Confessions of Timothy Taylor’s finest

Those who know their onions (and, more importantly, their Yorkshire ales) will know that I am outing myself as a landlord (and not, for the avoidance of doubt, as Ram Tam or a Boltmaker).

I never wanted to be a landlord, it came about by accident – or more by an undetected lack of competence in others.  When I moved to Sawston, I bought a new house and this process is difficult to achieve when also selling a property – so I decoupled the two processes and bought the new house before the sale of my old flat was complete.  At the time, this seemed a pretty safe bet, the housing market was buoyant and I had a keen buyer for my flat in Cambridge.  However, the developers of the flat had made rather a major error in the drafting of the lease making it impossible to register and they took a truly inordinate amount of time to (somewhat) fix this.  This meant the sale fell through and a new sale was rendered effectively impossible for more than a year.

This misfortune was partially balanced by a stroke of good fortune.  Rather than using a bridging loan to handle the temporal gap between the two transactions, I took out a buy-to-let mortgage on the flat – but with no intention of ever letting, it was just a cheaper option.  As it transpired, a massively cheaper option.  With a sale looking impossible, I eventually used my option and rented the flat out while I waited for Laing to sort out their legal mess.  Sadly, by the time they did so the housing market was looking rather less healthy and frankly I couldn’t face further exposure to solicitors and estate agents – and so I have remained a landlord ever since.

My activities as a landlord are not going to make my fortune (nor allow me to tell “the man” what to do with his job), but – on average – they do pay for a few pints of Timothy Taylor’s finest each year (sometimes even enough for a whole night out!).  On the plus side, if I ever need to move back to Cambridge I always have somewhere to go – and, many years ago, a previous employer did teach me that “optionality has value” (I think we should perhaps gloss over the fact that this employer later went spectacularly bankrupt).

I try to be a decent landlord, but this is not always easy as matters are mostly in the hands of the letting agents and the tenants.  If they don’t tell me about something, I am reliant on the state of the tea leaves and chicken viscera to learn the truth (and as a tea-bag using, mostly vegetarian my day-to-day opportunities to scry into the future are limited).  The agents seem to be represented by a succession of girls in (at best) their very early twenties (at worst, I do worry about the truant officer).  There does seem to a rather sinister Logan’s Run scenario whereby as they approach 25 they vanish, to be replaced by another stripling.  Whilst I am sure they bring many admirable qualities to the role, I am not entirely convinced about their expertise when it comes to the more practical aspects of property management (certainly, I wouldn’t have had much to offer at their age).  Similarly, I have the impression that tenants are used to pretty low standards and could give politicians tips on avoiding long-term thinking.  So, while I have had things fixed when they break over the years and complied with new legislative requirements on landlords (my tenants live in much safer conditions than their landlord ever has), I have tended to worry about the state of the flat and whether it is still suitable to entertain paying guests.

For the last couple of weeks, the flat has been between tenants and this coincided both with me visiting Cambridge and the agents admitting that it could do with a lick of paint and that the bathroom carpet was rather worn.  (I must admit that I like carpet in a bathroom – nicer on the feet and less risk of slipping than the more traditional alternatives – but I am coming to realise that this is a minority view).  Even better, in a stroke of luck, Dan (the chap who painted my house in Sawston) was free and could undertake the redecoration.  This meant that I could rely on it being painted properly, using the right materials for the job – rather than the cheapest trade emulsion possible, which had graced the flat since new.  There is a slight risk to using Dan, as he does seem to act as a locum for the Angel of Death: a much higher proportion of people he knows have died long before their time than is statistically likely (still, I have life insurance as part of my job and I’ve had a good innings – by recent England standards, a very good innings!).

The re-flooring of the bathroom, I left in the capable hands of Sawston Carpets and Flooring – who had covered all the floors in my house in Sawston.  The new floor is in rather upmarket vinyl tiles (I know that phrase sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me), this is none your cheap rubbish but some of Amtico’s finest – which may be why my landlording is not making me rich.

I could have had the agents arrange the re-decoration, but one of the joys in life is giving more work to people who have done a good job in the past.  Also, while I am under no particular illusions about my ability to pick tradesmen (though I do seem to have been particularly lucky in recent years, I doubt that this is yet to be statistically significant), I reckon choosing people I know to be good based on their previous work (where, unlike the stock market, past performance is a good guide to the future) is going to beat anything someone in their very late teens could arrange.  It might not be the cheapest option, but I believe the work will last.

So, last week I visited my old flat for the first time in seven years (and a few odd days).  It is the first time I’ve returned to somewhere that used to be home, and it’s quite a strange experience.  Before the visit, I could recall very little about it – but as soon as I went in, it was all very familiar and did still feel like home.  Even better, I got to have a chat with Dan who I hadn’t seen in over a year.  I found I missed him when he finished re-painting my house, I grew used to having some company during the day.  This time, he made the tea for me which was a nice role reversal.  Actually, it was three chats (and cuppas) – one for each day in Cambridge.  Well, I felt kind of guilty leaving the poor chap alone in an empty flat, plus he is good company.  So, I’m not quite the dangerous loner this blog may have led you to believe – I rather enjoy company, though like Greta Garbo, at times I do “want to be alone” (and today’s popular culture reference is bought to you by the year 1929).

Anyway, yesterday the redecoration was completed and I can only hope the new tenant will appreciate my efforts (OK, the efforts of others – but funded by me) when they move in on Monday, though I shall probably never know.  The expenditure means there will probably be no celebratory pint of Landlord this tax year: hey ho.  Actually, my failure to profit from my landlording would be all the more shocking if you knew just what an excellent deal I obtained on the buy-to-let mortgage (none of my doing, all the credit – pun fully intended – must go to Charcol’s who organised it for me).  I think that, like the apocryphal French, I have no word for entrepreneur (which must mean between something) – and so if I am to continue to eat, I better carry on playing (at least somewhat) nice with “the man” for now.


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