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).

Moving Notes #2: Sigh, Agents

This is part two in a series. See the previous post for a bit more context.

When we embarked into this whole process, I had very little experience with moving and flathunting: I’ve lived in my mother’s house back in Italy, in Ireland I found an apartment fairly quickly thanks to a colleague “passing on” a viewing he didn’t need, and in London I found the flat through the relocation consultants that were assigned to me after the move. The same was true for my wife, who’s been mostly living in flatshares before.

And in the middle of a pandemic, the flathunting process seemed even more annoying, as it had a number of immediate and delayed effects. The first one was restricting our options in how far we wanted to move. While the whole situation meant that work is not expecting me back to the office for quite a while longer, and that meant we could have looked at options further away from London, such as Birmingham (which we had considered briefly before, particularly as I was looking for a new job earlier in the year), going and finding a place would still have involved a significant travel on mass transit (trains) and spending time in shared accommodation (hotel). Plus risking of being locked up there if a new lockdown was announced before we would have found a place.

So at the end of the day, we decided to focus in the same area in West London where we’ve been living. This had the non-negligible advantage of letting us keep the “support network” of friends we found here – most of them while playing Pokémon Go, of all things – and of sensible takeaways, shops, delivery services, …

It also had an effect that I hadn’t figured out when we started. As we knew that virtual viewings weren’t going to be particularly useful to gauge a new place, including the feeling of the area or neighbourhood, we had to take a difficult decision: as my health issues make me particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my wife would be taking the vast majority of the viewings. What we didn’t realize then, is that the real estate agents wouldn’t be able to drive her to the apartments they selected — and they totally failed to account for walking between different flats.

While she’s perfectly capable of walking miles, and she did – including hatching a number of Pokémon eggs! – when an agent books two flats that are 40 minutes walk apart to be viewed within 20 minutes of each other, you know that something is wrong. If something could have managed to make me more annoyed at car users who can’t figure out not everyone wants to be in a car all the time.

Eyes On The Prize

Before I start rambling on about the horrible services provided by most agencies I dealt with, let me explain what was that we have been looking for.

When we started the process, we weren’t sure we would leave the apartment. We were just informed that our landlord was trying to sell the apartment, and if he did we would have some time after the sale process starts to find a new place. Then again, as I did say in the previous part, we got to the point where the agency dropped so many balls, that we felt compelled to leave anyway.

And while the apartment we were living in was doing okay for us, beside the noise and the agency, there were a few things we were happy to change when moving. The flat we had been living was what I chose myself when I moved to London: a bachelor working at an office, with an occasional need to work from home, and with the far-fetched possibility of hosting guests for board games (only happened a handful of times in three years) and an even less likely chance of hosting friends visiting from abroad (I did technically have space to host one person sleeping over, but then turns out that living sandwiched between three hotels, it’s much easier to just let them have their own space).

As by then it was clear that for at least another year there wouldn’t be a commute to the office in my plans, it was clear that the office needed more space (particularly, storage space) and that it would be used nearly exclusively for working, rather than gaming. Turns out that after spending eight hours in the same room having meetings and writing docs, you don’t get to feel very good about sitting in the same chair and fire up a game, even one you like a lot.

What we definitely wanted was to keep Hyperoptic as ISP, or if that wouldn’t have been possible, at least have another gigabit fiber provider. It turns out to be very useful to not have to worry about my wife’s streaming lectures while I would be having a meeting. Plus the Hyperoptic support has been one of the best ones I’ve ever dealt with, and I know how annoying ISPs can be.

So our aim was, if possible, to find a three-bedroom flat – that way we could each have our home office, and we would have more space to “change the view” – with Hyperoptic. But we also would have been happy to settle for a more spacious, or more comfortable two-bedroom, particularly one where the master bedroom is not shaped like an S-tetromino like our previous flat.

It’s 2020, Learn Your ISPs!

I hate the words “unskilled labour”, because they fail to convey the importance of a variety of skills, but I would lie if I said I hadn’t chuckled at people calling real estate agents such in the past. The reason for it was that three years ago I had significantly different experience between the best and the worst agents I interacted with. This time wasn’t an improvement. But before I go on ranting, let me say that there’s plenty of skill in being a successful real estate agent — we could tell who was safe to deal with and who to run away from fairly quickly. So, kudos to the good ones, it’s not an easy job.

The first problem with pretty much all of the agencies (except one) has been that going through an aggregator such as Rightmove, they will ignore the details you provide in the contact form. I had explicitly sent a message stating that I’d like to book a viewing for the shown property, and possibly a selection of similar flats with Hyperoptic or similar level of connectivity. I also stated how I was busy with work and meetings, and wouldn’t be able to take phone calls easily, so email would be my preferred contact method.

Only one agency read the message and followed up on it. And turned out to be the most professional agent we have dealt with. So let me praise them: riverhomes and Tamir Gotfried in particular, did an exceptional job in taking in our requirements, and not wasting our time showing us unrelated or unsuitable flats. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a flat that fitted our requirements (Virgin Media being the best ISP they had available at that point — and I have personal reasons to sticking to Hyperoptic at least).

From nearly every other agent, we got the same type of excuses of not knowing what ISPs would be available — or not knowing how to check. Let me be clear here, I have no problem with checking that myself, but most of the agents refused to give the address of the flats they wanted to show us until the day, if not after the viewings. So instead of being given a list that we could pre-filter, they insisted in showing us a lot of flats that had vDSL as the best connectivity option.

Now, the Rightmove website (but at the time not their mobile app) had a drop-down from CompareTheMarket that shows the average speed available “at the postcode” — which for us would have been a good proxy, as we were looking for a flat in an apartment building, and buildings generally get their own postcodes. Unfortunately, most agencies lie out of their teeth on Rightmove (we’ll get back to that in a moment).

This is not particularly new. When I moved here, I had one agent insisting that a 25Mbit DSL line, that the landlord subscribed to the flat, and couldn’t be changed, was “fiber”. She wouldn’t accept my point that “That’s not fiber”. Sure the marketing material may call it “fiber-powered” or “SuperFast”, but it’s not fiber in any way shape or form. And in 2017 I expected an agent able to tell me whether a flat has floor heating or radiators should be able to tell me if a flat has DSL or fiber.

On the other hand, the agent that showed us the apartment we eventually rented said it had floor heating, while the only heating we have is heatpump based.

Do You Even Rent?

As I said, most agencies beside one ended up being a lost cause. Overall, the worst experience we had was with Foxtons — and it feels like we dodged a bullet of an agency worse than Dexters. But similar problems appeared with many.

Among the selections of flats we saw, with different agencies, there was one flat one floor up from a nursery, with the balcony overlooking into their back lot. We’re a childfree couple – as I noted talking about Sarah Millican as she makes us feel quite a bit more welcome than others – and that kind of flat would be a very bad fit. And, by the way, that’s an important part: if I did choose a flat knowing that there’s a nursery literally under my feet, and then complained about the noise, I would be a horrible person. Instead, I just want my peace and quiet and will avoid that location, stop.

Another flat had a thermostat (or possibly AC control unit) that was enclosed on all sides by the back wall of a “built-in” cabinet. With no separate sensor. It’s a great way to have basically no control over the heating in your bedroom, but the agent couldn’t even tell that this would be a problem. Maybe not even the landlord. As we saw a different flat in the same building with Foxtons, we also found that the built-in wardrobe was not part of the first flat at all — it was probably added to look like the flats in the upper floors, but for those, the thermostat is by the door, and outside of the cabinet.

Speaking of Foxtons, the first few options they showed us were not exactly what we were looking for. When they asked us our “approximate budget”, I gave them a bit of leeway in what to show us, and said there would be a bit of room to stretch. The stuff they showed us at first was well within the budget, even conservative I’d say… but smaller (and significantly so) than the place we were living in. So I explicitly pointed at one of their properties and said “Here’s more of what we’ve been looking for — this one seems well out of our budget right now, but if there’s any chance for it to drop by 10%, we’d be happy to stretch our budget to meet it.” And that kind-of helped.

Aside: the reason why I pointed at a flat outside of the budget and asked if it could come down is to apply a bit more of the techniques discussed by Getting More. We did our homework: we knew that the rent demanded for the property was on the high side of the market at that point, and we could tell the flat hadn’t moved in a number of months according to Rightmove. There was a chance that the 10% discount could still be lower than the loss in not finding anyone to rent the flat.

I say kind of, because the agent then did propose showing us a few more flats that, overall, did fit our needs a bit better — except that only the one we pointed at had Hyperoptic available. One of them was still tempting, and we were very disappointed by the lack of ISP options, given we knew the building right next door was Hyperoptic-ready, but it also was a “duplex” (which in this country means on two floors, but is a word that would confuse most Italians), and my wife was (reasonably) worried about me trying to go downstairs to grab sugars during a sugar low. I already nearly fell on the stairs during the visit.

But we did end up seeing the flat that we pointed at at first. It turned out to be even more spacious than the images shown, but it was also… dirty. I can’t use any other word, the wall over the cabinets was full of black spots that looked like mold, the extraction fans had dustbunnies visible inside, and in general it seemed to have quite the layer of grime all over, but that was partially understandable given that it still had tenants inside. We still put in an offer for a rent a bit higher than we were hoping for, but still in the “stretchable” part of the budget, and on the advice of the agent, we suggested a three years contract — the landlord was supposedly looking for someone to stay long term.

“I don’t feel comfortable renting from your agency”

After we put in the offer, the trouble started — the first call (from another agent at a different office) was to tell us that the landlord wouldn’t accept a three years contract, and requested a single year renewable contract. They also wouldn’t accept our first rent offer, and so they asked what would be our best for it. I did say we could go up £50/month but no more, but since that was enough they tried convincing me reminding me that I wouldn’t have to pay for heating — because that’s part of the service charge and so paid by the landlord. And according to them the law changed so that wouldn’t be possible to do anymore. It started smelling fishy, but then I relented, and accepted to raise up to £100 from our original offer.

The second call, informed us that the tenants of the time wouldn’t be leaving on the 1st of October as originally intended, so we wouldn’t be able to enter the property on the 15th as discussed. Instead the tenants would be leaving (hopefully) on the 1st of November. This is, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 related: the tenants were going to be flying back to their country, but the flights for October were cancelled, so hopefully they’d make it for November. I was back then sceptical, but I have not bothered checking if those flights reopened at all. That had us a bit worried, but since at that point we hadn’t given notice for the flat yet, we were okay to moving it to one more month later. Ensue call number three, asking us to move in on the 1st of November rather than 15th — despite the fact that our tenancy was terminating on the 26th, so the options would have been no overlap, or a much longer overlap than expected.

The fourth, but not final, call was to let us know that once the agents explained to the landlord that they wouldn’t be able to charge the hot water to us anymore, the landlord decided that our offer was not just too low, but even the advertised rent was too low! Indeed, they decided to ask more than 10% more money for the rent than originally advertised. We said we were no longer interested in the property, and thought we left it at that.

Yet another call, this time from the agent that showed us around had her just short of begging us to reconsider — saying that the rent would be “all bills inclusive, except council tax”. I said I wouldn’t trust it but we’d think on it, while I did the math. The only way that the increase in rent would be even covering the costs of bills would be if the heating would cost more than double what we were paying for the two bed (which sounded unlikely) and if they also paid for the same Hyperoptic service we had. But that also meant that we wouldn’t have control over the bills, which sounded very unlikely.

In particular, the thing they said about the hot water not being chargeable to the tenants was totally a lie. While the management company for the development (which is still the same for the old apartment, our current apartment, and the apartment we were discussing) did make things more complicated by not issuing separate hot water bills, hot water is counted as an utility and can be charged to the tenants. So, I really doubt that it was going to be “all bills included”.

Anyway, at that point we started looking further afield, and given we had done the math for the budget stretching, we started looking at slightly higher rents too, as options. That turned out to find other snags, which you can continue reading about afterwards, but also meant we found the flat we currently live in through another agency altogether. That agency, by the way, requires you to pay a deposit when you make an offer, which is only refundable if the offer is not accepted, and not if you withdraw the offer.

After that, the Foxtons agent who showed us around contacted us asking to show us three more flats, one in the same development, one across the street, and one… well, the last one we don’t know, because from the night before to the day we were supposed to see the flat, it was taken off the market. But this time, we were promised no more back-and-forths: the flats were managed from the same office as the agent, and her own manager would be the point of contact.

One of the flats was actually interesting. While the total square footage was not higher than the one we did end up renting, it was a three-bedrooms apartment — so smaller rooms, but with more space for privacy. And supposedly we could have had it for a bit less than we ended up renting (even considering the lost offer deposit). We considered it, and put in an offer with a couple of requirements (namely to remove the furniture that would be redundant to us, and to get the Hyperoptic socket installed — the flat was “ready” but the socket was never installed).

Then we got another one of those calls that we started dreading from them: the landlord appeared to have accepted the offer from another couple some time before with a different agency, but then some money didn’t change hands, and so it wasn’t clear if the place was officially rented or not. She would call us back by afternoon to confirm. We heard nothing until 8pm, by which time we sent an email pointing out that we weren’t interested in the property anymore, and that we would take an offer elsewhere.

The day after, the agent tried to call me (I was in a meeting, couldn’t pick up), texted me, spoke with my wife, texted her, trying to convince us to see a few more properties. I had to be rude and state explicitly that we wouldn’t feel comfortable to rent a property from Foxtons by that point, since two of the flats that we considered with them ended up having so much drama.

Agents, Lies, and Rightmove

Rightmove is probably the most commonly used website to look for housing, to rent or buy, in this country. It aggregates listings from any agency that would publish (I assume, for a fee), and provides a way to contact the agencies without exposing too much personal information up front.

Unfortunately, it’s also a nest of liars.

Since we have been looking for properties not too far from where we were living, we knew quite a bit about the area already. So when we would see a listing with a GPS point attached to one of the fancy, posh buildings of the development, but with the name referencing one of the older, still-to-be-fixed for cladding buildings, we knew we were made fun of.

Some of the listings are just slightly confusing. The flat we used to live in was advertised as having a “residents’ gym”, which turned out to be a half-truth: there’s a residents’ gym, and technically we could have gotten access to it, but as my wife went to check, the management company asked her to pay around £200. Turns out that being a resident is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Leaseholders do get free access by virtue of paying the service charge, but tenants need to pay separately. Except some tenants might have access already because the landlord already got the fob on the accesslist, and nobody is checking. Our fobs were not in the accesslist.

The same flat was advertised for sale (and still is at the time of writing) as having a concierge service. There is no concierge service for the building we lived in. I think it was meant to be there, as there is a strange door on the corner that looks like it could have been a concierge, but it wasn’t — only two buildings in the development have a concierge, and that was not one of them.

But the biggest lie is for properties that are not actually on the market at all! We found lots of those, and I complained to Rightmove about it. The first one we saw with Foxtons was from a building that’s still being finished, so they are releasing flats in “drops” — when my wife went there with the agent, the building’s concierge told them that they didn’t have any available flats to show. When we contacted another agency because of a very nice looking, spacious apartment down the road, we found out that it was not available at all.

Turns out that my complaints to Rightmove fell on deaf ears: according to them, even if a flat is already off the market because someone sighed up on it, the agencies are not required to take them off their site at all. They may mark it as “let agreed”, but they are not required to by their Terms of Service. The only moment when they are required to remove it from the site is when the new tenants move in.

So it seems like most agencies have incentive to sign up their best properties to be rented months before they are to be resided in, and keep them on Rightmove as a way to catch contacts. That way they will show you something else, which might not be what you’re looking for, but they might have more margins on.

Final Results

At the end we settled for a two bedrooms apartment, like we had before. We stretched our budget, I want to say, significantly, in part considering the likeliness to spend at least one year, possibly more, working from home, and so wanting to have a more comfortable living for the time being. We didn’t move very far — we literally are in the next building over, and the savings in doing the move mostly ourselves (more to that in a future most) probably made up for the first year of extra rent.

The agency we found the flat with was one of those with the trap listings, but they acted more professionally than Foxtons overall (again, there will be more to say about that), and we no longer have to deal with a property management agency.

But of course the trouble, or the annoyances, didn’t just disappear after finding a flat, so you’ll be able to read more notes and more trouble later on.

Moving Notes #1: The Reasons

As I noted when I took a break, this past October me and my wife moved out of the apartment I rented when I moved to London. The reasons of why we moved are a bit complicated, and not entirely connected with the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown. But more importantly, we learned a few lessons that, despite probably not being totally uncommon, I think might be worth writing about, just in case they can save time to someone else down the road.

So first of all, let’s make it clear that the main reason why we moved is that the property management agency that we have been dealing with (Dexters) was just so unprofessional that we couldn’t possibly salvage the relationship. I’ve had issues with them since I started renting here (you may remember I complained how they charged me for the costs that their bank attached to Fineco transfers), but usually they got solved, eventually. Unfortunately with the whole pandemic happening, they seem to have reduced the personnel to the point that their already oversubscribed agents couldn’t deal with issues reasonably anymore.

The year started badly with their finance department calling us three times in four months demanding we pay our hot water charges (the building we lived in has a “communal hot water system”, rather than an electric or gas heating system). This was caused by the property manager incorrectly adding the hot water charge as a monthly expense rather than a one-off — it was usually a one-off bill, but due to shenanigans with the development management company, this was also a six-months bill for once.

You would expect that it would be easy to reason with a human “Send us the bill, we’ll pay. Oh there’s no bill? Have a nice day, then.” But the folks from the finance department didn’t seem to understand such logic, and required us to argue with the property manager, who finally recognized we were overcharged (the first repeat we paid before arguing), supposedly credited us for it, and stopped the repeat. Except that at the end of March, right at the start of the new lockdown, they insisted on another payment, and I ended up spending six weeks arguing with the new “senior” property manager over those charges. Arguing that included at some point me printing out a copy of the statement she provided to me, taking a pen to enclose a couple of rows into a bright red box, scanning it and mailing it out, as a single line reply to “I don’t see any transaction for that amount on that date in the statement.”

But as bewildering this was, particularly with the dehumanizing experience of arguing with a finance office who is unable to accept the “no bill, no pay” concept, this was definitely not enough for us to decide to change apartment in the middle of a pandemic.

To add to the problem, we had not one, but two separate ventilation issues. One that we have been complaining for a while, and just became unacceptable during the lockdown, and one that was just unacceptable at any time: we spent nearly two months without extraction fans working in the bathrooms and the kitchen — getting instead the “reflux” of smells from someone else’s bathrooms (don’t ask how we know it’s bathrooms). The agency failed at dealing with either in time for them to leverage the constructor’s warranty.

After the first part of the lockdown, we also had to get installers in to replace the louvres on the windows — the original wood ones are no longer considered safe, and they had to replace them with metal. Which was fun, because they had to figure out how to open the second window, which we reported a year before as not opening, and needing to be fixed. The end result was a drilled out lock, which was not replaced up until we left. But hey, during the big heatwave we had both windows open, so we got that going on for us.

But the last drop for us was the last property manager we were assigned — as usual, neither he nor his predecessor informed us of a change as our agent. We found out about him after some new person asked us to book time for “pictures to be taken” for the apartment, which we thought was meant as the usual yearly inspection. No, it was a photographer coming to take pictures for marketing purposes so that they could advertise the flat to be sold on the market… except that we rented the flat unfurnished, and we were not going to agree to use the pictures of our furniture and art for marketing purposes.

Clearly the agency had no incentive to address our concern while trying to sell the flat, and at the same time we had to accept strangers coming into our apartment in the middle of a pandemic and sometimes not following health protocols either. We might have barked more than needed at the first agent that came with prospective buyers when she let herself in without knocking on the door!

So after a number of weeks and a few viewings, with the apartment not moving, the owner was satisfied to keep renting to us, but we weren’t satisfied to keep having that agency. We had already started looking around and found something we liked, prepared the paperwork and in parallel we gave notice in writing to the agency, and (with what in hindsight was a fortunate move) we reached out to our landlord via the only address we had, which was an accountancy firm.

It took two weeks for the agent at Dexters to realize we gave notice, and he spent another week pretty much ignoring it, and telling us “The problem with the ventilation will be fixed shortly [It wasn’t] so you can stay!”

You can imagine that things didn’t get much better after that. We had more people in and out of the apartment for the viewings, once the agent called us three minutes before the end of the slot they gave us for a viewing, saying they would be some more ten minutes late, expecting us to be play with it. I had a meeting coming up, so I told them in short order to not dare ringing us up at that point.

Indeed, after a few weeks of this, and with the extractions fan fix deadline lapsing twice, we told them not to come up with more viewings — yes that would have put us in breach of the tenancy agreement as they stipulate they’re allowed to enter your apartment in the last two months of tenancy, but given the failure on their part to provide a habitable flat we were getting miffed. The agent who called pretty much begged us to let them show the flat around — and failing being able to offer us anything for it, he promised a case of wine once the whole situation was over. You can imagine they didn’t keep their word.

As I said, in parallel we had reached out to our landlord. When I rented the apartment I was informed the landlord was overseas, and that we would not be in contact with him directly at all. And despite a couple of requests on our part to have his contact details, we still had no way to reach him except for the accountancy firm listed in the lease agreement. We hadn’t tried the firm before, because we were afraid we’d be complicating our position, by contacting someone who wouldn’t want to be contacted. Turned out that was not the case.

Indeed, once we got in touch with the landlord and explained the situation, showing the various communications and attempt at getting issues addressed, the situation became much more bearable to us. So win one for trying to talk to an actual human, rather than an inhuman company machinery.

The final cherry on top, was with the cleaning. As norm, we intended to have the flat professionally cleaned before moving out. Dexters suggests asking them for a recommended cleaner, so we did that, and we were given the name of a company that they usually asked to clean apartments to. We ask a quote, accept it, set up appointment for one day after we would have moved our stuff already… and then we found out that on the day we wouldn’t have water in the old building, so at last minute we had to push it out one more day.

On the day, my wife waited at the old flat, to no avail. She contacted the one person we spoke with, who apologized and would say he’d text when he would be available for the day after. Not hearing anything back for the day, we looked up another cleaner last minute, who accepted the job and confirmed availability for the day after. On that day, after the second cleaner was already through half of the flat, the first cleaner let himself in, with the keys to the apartment.

Dexters habitually hands out the keys to the flat they manage to their “known” contractors, without informing either tenants or landlords that the keys would be surrendered to a third party. The only “proof” they required was that we agreed to let the first cleaner clean the apartment, despite the fact that this was a communication between me and him, with no indication that Dexters would be asked to surrender the key. And according to the folks at Dexters, this is not a breach of the tenancy agreement (I wonder if anyone would be interested to try that out in court).

Of course, the agency wasn’t the only reason to leave. There were a few other issues that went beyond the control of agency and landlord, including one neighbouring family not accepting the idea that there might be people living next door that would like to have quiet evenings from time to time — I do totally understand the pain of being in lockdown, and how much it impacts families with kids, but when for two hours straight all we can hear is bam bam bam bam bam on the wall, and when bringing it up the only answer is “They’re kids, what can we do?”… well it’s too much for a civil engagement.

And at the same time, both towards the end of the first lockdown, and after it was originally lifted, the presence of short-term rentals in the building made life hard. We had one party that kept going until 3am. We had drunken people coming and going on our floor every other weekend. We had police coming to check the place, but it always came to nothing.

Even the building security was out of options — we were advised that they could only act and report on noise and nuisance that they could hear from the door, as they would be unable to enter the premises even if invited. The result was that for a few days we couldn’t go to bed before 1am, because the flat directly below us had kids that decided to play indoor soccer. Eventually I can only guess the estate office got bored of us keeping them up as much as we were.

So, with all of this mix going on, while already in the stressful situation of having started a new job, and learning yet another programming language, we decided to hunt for a new flat to rent. Which turned out to be a much more stressful process than I expected.

I’m moving!

Okay so last time I wrote about my personal status I noted that I had something on the balance, as a new job. Now that I signed the contract I can say that I do have a new job.

This means among other things that I’ll finally be leaving Italy. My new home is going to be Dublin, Ireland. At the time of writing I’m still fretting about stuff I need to finish in Italy, in particular digitizing as many documents as possible so that my mother can search through them easily, and I can reach them if needed, contacting my doctor for a whole blood panel, and the accountant to get all the taxes straightened up.

What does this mean for my Gentoo involvement? Probably quite a bit. My new job does not involve Gentoo, which means I won’t be maintaining it any longer on paid time like I used to before. You can also probably guess that with the stress of actually having a house to take care of, I’ll end up with much less time than I have now. Which means I’ll have to scale down my involvement considerably. My GSoC project might very well be the height of my involvement from now till the end of the year.

On the personal side of things, while I’m elated to leave Italy, especially with the current political climate, I’m also quite a bit scared. I know next to nobody (Enrico excluded) in Dublin, and I know very little of Irish traditions as well. I’ve spent the past week or so reading the Irish Times just to be able to catch a glimpse of what is being discussed up there, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be enough.

I’m scared also because this would be the first time I actually leave alone and have to cater for everything by myself, even though with the situation it feels like I might be quite a lot more lucky than most of my peers here in Clownland Italy. I have no idea of what will actually sap away my time, although I’m pretty sure that if it turns out to be cleaning, I’ll just pay somebody to do that for me.

We’ll see what the future brings, I suppose!

Storing, packing and disposing of

A few people already noticed that lately I’ve been even harder to track down than usual, mostly because I’ve been swamped with work (Gentoo-related development, application development on Windows, and support on Windows computers — the latter are not very enjoyable work, but it pays off), but lately a new extra time consumption entered my life: I’ve decided to move out of where I’ve been living for the past twenty-five years.

One could say I’m still living with my mother, but the reality is that for the past two years, my mother lived with me, but the situation is growing difficult to cope with and I am thus looking to get an apartment of my own, so I can work and live by my standards. While I have considered that before, this is the first time I’m actually looking up announces on the paper to see how much I’d have to pay and how much space I would need.

As I said before, I have tons of stuff here that should be disposed of, as I’d like to travel light, out of here. This is why I originally bought the Reader and why I was looking for use for old floppy disk drives in the past few years. The results are mixed: the Reader has been a big success, even though not a complete one; the floppy disks kept wasting space in one of the boxes which I would then be required to bring with me.

At this point I decided to start cleaning up stuff and simply disposing of anything that cannot be employed further; the local public-private company that handles waste disposal does recover electronic waste at home (or rather at a workplace, since I’m self-employed that’s what I asked for), for a relatively small fee (€120 for two cubic metres of electronic waste). All the hardware that was already unusable, broken, and so on is now in two big bags that on Thursday will be brought at the recycling facility. Hopefully I can later deduce part of the paid fee on my taxes.

I’m still having problems trying to reduce the bulk of books though: while Sony’s decision to support ePub on the Reader made it much more useful – allowing me to buy all kind of novels and non-fiction as ebooks, both in English and, since last October, Italian – it still is unusable for some titles (those using DTBook, and those – such as O’Reilly’s – that are designed for devices with bigger screens. Given that most of the devices I saw around here look even tinier, I guess what might be a good choice for me in the future (were I to give this device to my mother, which I was considering), would be the Asus Eee Reader (DR-900), which seems to have a bigger screen, and one capable to display a full page of an O’Reilly PDF book at a readable size.

Also, I’m trying to see which (working) electronics to sell/give away, to reduce the amount of stuff I use daily. The first to go is likely to be the AppleTV — I’ve been using almost exclusively XBMC on it, accessing video files stored on Yamato via network; this requires a fast network (cable, not wireless), and the AppleTV cannot really shut down properly or at least suspend (not when running XBMC at least). What I’m currently planning is to use the box I’m currently using as frontend (a mini-ITX nVidia ION system), and instead use the iMac, with Linux on it, as frontend for Yamato. For the storage, I’ll move the videos on external storage, and connect it as eSATA to the box, so that it does not require network connection and can be properly turned off when unused.

At any rate, if you don’t see me very active in the next few weeks, you have an idea of why this is happening.