Who's been living in my house?: Colin Wheeler took all the right precautions, but his student tenants took all the liberties

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The Independent Online
I HAVE always been obsessed by old houses, and my town, in Surrey, is full of them. With prices so low, I decided to buy one and save it from the common fate of so many, which is to be 'improved' - in other words, have their original interiors obliterated.

Eventually the right house came up, and after some frantic cleaning and decorating we let it to five female students from the local art college. There would be no profit in it - the rents would only just cover the mortgage - so I would, in fact, lose money overall.

My daughters were both battle-scarred veterans of many student houses and squats, and advised me on the basic requirements in the way of furniture and bedding. A local solicitor provided me with a short-term assured tenancy agreement to last six months.

It was clear that the neighbours were apprehensive when they learnt that the house would be occupied by students. Many houses in the street are large and expensive and no doubt there were teeth being gnashed behind the tasteful black front doors.

On moving-in day I bought some wine and invited the neighbours on both sides in for a drink. The girls were bright and responsive, and the neighbours were affable and seemed reassured. I handed over the keys at the beginning of July.

Anyone who has teenage children knows their stereotypical decorating style. 'Fitted squalor' best describes it. I was not surprised to see my cottage soon conforming to this pattern. What did surprise me was how rapidly it became a sort of hostel.

The girls seemed to have no sense of privacy. It literally became an open house - at first, I thought, only for fellow students, but eventually I realised there was a more sinister link between the constant visitors. The one thing it is difficult to hide about cannabis smoking is the heavy, sweet smell, and my daughters were able to identify what I would have been unable to spot.

By the autumn two of the girls had decided to leave, giving no reason. I asked them to arrange to find two new tenants, and they turned up two boys from the college. We agreed on a new six-month tenancy.

By now the filthy condition of the house was extraordinary, and soon after the boys moved in I found myself up a ladder repairing broken windows. On these occasions it was not unusual to see a roomful of complete strangers. It was clear that many more than the five rent- paying tenants were living there on a permanent basis, contravening the tenancy agreement, but impossible to prove.

By the end of the autumn term, a neighbour who had protested about noise to the students also told me that he was convinced from the smell that drugs were being used.

Soon afterwards one of the boys left, complaining that the condition of the house was too bad for him to live in. The Christmas holidays came and the students told me that the house would be empty for two weeks. It seemed a good opportunity to check on any repairs that might be needed.

Just after New Year's Day I entered the house. In one of the upstairs rooms we found a young tattooed woman and her boyfriend, both of whom were complete strangers. They said they lived there. There was also a letter from one of the bona fide students saying he had left, and a completely stripped room which indicated that another of the students had also decided to go.

It was a nightmare. Three of the tenants had left, breaking the tenancy agreement; no rent for January had been paid by anyone; the house was clearly being used as a residence by strangers to me; and the house seemed to be a well-established drop-in centre for the local drug-taking community.

It seemed that the only course of action was to contact the two remaining official tenants and ask them to leave.

To protect the house from unknown tenants I changed the front door lock and glued a note to the door directing anyone with a right to live in the house to contact me for new keys, should they return from holiday. I telephoned the parents of the two remaining girls who had signed contracts. I suggested that they could live in the house rent-free for one more week while they looked for another house, then leave.

In fact they came back, changed the locks, and refused to go at the end of the week. When I telephoned the parents, they supported their children's action completely, although they must have known they were encouraging them to break the law.

Under the terms of the agreement the five original tenants were 'jointly and severally' responsible for the rent - in other words if, say, four tenants left during the life of the contract the remaining one was still bound to pay their share.

I consulted a solicitor, who advised me to begin an action for repossession of the house, payment of arrears of rent, and costs. As my daughters said, there was every possibility that the girls would wait until the end of the tenancy contract period and then continue to live in the house until I was forced to take court action, which would take at least two months to complete.

I soon realised that students have two distinct advantages in situations like this. One is that they can get free legal aid and the other is that they theoretically have no money, so there is little chance of them paying anything should a court judgment go against them.

My house was being lived in by numerous unknown people, only a fraction of the rent was being paid, and I had to accept it.

There were some lighter moments. The local police rang me one day to ask about the layout of the rooms. The Metropolitan Police had a warrant to enter the house and proposed to do so that afternoon. A local constable later told me that everyone in the house had been arrested, including one of the girls, and taken to London for questioning - for something more serious than soft drugs. 'Substances' had been found, the constable said, but he was not at liberty to tell me anything more, except that nine beds were in use.

More unpleasantly, a neighbour told me that the landlord of the pub across the road and his wife had been assaulted by a gang of youths who were living in my house.

At that point about three months of the new tenancy agreement remained, and during that time my solicitor negotiated with the tenants who had left at Christmas, one of whom admitted that she had gone because of the way other people, mainly drug users, had been invited to live in the house.

Some money was obtained from these people, but only because any court judgments against them for non-payment would have been officially registered, making it difficult for them to to obtain credit in later life.

Eventually the two remaining girls, who were responsible for the whole fiasco, left the house. Just prior to the date fixed for the court case I owed my solicitor pounds 1,000. I decided to cut my losses and proceed no further. The two girls had lived in and abused the house for only two- fifths of the rent, although, as I found out later, they had charged at least one of their 'guests' rent. I had lost about pounds 1,800 in all.

I am sure some lettings to students can be perfectly trouble-free, but things can go catastrophically. And, with a short-term tenancy agreement, everything seems to be weighted in the tenants' favour.