Home advantage: The realities of renting

by Alison Adams-Smith / 06 November, 2018
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Alison Adams-Smith reflects on her renting life – from student flats to house leases – and finds not much to recommend the tenant’s lot.

I was a tenant for most of my adult life. I’ve rented by the room, in hostels and houses; I’ve rented half-houses and, as my aspirations grew with my family, even whole houses. I calculate that in my 35 years of flatting or renting, I contributed more than $500,000 to other people’s nest eggs – with not much in return in the way of security or comfort.

In 1982, I was 19 and back in New Zealand from Kuwait, where I’d spent six years with my expat parents. I dropped anchor in Auckland and moved into Rocklands Hall, a student hostel in Epsom. Epsom was, as now, a dress-circle suburb bristling with newly gentrified villa facades and gardens. This did not make one iota of difference to the residents of the hostel, some of whom had chosen teachers’ college because back then it was an easy option for work training and you didn’t need a university degree. So I lived in my tiny room cheek by jowl with some of the stupidest and most cosseted teens it has been my misfortune to meet. (This is by no means a reflection on the hard-working and gifted students who were there, too, in equal measure.)

Here I added a new definition to one word in my vocabulary, when I witnessed a “helicopter” for the first time. For the uninitiated, this is when you get yourself so drunk you’re on the verge of vomiting. You then climb onto something, such as a tree stump or table, and throw yourself off while twisting in a crude “double Axel”. When you actually start to spew, you vomit in a circle, which is projected much more widely than any ordinary regurgitation, and this adds drama and a strange kind of legitimacy (with hindsight) to one of the most embarrassing moments of your life. This is best done outside.

Following a car accident and a stint living with my grandmother while I recovered, I moved into a villa in Ponsonby, where the lounge had been converted into a fifth bedroom. Three of the bedrooms had proper fireplaces and were quite spacious.

As the newest member of the flat (and only female), I got the grottiest room. It was next to the bathroom and kitchen, so was also the noisiest bedroom. When flatmate Rob and his mates gathered in the dining-cum-tiny TV room to watch rugby and drink beer, I got no peace, so it was better to join in. More difficult was the time Pete brought a friend home from the pub and wrestled with this individual, of unknown gender judging by the grunts and shrieks, on the other side of my door at two in the morning.

The villa was as cold as ice in winter. The bathroom and toilet were squalid, as cleaning was not something any of the boys did, and when I suggested a roster for chores, they all looked sideways at each other and drifted away to do more important things. The washing machine was one you had to pour water into, then empty and refill with each rinse; it also had a temperamental mangle to get the clothes as dry as possible before hanging them, still dripping, on the line.

We had a flat kitty, which was supposed to cover food and bills, but always came up short at month’s end. This was due, in large part, to Colin’s contribution. Colin had one of the coveted front bedrooms and interacted very little. He had a PhD in Chinese history and delivered booze from the local off-licence for a job. On payday, he would spend his entire kitty contribution on sausages and mince – and then come home and eat at least a quarter of it on the first day.

When my relationship with Pete had degenerated to such a degree I could no longer tolerate his activities, I moved out. The final straw was when he decided unilaterally it was my turn to do all the dishes (when it really wasn’t) and put them all in my bed while I was at work. I returned the favour when he went out to the pub.

I then moved to a house in Grey Lynn and flatted with the owners until their new Alsatian puppy peed on all my LPs. A stint followed at a place in Grafton where a man called Paul grew marijuana plants on his windowsill at the back of the villa. I also shared this flat with Georgina, whose room took up more than a third of the entire house. She was taking two papers in fine art. Her family home had burnt down as a child, and her favourite phrase, when faced with anything even a little inconvenient, was, “I can’t cope.” No milk, someone in the loo, raining outside: “I can’t cope.”

Tom was the fourth flatmate. He had fiery red hair and a girlfriend with skin like whipped cream. He would get up at lunchtime, then walk to the dairy to buy a paper and cigarettes. His afternoon was spent reading the paper from cover to cover, after which he would retire to his room to write mysterious essays for some unknown university course. No matter what question you asked him, from “Is there any mail?” to “Was Mao Tse Tung good for China?”, his inevitable reply was “It’s hard to say, really.”

After I’d been living there for nine months, I was startled out of my sleep at about 6am by a police raid. Six cops burst through the unlocked front door, shouting for us to come out of our rooms and assemble in the corridor.

In my desperate rush to the toilet (it was urgent), I saw Paul at his back window, pitching all his dope plants over the veranda, so they landed just shy of the Grafton Gully motorway.

The police searched Paul and Georgina’s rooms, and gave Paul a warning, but we had two more raids over the next six months, so I moved into a house on the other side of the road, where I’d made a new friend. The owner of this house had inherited it and was a dilettante artist, who didn’t produce any work but had a girlfriend who stayed over a lot. My friend and I nicknamed her “the decibel queen” in light of her expressive screams every time they had sex.

In 1985, Mum and Dad came to New Zealand for the holidays and bought an investment property in St Heliers, Auckland. It was a three-bedroom house with three adjoining flats. My brother and I were given very cheap accommodation in two of the one-bedroom flats, which were well maintained and warm. Everything worked as it should. For the first time since I’d arrived in the country, I felt secure and comfortable. It was a tranquil time for me, which continued until I left university in 1991 with a master in environmental science.

By that time, I’d been living with my boyfriend, a Swedish plumber (who I’ll call J), for about three years. Mum and Dad had returned from the Middle East and settled in Taranaki. They decided it was time to sell the St Heliers property. I had my first proper job at a firm of consulting engineers, and J and I moved to Herne Bay, where we lived in one half of a turn-of-the-century villa; the other half was rented by an older couple who had been the tenants for eight years. It was the first time I’d ever signed a lease.

J and I were happy there, making the most of the charming, shared back garden and the pocket handkerchief patch in the front. When my sister gave us a boxer puppy from their bitch’s first litter, our neighbours agreed we could keep him; it never occurred to us to get permission from the landlord, although I’m sure he knew.

My first proper job was also the first one I was made redundant from about a year later. There were a few firsts at this juncture: my first visit to Social Welfare to get the unemployment benefit, my first feeling of uncertainty about what the future held, and my first major wrench from my future husband.

"The water [had] turned brown... It was Saturday evening and we had not showered since Thursday

I was finding it difficult to get work in Auckland with my qualifications. After four months, I was hired as a junior policy analyst at MAF (the then-Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries), which required a move to Wellington. J did not want to go – he had a good job already and was content where he was. So we said a tearful goodbye and I moved everything I owned, including the puppy and two cats, to a small and dismal house in Hanson St, Wellington. I quickly found a flatmate, through the government network, who was hardly ever there – perfect. Once again, I shared a backyard, this time with two young women who lived in a prefab out back. They were there most of the time and took delight in looking after little Luther, the puppy, while I worked in the city.

Financially, times were good for me and J, but living apart was hard. By late 1992 we were engaged, and he moved down to be with me. We rented a tatty little cottage on South Karori Rd, with no shower and a rainwater tank for our water. We were surrounded by paddocks and lifestyle properties and, for the first time, we had real difficulty with our landlord. He and his wife lived next door; this was not the problem, but getting him to do any repairs was. Every time we needed him to fix something, he insisted on coming over without notice to make an inspection first, just to make sure we had not caused the damage in question. He had chronic emphysema, from a lifetime of smoking. He was unable to take more than three steps without stopping to suck in a choking breath and resting for five to 10 seconds. This meant an inspection for any repair that should have taken five minutes would take half an hour. He usually didn’t speak, as he had no breath left, so we had no idea what he was thinking and what the outcome would be. He would lurch back to his house and nothing would happen. No repair. No explanation. We nicknamed him “Mr Wheeze”.

Doorknobs fell off, the washing machine stopped working, the roof leaked, fuses blew, the clothesline rusted away and windows leaked in the rain. No repairs were ever done, except those we did ourselves. There were so many gaps around the doors and windows, the wind whistled through the place like a railway tunnel. It didn’t warm up until we put duct tape over all the gaps, which meant we couldn’t open one of the doors or any of the windows all winter.

But the pièce de résistance was an attitude so miserly it rivalled anything I’ve experienced before or since from an owner. In an unusually dry late summer, our water turned brown and undrinkable, so we asked the landlord’s wife about it. Her guess was the tank was near-empty. She said she’d speak to her husband and, grudgingly, gave us two nine-litre buckets of water to tide us over until the tank was refilled. That was on Thursday. On Friday, we came home from work to find nothing had been done. We went over to refill our buckets and ask when the taps would be running again. A third bucket of water to flush the toilet was denied.

Apparently, Mr Wheeze had been sorely exercised by our dilemma, and was still undecided about what to do. Since it was now Friday evening, he’d need to pay extra for the water tanker, and that wasn’t going to happen. By Saturday morning, he had a plan, which involved borrowing a pump from his neighbour and attaching a series of garden hoses to it. The pump would be placed in the Karori stream, which ran through a gully about 120m from our house.

The pump was duly collected. We then sloshed around in the stream while Mr Wheeze directed us. J, the plumber, knew exactly what had to be done, but was not allowed to do it. Whenever he argued with our landlord, the reply was, “Do you want water?” When J finally got the pump working, it didn’t have sufficient horsepower to pump the water up the bank.

It was Saturday evening and we had not showered since Thursday morning. Still with no water, we got into the car and made it to the local swimming pool just before it closed where we had hot showers. On our return, we went over to fill up our buckets and got a telling-
off for disturbing Mr Wheeze, who was about to go to bed.

By Monday afternoon, with our water tank still empty, J was apoplectic and stormed next door. I should have stayed home, but I couldn’t resist witnessing the fury about to be unleashed on our worthless landlord. Using numerous Scandinavian epithets and threatening to call the council, J left Mr Wheeze blinking in the onslaught. His wife wisely stayed inside. We went home and drank too much. I delayed going to work for a few hours next morning, long enough to witness the tanker rounding the corner at 10am. Mr Wheeze hid from us for weeks after that.

The irony of the “water wars” is, even 25 years later, it would be impossible for a tenant to force such an intransigent landlord to immediately provide water. Under the Residential Tenancies Act 1986, in an emergency situation such as having no water at all, a landlord is normally expected to rectify the situation within 24 hours. If he doesn’t, the tenant’s next alternative is a “14-day notice” to ask for the situation to be resolved within 14 days. If a tenant decides to pay for the water himself instead of waiting for the landlord, and takes that out of the rent, the landlord can still take him to the Tenancy Tribunal for shorting the rent, despite the circumstances.

While the tenant is more than likely to win the case, his name is still on the register of having been to the tribunal and this can taint further efforts to find rental properties.

Some time after that soggy saga, J and I got married and returned to Auckland for better jobs. I went to another consulting engineering firm and J got his old job back. We found a tidy ex-state house on the wrong side of West Tamaki Rd in Glen Innes, but with a good landlady who was happy for us to have Luther and Cedric the cat. We could afford to pay a higher rent, and all went well for some years until our son Daniel was born.

Down to one income, with a baby who woke up every two hours for more than a year, it was a pretty testing time. There was no paid maternity leave and we couldn’t get a rent reduction, so I went back to work part-time when Daniel was four months.

I returned to a changed work landscape. As a part-timer, my sunny desk near the window was now an inner cubicle that was dark and noisy. The interesting jobs that had brought me so much satisfaction had been assigned to others, so my work became much more routine; there are only so many resource consents a person can write for cellphone towers before going slightly mad. But then a job came up at an oil company in New Plymouth. Suddenly I was earning enough for all of us.

Taranaki was booming – full of expats and oil experts from the North Sea. Our pleasant four-bedroom villa was close to town and reasonably priced. The kitchen was circa-70s, but the house was airy and spacious, and I could walk to work. J looked after Daniel while I went off to save the world, one environmental management plan at a time. But we had to leave that house after 18 months because our landlord wanted to move in, and the same thing happened at our next rental. We moved three times in five years.

My contract finished and I decided to go out on my own, so J went back to plumbing and we swapped parenting roles. By now, Daniel was at pre-school, so my occasional trips to Indonesia for work were lucrative but logistically difficult for J. The Taranaki economy began to falter, and J lost his job.

Believing he’d be employed again soon, we soldiered on. Only he didn’t find a job, and when one of my clients refused to pay an $18,000 invoice just before Christmas, we were in crisis again. With our savings slipping away, we had to look further afield. We didn’t want to leave Taranaki, but Wellington was where the jobs were.

We found a very good house in a nice part of Karori for $450; it was 2004 and this was the most we’d ever paid in rent. This was also our first experience dealing with a rental agent, rather than an owner-landlord. It was not a change for the better. We paid a huge bond, and the agent refused to make any repairs after we moved in. We were only allowed a year-long lease, to be renewed annually, with a new fee, of course. As it happened, we moved out after a year because J and I split up after 17 years together.

If you rent, pets are the first of three “Ps” that are almost always forbidden. The other two are pictures and parties. Photo/Getty

As a solo mother with a six-year-old son and a dog, it was getting harder to find suitable, affordable places. One-year leases were the norm, and agents were reluctant to countenance any pet bigger than a goldfish. Even though I wasn’t on a benefit, the stigma was still there. After applying for several dwellings, I rented a place where the TV aerial didn’t work; the agent lied and said it wasn’t his job to have it fixed. The property came with a dehumidifier, which should have rung alarm bells, but I was too naive to realise I was renting a money pit.

The next place, in Wilton, had a young landlady who promptly installed a devil-worshipping Goth in the flat beneath us. He and his friends played loud death-metal music till all hours. When he was burgled, and the thieves stole his stereo, I couldn’t hide my joy from the police.

After the Goth experience, Daniel and I moved to a two-bedroom house in Kelburn, which was more affordable, but the landlord was unequivocal about not having dogs (by then Luther, our beloved first boxer, had died). He also put a clause in the lease saying we were not allowed to quit the place during January, which I knew wasn’t legal, but I signed it anyway, as I hadn’t found anything better.

The Kelburn house had a storage room underneath it, which we decided to convert into a third bedroom for a flatmate whose rent would help with expenses. The landlord gave his permission for this work, so we removed all his stuff, cleaned and painted the room, put a handle and lock on the door, fixed the broken windows, re-covered the floor and put up curtains. After about $300 and many hours’ work, with help from friends, we had a small but perfectly formed third bedroom. Three months later, the landlord gave us notice and acquired new tenants who paid for a three-bedroom property.

A few years later, I moved back to New Plymouth with Daniel. At the first place we rented, the agent refused to clean up the rubbish left by the previous tenants; the tiles in the kitchen and bathroom came off, and we had to scrub the ceilings to remove generations of filth. He’d also neglected to tell us our address had most recently been used as a tinnie house, so for the first few months we had strange callers at all hours, until word got around that the place was “under new management”.

Our last house in New Plymouth was a dump, but we had to take it because once again we had dogs and I was on a benefit. (You may ask why dogs were necessary in our straitened circumstances, but being on the benefit was temporary and I find it difficult to live without dogs.) This dwelling was owned by an elderly lady who had more than 20 properties. She was conscientious about fixing emergency problems, but anything else she considered low priority. This included the rotting back porch, dangerous front steps, complete lack of insulation and peeling wallpaper.

We actually got on well; she used to bring chocolate cake when she came over. This all changed when she became too infirm to continue managing the properties and her daughter took over, ignoring all requests for maintenance if possible and lying about her responsibilities. To be fair, she’d been brought up to believe she was better than any tenants. She simply bullied them until they stopped complaining.

After almost two years, she gave me 90 days’ notice to move out of her crumbling property, with no reason. (This still happens all the time.) As a renter, it was a very difficult period for me. A solo mum, on a benefit and with a dog – three things that are death to finding a rental, even though I always paid the rent on time. 

"If you rent, pets are the first of three “Ps” that are almost always forbidden. The other two are pictures and parties."

I joined a queue of would-be tenants, some of whom were able to pay above the published price. If you didn’t have a good reference from your last place, or had ever been to the Tenancy Tribunal, or if you had dogs or children, or were a beneficiary, or were too young or too old, there was always someone closer to the top of the pile who was a better prospect. And there were some places I just wouldn’t consider, like the house that was about half a metre from a crumbling cliff, or the one with gaps between the walls and the floor that were so wide it was possible to see the trees in the yard.

After a frenetic and harrowing three months, my father came to the rescue. He stumped up a significant portion of his life savings for a deposit and I looked around small-town Taranaki, where $200,000 still bought a modest, decent house. I settled on Eltham, now my adopted home town.

My three-bedroom cottage sits on a fenced 1300sqm section; it’s dry, insulated and has a wood burner that pushes out heat. The bathroom is overdue for renovations, but the house has three toilets (one in the garden shed) and is home to three dogs and two cats who love it.

If you rent, pets are the first of three “Ps” that are almost always forbidden. The other two are pictures and parties. Now I can decide whether to cut the grass or have sheep eat it for me as I lounge in the sun during summer weekends. I will be painting the interior later in the year, any colour I want, and I’ve just installed a dog-door that required a fair chunk of the back door to be cut out.

I can hang as many pictures as I damn well please and have a merry old knees-up whenever I want, as long as I invite the neighbours. No one can throw me out of my house while I continue to pay the mortgage and rates. The very best thing is my total expenses are still $100 less per week than I last paid in rent. Over the next five years or so, I’ll have enough equity in the house to pay Dad back in full.

Renters in New Zealand are still ­second-class citizens. My experience is that most landlords couldn’t give a toss about their tenants so long as the rent and their mortgage is paid. Being able to buy a house has completely changed my life – and my future. For the first time, my house is mine. 

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.


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