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Rental: the third way

by Andrew Teacher

Few people tell it is like is with the eloquence and succinctness of Anne Ashworth, property and personal finance editor at the Times. In her Friday column, Anne highlighted the emerging battleground over the country’s private rented sector (PRS), inviting readers to “pick a side”.

Tenants seeing rents increase are indeed, as the paper suggests, victims of further intergenerational unfairness. But successive governments have woven a web of ludicrous tax giveaways and other freebies to buy grey votes.

However, while regulators exist for many service industries, your rights as a renter are limited. Many agents are at best incompetent and at worst, downright crooked. Worse still, the dysfunctional market means in reality you have little choice if you’re fixed to a single location.

If you have a problem flying with BA you can choose Emirates next time; if your Talk Talk internet is sluggish, you can switch to Virgin Media. There’s no such freedom for renters.

Buy-to-let landlords are also displeased. The raft of tax reliefs once bestowed upon their investments are being stripped back with stamp duty hiked up. The argument made that buy-to-let has been “a vital source of housing supply” still stands up, kind of. But only the most myopic analyst would deny the degree to which it has hugely inflated the price of property for first time buyers.

Arguments from the landlord community go that without these subsidies, the supply of PRS housing would dry up. This is utter nonsense. Let’s be clear what subsidies - such as the previous tax-free income enjoyed by landlords - mean.

Giving one party a tax relief simply moves value from one body to another. One example hotly discussed in the commercial property world is when companies go bust and the directors of retailers walk away untarnished into a new business that conveniently does the same thing. Rightly, people cry foul but little happens. We’ve seen this occur with the likes of Game and Blacks in recent years.

These so-called pre-pack administrations and company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) have been the scourge of commercial property investors for years, mainly because they strip away leases and take value from one set of shareholders to another.

This is clearly very different from the situation in the residential market, but the reality is that tax not collected on rental income or through transactions (through stamp duty, capital gains or any other tax) is money that can’t be spent elsewhere. And those people, let’s face it, probably need it more.

It would be brutally simplistic to say that charging landlords more tax could fix all of life’s ills. Let’s be honest, whatever anyone says, anyone with a spare house is by any broad definition “wealthy”, despite the fact that some may be old and not have a day job. Roll out your tiny violins or daggers at this point.

But without wanting to sound like I’ve been train-surfing with Jeremy Corbyn, as a society, we do need to take moral decisions about who we support. If teachers, doctors and firemen are as important as we like to think, then they deserve subsidised housing more than buy-to-let landlords deserve subsidised annual returns.

Indeed, there would be nothing to stop ministers ring-fencing some of the wad raised through stinging landlords. This could be used to build subsidized housing or, better still, offer tax-breaks to key workers allowing them to rent in the PRS.

With interest rates on their knees and little gain to be had in volatile equities markets, buy-to-let does still look like a good bet for investors whose cash is losing value in the bank or under the bed. Landlords will clearly use this as a chance to hike up rents even though mortgage costs are plummeting. With the widely-discussed lack of stock, rents on the whole are going up, but not by as much as many agents’ reports would suggest.

The upshot is that tenants have little choice, little comeback and the divide between them and landlords is wider than ever.

Leaving aside the level of rent for a second, the real issue with the PRS is that, much like hospitals, it’s a bit of a postcode lottery. We are renting a new flat and, rather than throw away the old post, two Sky TV boxes and a broken, filthy mop, the hapless agents added these items to the inventory. Naturally it wasn’t carried out in our presence. This lack of service – and the randomness of the product at the end of it all – is what gives the PRS a bad name.

It continues to drive the cycle of bitterness now hotting up. Would everyone hate renting if the service wasn’t so terrible? No. Would people still moan about rents going up? Yes, of course, but the pill would be less bitter if renting could in some way be aspirational, if the homes could be better than what you could afford to buy and if the process was as simple as renting Zip Car or using Netflix.

The third way then is build to rent, the American-styled, branded rental market emerging in cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Living in these pads, which are being designed for rent with shared spaces, sky-lounges and lobbies reminiscent of coffee houses, is designed around cutting hassle.

It’s like checking into a boutique hotel and never leaving.

The initial crop aren’t cheap, but as the market expands, a greater array of price points will emerge. And many schemes recently winning planning consent are creating 25% affordable rented housing as part of the main developments – without poor doors.

Buildings designed for rent, by companies like Essential Living, remove all of the pitfalls of the current market. The company is focused on London and the South East and is backed by long-term finance – which means the whole business is founded on hanging on to what’s built.

There are no agents fees, no check-in fees and everything works from day one. So there’s no three week wait while BT Openreach fit broadband. WiFi is plug-and-play throughout the building.

Essential Living’s first scheme, Vantage Point, is above Archway Tube. The scheme converted a former office block into 118 apartments. And best of all TfL is sharing in the upside in what many believe could be a model for future housing: public sector bodies and councils using their land for long-term profits, where they retain an interest in reap the benefits.

In Manchester, Moda Living, a nationally-focused build to rent developer and operator is starting work on a massive 466-unit scheme in the city centre opposite Manchester Victoria. As part of the NOMA neighbourhood, it promises to be Manchester’s first premium development designed from the ground up for rent.

For hard-pressed consumers with busier lives than ever before, the ability to move into an apartment above the underground or opposite a major rail hub potentially wipes hours off the weekly commute.

At Essential Living’s first project, everything from WiFi and electricity to contents insurance and water bills is included in the rent - with the potential to make thousands of lives much easier. Unlike the current PRS, build to rent developers want to run things professionally as they have a commercial interest in keeping buildings full up.

While the typical buy-to-let flat comes with damp and a distant landlord, living somewhere with an on-site residents’ team, whose job it is to build a sense of community, means that for the first time landlords and customers (rather than tenants) could end up on the same side.

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