moving on over

Yesterday Emily and I signed a lease on a new apartment. We like our old apartment just fine, except that our landlord (Emily’s friend Kathryn from university) is coming back to live in the place after an extended period of living in other cities. We like Kathryn (she introduced us!) and hope to hang out with her more once she’s back in town.

I meant to post more sometime in the distant past about the Australian apartment rental landscape. It definitely has a different flavor than the American rental market, and I don’t think that’s entirely a function of being in Canberra. Here are my general impressions:

USA

  • Apartments are usually owned by a real estate management company, whose business it is to rent directly to tenants. Occasionally you may rent directly from the owner, in which case they become your manager and you know them personally — perhaps they live upstairs from you. You give your security bond directly to the owners.

  • Rental agreements have plenty of legalese, but the impression given is that as long as you pay the rent on time and don’t trash the place or keep the neighbors up at night, nobody’s gonna care much. Rent is paid by personal check. If something comes up — e.g., you miss a rental payment (by accident, of course), or you need to terminate the lease early — something can often be worked out. Property managers are usually friendly and often accommodating, since they know that their business is to provide a place where people want to live. The rental agreements give the landlords a lot of power, but they don’t often need to exercise it.

  • Normal wear and tear on the place is taken in stride — as long as things are clean and in working order, you don’t need to stress much about every little nick in the wall. There is a condition report to fill out and turn in, but it’s usually a one-page checklist to ensure that they’ve provided everything in more or less working order. You’re expected to leave the place in substantially the same condition as you found it.

Australia

  • Apartments are usually owned by individuals as investment properties, and are managed by a third-party real estate management management company on their behalf. While you will usually deal with the management company, their business is to protect the value of the actual owner’s investment, while also getting you to pay them rent. As a result, you usually never see or meet the owner, making your relationship with them through the third-party managers much more formal and distant. You lodge the security bond with the local government, creating yet another impersonal layer of arbitrage — you and the owner have to agree on the condition of the place, and the amount of money to be taken from the bond accordingly, when you move out, or else have a third- (fourth-?) party arbiter resolve any dispute.

  • Rental agreements have plenty of legalese, and you are told exactly to whom you can apply if there is any problem. Rent is paid by direct debit from your bank account, so there is no opportunity for you to miss a rental payment unless your account is overdrawn. If something comes up — e.g., you miss a rental payment, or you need to terminate the lease early — sometimes things can be worked out, but you are served with some scary notice about how you have just invoked the action of some tribunal through your negligence (which may or may not actually become an issue).

  • Normal wear and tear on the place is carefully documented. When I rented my first proper place in Australia, I was given a 37-page condition report with about 300 distinct line items, including photographs of each and every location in the apartment with any visible damage. If I disagreed with any of these items I needed to note carefully, and if applicable, return the report to them with my own photo. On my final check-out inspection, the owner (whom I had never met before) was present and complained about several items not being clean or not corresponding to the exact condition noted in the original report, which I rectified immediately (in my suit and tie, on my hands and knees). I ended up getting (almost) my full bond back, but it was a pretty harrowing experience.

In the end this can probably be written off to broader cultural differences: The amount of actual regulation and personal responsibility of landlord to tenant and tenant to landlord seems about the same in Australia as in America. But in America I felt more innocent until proven guilty. The proceedings are much more formalized in Australia. The fact that in Australia, the owner of your living premises is usually someone who doesn’t know you — and therefore can’t trust you — makes that extra layer of formality more necessary than in the States, where you deal directly with the owner.

Some of this was reprised when Emily and I went to inspect our new digs. The house we’ve moved to is an old one, so there are plenty of cracks in the plaster and nicks and wear in various parts. In the States I lived in plenty of such places and so the new place (with real wood floors!) makes me feel much at home; but with the Australian condition report tradition being what it was I found myself apprehensive, hypersensitive to every distinguishing feature in each visible surface. I took quite a few more photos of bits of the house and will keep a scanned copy of them all in our records, but I don’t know that doing so will make any functional difference in the end. We will probably incur some wear and tear on the place, but we will probably get our rental bond back as well.

We moved some of our stuff in this weekend, but will do the majority of it next weekend. I’ll move additional little bits of things as I am able to this week.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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One Response to moving on over

  1. Mike says:

    I think that the US rental market is actually a bit less homogeneous than you describe. For example, I had a roommate from Oklahoma who said that over there it was pretty much expected that you never get your deposit back in full (if at all) because the owner will always quibble over some minor wear and tear, whereas everywhere else I’ve been it’s the formality you describe. Likewise the management company vs. individual owner and owner-manager vs dedicated-manager varies (e.g. when I was renting in Stamford, CT most owners went through realtors who would also then be managers; in College Park, MD it was mostly individuals who owned multiple boarding houses and managed them full-time as investment properties; in Ann Arbor a single large company owns most of the apartment complexes but individuals mostly own and manage rental houses in the old part of town; in NYC you work through a realtor and buildings tend to have live-in managers / supers, and so on). Breaking leases is also easier in some places than others (usually far easier in non-college towns where not everyone is on the same moving cycle or in places with massive turnover like NYC).

    That said, the Australian situation does seem a bit scarier than anything I’ve seen in the states :).

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