Landlords v tenants: How to live in a house

The winter morning routine in many New Zealand houses.
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The winter morning routine in many New Zealand houses.

Landlords have come in for a bashing following the publication of the People's Review of Renting by Renters United.

The report contained extracts of tenants' bad experiences with landlords and damp, unhealthy houses.

But seasoned landlords feel they are being demonised, and say tenants "who don't know how to live in a house" can turn an ordinary family home into a damp, mouldy mess in just a few months.

Auckland landlord Peter Lewis gave the example of a friend who turned landlord by renting out the home he had lived in for 19 years, and had raised his family in.

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"Within six months the tenants were complaining it was damp and mouldy. That had to be the way the tenants were living," Lewis said.

Hawke's Bay landlord Sharon Cullwick is helping to teach young people to be "Ready to Rent".
SUPPLIED

Hawke's Bay landlord Sharon Cullwick is helping to teach young people to be "Ready to Rent".

Just this week, Lewis said he visited tenants in a Pukekohe home he owns.

It was a chilly day. The tenants were sitting huddled in the lounge wrapped in blankets, with condensation running down the windows.

Lewis said he spent $6500 to insulate the house and install a heat pump.

The tenants said they couldn't afford the electricity to run it.

"I have done everything I can do, and to see the place as cold with condensation running down the windows. Yes, it is bad but they are not doing their part," he said.

Lewis doesn't mince his words. "Some people are life incompetent."

Auckland landlord Peter Lewis values tenants who know their rights, and aren't afraid to assert them.
SUPPLIED

Auckland landlord Peter Lewis values tenants who know their rights, and aren't afraid to assert them.

This includes people not understanding "how to live in a house", or managing their lives and finances to ensure there's money for necessities.

Many New Zealand homes are not well built, and not well located.

Some, the Renters United report suggests, may simply not be fit for human habitation without landlords spending a great deal of money on them.

But living in New Zealand homes "badly", including not heating them, could rapidly result in mould appearing.

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Sharon Cullwick, a Hawke's Bay landlord, is involved in a state-funded programme to educate young people to be "Ready to Rent".

Cullwick says in her own relatively new home she has to clean condensation off windows.

"If I don't wipe down the windows, I get mould."

Some tenants even have to be told not to dry clothes on racks in the house, to open the curtains during the daytime, and to air the house periodically by opening the windows, she said.

Tenants using portable gas heaters, which can spew out a litre of water vapour in an hour, were also a problem, she said.

All of this makes landlords feel nervous about calls from Renters United for a Warrant of Fitness (WOF) for homes.

They fear homes could fail as a result of tenant behaviours.

Graham Roper from Rental WOF has developed a system rating rental homes from A (excellent) to F (Very poor) which landlords, and tenants, can pay for.

The idea is that landlords can use the WOF ratings, which are voluntary, to attract tenants.

But Roper agreed with landlords like Lewis.

"The way people are living can be a problem," he said.

A home could be liveable when properly heated, and using dehumidifiers, Lewis said.

But if a tenant did not do either, it could become cold and damp.

Some tenants feared their landlord improving a property, in case they raised the rent, Roper said.

Already in main centres like Auckland and Wellington, a dearth of home building has led to rents spiking alongside house prices.

Landlords may have made massive unrealised capital gains, but maintaining homes often built of wood is demanding and capital intensive.

That can make landlords, who are often making an operating loss (capital gains excluded) on their properties, reluctant to spend money.

Lewis has nine properties, and spent $41,000, not including his own labour, on maintenance last year.

Another Auckland landlord, who asked not to be named, said excessive demands from tenants were unwelcome.

She gave the example of a tenant who was demanding carpets be replaced.

The carpets in question were stained by a previous tenant, not just in a few places, but in many with coffee, tea, and even raspberry sauce.

The landlord had had them commercially cleaned, but not all the stains could be removed.

Lewis said he valued a tenant who knew their rights, and was not afraid to assert them.

Renters United concluded in its report that tenants feared challenging landlords over necessary maintenance, for fear they would be booted out using landlords' 90-day no fault eviction powers.

Stories in the report included landlords taking months to fix unsafe wiring and light sockets, or pay to have faulty locks replaced.

Lewis said there were arrogant landlords, and landlords who did not care about the law, but they were a minority, and tenants could fight them by going to the Tenancy Tribunal.

He would like to see Tenancy Services slip information sheets into the bond receipt letters it sends out each time a new tenancy begins.

Clearly some landlords could benefit from similar information. Tenancy Services' recently established investigations unit has so far done more than 400 investigations in less than a year of operation. Its findings make clear that it is not hard to find landlords who are failing in their legal duties.

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 - Stuff

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