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Meth Heads on Quad Bikes

I love cars. I can't help it really; my father had me driving a 1949 Austin to school mere days after passing my driving test. This was a pretty unique set of wheels for a 17-year old to commandeer, and it's been a twisted love affair with the automobile ever since...

I love cars. I can't help it really; my father had me driving a 1949 Austin to school mere days after passing my driving test. This was a pretty unique set of wheels for a 17-year old to commandeer, and it's been a twisted love affair with the automobile ever since. My favourite type to buy (since I'm too tight-fisted / financially astute to ever buy a brand new car) is the sort that only millionaires or plutocrats could have afforded when new, but which are now available for less than the price of a bog-standard Vauxhall. My old Porsche 928 is such a machine; gloriously A-list when current (Spielberg, Steve Jobs and, er, MC Hammer drove them in the '80s and '90s) yet now I can enjoy its charms for relative peanuts. When it's working. Which is never.

The thing is that many originally fine cars pass through several stages, from newly elegant to still-pretty-cool, before a tipping point sets in without warning, after which it's too late: you can't covet one anymore, because it's officially gone 'council'. Not convinced? Consider the '90s 7-series BMW that James Bond remote-controlled around a car park in Tomorrow Never Dies. Fabulously decadent at the time, but if you see one approaching now you can expect the window to glide down and someone in a hoodie to ask if you want to buy some weed. Same with most older Mercedes coupes - once exclusively used by glamorous women to waft around Monaco in; now only ever seen rocking the 'blacked-out windows, naff alloys and baby seat' combination on West Ham housing estates. Tragic.

So what has this got to do with property, since that's my area of expertise? Well, it seems to me that many new-build properties sometimes suffer the same plight. A newly-completed block will often enjoy an initial period of desirability and prestige before gradually succumbing to shabbiness, and then one sad day - BOOM - suddenly the block has become a fertile breeding zone for assorted wasters and wrong 'uns. In short, you find the building that was being marketed with glossy brochures and snazzy estate agent talk to eager young professional couples a few years back somehow turned into Jeremy Kyle's waiting room in the middle of the night. Which is a shame. Unless you happen to own a flat in it, in which case it's a potential nightmare.

Well if this is your experience, then I feel your pain, for I've experienced it too. Seems to me that an unholy triumvirate of forces is usually responsible for this nasty transformation; lazy management companies, crap tenants and uncaring absent landlords. Any one of these factors can be pretty damning for a building's wellbeing; mix all three and it's a combination as dangerous as giving a quad bike to a meth head. Which is, come to think of it, what some blocks probably have to put up with.

I foolishly purchased two apartments in a new-build block up North a few years ago, a decision as monumentally stupid as when I declined the offer of an Aston Martin DB6 for £16,000 in 1998. Ah, regrets. This block was so new it practically gleamed in the weak Northern sunlight. A stone's throw from the train station, short walk to the town centre, and a ridiculously good deal that involved me spending about 17 pence of my own money to acquire them both. I was sold straight away, because a fool and his money take no time at all to separate.

For a while it seemed like a smart deal. I furnished both apartments, found decent tenants and all was well. Til one of them stopped paying. And the service charges went up. Twice. And a visit revealed that in a scant 24 months windows had been smashed, stairwells trashed, walls bashed, lawns mashed and security gates crashed. Calls to the managing agents were rewarded with various nonsensical excuses, all of which I filed in the 'dog ate my homework' file. It appears that initially most of the units were snapped up by investors like me, who - unlike me - promptly farmed them out to local fly-by-night 'guaranteed rent' agencies who hoovered up as many DSS waiting list inhabitants as they could and stick them all in the block. Whereupon, quite naturally, the decent residents scarpered sharpish as the hallways became no-go areas after dark, and the whole place went from Waldorf Astoria to Bangkok Hilton in a heartbeat. Grim.

Unfortunately there's not a whole lot a landlord can do to combat such decay once it has set it, nor indeed to reverse the inexorable descent from aspirational to desperational that some blocks endure. Sure, I'm liaising with various bodies to attempt to revoke management rights from the current crowd of grinning shysters, and it's a case of when, not if, the situation can be ultimately remedied. But in the meantime it's a slow and painful process, and it seems that everyone's trying to milk every last seedy quid out of the building before more ethical types can take control of the whole mess.

But here's a tip if you're tempted to buy new-build, now that buying property is the height of fashion again. If you're purchasing as an investor, and you intend to rent your newly purchased asset out, don't be an arsehole about it. Take some care in who you rent it out to. Don't assume, that just because you live miles away and you won't have to set eyes on the place too often, that it's fine to grab the lowest common denominator option just because it means less hassle and a more secure state-sponsored rental income. Because the anti-social idiots who might just end up in your flat will, with absolute certainty, make their neighbours' lives hell. And they'll help drag down the value of the block, which will make you poorer in the long run. So be responsible, try and cherry pick the best residents you can, and don't just play the numbers game in your haste to eradicate a rental void. Because while anti-social tenants are one part of the problem, and grasping management agents another, the root cause is the landlord who places short-term cashflow above strategic consideration.

Be smart, be considerate and be discerning in who you rent your flats out to. Your neighbours and fellow leaseholders will thank you for it.

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