Monday, June 18, 2012

Mark Zuckerberg, Craigslist and energy efficiency - what do they have in common?

Flat hunting in San Francisco has in very recent months become a monstrously competitive experience. You can find a much more creative rendering of this story told by many here.

It's a rather nasty witches' brew that blends a variety of experiences which normal people avoid. It's a little bit like competing on Shark Tank (or Dragons' Den, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are reading this blog) and a beauty pageant. Landlords and agents want to know your assets, income and projected revenues; but they also have to like the way you look (are they planning to live there, too?). It's also a little like online dating blended with job hunting. "Candidate" tenants are required to submit a letter explaining who they are, why they like the flat and why they think they are ideal tenants backed up with "character" references, and oh, yes, mine were called!

There is nothing else in life that has taken this level of sustained effort and cross-checking of my veracity as a responsible adult who can pay the rent every month and on time. I have either paid rent or a mortgage - sometimes both simultaneously - for the best part of two decades. But that seems to matter little.

Some life experiences bestow knowledge upon you that you never wish you'd learned in the first place and will be of little or no use in future. But at least job hunting or mortgage applications will be a piece of cake by comparison.

So why all the hoopla? Well, it didn't help to look in the weeks leading up to the Facebook IPO when  landlords just assumed every prospective tenant was also soon to be a zillionaire Zuckerberg employee. Each week monthly rents seemed to jack up by $100.

Interestingly, properties advertised by agents seemed to be more reasonable than those privately advertised. One lady had a two bedroom flat advertised at $3,000 per month - across the road a very similar, if not in some ways nicer flat, was advertised for $650 less.

I'm sure she got what the ad was asking for: a disgruntled tenant impoverished by ridiculous rent. She even said that the laundry downstairs was coin-operated because she feared tenants might set up their own ad hoc laundry services. Surely tenants paying $3,000 a month have got better things to do and wouldn't need an income from washing other people's dirty clothes?

I know rents are high because housing stock inventories are low -  that's just simple supply and demand. But it in San Francisco, the rental "market" seems particularly sensitive to the fortunes and misfortunes of the economy.

Quality housing stock is hard to find and value for money even harder, especially for privately advertised flats. Oh, and all that genuine fleecing (at least you end up with a roof over your head, right?) while being robbed by Craiglist scams.

Out of the 100s of ads I viewed at least 10% were scams… some were very sophisticated confidence tricks. I was spared falling into one trap only because of an admin oversight. But I engaged with many posters, thinking they were genuine. Watch out Stacy or Stacey Low… we're watching you even if Craigslist doesn't deal responsibly with you and others like you …  one less sophisticated scammer who couldn't spell at all well even wanted money upfront before viewing a flat (that didn't exist, obviously).

Aside from the risk of being scammed or having my credit ID stolen, it was a dispiriting waste of time. Craigslist is a scammers dream.

This example has just appeared in the past hour:

$905 / 2br - 1670ft² - 2 Bedroom 2 Bathroom Single-Family Home For Rent In Cow Hollow -

The last time a 2 bedroom flat was available for $905 in Cow Hollow must have been way before anyone reading this was born.

After several weeks of clicking refresh on my Craigslist search 300 times an hour, I grew accustomed to the language and it appeared that the more adjectives used, the worse the flat.

Adjectives with a completely counter meaning include:

Remodelled = a broken sink has been replaced; or a genuine upgrade in 1984;
Bright = has windows, but otherwise featureless and charmless;
Cute = tiny, possibly with a bedroom without windows;
Charming = possibly pink kitchen and 20 year old carpet; almost certain to have an extraneous random room that you'll never be able to use because it has no windows;
2/3 bed = one bedroom could be a closet or there is most certainly a glass paned French window separating two "bedrooms".

It astonished me that San Franciscans will fork out tonnes of cash for a drab and worn out San Francisco apartment that would not be tolerated by their fellow Americans, who are normally lovers of spacious interiors and large gardens. No laundry in the land that loves the tumble dryer and no parking in the land that loves the car strikes me as odd when such high standards are demanded from all other products and services.

I couldn't imagine paying half the equivalent of £2000 for something half as shabby in London. But then I joined the dots. In the US, even in California, where the record on energy efficiency is outstanding thanks to Gov Jerry Brown and his first term administration, there is little in the way of energy efficiency incentives for consumers, unless it comes through their utility company.

The price of natural gas in the UK alone is enough to make people switch to energy efficient boilers. But it's all burn, baby, burn in the US now, thanks to the low price of natural gas which quite possibly could be the only thing that has prevented the country from economic collapse.

What's more, in the UK, landlords are required by law to have boilers, gas stoves and any other gas appliances checked each year by a plumber - and not just any plumber, but one who is certified. Every five years, electric wiring systems are also required to be checked by approved electricians.

Perhaps building safety codes in the US were always better than those in the UK which is just now playing catch up. Once upon a time in the UK, students in particular seemed to poison themselves with carbon monoxide from gas fires all too regularly… I know I once had a near miss thanks to a gas fire installed without ventilation.

But in the hunt for a home, it concerned me when landlords either didn't know when the boiler was installed (I once asked if it had been checked - that was another alien from another planet moment).
Some didn't even know where the boiler was or wouldn't show us.

One elderly lady said her "furnace" was installed in 1923… when the building was constructed, I presume.

EU directives on energy labelling are not without their flaws. But at least it gives some reassurance that a) it won't cost you an arm and a leg to stay warm in San Francisco's winter that arrives around July; b) it won't cost you your life because it was installed 100 years ago.

But in the SF Fire Department's catalogue of mishaps that start fires that rip through the chimney-like wooden stud walls of San Francisco's "Victorians" I guess furnace fire can't be that high up.

One good unintended consequence of improved energy efficiency mandates for tenanted buildings would be general upgrades too - once you rip out a boiler/stove/fridge, etc you might as well remodel.

San Francisco tenants might then feel that they were getting at least something close to what they are paying for. 

While an intimate knowledge of every type of architectural style in San Francisco may be wasted overall, I did get to meet some diamonds in the Craigslist rough - some really very wonderful San Franciscans, and one who finally and refreshingly used nouns, rather than adjectives, to describe the qualities of their property.