off the addressed issues as we went by. I’m honestly surprised that ticketing queues for property management companies are not more common, but given the way they worked I’m not surprised. I could really see a business opportunities for private landlords to have access to similar tools, but I also know it’s going to have a lot of abuse thrown into it, so I can’t say I’m surprised.

Take note of when you reported something, include pictures (links to Google Photos or Dropbox shared photos work great), and explicitly suggest what you want your landlord to do to address the situation. For a number of issues, we have explicitly suggested “Just so you know, this was the case, but we can fix it ourselves” — yes, we could have insisted by the terms of the lease that he should be addressing it, but we’ve both been respecting his time (and costs) and our privacy by working it this way. Note that of course any cost associated with extraordinary maintenance is to be born by the landlord — and it’s a privilege that we can afford advancing the money for this.

Try Everything, Quickly

This may be obvious to a number of people, but it still caught us unprepared. We keep adding things to check out at inspection every time we move somewhere. One of the things that I noted in the previous flat was that the extraction fan in the kitchen had two circular active carbon filters that needed replacing, so I did open to check if they needed replacing when we did the inspection… and that’s when we realized that the wire mesh filter needed to be replaced, too — it was completely delaminated.

Among the things that we needed to get fixed or replaced, was the hairtrap in the shower, which we didn’t expect to find damaged with all the “teeth” that are meant to trap hairs simply gone. This was notable because finding the right piece to replace this with turned out to be involved. The manufacturer of the showers in this building (as well as the whole quarter we live in, for what we know) has gone bankrupt pretty much right after the flats were built — although I don’t think there’s any connection between the two facts.

Where we nearly got burnt (pun intended) was the oven: when we moved in, we noted that the light in the oven was not working. It took some time to figure out what the bulb was at all — it was a G9 socket bulb. And for some reasons that are definitely not obvious to me, it won’t turn on if the time on the oven is not set. Don’t ask me why that is the case. What we didn’t question was how the light went out. Well, turns out that it might happen if the temperature of the oven exceeds the expected 350°C.

So here’s a piece of advice: grab an oven thermometer, set the oven at a reasonable temperature (e.g. 220°C which is common for baking), and check what the thermometer is reading. We did that, because when my wife was preparing bread, she was scared by how fast it started browning (and eventually burning), and that didn’t feel right. Indeed once we received the thermometer, we set the oven to 100°C, and after not even five minutes it read 270°C. Yeah that was not good, and the oven had to be replaced.

Now there’s an interesting point to make about replacing white goods in rented flats: as Alec Watson points out, there’s an incentive problem at hand: landlords are paying for the equipment, but not for the bills, so they are incentivised to buy replacement parts at a low cost on the short term even though they are not the most efficient. In this case our landlord did do good to us with the replacement oven, especially given that it was replaced just before lockdown entered into effect this past November — but the oven was definitely “less fancy” than the one that originally came with the apartment. Of course none of the lost features were really a loss for us (somehow these apartments came with very fancy ovens), but it’s a point to note.

Check all the lights, check all the taps, check all the drains. Do that as soon as you can. Make sure you report any drain that even appears to be slow, because it’s likely going to get worse rather than better. Check anything that is fused to make sure it turns on.

Uncommon Cleaning Products

While most flats are meant to be cleaned professionally before you move in, what counts as “clean” is pretty much on the eyes of the beholder. So you probably want to have a good supply of cleaning products when moving in into an apartment no matter what.

There’s a few more items that you may want to have, though. Dishwasher cleaners are widely available nowadays, and in my experience they do improve things a great deal, but washing machine cleaners are not often thought about. We used these in the previous flat and they were instrumental here to get the washing machine ready to be used, because it was in a horrible state when we came in, part because it was never cleaned properly, and part because it stayed shut down for many years.

One of the thing that turned out to be very useful to have, was good old citric acid. This turned out to be something that we didn’t really keep at hand at all, until last year — Dyson recommended it to clean the tank of their Pure Cool+Humidify device, which we bought last year due to the ventilation issues that the flat we were leaving.

Aside: the Dyson was actually a very good purchase, not because of the brand, but because we just had no idea how dry this flat was going to be — without humidifier, we approach 30% over night, and that is not good. And also, we still have ventilation issues — although not as bad as in the previous flat.

Citric acid is used in the Dyson cleaning cycle to descale the pump, but can also be used to descale pretty much anything that needs descaling. You can buy optimized descaling products, for instance for kettles (and you should, if you have a kettle and as hard a water as we have here), but for descaling things like taps and showerheads, it works like a charm, and is overall much cheaper.

You’re likely going to be needing stronger acid to unclog drains — or to remove smell from them. These are available in most grocery stores in different brands so feel free to browse and find them. Keep track of how many you need. This was not a problem here, but when I moved to Dublin I ended up needing the extra strong ones in every single drain. It added up to over €60, and I got a rent discount from my landlord for that.

Also, listen to the advice that the locksmith who had to come in the other week had for us, and WD-40 your locks twice a year. As he put it: «Change your clock, lubricate your locks.» He was not here for the flat’s door (thankfully! — but also, we barely ended up both leaving at the same time since we moved in), but he did check on the fact that the door’s lock was starting to get loose.

Storage Spaces And Cable Management

Managing storage in London tends to come up with a lot of jokes. Utility closets are virtually clogged by boilers and other equipment. What we learnt in the past is that it’s much easier to make space in a closet when most things are in square-ish boxes. So we ended up buying a bunch of boxes from Really Useful Products (we went straight at the source, after disappointing deliveries by both Ryman and Argos), and use them to store things such as cleaning supplies, rarely used tools, and replacement lightbulbs.

The end result of this type of organization is that the volume occupied in the closet is definitely increased, but also it’s easier to move stuff around, and we no longer fear smashing lightbulbs when retrieving the fabric softener. Why do we have so many lightbulbs? Because we ended up replacing the spotlights in my office and in the ensuite with Philips Hue lights. I’ll talk about the ensuite setup another day.

Boxes go well in cabinets, too — particularly if they are too deep to otherwise get stuff out. We’re not to the point of ordering custom made acrylic boxes like Adam Savage – among other things, while work is good, we don’t make TV money – but we might have perused online stores specs to find boxes that fit the nooks and crannies of our kitchen cabinets.

Similarly, vertical space is always nice to recover where you can. If you take for example the air fresheners from AirWick or Glade, most of them can be hang on the wall. And while it’s usually not a good idea to screw stuff in the wall, 3M Command makes it possible to still put them on the wall without risking your deposit money. And they actually tend to work better once you put them at “nose height”. We put one in the bathroom by the door, so when you walk in it sprays and you smell it just right then and there. I have to say I feel I’m getting more bang for the buck than having it on top of the cabinet or to the side of the sink.

Another place where it’s not obvious that vertical space is cheaper than horizontal one is the shower cube. In both flats I lived in London, despite having a good walk-in shower, there’s been no shelf for holding gels and shampoo, and I usually ended up just balancing them on the taps – since installing a shelf is not possible while renting, and using the suction cup ones tend to be more annoying than not. Instead using a shower basket allows to hold the bottles just fine. And some Command strips adds the hooks needed to hold loofahs and the like.

The next problem is that you never have enough plugs for stuff, and even when you do it’s likely in the wrong place. We tried a number of solutions and for this one I have two advices: the first is that if you own your furniture, you can easily screw in a multi-plug extension cord, which makes it so much easier to manage cables.

The other thing that we found that helps quite a bit is these cable-less three-way extensions. They seem safe enough, and give more plugs in spaces where two-gangs are too little, without adding to cable management. We put a few of these around where we have lamps, and where we would like to plug in our vacuum cleaner.

The final cable that needed some sorting out was the network cable. Like most (but not all) of the flats we saw here in London, the network plug used by our ISP (the ever awesome Hyperoptic) is in the living room, by the expected “TV area”, but I would like to have wired network all the way to my office, since I’m on videocall most of the day anyway. This is not an uncommon problem; in Dublin I was physically in the same room, but still had to go through most of the room to get to my desk, while in the previous flat I paid someone to install trunking along the walls and under the doors (before my wife even moved in).

Our landlord suggested just drilling through behind the sofa to the office, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that wit the number of unknown issues with cabling going on. So instead I ended up looking at alternative options. And here’s where I need to thank Hector once again: when I first visited him in Japan he gave me a tour of Akihabara from the technician point of view and showed me the extra thin ELECOM network cables. That’s the one I used in Dublin too, and that’s the one I used to go below the two doors in this flat — except I needed something longer if I didn’t want to just bridge it inside the living room. So I ended up ordering a 20 meters flat CAT6 cable from Amazon Japan, and that works like a charm: it fits neatly under the doors and doesn’t get snapped on at all.

Conclusions

We’ve been living here six months and we’re still sorting things out, some of it is the fault of the lockdown making it hard to get people in to fix things, some of it because of the building management company failing at responding altogether.

Hopefully, we’ll soon be done and we can consider it settled… although I guess the change in routine once the lockdown finally eases will mean we’ll find more stuff to sort out. So maybe you’ll get more parts to this series.