Property: Just add another room and you should be able to let it
Americans may pay a fortune to rent your house, but they find English homes leave much to be desired. Penny Jackson explains how to make Uncle Sam happy
Saturday 13 June 1998
More likely than not it's out with the carpet, out with the expensive wallpaper and out with the paintbrush. American tenants may be prepared to pay more than pounds 8,000 a month, but only if they get exactly what they want.
Big, bland and beige, says one agent who has the "wish list" imprinted on her mind. Even though there is competition for family houses, second- best doesn't enter the vocabulary of Americans with a corporate budget.
First-timers in the UK are all struck by the same shortcomings of the English home, and what as guests they are happy to tolerate, as tenants they are not. They wonder, not unreasonably, why life is so unnecessarily uncomfortable.
"All the Brits tell you that there are no bugs here, but there are," was Helene Glucksman's first discovery. "I had been warned but I'm amazed there are no screens on the windows. We had this flying monster the other day which we tried to flush down the toilet. It didn't go, of course, and that's another thing - the plumbing.
"You don't have mixers on the taps, so there is a tiny window of opportunity before your hand gets burnt off," says Mrs Glucksman. But the shortage of space couldn't be laughed off as easily as the threat from biting insects. "We took the house on condition that a third reception room was added. So a new extension has been built and the cloakroom redone," she explains.
She and her husband and their two sons have taken a house in Weybridge, Surrey, and expect to be in England for four years, long enough to find the loss of family living space more than a minor irritation. "We loved the house apart from that, and we saw everything from the impeccable to houses so terrible I couldn't believe they were on the market. You just have to get used to things being so much smaller."
She might have added expensive, as rents, such as the pounds 4,000 a month paid for their house, can be twice as much as they would pay in the States.
Victoria Lamb, of Oak Residential Lettings, whose business is virtually all with Americans, says they expect a high standard for the money. "It is worth owners making some of the changes that attract American tenants."
Terry Inskip, of Hampton International's Sunningdale office, has learnt to be tactful with owners. "If I went into a typical family house and reeled off all the things that need doing, they wouldn't go any further. But at the very least they will have to replace a bathroom carpet with a washable floor, put pumps on showers, build in cupboards and upgrade kitchens."
She gives an example of a delightful house in a quiet spot being impossible to let because the kitchen was out of date and the bath pink. "Only when we persuaded the owner to spend money on replacing them could we find a tenant.
"People can let their houses for as much as pounds 8,500 a month in Sunningdale, and in areas close to American schools and London airport an increasing number of investors are buying houses between pounds 300,000 and pounds 400,000 and Americanising them. They can expect a return of at least 10 per cent gross a year."
That is, as long as it's not old and charming on the inside as well out. In that case it is doomed to sit on the unwanted list.
"Even when you explain to some Americans what to expect, they are still amazed. "Most will laugh and try to renegotiate their package but a few will say 'to hell with England' and refuse to work here at all," says Ms Inskip.
In St John's Wood, north London, Linda Dempster from Denver, Colorado, is still struggling with living on three floors and too many stairs. "There is never enough storage space, the bathrooms are too small and as for the size of the refrigerator..."
Under-the-worktop fridges have always had Americans in fits of laughter and they will find space somewhere in the house for the double-door US model. "We know how lucky we are with this house, though," says Mrs Dempster.
The Dempsters rent the carriage house of what was the Cuban embassy, through John D Wood. The agency's Dawn Shepperson finds that long-established Americans often do the best selling job. "They'll say things like 'this is a closet but here they call it a bedroom', but while joking about the house they also bring some people down to reality."
It is not always easy to sell the idea of a four-storey town house to someone used to thousands of square feet of open-plan rooms. "I wedge all the doors open before showing Americans around and try to let as much light in as possible." They pay enough not to want to compromise and often bring their own furniture which can sit uncomfortably with daisy-patterned walls and squirls on the carpet.
One British couple living abroad were horrified to be told by Ms Shepperson that the tenants wanted to replace their handpainted wallpaper with white emulsion. "They asked me whether I had any idea how much it cost. They gave in though."
One American woman has made 11 visits to the house she is merely considering renting for a year. On top of that she has paid for her interior decorator to travel from America twice in order to advise her where the furniture should be placed.
The odd extension here and the loss of handpainted walls there are financial blips set against the amounts that British owners can earn from American tenants.
But there are limits. When a family moving into a Surrey house asked Victoria Lamb to change the dull water in the garden pond so that it looked fresh and blue, she had to explain that it was a wildlife pond and that everything in it would die. "They told me 'Don't worry, we'll feed the fish'. We won that one, but they clearly thought it was mad."
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