Somewhere to live

I own a house in Christchurch with two friends. It is a charming three-bedroom character home in Spreydon with wooden floors, a sunny open-plan kitchen and lounge area, a double garage, and a decent-sized backyard with a fairly extensive garden. Lovely if you are in to that sort of thing.

For my sins (and for the princely fee of two dollars a year), I am responsible for its management. And that meant that I had the task of re-renting on a recent weekend after our previous marvelous tenants bought a house.

Shaky ground

Rental demand is very high in Christchurch at present. I have no idea what is really going on, but it seems that not as many people moved away as might have been expected after the earthquakes, and many people are now arriving to help with the rebuild. Although plenty of houses have been lost, not many have been built yet and the net result of all of that is huge interest in anything habitable and increases in rents.

Looking at the data on rents in Christchurch over time compared with the New Zealand average courtesy of Massey University does not seem to reveal so much. Average rents in Christchurch in February 2011 were 310 a week – the same as the average for the country. Rents from August 2012 were 330 (up 6% in the 18 months) for Christchurch versus 320 overall (up 3%).

More revealing, perhaps, is a more anecdotal report.

We had more than 2,500 views on our online advertisement on trademe in the two weeks before the open home. I took twenty or so phone calls and a handful of texts, as well as fifteen email inquiries. On the weekend there were 25 visits and we had 20 applications, eight of which were acceptable in the sense that I would have been happy to have those people live in our house. And of course in the end just one was successful.

How to win

There were two basic approaches taken by potential tenants, the tragedy and the salesperson.

The tragedarians inspired my sympathy. It would take a harder heart than mine to not be sympathetic to those who were being kicked out of their current digs for earthquake repairs or because the landlord was moving in, those who were squatting in a caravan with relatives or perched in a hostel looking for a place to move into with the family when they arrived in a few weeks, or searching for a place closer to family in the area after medical treatment.

In the event, though, this turned out to be the wrong approach to actually secure the lease. Sifting through the tragic tales to somehow try to determine the situation most worthy of relief would have required both wisdom and emotional strengths greater than those I possess.

At best, the tragedarians were playing a kind of lottery, no different in practice from the guy who filled in the form but never spoke to me, presumably chancing that, if he filled in enough forms in enough places, for some place he would be the preferred candidate.

Sell job

So, hard-hearted though it is to say, the salespeople won out in the end. What I was looking for was a decent long-term tenant who would look after the place, pay the rent, not generate any dramas, and tell me when something was wrong. Bonus points if you were prepared to tend the garden. People who found that out what I wanted early and could demonstrate they fitted the bill had the right strategy.

Successful was the person about whom we knew the most, because he was one of only two applicants who had the smarts to write to me beforehand to ask what we were looking for, reasoning that there was no point in applying for places whose criteria they did not meet.

Horrible was the process of calling the 19 unsuccesful applicants, particularly since for many of them there was no compelling reason why they did not suit other than blind luck, and for the others, well, no one filling in a rental application form actually wants real feedback on how they rate in a prospective landlord’s eyes. And so basically I feared not having anything coherent and not insulting to say if they asked me “why not”. And I did not like at all the power and status that I had by virtue of just having bought a house in Christchurch six years ago.

In the event, as often with fears, I need not have worried. The thing that made the calling most horrible was not that the unsuccessful applicants were upset, but that they were all so kind and understanding. It was as if they were sorry to have put me to the trouble of calling them all rather than confused and angry that I had not recognised their evident virtues. Not one of them asked me for any reasons, which made me meditate more than usual upon the apparent goodness of humanity, and made me suspect that this decision was far bigger for me than it was for them.

Strange what you can learn on the weekend.