Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Living With/As A Lodger

The year before last I was living in a guesthouse so that I could be near work.  In that context I noted that, with the economy moving in the directions it seemed to be; with it so difficult to move house in the UK due to the disparities in prices between different regions and the instability of the short contract work which is now so common across so much employment,  we would be see the return of forms of residence characteristic of the 19th and much of the 20th century. I felt I was living a kind of existence that Arnold Bennett may have featured in one of his stories.  See:

With a government bent on turning British society back in time we are likely to see the reappearance very quickly of such dated forms of residence. Examples include people having to sleep on floors, cramped into houses with their extended families, sleeping rough, and possibly in time as it becomes so hard to get any workers who can live anywhere near where they are needed, more and more companies housing their workers whether in caravans in the car park or above a department store like in ‘The History of Mr. Polly’ by H.G. Wells (1910). Accommodation will become a perk of a job and allow employers to pay that little bit less and also to hold another threat over their workers to ensure compliance: if you are not subservient to me and do all that I say, then, well not only do you lose your job but your home too. I can see Cameron and his controllers relishing being able to crack this additional ‘whip’ over the workforce they feel had it too much their own way during the Blair years, perhaps even, given how extreme their views seem to be, during the Thatcher and Major years too.

One of these traditional forms of residence is as a lodger. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means someone who rents a room in a house, not as a tenant but as a kind of a member of the family. They share the bathroom and usually the kitchen; in some houses they have their meals cooked by the owner of the house and perhaps their laundry done too, in others they have to deal with these things themselves. I have both lived as a lodger and until recently had a lodger in my house. From the outset I must say it is a miserable existence for all concerned. People only let out rooms because they need the money; there are tax breaks in the UK for doing so.

There are some advantages for the lodger in that though there is a contract you usually can get out of it easier than renting a whole flat. In addition, generally you just pay the rent and do not have to get mixed up in things like utility charges and council tax. In theory being a lodger should be cheaper than being a tenant. However, in my experience, the rent part is often very little different you just save on the household bills and in this age of fixed-term tenancy contracts which mean you can be compelled to pay rent on a property months after you have left it, it is (generally, not always) easier to walk away from when work moves somewhere else than if you were the tenant.

Lodgers are generally seen as sad, lonely middle-aged men, but these days they come in both genders and all ages and I imagine that the diversity in lodgers will increase as the employment and housing situations in the UK continue to deteriorate. I will look first at what it is like being a lodger and then turn around and look at the perspective from the people renting out the rooms.

The first thing I learned about being a lodger is that anything that goes wrong in the house is your fault. Any breakage, any smell, any malfunction is the fault of the lodger even if they have had no contact with the item or location in question. There will always be an immediate assumption that anything missing has been stolen by you. In the UK, people are unlikely to make direct accusations, until what they see as your wrong behaviour builds up to a certain level and then they accuse you of everything that has gone wrong over the previous weeks or months. Partly I think this is simply to put you in your place and emphasise that you are not accepted into the house. I suffered this even though the son of the owner of the house was a drug addict and was arrested while I was living in the house for breaking into a shop. I could have complained about having my room searched at 3 a.m. by the police seeking where he had hidden stolen goods. I was fortunate that I was simply able to leave.

The second thing you learn is that British households are filled with a whole series of ridiculous rituals which you must adhere to precisely or be accused that you are odd or being rude or were raised in a bad way. You have to learn quickly where your shoes must be left, when you must rise and go to bed, who has priority in the bathroom or the kitchen, what you can or cannot eat in your bedroom or cook in the kitchen (I was accused of having cooked with garlic, when in fact that was not the case), usually you must stick to bland very high fat English food or packaged food, nothing more imaginative. You must never drink alcohol even outside the house. Effectively, by paying the owner some money every week they feel they can set down more regulations on your life than your parents would have done. In extreme cases I have had friends compelled to open and close the curtains in their rooms at specific times and to even carry a light bulb from room to room and screw it in place if they wanted lighting in that room. Another friend, when a lodger, though permitted to use the washing machine, found that the owner was turning it through the programmes because she was impatient for the washing to finish. This left his clothes improperly washed and in fact the woman was damaging her own washing machine as she had become obsessed with her own rules.

The problem is, that people who let out rooms really do not want to have lodgers and they resent you because you represent how much they need the money. However, most British people cannot accept anyone else’s view of how a house should be run and set rules on others that they could not adhere to themselves. Very often you see such hardened attitudes on the ‘right’ way to do things cause arguments between couples and among family members. It is no wonder that the lodger will always be in the wrong just by their very presence.

It is incredible how having lodgers makes people so mean spirited. I knew a recently married couple who not yet having children took in a lodger, a young woman, so as to help pay with the mortgage. I met her once and she seemed nice and clean, but my friends could never say a good word about her. They kept their lights dimmed and complained that she was always turning them up when she was doing her college work (she worked as a nanny and did a college course part-time). I pointed out that it was actually difficult to read anything in their house when the lights were dimmed. However, they could see no legitimate reason for her wanting more lighting even to read and saw some sinister motive, claiming she must want to waste their money. This shows how far my friends, who until then I had considered rational people, had stepped into being so mean spirited when they got a lodger. It is not pleasant to be a lodger, you have minimal privacy and are highly dependent on other people, no-one does it from choice and no-one has any desire to waste the house owner’s money.

My friends’ attitude continued saying that they often found the young woman on the telephone and they disbelieved her when she said it was people calling her. They had no problem with her using the phone for calls, it was that again they believed she was going out of her way to spend their money. I asked them if their phone bill had risen since she had arrived and whether there were lots of new numbers or an often repeated new number on the bill. Of course, the bill had not changed, the woman was telling the truth, she had no reason to lie when the owners would get evidence of any lie from the telephone company. Again my friends were letting their prejudice blind them to rational evidence. This is not surprising. People hate having strangers in their house, they quite often hate having their own family members there but feel obliged by family ties not to complain. The lodger as a stranger is not spared the irrational anger that stems from the owners feeling somehow violated at having this person in their house. It is unsurprising that in these situations lodgers do not stay long. Even when renting a room, you want the place to be a refuge and instead you find you have to creep around and adhere to more regulations than you do in the workplace, it makes your times of supposed rest very stressful.

Last year we had two lodgers in our house. This was compelled on us as I remained unemployed and we needed all the money we could get into the house to slow down the steps to repossession. The 16-year old Spanish girl I have mentioned before: She was clean and was out partying most of the time so impinged little on the house. Once we got her a mirror in her room she spent far less time in the bathroom so it was alright. In addition, her English was good so she understood the regulations and her mother told her to behave respectfully to us. Her successor was very different and much more like the classic style of lodger. He was 20 and came from Saudi Arabia. His level of English was very poor which made explaining anything very difficult.

One challenge with having lodgers from abroad, even from within the EU is that they find it very difficult to comprehend how expensive food and utilities are compared to their home country. Thus, even the Spanish lodger will be more wasteful than British people are/are becoming. Our house is in almost constant gloom due to the low wattage of the bulbs we have installed. We have sequential baths in the same bath water and no-one wastes food. The Spanish girl probably treated us as respectfully as she would some distant relative.

The Saudi man saw us simply as his servants. Clearly at home he is spoilt with family members or servants cooking for him at any hour he chooses to come in; cleaning up after him all the time, even switching off lights after him. He believed, despite being repeatedly told, that any item of food not locked away was free for him to eat. He would open new packets if he fancied them. He was cooked meals which would be left for him to reheat as never once did he come home at the time he said. This food he would either leave out to attract ants and flies or throw away when it could have been eaten by someone else in the house. The fact that no can of fizzy drink or packet of crisps could be brought into the house without him consuming meant it very difficult to shop. He insisted on four to five cans of coca cola per day and when he could not get these would begin drinking all the drinks bought for the nine year old boy who lives in our house. In the end all cans and snacks had to be locked away and he was given ‘sacrificial’ cans to keep him from seeking out others, though he would do this, stamping up and down the house trying to find our latest hiding place. This was despite him having sufficient cash to buy a brand new smartphone, expensive clothes, chocolates and other luxuries himself.

Of course, he could argue that he had paid for it so that he could do what he liked with it, but we hate to see waste. He never switched a light off. You could track his progress through the house by the lights left on. He would visit the toilet in the middle of the night and leave the light blazing (or dimly glowing given our bulbs, but for hours still) and he constantly had the light on in his room throughout the day and night. He insisted that the boy in my house switch the computer from the games he was playing to unsuitable rap videos on YouTube or video sequences of Saudi military manoeuvres. I recognise a cultural difference, back home presumably younger people have to comply with his wishes without complaint, but it is not how our house runs especially when the boy has access to games on the computer as a treat.

Having been a lodger myself, I was sensitive to the challenges of being in that position. However, I was never a lodger like he was. The pile of sweaty socks smelt out the first floor. We had to get into his room and seize them (we offered to wash all his clothes for free but he did not offer them up unless pressed) to wash them. The hawking and spitting down the toilet every morning was a cultural thing which we accepted despite the volume of this activity. From considering all food in the house to be his rightful possession, he turned to my clothing, taking my scarf when he felt cold and then tossing it aside. It then disappeared so I was compelled to buy a new one until I tracked it down bundled up in his room.

Of course, we complained, but his initial ignorance of English followed by his complete incomprehension about why the servants were making such fuss over things that were ‘nothing’ (as he referred to the cost of the cans of coca cola), meant we got nowhere. The woman in my house grew angrier and angrier until she began shouting at him and then felt phobic that he would take revenge on her so secured herself and her son in her room against the fear of his attack.

This deterioration in relations was probably extreme, exacerbated by utter lack of common language and a common basis for rules on living. We had thought it would be useful to have someone from a different culture in our house. I have often worked with Saudis and know this spoilt brat of a man is not representative, but it made us feel wretched that we had to accept someone so using into our house because we were desperate for the money.

What are my suggestions coming out of my bitter experiences of being a lodger and having lodgers in my house? Well, you have to accept that it is going to be a pretty wretched experience for all concerned. Few people are experienced or trained in having or being lodgers. We live very much in a ‘me first’ society and in contrast to say those used to being put up by others in the past, having to share bathrooms and eat what we were given, all of us these days from childhood onwards and tutored to demand what we want precisely the way we want it. As Britain is being driven back to the Victorian era, we will pass through phases that look like the 1950s and so many of us are going to have to get used to sharing and putting up with stuff that will ‘do’ rather than precisely matches our desires.

If you are going to be a lodger, expect to face totally irrational regulations and expect to move on after a few months at the most. Despite what you pay you will be perceived, whether sub-consciously or consciously, as an unwanted intruder in the house. If you are having lodgers, remember that they are only human and that their behaviour and assumptions are likely to be hugely different to yours. Do not let things build up, talk with your lodger regularly and try to see things from their perspective as much as possible as, naturally, you will default back to your own view of things very easily and this view will harden as time passes. Remember that if you had your grandmother/uncle/cousin, whoever, staying for a number of weeks, even if you had a close and shared experience before, you would soon find it very challenging living with them. As with a marriage, having a lodger can only even just scrape by with a lot of communication and effort.


Mandy Thomson said...

Your points about lodgers often being little more than intruders in the house they live in is so true! Like you, I have been both a lodger and a live in landlord. I believe part of the problem is that live in landlords simply fail to consider what they can and can't tolerate before the lodger moves in. They also need to be absolutely honest with themselves and ask themselves if they have an easy going enough attitude and routine that can accommodate a lodger. I personally believe that if you're paying rent for a room & adhering to reasonable house rules (unless you're just covering your host's expenses - in which case, your status is that of house guest) that is your home, as well as your live in landlord's, and you both should negotiate as house mates.
You've made the point about the housing crisis being a driving force behind more shared living arrangements - in some ways, this is not a bad thing as the fact that up until recently we have had the luxury (denied previous generations) of having our own homes as soon as we got our first real jobs has no doubt made us quite spoiled and unused to sharing (in a wider sense, as well as house sharing) - it's interesting that you went out of your way to be a good live in landlord as you knew what it was like to be a lodger.
When I was a lodger in my friend's house a couple of years ago, after a few weeks I ran up against the mindset you describe - totally illogical and unreasonable - even a little insane! You also say that live in landlords can feel violated - this was in fact the word she used - in relation to something relatively trivial she was happy about initially - which lead her to imposing an unreasonable restriction on my use of the house as I was, after all, "just the lodger" - up until that point I was her friend who just happened to be letting her room. And no, we were neither of us young girls starting out flat sharing - we were two middle aged, reasonably well educated women! Needless to say, we are no longer friends and the experience prompted me to write a whole website on having lodgers –

Rooksmoor said...

Mandy, since writing this posting, I have had more experiences. In one house where neither the fridge or the cooker were working (which to mean seemed something the landlady would want to resolve herself) the moment I mentioned them, she refused to rent a room to me. A landlady I spoke to said that when people came round if they expressed any interest in the living room or the kitchen she would decide against them. I asked her where she expected them to go, she said 'well in their rooms; on their computers', the rest of the house is for me.

I think you are right a lot of people are unsuited to be landlords and yet with such a shortage of property to rent, many people have no choice. Now when looking for a room, I favour either Sikhs or immigrants from Eastern Europe as landlords. In addition, I do best if there is a lot of junk lying around the house and outside. The last three rooms have had these characteristics, two were with Sikh families and one with a Lithuanian family. The advantage of the junk is that no-one thinks there is anything of value in the house and are less like to burgle it except for scrap metal.

I wonder if the issue is something specific to the British, in the way that an 'English(wo)man's home is his/her castle'. They have strangely fixed views and even lie to themselves about their own behaviour. As a middle-aged man the choice of rooms is always very limited for me, but I would always now consider only renting from someone who has been a lodger themselves and preferably someone who immigrated into Britain even if that was years ago.

I will check out your website, thanks for the message.