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rant: things you should know about renting

rant: things you should know about renting

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In 2013, I lived in a west London terrace house with 13 other people, one (very amiable) drug dealer, and one bathroom. My girlfriend and I were renting a poky cupboard for £800 a month, which left about £40 a week for frivolous luxuries, like food.

The room itself was 2.1 metres square. There was a narrow moat of floorspace around the double bed, which meant most mornings we had to get dressed on our mattress. Our bedroom was also home to the hot water boiler, which churned and rumbled all through the night, and would often fizzle on weekends, forcing us to walk 5km and break into my workplace whenever we needed a shower. The floorboards were full of holes. One morning, I slipped a bare foot into my shoe and felt something lumpy, down at the toe. I turned the shoe upside down: a dead mouse fell out.

You can’t buy memories like that. Literally. Most home owners will never know the cold, furry touch of a dead mouse, or what it’s like to wander down for breakfast and find three Ukrainian dudes in the kitchen making toast – none of whom actually live in your house.

Serial renters, on the other hand, have entire back catalogues of this stuff. We’re like grizzled ER doctors who thrill dinner parties with ghoulish medical anecdotes. Home owners can discuss the merits of white, ceramic splashbacks, but only renters can tell you about the time one of their housemates (a terrifying woman from east London), walked calmly into the kitchen, un-plugged the toaster and carried it back to her room. We never saw it, or fresh crumpets, ever again.

Occasionally you’ll hear economists say that it’s actually better to rent over the long term. I promise you all of these economists own at least one house. The truth is, there are a couple of advantages to renting (the flexibility to move around, meeting new people, avoiding council rates and taxes etc) but they’re usually outweighed by the negatives (toaster-stealing housemates, greasy landlords, and the nagging sensation that you’re throwing your money into a deep pit). Put it this way: you’ll never meet a home owner who’s desperate to start renting.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t rent. Let’s be honest: you’re not going to have much choice. The average starting salary for young graduates is $64,000, and we haven’t even factored in HECS debt. Median house prices in Australia are around $809,000 and have an annoyingly Himalayan trajectory. Don’t kid yourself, nothing stops their climb – not GFCs, not pandemics, not bubbles, not investor panic. If scientists announced that an asteroid was going to wipe out all terrestrial life next Tuesday, the weekend auctions would still be packed.

I was asked to share my hard-earned wisdom with young people who might be dipping their naked toe into the cold shoe that is the rental market. So here it goes. Get used to disappointment. Get used to finding your dream rental, only to arrive at the inspection and see 300 keen 20-somethings, all holding their paperwork. (And speaking of paperwork, you can increase your chances by doing the following: apply as soon as you walk into the living room, preferably via 1Form, get creative with your earning potential, and offer at least $10 a week more than the asking price. It’s annoying, but it works.)

Get used to bits of raw chicken lying on the kitchen counter. Get used to crumbs. Get used to finding your front door inexplicably open at 4:00 am, or housemates beadily counting how many squares of toilet paper you use. But get used to other stuff too. Get used to wild house parties and Sambuca-fuelled late night chats. Get used to the occasional unicorn rental, with the easy-going landlord and the '90s rent, and the backyard veggie patch.

I’m pretty sure we were squatting in that west London terrace house. Our agents didn’t have a website and only accepted payments in cash. The reason we signed the lease was because one of them drove a BMW (“No scam artist could afford this car,” I reasoned to my girlfriend, “they must be legit.”) In many ways, it was the share house you hope you don’t get. But I wouldn’t trade those horror stories for the world. They make my current, mouse-free rental all the sweeter.

Note: Please don’t pay your rent in cash, unless you’re renting from your grandma or something (and even then, keep an eye on her). As a tenant, you have rights, too. Your bond has to be lodged with the RTBA, not kept in a sock under your landlord’s mattress. Check out tenants.org.au for more information.