Monday 11 December 2017

let

Rent

It is not in Maltese culture to live in rented accommodation on a long-term basis.

We will rent a farmhouse in Gozo for a weekend or maybe even a holiday flat for the summer, but to actually rent, rather than buy, one’s own home is unthinkable.

Contrary to other countries, young adults have absolutely no hang ups when it comes to still living at home with their parents and there is no stigma attached to it either. Whereas, for example, in the US, a man in his 30s who still lives with his parents usually sets of clanging alarm bells of caution for women (“Mama’s boy alert! Run!”) here, it is actually considered a good thing.

In fact, it is those single men and their ‘swinging bachelor pads’ who are looked upon askance. As for single women who want to live on their own, many a maternal eyebrow has been raised on that score, as vivid imaginations conjure up all sorts of scenarios about what she must be up to.  Most Maltese parents are still uncomfortable with the idea of their adult children moving out unless it is after they have done the right thing and got married first. Mothers, especially, beat themselves up, wondering what they have done to “deserve this” and asking their children why they should want to move out, “after all, you have everything you need right here” (“ma jonqsok xejn!”). I think probably only Jewish mothers are capable of inflicting the same kind of guilt trip on their children as a Maltese mother.

Meanwhile, the minute a young couple’s relationship turns serious, they embark on what seems (to me) a lifetime known as “saving up”, to buy their first home. Every penny, every cent, every Euro is channelled into this house fund, which explains why there are such long engagements. The decision to buy a property together (known endearingly as “il-post”, the place)  is taken as a sina qua non and sometimes comes even before the actual decision to get married.  Starting married life out by renting is unheard of because, the reasoning goes, why spend all that money on renting a property which will never be yours when you can be paying a mortgage instead? That does make sense, of course, although with marriages breaking down so quickly these days, I would think that a lot of financial headaches could be avoided if couples rented for the first few years to avoid all the stress of disentangling themselves from each other over a joint property should things not work out.

But, anyway.

There it is, in a nutshell. Those are the main reasons why the majority of Maltese people do not really look for rental properties on a long-term basis and why they have no clue what it really means to be a tenant.

On the other side of the coin we have the landlords, who for a very long time, were wary of renting to Maltese people because of antiquated rent laws which effectively meant that once a family moves in and proves they have no alternative accommodation, they could stay there forever (at the same rental rate) and you could never move them out.  Rents on certain properties were fixed at ridiculously low prices dating from the post-war period while the landlord was still obliged to carry out any maintenance.

That all changed with the rent reform of a few years ago, but I think it explains why there is still a lingering trace of mistrust and suspicion in the landlord/tenant relationship with the former forever assuming that the latter is going to screw them over in some way. (The fact that we are a suspicious nation by nature because it’s in our Mediterranean/Semitic DNA cannot be overlooked either).

Fast forward to Malta as an EU country, home to a number of iGaming and other industries which have brought in an influx of European nationals who want to live here for an indefinite period of time. EU nationals for whom renting comes as naturally to them, as buying property comes to us.

Suddenly, long-term renting is in high demand and savvy property owners with an extra home or two (the wisdom of investing one’s cash in property is not to be sneezed at after all) are busy offering apartments up for lease. So far, so lucrative.

The problem is that the rental market for long lets is completely unregulated. The problem is that the speed with which the rental scenario has changed has overtaken any formal structures which should, and have to, be put in place to avoid what is currently a Wild West free-for-all where unsuspecting foreign nationals sign leases in good faith, just as they would do back home, only to find that there are a hundred and one pitfalls no one told them about.

While this government is busy setting up new boards and authorities with fancy titles, perhaps it should make some time to set up an official authority which sees to it that some law and order is established in this sector. Properties available for long lets need to be registered (which will ensure that tax is paid), a standard contract which protects both parties needs to be formulated, rental properties need to be inspected regularly for safety issues, utilities need to automatically be on residential rates and any claim for damages by the landlord need to be backed up with photographic before and after evidence in order for the tenant to lose his deposit.

I am fully aware that there are tenants who skip town without paying their rent or bills and even cause willful damage, with the landlord left to shoulder all the expenses. But having experienced tenants from hell does not give anyone the right to turn into a landlord from hell and tar everyone with the same brush. It certainly does not give a landlord the right to phone a tenant’s employer, smear their name, try to get them kicked out of their job and place a garnishee order on their wages. This is the shocking reality of what happens when people take matters into their own hands.

Regulate the market, and make Malta a rent-friendly place for EU nationals to come and live here for a few years without feeling they are being scammed.  This is not some niche market we are talking about, but tens of thousands of tenants, and what they are all telling each other online at the moment is to move out and leave this “rip off” island for good.

  • Oisin Jones-Dillon

    How much more expendable can a human being become when the Maltese authorities inform them that they do not exist?

    Excerpt: ‘Arms Class Action Group, ‘Up in Arms’ spokesperson Patricia Graham, said in a statement today that, “according to acting CEO of ARMS Ltd, if your Landlord bills you for your utilities, you don’t exist!”………’

    Source: Gozonews: A property is not a consumer, a person is, says Arms Class Action Group – Tuesday, 18th February, 2014.

    http://gozonews.com/43900/a-property-is-not-a-consumer-a-person-is-says-arms-class-action-group/

  • QahbuMalti

    I really think you are generalising beyond belief. You have tarnished all landlords by implying that they take matters into their own hands. There is nothing better than self regulation and it is only when this does not work that you go about setting up bureaucratic structures that cost a lot of money.

    I have rented out several properties for many years and have rarely had ‘bad tenants’ but I have had them and it is awful. Being a gentleman you work around the problems and put it down to bad luck – but inevitably it results in being seriously out of pocket because of repairs that need to be effected and having to sort out utilities etc. Inevitably they work things out to screw you out of the deposit – and there is no recourse.

    I know from being around the industry that the landlords you mention ‘from hell’ are few and far between so please don’t generalise as it is unfair on the rest of us.

    • I really do not think that I generalised at all, and I certainly did not put all landlords in the same basket. If that is how my aricle came across, that was not my intention. But like everything else, it is the few landlords giving Malta a bad name which will stick out most. Self-regulation is ideal, of course, but if you had to read the accounts I have read of how some tenants are being treated, you will realise that there are many unscrupulous landlords out there. Regulation does not need to cost a lot of money: how much money can it cost to have an official standard contract, covering and protecting BOTH parties, which is downloadable from a website for example?

    • Johanna MacRae

      If you are a model landlord, why do you not want regulation? Surely it would be good for you to have a measure of protection from criminally behaving tenants? This regulation would work both ways.

    • Rich

      One would say that you are generalising. As implicitly you are saying that all landlords should self regulate a market which is defined by stringent laws. Your rare bad tenants are unfortunately far outweighed by landlords who take their self regulation to actually exist over and above the laws (Blackmail, violence, and certainly extortion, not to mention tax avoidance).
      Regulation as stated is a two way system, as renting is still an exchange of goods and services, and with no regulation from a governing body you have the wild west as Johanna describes. If the tenants from hell are really from hell, then the expulsion clause in many contracts is sufficient to remedy the problem. Why on earth would a landlord want to deal with the utilities, surely the tenants are declared and are therefore to be held accountable…or is it that they weren’t declared?

  • Joe

    The problem reached maximum absurdity when Maltese people started buying holiday flats in Gozo. The amount of pleasure you get from such a purchase cannot be worth all the bother when there are so many Gozitans who let apartments for weekends at what works out as a much more reasonable cost than buying and maintaining your own place.

  • Bob

    Leaving aside your stereotypes (you can give an anology of Jewish mothers and expect to be taken seriously when you say you did not generalise) and the issue sush as those of rent and utilities (It’s capitalism you should be irritated with really). Some have worked very hard and made many sacrifices to buy their other properties, as you mention. Perhaps keeping their children in mind, who afterall will have to pay an exhorbitant value which is dictated by market set by what foreigner can afford (like the igaming workers who get paid more for doing the same job as a local at times), not locals (good to keep in mind that there are some who don’t even have a property at all). Just a thought. As for the rip-off island, I say ‘ Good. Leave. Perfect time for me to invest in property in that case. Oh! Please do be careful; I heard of many people getting ripped off elsewhere too. If you are a retiree, you can always return home and enjoy paying the rates back in your home country if it is too much here. I’m sure you pension is enough (as it is for the locals). If not, perhaps you know what it is like for others who would like to retire elswhere but have much more limited choice’.

    Really, are you expecting tears to be shed? While I agree with you that the average Maltese is rather spoilt, for various reasons, it is not all easy going either.

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