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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.

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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!

Re-upping my flat

This week I signed a contract to spend another year in my flat. The landlord was delighted that I wanted to sign on for another year (he thinks I’m the ideal tenant, I’m pleased to say), but from my perspective it makes sense because I lock in the rent for another year. It also ensures that I won’t have to go to the trouble of moving house for at least another year.

I very much like my new landlord. My flat was sold a few months ago, and the guy who bought it is local. (My previous landlady was nice but she lives near London, some 300 miles from here.) Craig has his own letting and property management agency, and he is buying flats to let them. We have talked a good deal about things that I’d like to have done to the flat, and he has agreed to pretty much all of them — with the exception that the full kitchen might not be done all at once, because of cost. I’m willing to live for a while with cupboard doors that don’t match, as long as we go ahead and take care of the sink and the dish draining cupboard very soon.

Here’s the list:

  • General
    • Replace the ancient, nonfunctional alarm system with a modern one that works
  • Bathroom
    • Install a grab bar in the bath/shower area, for safety
    • Replace the exhaust fan with one that does not admit breezes from outside
    • Install a small light above the lavatory/basin
    • Install a small wall cupboard for storage
    • Install a glass shelf in one window well
    • Add one more panel to the folding shower screen (like this one — mine’s got four panels like this, but a fifth would help prevent water from splashing onto the floor)
  • Kitchen
    • Install a dish draining cupboard over the sink
    • Replace the TINY sink with a larger one. This will almost certainly mean replacing the base cupboard in which the sink sits
    • Reface the rest of the cupboards to match the dish draining one (this is likely to wait)
    • Replace the refrigerator with one that has no freezer compartment
    • Buy a small tabletop freezer
    • Install a spice rack on one wall
    • Hang a wire basket set from the ceiling
    • Enlarge the worktop on which the microwave currently sits, so that it covers the top of the washer and extends to the edge of the door (I think this may allow space for both the microwave and the freezer on that worktop)
    • [I’m also going to ask for a utensil rack and a knife rack, but I may have to take care of those myself.]
    • [I’m also going to ask about widening the two concrete steps down into the back yard, for safety.]
  • Lounge
    • Install some sort of mechanism to keep the window, when open, from opening further when it’s windy
    • Re-hang the door, or otherwise prevent it from closing itself
    • Repair the makeshift floor of the step down into the kitchen
  • Main bedroom
    • Reinforce the flooring that doesn’t match, and stain it slightly so that it looks somewhat consistent with the rest of the floor
  • Hallway
    • Remove the stuff from the under-stairs cupboard that is no longer needed or useful, and slide the ladder into that space (the ladder is needed for changing light bulbs in ceiling fixtures)
    • Get the gas people to move their meter slightly, so that I can read it without sticking my head quite so far into that small space
  • Front garden
    • Plant some reasonable things to replace the weeds that were removed
    • Install a self-closing mechanism on the front gate

I hope I’ve got everything listed!

I’m also probably going to buy a plastic/resin table-and-four-chairs set for the back yard, so that I can enjoy being outside and even have company there. Now that the weather is starting to get nice, the idea of spending some time out there becomes rather appealing. If I owned the flat I’d also look into installing a transparent roof over most of the back yard, so that I could enjoy it when the weather is warm enough even when rainy, and so that I could hang my laundry outside without worrying about whether it was going to rain. I may raise that idea with Craig someday, but not until the other work is complete.

Something else I’d like to have, if possible (but again, not right away) is a wrought-iron chair or two in the front garden, bolted to the concrete. There is precious little room for something like that (and no room for a bench), but I have identified two places where such a chair might sit. And it would be nice to sit out in the garden sometimes.

I do wish my neighborhood had more cafes and a pub. We have a wonderful fish&chips place, three Italian cafes (of very different styles), a Chinese take-away (which I’m told is terrible), and an Indian cafe (which does me no good, as I don’t like the cuisine), but two of the Italian places are closed on Sundays and the chippy is a take-away. A friend and I had breakfast this morning in a wonderful, funky cafe in Heaton, and I loved it. I like Heaton’s two streets lined with cafes and shops, and I would be comfortable living there — except that it’s beyond what I consider decent walking distance from the university and downtown. I could do it once in a while, but not on a regular basis.

Update on 12 May

Today it got chilly enough that I gave in and turned on the heat for a couple of hours in the evening. (I am still turning it on for a couple of hours in the morning, so that I can shower and dress in relative comfort, but in the evening I generally wrap up.) In discussing this with some friends, I mentioned that my thermostat doesn’t work, and one of them commented that those can be replaced fairly easily. So I’m adding this to my list of things to ask the landlord about.