Linda is 66, lives alone and sets her alarm for 4.30am to start work as a carer for children with special needs. She has taken on three jobs a week, despite being close to pensionable age, to earn enough to pay the £950 rent on her two-bed flat in Chadwell Heath, a workaday suburb on the fringes of east London. The bathroom hot water tap seized up long ago. Half the rings on her electric cooker aren’t working. The smell from the mould and damp is overpowering. And, after paying her rent and bills, she is left with just £54.12 a week.
Father and son Peter and Mark are her landlords. They own £7m-worth of property, making £15,000 a month. “It’s just the best way of becoming wealthy,” says Mark, 36. “Some people are saving for their first home. I’ve got 40.”
He admits to hiking the rent on one flat by £100 a month above the average in that part of London. “All the other agents fell in line. I was actually responsible for putting up all the rents,” he boasts. Linda’s last rent rise was also £100, squeezing her income even more at a time when her pay went up by just £40 a month.
Michael, meanwhile, is 33 and regularly works long hours as a team leader at a Tesco store in Edmondsley, a village north of Durham. His rent and bills are £800 a month, equal to around 70% of his take-home pay. A window is broken, doors rotten, and rubbish from previous tenants is strewn outside, while inside the boiler piping is exposed. Though relatively young, single and hard-working he can rarely afford a night out.
His buy-to-let landlords are young Londoners Dan and Jamie who have snapped up 14 cheap homes in the north-east. Dan lives in a penthouse flat in Leeds and wonders how he can show it off on Tinder to attract girls.
Our properties are mostly in the north-east. I can’t remember the last time we went to the area
Jamie’s hobby is flying light planes. He never cooks, saying it’s better to outsource dull tasks such as food preparation for £10 an hour when they can make £750 an hour. “There are two types of people, winners and losers – and I am a winner,” says Dan. He and Jamie rarely visit the homes they bought on the cheap. “They are mostly in the north-east. I can’t remember the last time we actually went to the area,” says Jamie.
This picture of broken-Britain-in-miniature is part of a BBC1 series, The Week the Landlords Moved In, that airs this coming Wednesday. The idea is that landlords are forced to spend a week in the life of one of their tenants.
We are shown an “HMO” (house of multiple occupation) in Milton Keynes where the rent from the rooms is around £2,500 a month, but where rats run up the drainpipes. The multimillionaire landlord, Paul Preston, describes them as a “furry family” and “something that happens in built-up areas”. Preston is the self-styled “HMO Guy” who has more than 100 tenants and sells motivational “property success” seminars.
Meanwhile, in Essex, landlord Prab and wife Meena run 80 properties with an income of “£30,000-£40,000” a month. He says he is “driven by providing a service” and that “my tenants are my customers”. He has passed day-to-day management to his 18-year-old son.
In Leeds we meet Vishal and his wife who give Prab £550 a month for a two-bed flat where the paint is peeling, mould is in the children’s room, and where he has just discovered his electricity meter is supplying a second property, yet he has been paying for it. After their rent and bills they are left with £87.75 a week.
Once the landlords are confronted with the condition of their properties, most say they had no idea, largely blaming the tenants for not telling them of any issues. When Linda’s landlord, Peter, sees the state of his property, he says: “I’ve never heard from her. If there were issues I would expect her to call.”
After a night spent shivering in the cold, damp flat and going to bed in thermals, hoodie and a fleece, he says: “It hasn’t been cared for, and maintenance issues were not reported … I’m disappointed with Linda not coming forward.” He gets angry that a repair job that could have been done for a few pounds if spotted early, will now set him back £400. “I’m concerned for Linda, but I’m concerned for us, for our business,” he says.
Yet the tenants give a different story. Many say pleas to agents go unheeded. Others say they are simply too frightened to tell the landlord there are problems, as they fear being evicted if regarded as a nuisance. Housing charity Shelter says that in recent years as many as 200,000 tenants have been victims of “revenge evictions” after complaining. Landlords can use “section 21” notices to evict a tenant without any obligation to give a reason. However, since October 2015 private renters have been better protected.
Tenant Linda works three jobs to pay her £950 rent. Photograph: Screen grab/BBC
Yet tenants feel almost completely disempowered. “[Landlords] have the power to say ‘you’ve nagged too much, you’re gone’,” says one. “If I kick up too much of a fuss it’s going to be easier to get a new tenant,” says another.
But, contrary to initial expectations, the landlords are not monsters. Many make amends, with father-and-son duo Peter and Mark appearing to be genuinely affected by Linda’s predicament, albeit at the risk of turning the show into something closer to heartwarming BBC1 makeover programme DIY SOS.
What do the landlords learn? That they must visit their properties far more and not rely on agents. That buy-to-let is not about buying a property and then forgetting about it as the rent rolls in.
What we don’t learn is how much the landlords really make. We hear lots about the value of properties, but not about the huge amounts of mortgages almost certainly attached to them. New taxes and lending criteria also make buy-to-let less of a moneyspinner than in the past.
But the show is an antidote to the “rogue tenant” output from some channels. Those featured are the working poor, victims of spiralling rents and low wages, paying their rent on time but unable to save to buy their own home. As Michael in Durham says about his London landlords: “They live down there buying cheaper houses up here. We don’t have a chance.”
The first episode of The Week the Landlords Moved In airs on Wednesday 28 June on BBC1 at 9pm
Fees ban and deposit cap proposed
Landlords and letting agents will only be able to demand a deposit equal to one month’s rent when tenants move into a new property, if the tenants’ fees bill proposed in the Queen’s speech this week gets the go-ahead.
The government also brought forward its much-anticipated ban on letting agency fees. Around 40% of renters pay deposits exceeding a month’s rent. With average rents across the UK around £900 a month, the cap is likely to save people £450 – more in London.
The government says the draft bill will “ban landlords and agents from requiring tenants to make any payments as a condition of their tenancy with the exception of the rent, a capped refundable security deposit, a capped refundable holding deposit and tenant default fees; and to cap holding deposits at no more than a week’s rent and security deposits one month’s rent”.
The moves were warmly welcomed by campaign group Generation Rent, which says it is “testament to the power of renters when we get organised”.
But the National Landlords Association condemned the move as “a political gesture from a government desperate to court voters who supported their opponents at the last general election”.