Preparation Back Home
With a gameplan to travel for a year in North America we had to decide how to
look after our home in England. We were very reluctant to just leave it empty
and besides, that causes problems with insurance to say nothing of the garden
So we elected to put it up for rental so that someone would look after it and
the income would not go amiss in offsetting our travel costs. In hindsight I'm
not sure I would make the same decision again and I doubt our rental income will
offset the costs of renting it out.
There are many rules when renting out a property which do not apply when you
are just living in it. Most of these are related to safety so one could argue
that you should do them anyway, it's just a question of degree. Many of the
things we did would have needed to be done any way and maybe should have been
We started the process of preparation when we returned from the trip when we
bought the RV. We had five months before we were due to return to the US and it
was barely enough time.
The first problem was to get an electrical safety certificate. This can only
be given now by a certificated electrician and there are not many about because
it is quite expensive to get and maintain certification. Now, our house was
built in 1956 and the wiring was original. It was PVC covered and in fairly good
shape but it was NOT to current standards. These change every few years so few
houses are to current standards. Our main problems were to do with earthing
which should be in solid cable for power circuits and should be continuous for
lighting circuits. In addition all exposed metal parts including the screws
which hold the switch faceplates to the back boxes have to be earthed. Many of
our wall lights were metal so they were unacceptable. In addition the main
switchboard must now be protected by a 30mA RCD. Ours had been replaced some ten
years ago to the then current standards which specified a 100mA RCD - no longer
acceptable for a rental safety certificate.
The bottom line to us was that the amount of work and disruption and
redecoration was the same to fix the problems as to undergo a complete rewire.
So we opted for the latter option. The next problem was to find someone to do it
who could start and finish in our timescale. Easier said than done. Few
companies would look at us inside of a year. Eventually we found a newly
qualified electrician fresh out of college knowing all the current regulations
but never having tackled a job the size of our 'large' house.
He did an excellent job with minimal mess and maintained service throughout.
Our expert friends advised it would take six weeks and he took seven. We were
well pleased. Note however this would not be possible now since there are new
regulations effective from 1/1/2005 which mean that all such work must be
certified which means only a company who has a certified electrician can do this
work. The price probably doubles and you will undoubtedly have VAT as well. We
were able to then just employ the original electrician who had condemned our
original installation to give us a safety certificate (although getting the
actual certificate still took two months of pushing).
He had been very careful and there was only minor damage to our decoration
but this still kept us both fairly busy rearranging the house in front and
behind his work to give him access to the areas he needed, and repairing the
bits we had to. We had to compromise because some of the wiring and lights could
not be reached eg where we had built a tiled bathroom over the top and there
were bits of wiring we never worked out what they were for.
One little problem we did have concerned metal sheathing embedded in the
walls which our tester said should be earthed and we couldn't fathom out how. If
it was a flat metal plate over the wires then it is classed as mechanical
protection and does not require earthing. If it is a metal tube then it is
conduit and does. In the end pragmatism ruled but for a while we had the most
compliant house in the road and still could not get a certificate. I cannot
believe that the mass of rental properties for students and the like has this
much hassle, but this was just the start of the troubles.
If you have an annual maintenance contract then a gas safety certificate
should be a formality. Unfortunately after our last maintenance visit we smelt
gas and discovered that the pilot light system on our gas fire had collapsed.
Thus we needed a new gas fire. The gas fitter advised a low-lintel model so we
bought one. The fitter who came to fit it said we didn't have a low lintel and
the fire we had bought would not fit. Also our old gas fire was unsafe and
obviously had been for years. The shop then advised they had no fires which
would fit. The only possibilities required a new flue, new fireplace, new vents
because, guess what, they weren't to current standards!
In the end we had a backplate made to fit the fire we had bought to our
existing fireplace and then had a trim made to match. It finally got fitted, but
three months after we had ordered the fire and been assured it would be fitted
in a week. This was really the story of the whole process of getting ready to
go. We are also left with the view that few professionals really know and if you
don't like the first answer find another professional. At the very least you
will get a different story. Now why are we not surprised by that?
The Garden Wall
For years our garden wall (all 200ft of it) has been steadily deteriorating
and should have been repointed and had the coping stones fastened back into
place before they fell on someone. But despite all the unemployment there is
supposed to be, finding anyone to do a job like that is almost impossible.
Finally we realised we had to fix this long-running problem and I found a
builder to do the job. It was not a trivial task since about 25 ft had to be
rebuilt and it took 5 men five days and then three men another five days to
complete the job. They didn't do a bad job, worked hard and were relatively
tidy. However the undergrowth they trimmed to get at the inside of the wall was
then deposited (by mistake) in next door's compost heap. He was not best pleased
and I ended up with a four hour job chipping it. This would not have mattered
really and my neighbour was quite apologetic about it (as was the builder) but I
was due to depart in 48hours and I could have done without the job. Equally it
was quicker for me to do it rather than the builder and time was of the essence.
In itself this was a trivial problem but was indicative of the syndrome that
"what can go wrong, will go wrong!" which seemed to affect everything
It is now the law that you cannot leave anything with non fire resistant
fillings in a rented property. This meant we had to dispose of our bed. A very
good bed but not certificated. We have given it to friends as a second bed. We
will work out what to do when we return.
Our other bed had a certificate but we were unsure of the headboard so it had
to go. A bit over the top in my book.
We had a very good old-person's high seat chair which we had acquired after
my mother died. She had not liked this label sticking out and making it look
untidy, so she had cut it off. And, in the interests of cutting down on the
amount of paperwork left to be cleared out after she died, she had thrown away
the receipt. Thus we had a good safe chair with no certificate and no proof of
purchase date. You cannot even give such things away so you end up throwing an
almost new £400 chair on the tip which is criminal. I eventually found an
appreciative home but it took time.
I also had a very good Englender Recliner which had old foam in it. We also
found a home for that. It will be retrieved and reupholstered by my talented
wife when we return.
I accept the need for safety but the absence of proper paperwork can
result in some criminal waste and there are plenty of other hazards around the
house. In part the compensation culture does nothing for the less fortunate of
We have a fairly large house at the upper end of the rental market so we
recognised that it might take a while to find a potential client. Unfortunately
we did not feel able to start the process until we had completed the rewiring
since the disruption was just too great to contemplate holding any viewings.
So it was Christmas before we could start the process, just under three
months prior to departure. We found an agent who again ran a small part time
business but did live close by and had managed a property well for a friend of
ours. We elected to put our faith in the personal touch which is rarely there
with the larger companies - and to date we have not been disappointed with our
We knew that we would be looking at a professional person probably with a
family. We had agreed that we could be flexible about how furnished we left the
property and left as many options open as we could. I think that was good from
the point of view of finding clients but it did nothing for our stress levels.
Early on we had an American couple which sounded good. He was MD of a company
and was in the UK managing a subsidiary until he retired. He wanted to rent for
four years UNFURNISHED. Now that sets you thinking about your future life!
And what have you got that is worth keeping in store for four years! They also
had dogs which they were bringing over from the US. We agreed to consider them
but I was not sorry when we found someone else. We are quite comfortable with
1-2 years but 3-4 feels like a bit much.
It also speeded up our evaluation of the storage option for our furniture. At
£50 per month for a 5'x7'x7' container (and we would need 8) we soon decided
that storage was not an option. Although we did have one couple who said if they
decided they wanted the place they would pay the storage!
Then we had folk who wanted various degrees of part furnished and we could
have the study or a bedroom to put our stuff in. Eventually most of our stuff
went in the attic or the cellar with some larger items in the garage. It has
been suggested that the insurance companies might not be happy with this and may
limit our cover but at this end of the market there is (rightly or wrongly) a
little more trust. Besides little of what we have stored has real financial
The real problem with all this is that you don't know what you are packing
for until you have a tenant. Eventually you have to make decisions and each
decision closes down options for someone. In the end we were packed before we
had a signed up tenant, but that is another story.
We would never make landlords in the real world because we are far too
accommodating putting ourselves in the place of the tenants and trying to meet
their needs. In our case this included replacing the carpets in the toilets and
bathroom with vinyl since they had three small children. (When I was setting up
the insurance, they asked me what the tenant's wife's occupation was, I asked if
this mattered to which the reply was only if it was hazardous. In my book three
children under eight is hazardous!)
Our agent handled all the contract negotiations for us and earned her fee.
This took longer than expected (as did everything) because they needed a credit
reference from his previous address. This was in Dublin and was a house they
owned but had rented out while they were in England. He duly received a letter
requesting a reference on himself. Amusing and we all saw the funny side, but we
could have done without the ten day delay this caused.
Eventually it was all signed up the day before we left - perhaps it was a
House insurance all changes when you rent out your house. It largely seems to
be the province of a completely different set of companies. Oddly it doesn't
seem to cost fantastically more. There are however a large number of
supplemental insurances to cover loss of rent and malicious damage and so on.
After discussion with our agent and with the insurance company as we struggled
to understand the ramifications of the different options we decided to go with
their recommendations not to take many of the options, given the end of the
market we are in. Perhaps we have too much faith in the goodness of people but
where are we without some trust?
Car insurance was another of those areas which took far longer to organise
than it should. We had sold the smaller of our cars but had decided to keep the
larger car because it was worth more to us than it was to sell. (Large, old and
automatic just doesn't have a market). We decided the best option was to take it
to my father-in-law who lives in the country and leave it on his property. He
would start it up and rotate the wheels now and then, but not drive it on the
road (he is 82).
So on ringing the insurance company to ask to convert the insurance to theft
only I was bewildered to be advised that he would have to be a named driver and
it would depend on his being acceptable to the insurance company. It turned out
they only offered third party cover. The next company had an Indian call centre
and they do not understand northern accents, to say nothing of the concept of insuring
an off the road car. "You have to tell me how many miles it will
travel". Needless to say they did not quote me happy. They would have saved
themselves and me a lot of time by listening rather than slavishly following a
Finally I found a company who understood my accent (and I hers). She listened
and then checked with her supervisor before advising me that she did not believe
the process and neither would I. I had to insure the car third party and pay the
£250 premium. Then when I received the certificate I had to return it with a
note and they would reduce the cover and refund me £200. Having spent over a
day on a process which should have taken 10 minutes I was past caring.
All the complexities of English Insurance were matched by the problems on the
US side but there there are so many options it becomes difficult to grasp what
you need. I'm convinced we are doubly covered in some areas and not at all in
others. I can understand why folk end up without insurance, it is just too
complicated to comprehend.
Travel insurance we knew would be a problem from our initial trip. Many
companies now sell an annual policy but restrict the length of an individual
trip. In our case our normal policy limits us to 65 days. I now understand this
is generous and it is 31 days with most. I had naively thought that increasing
the length of the trip would just be an increase in premium but no. This took
some time to solve but eventually we found a single trip policy to cover a whole
year with an endorsement which allowed us to return home four times in the year.
Medical insurance was normally covered by a private policy we had. On
advising them I was going abroad for a year they increased the premium to over
£4000 a year EACH. Given that our travel policy also covered medical care at
£250 we figured they weren't covering the same thing. Further investigation
revealed our existing policy would still provide some cover and that lapsing it
would cause problems with future care for existing ailments so we chose to
retain it and take the travel insurance. Thus we are doubly covered (or probably
not covered at all).
Whilst it may seem attractive to talk to a broker for all this I suspect that
they are like all professionals we have encountered. What we are doing is too
far out of the box for them and they end up guessing. Good advice has proved
very hard to find. If you find someone (or several someones) who seem to grasp
the problem then get their names and hang on to them.
Finding a gardener is another of those tasks which is very difficult to do.
This is particularly true if you have a nice garden with good plants as we have.
We eventually found a lady who was happy to provide the gardening skill but was
worried about our long high beech hedge and mature trees. However our neighbour
agreed to trim our hedge (a copper beech) and the tenant was happy to mow the
lawn so we feel we have it covered.
Rather more difficult were our two fishponds (both of a significant size) One
had about 10 large Koi carp, pretty and quite old but not particularly valuable.
We had bought them as 3-4" fish for a few pounds and over the years they
had grown. The second pond had a couple of dozen baby koi, goldfish, rudd and
orfe. But it was primarily used for growing lilies and marginals. Because of
their young family the tenants had asked if we would empty the ponds and mindful
of how we would feel in their shoes we had agreed.
Disposing of the small fish was no problem but the larger ones were more
difficult. We had a couple of offers from our local herons which we declined.
Eventually they went to a retired landscape gardener who had got tired of losing
small fish to the herons and wanted something which would fight back. March is
the wrong time of year to move fish but we had no choice. All the plants went to
our agent who has put them in a paddling pool pending the gardener lady
splitting, repotting and finding homes for them. One of my friends had the pumps
and filter so that his ponds could cope with the increased quantity of fish.
We then emptied the ponds which involved the construction of a drainage
system and took almost a day just to empty the water (and two more for the
sludge and catching the tench). Finally we took out the liners and stored them
in the dark to reduce the deterioration. The tenants were happy with that and we
did not fill them in (they are over four feet deep in places). I'm sure the kids
will have fun, I just hope the sides don't collapse on them. I suppose they are
safer without the water but I'm not 100% convinced. The tenants' youngest
daughter was quite disappointed that we had taken her fish away.