Young professionals see advantages of renting

Changing work patterns are turning people away from owning their own property, writes Ken Welsby
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After househunting almost every weekend for three months, Agnes Barker and her partner, Peter, thought they had found their ideal home. "I had just started a new job in the exhibition industry, so we wanted to be near the National Exhibition Centre, while Peter needed to be near the airport because his job involves a lot of travelling," Ms Barker says. Solihull, on the Birmingham-Warwickshire border, was ideal, and the house was about pounds 5,000 less than they had been offered for their home near Bristol. But the bank turned down their mortgage application - "because they said Peter wasn't in regular work, even though he had earned nearly pounds 40,000 in the previous year".

The problem was that Peter's earnings were erratic; 18 months earlier he had been forced into self-employment after he was made redundant. Well- paid contract work in the IT industry had been easy to find but there had often been gaps between jobs and that was what had worried the bank. The couple could have trawled round other lenders; instead they opted for renting a property almost identical to the one they planned to buy, except that it was newly decorated and in much better condition.

Some 2 million homes in Britain are now rented privately, almost 11 per cent of the housing stock. This compares with less than 8 per cent a decade ago.

Thomas George, a letting agent in Cardiff, says that many of his clients are young professionals in their 20s and 30s who, a few years ago, would have been first-time or even second-time buyers. "A growing number of people are simply deciding that they do not want the kind of long-term commitment that buying involves. In some cases this is because they are contract workers or self-employed; in others, it is simply personal preference.

"It's respectable to rent again. I think we are becoming more like the continentals, who regard renting, particularly in large towns and cities, as the norm."

Penelope Rowlatt, an economist who has studied the housing market, points to job insecurity and negative equity as powerful factors influencing the growth of the rental market. Although most people who are made redundant get another job within three to five months, the general ethos of insecurity has made people wary of committing themselves to a mortgage. "In some sectors people now envisage a working life with patches of unemployment, retraining and a variety of different occupations. The mobility they need is enhanced by renting rather than buying," says Dr Rowlatt.

Letting agents say that after the upheavals in the property market many clients now think of housing simply as a cost, with no role in their long- term financial security. Britain's most active rental market is probably London's Docklands (Wapping, Isle of Dogs and the area south of Tower Bridge) with properties ranging from one-bedroom flats at pounds 130 a week to riverside penthouses at pounds 1,000.

"Our clients are people who rent because they want to, not because they have to," says Gaynor Walker, a letting agent. "I was showing someone a property the other day where the rent was pounds 900 a week and I asked him if he had considered buying. He said that he was happy to rent because it was less hassle."

Most lets take the form of assured short-hold tenancies under the 1988 Housing Act. In a nutshell, this allows the landlord to fix market rents and recover possession at the end of the period, normally six months or a year. The landlord is responsible for maintaining the fabric of the building, including fire and buildings insurance, and for the domestic systems and equipment, including central heating. So if the house comes with a fully fitted kitchen, complete with appliances, and the washing machine breaks, its repair or replacement is the landlord's responsibility.

When you decide to go ahead with a rental, the agent will initially want financial references, and possibly a holding deposit, widely regarded as an insurance against time wasters. You will be asked to pay at least one month's rent in advance, plus a deposit and administrative costs. The deposit is security against damage and dilapidation and, assuming you leave the property in the condition in which you found it, will be returned. The deposit is not usually more than two months' rent.

The agent will usually take an inventory of fixtures and fittings and their condition before you move in. Accompany the agent when he does this because you will have to make sure that what is there when you move in is still there when you move out.