Category Archives: Housing

More endings and beginnings

Today I had what will probably be my last face-to-face meeting with my principal supervisor. He said I’m almost ready to go (i.e., the concepts are well enough fleshed out although I still have some work to do on the content that conveys them). We talked about the draft of my Conclusions chapter (in which I summarize what I did and describe the contributions to knowledge that my research makes), and we also talked about my plans for the Discussions chapter (in which I talk about the limitations of my research and speculate about future research and the possible applicability of my findings). He thinks it’s all excellent. He had a few suggestions to make, of course, but says I’m in very good shape. I still feel overwhelmed by all the editing and pulling together and formatting and printing/copying I have to do to get the thing submittable by late April, but at least I’m not at all worried about how it will be received after I do all that.

This is also my last weekend as a resident of Newcastle. The movers (“removals firm”) are coming next Thursday to pack up most of my stuff, then returning early Friday morning to collect the bed and a few other things and we all head down to Cambridge to move me in. After three weeks of spending 2-4 nights a week in hotels, I am infinitely grateful that my current landlord offered me my pick of the furniture (he’s selling the flat and won’t need it for a new tenant) and infinitely glad I decided to take the beds. I sleep much better in this bed than anywhere else I’ve stayed recently, and it’s not just a matter of a familiar room.

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Long term, I am in you

I’m on a train, headed home after three days working in our Cambridge office, to which I’m assigned. This morning I had my end-of-probation review, in which I received the news that I will soon be receiving a letter congratulating me officially on moving from probationary to permanent staff. Just as with my visa, I wasn’t seriously worried about this hurdle from a realistic perspective, but my inner catastrophizer was as active as always, and I am immensely pleased. I really like my colleagues and the company culture, and I think it will be a great pleasure to work there for another five years or even longer.

This afternoon I gave notice to my landlord, who said he’ll be sad to see me go. It turns out that my tenancy has to end on the 8th of the month (not 30 days after my notice) because it started on the 9th, so I’ll have a couple of weeks more rent to pay than I had expected (silly me for not checking the rental contract), but I’m very pleased with the house I’ve rented in Cambridge. I wish it were a little better served by buses — I’ve been totally spoiled by Newcastle’s excellent local bus system — but it’s not in a complete bus desert. (I am going to buy a car, but I’m not going to drive into the city centre, so I care about being able to take a bus into town.) The house is a bit larger than my current flat — separate dining room, much larger kitchen, somewhat larger bathroom, a 4-foot-wide unheated but covered space running alongside the kitchen, containing some shelving and (wonder of wonders!) a chest freezer! and a large back garden with a shed and raised beds — although it has no front yard/garden at all (the house fronts right on the sidewalk/pavement) and the main bedroom is only 2/3 the size of the one I have now and probably won’t be a place I’ll want to spend time in during the day. Except for the stairs and the smaller bedroom, the house has wood or tile floors (good for my dust-mite allergy). What makes it really special is the wood-burning fireplace in the living room. It was built as a coal fireplace but the owner has been burning wood in it, and I’m salivating in anticipation of doing the same. I’m looking around for where I might acquire some peat, as I am desperately in need of a peat fire. (Cambridge, like many UK cities, has an ordinance against burning fuels that produce smoke, but this house is outside the prohibited area and I’m going to do it as soon as I can.)

I’m also discovering Chinese and Italian eateries in Cambridge. This week’s prize was a new Italian place next to the train station, where they were delighted to talk with me in Italian and I was delighted to hear one of them say I have almost no foreign accent. It’s been a few years since an Italian has said that to me, and I was afraid I had lost my touch.

Friends, I think it’s going to be a good few years.

Beginning to look at Cambridge housing

Yesterday I went for my first viewing of a flat in Cambridge. I’ve been looking at the possibilities since September, but so far I’ve stuck to searching on rental websites (mostly Rightmove) and hadn’t gone so far as to contact a letting agent until the last couple of weeks. Mostly that’s because the properties were available much sooner than I could move into them, but now they are coming into the right time of year and it’s time for me to start looking more seriously. As with the car, I can’t sign a contract until 1 February or later, but I don’t want to wait until then to take my search beyond the web. The web searching I’ve done, though, has given me a good idea of what kinds of places are where. I need to study the bus routes and operating hours as well, so that I can consider taking a place that’s not within about half a mile of the station.

Anyway, the location of the flat I saw yesterday is great for getting to the office and to other parts of the UK, and it’s got two bedrooms and two bathrooms (good for sharing) and an “undercroft” secure parking space, so I was all set to like it. I found it a bit disappointing, though — it was smaller than it appears in the photos, and it smelled of catbox (although no cat was to be seen and I didn’t find myself sneezing). I assume the smell can be eliminated with a thorough cleaning. The place reminded me of cookie-cutter apartments from my 20s, although its proximity to the train station and the presence of the underneath parking garage speaks of a large professional tenant community. That particular flat will probably be taken before I am satisfied with what I find, so I doubt I’ll end up there, but it was worth going to have a look.

I’ve got two more viewings scheduled for next week; both of these are terraced houses (US: townhouses, row houses) and farther from the station. Slightly lower in rent. We’ll see. Hoping to see a couple of other places as well.

One agent sent me listings for a couple of other places. When I told her why I’m not willing to consider anything in Trumpington, she hooted with laughter and said she’ll never think of that neighborhood the same way again.

Downstairs neighbor blues

First I suppose I should make it clear that I am the downstairs neighbor who is singing the blues here. I waited to write this until the problem appeared to be on its way to being resolved. I didn’t want to write it when all I would be doing was grousing, but now that my landlord and I are finally getting some action on it from the property management on the flat upstairs I’m letting y’all in on something that has been a royal pain for me during the last two weeks.

My ceiling has been dripping water.

Directly onto my bed.

Naturally, this started on a Saturday evening. I had come home from an evening out, to find on the duvet a wet spot about a foot by a foot and a half. (I had been hearing occasional drips for a month or two, but nothing I could pinpoint, and until this particular evening I wasn’t even sure that it was dripping into my flat.) A smaller spot had been there the evening before, but it had been raining that day and I thought I had just gotten some water on my day pack and it had drained off onto the bed.

Nope. This time the spot was much larger and I hadn’t placed anything there at all, wet or dry.

Ruined Fitted Sheet

The fitted sheet, ruined by the color of the towel.

When I pulled the sheets back, I saw that the water had soaked through all the way to the mattress. I put a towel over and under my feet (it was late enough that I didn’t feel like making the bed in the guest room) and slept dry enough. I texted my landlord, who said he’d leave a voicemail for the agency responsible for the flat upstairs and would phone them first thing Monday morning.

The next morning (Sunday), the sheets and mattress had all been stained by the dark purple towel. (I don’t have any light-colored towels.)

Sunday night it did it again. But this time I was home and I moved the bed out of the way, and I put a small bin under where most of the drops were coming from. The next morning there was about 3/4 inch of water in that little bin! Some of it splattered onto the sheet, but not in a major way. It’s a good thing I have two lamps, as there is no way I would switch on the overhead light — it might short or (worse) cause a fire! The bed was now jam-up against the chest of drawers, of which I could get into only the top two.

On the Monday, my landlord told me the prop-mgt agency sent their maintenance contractor around. He discovered that a tile had fallen from the wall in the shower area directly above my bedroom. Fortunately, the flat upstairs has a second shower, so they told the students not to use that shower until the wall had been fixed. That would be a while because it needs to dry out. I took some photos of the damage.

On the Wednesday evening it dripped a little, so I found the prop-mgt agency on Twitter and tweeted them about the problem. I figured we were getting nowhere with private entreaties so it was time to escalate by taking the problem public. On the Thursday their Twitter person replied, he or she seemed genuinely concerned, asked for property details and then gave me the number to call. (It was the number my landlord had been calling.)

Dripping Ceiling

The dripping ceiling. Red circles indicate forming drops that can be seen in this photo. There were more.

The following night it started dripping again — about 10:30. (I know the time because of the timestamp on my text to my landlord.) He came over the next morning to look at it and also pointed out a different ceiling stain that was worse than it had been before. I tweeted the prop-mgt agency again and told them the tenants are Chinese students whose English is very poor (I’ve spoken with several of them, or tried to) so they will have to be instructed in Chinese; the agency said they have a Chinese member of staff who could do that.

No drips for more than a week. I was optimistic.

Until last night. I moved the bed out of the way again and put something down to cateh the drips. I texted my landlord, who said he’d phone the agency this morning. We agreed that the only thing to do was disconnect that shower so it couldn’t be used (rather than relying on the tenants to follow the instructions) and I tweeted the prop-mgt agency to say so. When I hadn’t heard from my landlord by 1:30 this afternoon I texted him to ask about the status, and he phoned me back to say he had left several messages for them this morning but they hadn’t gotten back to him. Since I was downtown anyhow, I decided to go to their office and camp out until they took action. That finally got their attention. I explained the situation and they looked it up in their records. I’m not sure that they actually had communicated anything to the tenants in Chinese, but they did tell me that the maintenance person removed several wall tiles and told the tenants not to use that shower until he returned. (Evidently he didn’t tell them why, and they didn’t realize how important it was.)

So I sat in the agency’s office for over an hour this afternoon while they looked in their files and phoned and wrote notes. They did send someone out to remove the shower head. They had a Chinese speaker right there, and he eventually managed to speak with one of the tenants and explain what the problem was and what they needed to do about it. They in turn were upset, he said, because they were told not to use one of their two showers, had not previously been told why, and still were not being told when they would be able to start using it again. I don’t blame them for being upset!

So the property manager and the maintenance contractor and my landlord will have a powwow on Monday early afternoon.

In my opinion, the property management company bears most of the blame for all of this (and I generally dislike talking of “blame”) because they had a responsibility to communicate with their tenants and with the owner of my flat, and they did not do either of those properly (and in some cases not at all).

I do hope that this situation is now about to come to an end. What this has taught me, however, is that if I ever get to the point of being able to buy a dwelling in the UK, it won’t be a ground-floor flat with a student flat (especially one of five or six bedrooms) above it.

I also have to say that throughout all this, my landlord was almost as frustrated as I was. I know that if it had been his flat that was causing the damage he would have had it fixed right away and would have done much better communication with both of the other parties.

And now I’m going to order some new sheets.

Another year in my flat – under the same landlord

My landlord came by last night so that we could sign a contract for another year’s lease (the buyers had asked him to do this before the sale completed), and he told me that the final appraisal had come in substantially below the price they had agreed on, and he wasn’t willing to lose money on it, so he said no to the lower price… and he took it off the market. (He said he thought it was due to a comparison of recent selling prices in the neighborhood.) I liked the (prospective) and anticipated that they would be decent landlords, and although there are a few things I’d prefer to have different about my current landlord, I gotta say he’s pretty good (FAR better than the letting agent that manages the flat upstairs, from what the nice Northern Irish boys tell me), and I like the idea of not changing to an unknown landlord when they might not be as good to me.

So I’ve signed for another year, with no increase in rent (yay!). I told him that I won’t want another whole year after that and am not sure I’ll want even another six months, so we’ll just go on month-to-month after this new contract expires. I expressed confidence that he won’t give me a notice to vacate even then, and he said “absolutely not!” and went on and on (again) about how fantastic a tenant I am. As an example, he said that he checks his two other properties every three months to make sure the tenants are taking care of them adequately, but he feels no need to do that with me.

It’s a nice feeling. :-)

Now I just wish the estate agent would come and take down the “Sold” sign!

My flat is going on the market

My landlord told me today that he has signed a contract with an estate agent (US: real estate agency) to sell the flat. He’s asking about £10K more than what he paid for it a year ago, but I think he’ll take a little less. He said he would sell it only to a buyer who planned to let it (US: rent it out), and added that anyone with half a brain would jump at the chance to keep me on as a tenant. In any case, my current lease is good for another three months, and no buyer would be able to evict me before then.

Lots to think about, and possibly some planning to do.

Tweaking my utility bills

This past summer, Scottish Power raised my monthly bills. I’d prefer to pay for actual usage based on meter readings, but the plan I’m on (green energy and a fixed rate until this coming April, I think) doesn’t support that, so they estimate how much I’ll use in a year, divide that by 12, and bill me that amount for the next three months. Then they email me to read my meters again (which I have to do for the gas by taking a photo with my phone, as it’s in an exceedingly awkward position under the stairs to the flat above mine) and they readjust the monthly amount.

I thought I was being conservative in my usage. But last winter was colder than usual and I was figuring out how the various heating systems worked (I’ve got four — one central, one for the kitchen, and two for the bathroom), so I’m sure I used more heating than usual. (I’ve got a gas fireplace in the living room, but I’m told it’s very inefficient and in any case I don’t know how to use it. So I don’t use it.) Also, when I work at home I generally keep my laptop plugged in (and the modem/router is always on), and that takes a bit of electricity. So in July they put me up from £60 a month to £77 a month. Yeowch. (It’s not as much as my combined gas/electric bills back in Maryland, but this flat is a lot smaller than my house and I have less income.)

This winter I’m being more intentional. For one thing, I learned that my thermostat doesn’t work. So when the central heating is on, the thing is cranking out heat. Therefore, instead of having it on and ostensibly thermostatically controlled for 2-3 hours in the morning and 2-3 hours in the evening, as I did last year, I have it ON for 1.5 hours in the morning (6:30 to 8) and maybe on for 1-2 hours in the evenings. And I heat the bathroom if I feel I need a warmer space. I don’t run the heat every evening, either. Sometimes it’s enough to cook dinner or make a decaf coffee. Or wash dishes; the warm water on my hands helps a lot.

I’ve also safety-pinned the bedroom curtains so that they don’t hang below the top of the radiator. This allows me to have them closed while the central heating is on and get some heat into the room rather than lose it between the curtains and the bay window.

I’m looking into something a friend recently shared with me on Facebook — “Heat Your Room for 8 Pence a Day” — but at this time of year no one has the small terracotta flowerpots that this method requires. I figure I can heat the bathroom this way when I’m not showering: if I put the contraption into the tub, it should be safe to leave the room with it going. I’ve also bought a large aluminum-foil turkey-roasting pan, for possible use when I’m going to be home for four hours straight and feel like trying it in the office/bedroom. But it’ll probably be April (or at least March) before I’ll be able to find the flowerpots. Fortunately, Newcastle’s climate is cool enough that I can see this method being useful even into June.

Windows in the rain

Photo of window that opens out from the bottomIt’s been very warm this summer (for the UK, that is), and I’ve had the windows open a lot. This morning it’s a bit cooler, but still nice for open winows. And we’re having a steady rain, for the first time in a good while. I’m thinking that the windows in my flat are the right kind for having open in the rain, as they keep the rain from coming inside (the building has no real roof overhang).

Here’s an example that shows how they open. (Mine are white, though.)

Fly screens!

Earlier this week my houseguests installed “fly screens”* (a.k.a. window screens) on most of my windows. The kits I got consist of large pieces of polyester netting held to the window by strips of self-adhesive Velcro®. (I would have preferred a more robust solution, but [a] it cost a lot more and [b] this kit doesn’t require any permanent changes to the structure.) The kit has half-decent-quality netting but the Velcro (or, more likely, an off brand) is only 1/4″ wide and tends to come off. So yesterday while at Grainger Market (I totally <3 Grainger Market!) I went by the fabric stall and bought additional netting (the best color they had in stock was a light gray, but at £1.20 a meter for 1.5-meter-wide stuff it’ll do for now!) and then went by the needlework stall and bought 4 meters of self-adhesive hook-side Velcro (£1.50/meter). The kits I had bought weren’t quite enough to do all the windows, and some of the Velcro substitute needs to be replaced.

But still.

Earlier this morning I was sitting here at my desk, working on my presentation for the DPPI conference in six weeks, when I heard a fly buzzing. I looked up, and it was between the open window and the screen. Trying hard to get in, it was. Not long thereafter, I saw a wasp flying near the bathroom window, but I had no anxiety because I knew it couldn’t get in.

Bwahahaha.

Window screens -> tranquility.


*Lord knows why the British don’t hyphenate this name; they hyphenate just about everything else that comprises two words or has a prefix.

I’m so glad a meter is close enough to a yard that I can visualize quantities. (Also, a square meter is very close to ten square feet, which helps in translating home sizes.)

My windows open from the bottom, which helps keep the rain out when they’re open.

The vagaries of utility bills

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Scottish Power saying that, based on my usage, they were raising my monthly direct debit from £55 to £79.

WHAT?!?!?

I am fairly conservative in my use of energy, and this made no sense to me. So I emailed them to ask about it.

A few days later they replied. They said they had reviewed my account and had realized that I’ve been a customer only since November, so my usage so far has been biased by the period in which usage is always much higher. They said they would leave it at £55 for now and would reassess at my one-year anniversary.

THAT makes more sense. Thanks to Scottish Power for responding so quickly and reasonably.

(I probably should have phoned them instead, as I love listening to them talk. :-)