The South Riding RV Travels

14

UK Preparation

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 etc.

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 done already.

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.

Electrical Safety

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.

Gas Safety

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 we touched.

Fire Hazards

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 our society.

Potential Renters

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 decision.

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 value.

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 good omen.

Insurance

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 script.

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.

The Garden

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.