Flatting 101

Flatting 101

It’s that time of year again – every knock at the door is another group of students hoping to look around “really quick” to see what is up for grabs. Going flatting is a rite of passage for students, signifying a new independence away from parents or the swipe card-dominated 10pm Quiet Time of hall life. For students who have done it all before, it’s a chance to start afresh with a new house and new people or keep up tradition and re-sign for another year of awesomeness. But the world of rent, flatmates, and near-poverty can be daunting, especially when the list of things to think about keeps getting longer.

So, you’re either about to pop your flatting cherry or you’ve done it all before and are ready for round two (or three, or maybe even six or seven). You’ve got a posse that you’re happy to spend the next year with, and you’re out door-knocking like the Avon lady up and down Leith, Hyde, Castle, and Clyde, because that’s the best place to live in Dunedin, right? Well… maybe. But maybe not. There are a few vital steps that you need to take before you throw the flat-warming party that you’ve been looking forward to since your last NCEA exam.

Step 01: Flatmates

There are two golden rules to flatting: choose your flatmates carefully; and don’t screw the crew. Caryl O’Connor and Laura Drake from the Dunedin Community Law Centre, and Campus Cop Max Holt agree, that who you live with is the most important part of flatting (they were less sure about the shagging). Tales of incompatibility, flatmates participating in illegal activity (from selling illegal substances to housing inappropriate guests), inter-flatmate burglary, and all-round shit times are common traps for inexperienced flatties. And loved-up couples aren’t immune. Choosing to live with your significant other or a new couple should’t be a rushed decision. Remember, you are going to see every side of your flatmates, from PMS insanity to hangovers, exam stress, or OCD clean-freakiness (the next time you tell me to scrub the toilet with a toothbrush, I’m going to use yours). So if you’ve already said yes to that friend with a spewy tendency and a habit of getting rip-roaringly drunk twice a week, you might want to think again.

Step 02: Location

As good as rolling out of bed and into a lecture sounds, there are pros and cons to every location. Scarfie central is closer to Uni but it’s also more expensive and popular, and if concentrating on study when there’s a party next door isn’t manageable it might not be for you. Also, there is a higher chance you’re going to get burgled in the student area. Max Holt says that criminals tend to target North D, and safety is a very important issue.

On the other hand, a 15-minute walk to class might seem a bit shit but if quiet nights are the difference between passing and failing it’s something you should consider. Also, Caryl from the Law Centre says it’s important to look for “insulation, heating and sun. Things can look pretty sweet in summer, but there are some places in Dunedin in winter that never see the sun.” If your Nana can’t knit and you don’t have many blankets, this is something you really need to think about.

Step 03: Bondage, Rent and Cash Monies

No, I’m not talking Fifty Shades of Grey-ish riding crops and blindfolds – though that bondage sounds like a whole new kind of fun, amirite ladies? I’m talking about the various sums of money that you have to fork out before you get to walk through the front door of your new flat.

Caryl and Laura say that you’ll usually pay a bond of two weeks’ rent plus two in advance, which is the maximum number of weeks in advance a landlord can charge. As long as you don’t do anything stupid, you should get that back. Laura stresses that you need to be there on move-in day when the landlord does the initial inspection, so you all agree on the condition of the flat beforehand. If in doubt, take photos of any damage before moving in for evidence if needed. The bond is basically the landlord’s insurance policy. If you ruin the flat or break something that they have to fix, this money pays for it – it’s so you can’t fuck shit up and skip town. So unless you want to miss out on getting this back at the end of the tenancy, look after your flat.

Rent varies depending on location, living conditions, and number of flatmates. When looking at rent prices, Caryl and Laura say you need to be absolutely clear what is included – the advertised price is usually base rent, and you pay for power and phone/internet on top. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all included. Check your lease agreement (more on that later), and talk to the landlord so you know exactly what you’re paying for.

Which brings me to the cash monies. You can pay rent into one account or all pay separately; it’s up to you. Usually one flatmate is in charge of the finances – they set up a flat account, you pay all the expenses into it, and they make sure rent and bills are paid on time. Two beautiful words will save any flatmate from awkward confrontations and passive-aggressive notes: automatic payment. Set one of these babies up, and you will never have an issue. Just make sure the dates are right.
The final thing you need to think about is food. Are you eating together, separately, or both? Usually flats set up a roster for meals and share the cost of basic ingredients – you might put $20 – 30 into the account per week for dinners and essentials like bread, milk, toilet paper, and cleaning stuff. Don’t buy shit you don’t need: flat ice cream, nutella, basil pesto? There’s always going to be someone who misses out and gets mad, so buy these things separately and put your name on them.

Step 04: Sign on The Line

Dunedin leases for students are usually fixed-term, meaning you pay rent from the start of January to the end of December and there’s nothing you can do about it. Caryl and Laura say this is why you need to be careful when you pick who you live with. You’re legally stuck with them, and it’s not easy to get out. Caryl says that the biggest hassle people have is trying to get out of a fixed term lease. “They are responsible for the payment of the rent – whether or not they actually stay in the house – until the end of that fixed term, unless they can get off the lease with the landlord’s consent, or find a replacement, or apply to the tenancy tribunal to get a reduction in the fixed term to get them out – but that’s really difficult to get.” It’s important to make sure you know what you’re getting into when you sign on the dotted line.

Any lease that everyone signs makes all flatmates “joint and severally liable”. You’re responsible for not only yourself and all the other flatmates, but everyone invited onto the property (and Hyde St Keg Party is no exception). Caryl says that a few years ago “one flatmate was left alone while their friends went skiing for the weekend. They were pretty annoyed about it, so they decided to have a party. $30,000 worth of damage later, the flatmate was on a flight to Australia never to return and the other flatmates had to front up. And there was nothing they could do because they were signed up to the lease.” Moral of the story? Avoid bankruptcy by taking the whole flat up the mountain for the weekend, not just one or two.

Step 05: Insurance and Flat Safety

Insure, insure, insure. Caryl and Laura say this is vital. It covers you if you leave your hair straighteners on and they burn down your room and your neighbour’s room too, and at around $5 a week it’s something you can afford to have. But you might as well be throwing that money down the toilet with last night’s Diesels if you don’t lock your doors and windows. Campus Cop Max Holt says, “when burglaries occur, the first thing the insurance company asks is where the point of entry was, and I have to say: ‘Well, they walked straight in the front door!’” It’s simple: if you haven’t locked your front door and the door to your room, and your shit gets stolen, you won’t be insured.

But Holt says it doesn’t end with locking your doors. You also need to close your windows and curtains. 88% of burglaries happen in the daytime – it takes a special kind of criminal to break into your house at night. Closing your curtains not only stops would-be burglars from window shopping, it’s also a matter of safety. Criminal activity, especially in the student area, is not just limited to burglaries. Holt says there are a number of pervs just looking for an opportunity to catch a gorgeous young thing undressing in front of her window. There aren’t many things worse than a dirty pair of eyes watching you from behind the rhododendron bush.

But Holt does offer some peace of mind. He says Campus Watch are constantly on the lookout for signs of suspicious activity, and over the past few years their efforts have contributed to a drop in crime in the student area. “It’s a University initiative that they need full marks for. What they’re doing is a wonderful thing.” He also says that the police use sophisticated tracking technology to locate stolen gadgets from smart phones to laptops, and recover them nearly every time.

Step 06: When Shit Hits The Fan

Everyone’s seen the infamous roof collapse video from Hyde St 2012. As funny as it was, it’s not something you want to happen to you. Yannik, a member of the flat, says: “we rang the landlord straight away, and he sent someone around. He had a look at what had happened and why, to try and determine what we could do next. We couldn’t do anything on the day, but in the short term it was cold, so we got up there and propped it up so the rain drained away.” In the long term, they got off pretty lightly – because they had the video, and no one from their flat had been on any roofs that day, it was covered under the landlord’s insurance. Essentially, the people on the roof were invited onto the property by the flatmates, and were therefore their responsibility. So the boys of 22 Hyde were lucky. They managed to have an awesome day, keep their bond, and avoid any long-term debt.

Caryl and Laura say this isn’t always the case, but when things go wrong there are options. The Community Law Centre is free, as is SOULS Tenancy Service, which is run by law students. This is the fastest and easiest way to find out your rights and responsibilities. There’s only one thing you should never do: stop paying rent.

When done right, flatting is awesome. There’s no authority figure to tell you what to do, and you get to throw parties and plan red cards. Arguably, the best part is going home in the holidays and appreciating a full fridge, mould-free bathroom, and a Mum-cooked meal. But even when shit hits the fan, with good flatties and a decent attitude you’ll be sweet. Don’t be put off. As long as you know what you’re getting in for, you’d have to be pretty unlucky to end up with a hole in the [insert vital part of house here] and an empty bank account.

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2012.
Posted 4:49pm Sunday 5th August 2012 by Lauren Wootton.