Saturday, January 19, 2008

Great Expectations

Years ago I was a recruiter…a “headhunter,” if you will…and one of the things that struck me repeatedly were the unrealistic expectations of entirely too many of the employers with whom I dealt.

“I don’t want some old fart,” they would tell me. “I have a young team here…mostly under 30…and I need someone who will fit in.” And then they would proceed to give me a litany of qualifications that would take the better part of a lifetime to acquire, followed by a salary range that would cause a fresh grad to laugh. Part of my job, of course, was to counsel these guys…to give them some reality therapy. One of my stock-in-trade lines was “You’re going to either come up on the money or flex on the qualifications because guys who can do all this won’t work for that kind of money.”

Occasionally, however, I would run across some starry-eyed navel-gazer who would insist that if I just tried hard enough, I could meet his needs. To these people I found myself saying “Let me get this clear…your basic requirements are a guy under 30 with 20 years experience who is willing to work for entry-level wages. Honey, I’m a recruiter, not a magician!”

Those headhunter days are long behind me, but I still find myself regularly coming up against people whose expectations are all out of proportion to reality. I own a bit of rental property and my premium flat is about to come vacant again, and I am just flabbergasted at what some of these potential renters are expecting for the money they are willing to pay!

First, you must understand that houses and flats (apartments) in Cape Town, especially newer ones, tend to be rather on the small side. This, of course, is not uncommon anywhere in the world where the area is considered desirable: builders tend to want to maximize their profit by squeezing as many units onto a piece of dirt as they can, no matter that the rooms in the units are so small that it’s a challenge to get furniture into them.

Three years ago my husband and I spent three months looking for a new home, something that had a master bedroom big enough for our king-sized bed and the other pieces of our bedroom suite. We ended up buying in an older suburb where the rooms (and plots) were more spacious than the upmarket area in which we had been living. Shortly after moving into our new house, we went out looking for an investment property. We looked at houses, flats, and a variety of different units before settling on the property we now own.

We learned quite a bit over the last three years. One of the things I learned from a rental agent is that the average size of a two-bedroom flat here is about 74 msq…800 sq ft. Such a flat would typically have four rooms…living room, kitchen, bedrooms…plus a single, shared bath. I’ve seen even smaller but for the most part I would agree that 800 sq ft is a pretty typical size for a two bedroom flat around here.

In California I owned a tract house built in the early ’60s and it was about 1325 sq ft, which included three bedrooms, two baths, eat-in kitchen, living room, and a family room. Yes, the bedrooms were small and the eating area in the kitchen was cramped, but it was a single family detached house. Our flat, the one coming up for rent in a month, is 120 metres square, which is roughly 1300 square feet…nearly the size of my California house! And into that space it has a living room, dining room, huge kitchen, only two bedrooms, and two baths…unheard of in a flat! Additionally, the flat has two patios, a fenced-in private yard, and access to the pool and entertainment area. And to top it all off, the flat is located in a quiet residential area with well-maintained owner-occupied homes surrounding it, and all of the utilities are paid…no electric bill, no water bill, no bill for the trash collection.

The rent is R4750 (or $672) per month and considering that the tenant will not have to pay utilities…easily R350 per month, the price is quite reasonable. It’s clean, spacious, well located, and reasonably priced…so why are we having trouble finding a tenant?

Well, the first tendency is to look at the property and say “What’s wrong with it?” but after a couple of weeks of advertising, a couple of patterns began to emerge. The first one was one of callers not being serious.

We try to be conscientious, thoughtful landlords. As a result, we like to give the present resident at least 24 hours notice before dragging a bunch of strangers through her home. Unfortunately, the people who make these appointments seem to have no compunction about not showing up…and not bothering to even call to cancel.

This can get to be very annoying…I have to drive over to the place and wait for them to show up and so I sit in my car, in the hot African sun, awaiting the arrival of rude bits of humanity who cannot be bothered to call and cancel their appointments. Monday I had arranged to show the flat to four people…I have learned to arrange a single showing per day to cut down on the number of times I have to drive over and sit around waiting for no-shows…and out of the four, only one turned up. And she was a rental agent who had her client in tow.

It happened again last night…in fact, I would say that easily more than half of the appointments or just shrugged off by the potential renter…people who made the appointment but were not serious about keeping it. In fact, one woman has failed to show up for her appointment three times, each time sending me a hand-wringing email with one excuse or another and begging me for an “urgent” viewing. I go to the trouble to make arrangements with the tenant and then she no-shows again…makes me wonder what kind of excuses I would be dealing with when her rent is past due over and over again.

The second pattern I’ve begun to see is crystal ball gazing. This is South Africa and most houses have a six-foot high masonry wall surrounding the front of the property. This is the norm here and South Africans are accustomed to it. So, a rental agent made the mistake of giving out the address of the property to a potential tenant who, instead of waiting for his appointment to see the place, drove by it, looked at the wall, and then called her up to say the place wasn’t what he wanted. Without even seeing it? This same agent gave the address to another client who did the same thing, then called and said she was not interested in an “ugly little green house.” What? It’s painted white, not green, and besides, you cannot see it because of the privacy wall around it!

Yet another woman rejected the place…sight unseen, mind you…because her boyfriend didn’t want to live in that area. Ok, that’s fair enough…except that when she gave me a list of the places he did want to live, guess what was on his list? Yup…the very area he had just rejected!

The third pattern I have found…and the one that irks me the most…in the one I call “Great Expectations.” Like the woman who called and asked where the flat was located and when I told her, she very archly informed me that she was only interested in places near the beach…the flat is about a kilometre away from the beach, so I immediately checked various rental websites, fearing that I might be asking an out-of-line price for the place. Fifteen minutes searching for two-bedroom, two-bath flats near my local beach turned up several places on offer, not one less than R12 000 (about $1700), and none with the utilities included in the rent. None of them were garden flats, either, which generally rent for more money as well. I had to wonder what she had been smoking before picking up that phone, because my search revealed to me that tiny (less than half the size of the flat I was offering) flats near the beach were being offered for around R6 000 to R8 000 per month, again without utilities being included in the rent.

Then there was the young lady who made an appointment and who showed up with her boyfriend and another couple. She called me back a few days later and declined the flat because it was “too small.” It seems the two couples wanted to take it together and the couldn’t make 1300 square feet work for them…geeze, what do they want? A mansion? My neighbours in California raised entire families…households full of kids…in houses barely larger than this flat! And they can’t do two couples in it?

Then there was the woman who wanted to negotiate the rent if she also rented the little cottage on the grounds when it came vacant in April. What kind of break would I give her? The same break the bank will give me on my monthly mortgage payment, I was tempted to tell her. What cheek! Here I’m offering her a flat that is more than 50% larger than the average two bedroom flat (and not at a 50% increase in monthly rental), and throwing in free utilities, and she wants a better deal? What is wrong with this picture?

The tenant who is moving out was no better. Just weeks after she moved in…and knowing that the flat had secure parking for two cars but no garages…she called my husband and quite seriously tried to talk him into demolishing half her garden and one of her patios and building a garage for her! And she was serious! She had a small dog (we allow small pets) and left the front door open so the animal could come in and out, keeping her security door latched. No problem…except that the constantly open door was an invitation for the entry of a mouse into her flat. It took up residence in her kitchen and she demanded that we get rid of it for her.

Then there was the matter of her lights…she insisted that the downlighters in her living room were faulty, so we sent our electrician (at a cost of R300…more than $40) to chase down and resolve the problem. Turns out she needed to change the light bulbs and she was just astonished when Hubby informed her that it was her job to change her light bulbs, not ours!

And her dogs (by the end of her rental period, there were two)…the lease specifically states that dogs must be kept in the tenant’s private garden, but any time I was there, they were running loose in the common area and she was not very conscientious about picking up after them. When counselled on the problem, we were treated to a litany of reasons why she “couldn’t” comply, clearly implying that we should take responsibility and improve the fencing that separated her garden from the common area so her dogs would stop digging out!

On top of all of this, she was regularly a week…and sometimes up to two weeks…late with her rent, a situation that caused us to have to pay the mortgage on the rental property out of our own pockets and replenishing the funds when she got around to paying her rent. This caused us some uncomfortable cash flow problems at times, since we had our own obligations to meet and sometimes found it difficult to do so until she got around to paying her rent.

I suppose it is not surprising then that after two years of this kind of thing, it didn’t break our hearts when she informed us that she wasn’t going to renew her lease. In fact, we had already decided to decline to renew it at the end of her term…but she saved us the awkwardness of telling her.

And now I’m having to deal with people who can’t seem to read plain English (they send me email asking where the flat is located and how much the rent is, both of which are clearly stated in the ads), people who seem to think they can see through concrete walls, people who can’t be bothered to keep an appointment and haven’t the common courtesy to call and cancel it, and people who seem insulted that my R4750 flat…with free utilities, nogal…isn’t a seaside mansion. It’s getting to the point that I am seriously re-thinking the rental business…not that owning rental property is such a bad thing, but it would certainly be a lot better if I didn’t have to deal with all these people!

1 comment:

  1. Haai Blommetjie

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