Property: Paradise postponed

Rural idyll? Robert Nurden has a cautionary tale for jaded urban folk who dream of renting that charming cottage in the country

This is a tale of barking dogs, a smoke-filled bedroom, three redundant cookers and two mute estate agents. It is a story of how renting and letting can bring headaches as painful as those induced by buying.

Not another townie sounding off about the strange ways of country folk, letting agents, landlords and tenants? Well, yes, actually. But it may also be a useful pointer to other urban folk thinking of moving to the sticks.

These days a lot of people leaving the city are holding off from buying, and renting first. "Renting is coming back," says a spokesman for the Association of Residential Letting Agents (Arla). "Rental now has 11 per cent of the market, compared with 7 per cent in 1989. Greater job mobility, contract working, climbing divorce rates and the fact that people are settling down later are the reasons. Before, the mother-in- law and Mrs Thatcher pushed us into home ownership, but not now."

He also says that renting is the popular option for those in between selling and buying. "But legislation has made renting complex. It has become so involved that we offer training for agents to keep them up with what they must know. Unfortunately, a lot can still go wrong - usually in rural areas."

I had decided to leave London and move to the country. I rented a two- bedroom, stone cottage in a picturesque village in Northamptonshire and rented out my two-bedroom terraced house in E7. I no longer needed London adrenaline on a full-time basis; part-time would be fine.

In theory, the operation was simple: I was the only one moving, and if it all went wrong I could return to my London house. It was also going to be quite lucrative: my pounds 400 a month mortgage would effectively be paid by my tenants, and I'd get an extra pounds 60 after the agents had taken their cut of 15 per cent.

The day I moved in, there was no electricity. Nor did the boiler work. To keep warm, I lit a log fire in the lounge grate. I got warm but when I went to bed in the room directly above, I walked into a pall of smoke - there was a brick missing in the chimney.

A local firm came to repair the boiler, and discovered that the pipes didn't link up with it. When I took my list of complaints to the agents, they promised to "get someone in", but four weeks on the situation was the same.

I'd seen three dogs next door when I looked round the cottage. What my Kettering agents had omitted to tell me was that "next door" was a breeding kennels and that there were 13 dogs there, the rest cooped up in outlying sheds. Or that they barked all night, particularly at 5am when they were fed. Already I was pining for the hushed glades of E7.

At 5.30am I went out and shouted at the dogs to shut up. The next morning my parka-jacketed neighbour threatened me. Wagging his finger in my face, he said: "Don't you ever do that again, I can get very nasty." I'd seen the pheasant hanging on the outside wall of his house, guessed he had a gun, and in that instant decided I wasn't going to live there any longer. My rural dream was in tatters.

"People who come here to rent always take the first thing they see," says Barbara Parsons, of Knight Goodwin in Stamford, Lincolnshire. "If they come from the city, they panic and think they have to get in fast before the property goes."

Part of the problem is the shortage of properties to rent - the agency has the names of 50 people on its books actively seeking places.

If tenants lay themselves open tomurky histories, landlords, too, are liable to be ambushed by unexpected rules. Two days before my move, my London agents informed me I'd need to pay for a gas inspection. Rob, fresh out of gas school, gleefully declared two appliances illegal. My gas fire and cooker, which I'd been using for eight years, were "dangerous".

A second-hand gas cooker would cost about pounds 140, plus pounds 45 to fit the required tap. But I saved money by buying my tenants a second-hand electric cooker (pounds 125) as the necessary plug and switch were in the wall.

Then my agents called to say the tenants couldn't cook because there was no wiring behind the wall. So I decided to sell the electric cooker and buy a gas one instead. The firm would deliver that evening and install it.

I got a call to say they hadn't come with the right parts and were going round the next evening. The tenants now had three cookers in the kitchen, all unusable. But the firm failed to turn up that evening and the tenants had another weekend of take-aways.

As for me, I've diluted my rural vision and am renting a two-bedroom house in nearby Stamford, one of the loveliest towns in England. And it's OK. I wouldn't leave it for anything.

THE INS AND OUTS OF RENTING

Tips for tenants

1. You may have to pay agency fees for administration and inventory, but refuse to pay introductory fees.

2. Ask to see Corgi gas inspection certificates.

3. Expect to supply names of bank or building society, employer and previous landlord as referees.

4. A month's rent in advance, plus a deposit, are normal.

5. Nowadays, the initial rental period is usually six months.

6. Expect to pay bills for gas, electricity, telephone, council tax, and TV licence.

Tips for landlords

1. Because of the complexity of rules, it is now wise to let through a good agent, linked to an association such as Arla.

2. Always make an inventory and get tenants to sign.

3. Get rent paid by standing order.

4. Agents advise on tax liability and procedures for Inland Revenue.

5. There are two types of house insurance: legal expenses cover and rental insurance cover. Insure property for letting.

For more information, send sae to: Arla, Maple House, 53-55 Woodside Road, Amersham, Bucks BP6 6AA.

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