Life with Lodgers… Part 1

My current lodger moved out this week, and I am now facing the usual chore of deep cleaning the room, advertising it, and then vetting all the potential new lodgers who come for a viewing. It is a time-consuming, frustrating, and stressful time – this period between lodgers – and I always breathe a sigh of relief when the new lodger is safely installed and settled in.

Although our house is not huge, it is laid out in a way that makes taking in a lodger possible, and I have been doing this in an unbroken line of lodgers stretching back to 2004. When my marriage fell apart in August 2004, there was a real doubt I would be able to keep my home. Left alone with a one year old to raise, no savings, a huge mortgage, and only a part-time job to live off, it was a very frightening and worrying time for me.

However, I was determined not to lose my beloved home and I realised that taking in a lodger was going to be the only way to do it. Like many Victorian and Edwardian houses, mine came with a spacious coal cellar and in 1996 my father had helped me to convert it into a useable room. Over the long and hot summer that year, he, and my brother, along with any other casual labour we roped in to help, laboured down that cellar like pit ponies. They dug down into the floor by several feet to make it possible to stand up without bashing your head on the ceiling.

A large hatchway was dug up to the tiny front garden to create a shallow shaft to allow light and air to reach the room, and an easily openable window was installed to work as a fire escape route. The cellar was professionally tanked out, the walls were insulated, a radiator was installed, and plenty of sockets and lights were fitted.  Plasterboard was installed, and the walls were then plastered smooth. Finally, it was painted, and a beautiful new room had been added to our home.

At the time it was merely used as an extra living area – I had no idea it would ever be utilised as a bedroom, nor that its very existence would save my skin and allow me to keep my home.

For a few years it served as my office, I was working from home running a secretarial service to supplement my income, and it was useful having somewhere separate to work. My husband also had a desk down there as he enjoyed playing computer games, and he needed somewhere to do his work-related paperwork.

Then I gave up the extra secretarial work so I no longer needed an office, and my husband laid claim to the room totally, buying a wide screen television, a corner sofa unit, and a PlayStation, and he was the one who used the room the most.

Then I got pregnant, and I remember it was lovely and cool down there in the summer, and when I was in my final stages of pregnancy, overdue, hugely bloated, and in the middle of a heatwave – it became the haven I vanished into when the heat of the day became too much for me to cope with.

Fast forward almost two years to a woman suddenly alone with huge bills and no income to pay them. My part-time wage didn’t even cover my mortgage, and trying to find a full-time, higher paying job was impractical. Childcare costs would have been prohibitive. I was making use of the help of two sets of grandparents but couldn’t have asked them to do any more. I felt working more hours, to earn more money, to pay a stranger to raise my daughter, so I could work more hours to pay them to look after her, was stupidly counterproductive. Plus, I had a very kind and understanding boss. He was sympathetic to my situation and had already told me to adjust my hours as I needed to, in order to continue working for him.

So, I considered the situation and decided that taking in a lodger was the only answer. The government were running what was called a “Rent a Room Scheme” whereby you could let out a room in your home and not have to pay tax on the rent, or declare it and risk losing any tax benefits you might be claiming. So long as you stayed under a certain limit, all the rental income was yours to keep.

When I told my mother than was what I planned to do, she was a first unsure, saying she wasn’t comfortable having strangers sleeping up in the bedrooms with me and my baby daughter. But that was never the plan. When my husband had left, he had taken with him the large TV and his PlayStation from the cellar. I then sold the sofa unit and cleared the rest of the room, so it was completely empty. I needed furniture to turn it into a fully furnished rentable room. Luckily, the catalogue company Argos – who really are a company selling everything – were offering interest free payment plans on all purchases over a certain amount if you took out a store card with them. I applied for and received a card with a £2000 limit on it.

Carefully, I made a list – a set of matching cream Shaker style bedroom furniture comprising of a double bed, three door wardrobe, large chest of drawers, and a bedside chest – two complete sets of cream bedding plus pillows and a duvet – a laundry basket and matching wastepaper basket – a rug – lamps – a corkboard to cover up holes in the wall where the shelves holding my ex-husbands vast video collection went – it all went onto the card, along with a new car seat for Miss F because she had outgrown her baby one, and a small table and chairs, as I had sold the big, eight seater set we used to have, and had moved one of the sofas into the dining room and turned it into a sitting/dining room so that the lodger would have a lounge to use without intruding into my personal space.

I felt having somewhere to escape to was essential.

Using the basement room for the lodger was inspired. Like many older properties, the bathroom is on the ground floor. This meant that the lodger had access to their room, a lounge/dining room, the kitchen, bathroom, and garden, all without having to go upstairs or into my private lounge. It also meant if they wished to use the bathroom late at night, they could, without coming upstairs or disturbing us.

Argos very kindly gave me a year’s interest free credit for that lot, and I calculated exactly how much I would need to pay back each month to get it settled comfortably before the year was up. Yes, it was a bit of a gamble, but I had to get a lodger, so the room had to be furnished. After all, you have to speculate, to accumulate.

Back then, there was no such thing as rental websites, so I had to place an ad in my local paper and hope that someone called.

Someone did, a nice young girl called Becky who moved in and seemed very happy for six months. Then she moved out to live with her boyfriend and I placed the ad again.

I quickly realised that this was going to be the way of things, as young people moved in, got serious with their boyfriends/girlfriends, and moved out.

Then an older gentleman answered the ad. At first dubious about taking somewhere in his sixties, as I spoke to him in the interview, I quickly realised that here might be the solution to the quick turnaround of my younger lodgers.

He moved in, and for over four years lived with us as part of the family. He joined me sometimes for meals if I cooked too much. Very often, we would share a takeaway and bottle of wine with a film. As he had no family to go to, he joined us for Christmases. As an older person, I was comfortable trusting him to look after the house and cat when we went away to visit friends or have an infrequent holiday. I totally trusted him, but had a hard lesson coming my way.

We had gone away to York for the week of the October half term holiday. We had rented a three bedroomed house right in the heart of the city and travelled up by train. There was myself, Miss F, and my mother, and we were looking forward to having a wonderful city break exploring the gorgeous city of York, doing all the museums, and eating out.

Before I left, I cleaned the house from top to bottom, the lodger assured me he would be fine feeding the cat, just as he had done several times before. He had my mobile phone number should he need to contact me, and my father’s telephone number – who wasn’t coming with us – in case there was any trouble with the house.

We went away and had a great week, arriving back Saturday lunchtime. We had a Halloween party to go to that evening, so were a bit rushed unpacking the essentials and getting into costume. There was no sign of the lodger, but the house was clean, the cat was well fed, so I assumed he was just out for the day.

We got back after midnight from the party and of course went straight to bed. I didn’t wake until late next morning, exhausted from the week, the long train journey home, and the party. I didn’t see anything of the lodger, but again, thought nothing of it. Not until my mobile rang Sunday afternoon and it was the lodger informing me that while I’d been away, he’d moved out!

Stunned, I asked why? To move in with his girlfriend, he informed me. Really?! At seventy? I mean, kudos to you, but really? I asked why he hadn’t told me this before I’d gone on holiday. He didn’t answer. I told him he was in breach of contract as he was supposed to give me a month’s notice. He told me to keep the deposit in lieu of it. He then hung up.

Totally shocked, I went down into the basement for the first time in over four years. And wanted to cry. It was like descending into the pit of hell. Clearly, the room had not been cleaned since I had deep cleaned it before he moved in. Ropes of grimy cobwebs hung from the ceiling. An inch-thick layer of dust and dirt lay on every surface. The window was so dirty you couldn’t see through it. A pile of filthy bedding lay in the middle of a mattress that looked like something had died on it. All four pillows lay there with massive yellow stains on them. The other set of bedding was in the corner of the room in the same state.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could anyone live like that? I would have been less shocked if he’d been a teenager – they tend not to notice the dirt – but this was an adult in his late sixties. He held down a responsible job, he dressed smartly, his car was always immaculate, he always tidied up after himself in the bathroom and the kitchen – and he lived like a pig in his room.

No, I take that back, pigs prefer to be clean.

Added to that, the room stank! I mean really stank. Of sweat and mould and damp. Clearly, he had been keeping wet towels down there, and when I examined the cushions on the armchair, I found they were spotted with mould and smelled really bad.

It took me over two weeks to fumigate the room. Two weeks of having the window wide open, of scrubbing and cleaning and bleaching, of putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls and skirting boards. Of boil washing the bedding over and over until I got the smell and the stains out. Of replacing the mattress and pillows. Of bleaching the inside of drawers and cupboards.

I hated him with a passion by the time I had finished. For over four years he had lived with us and been treated as part of the family. He had been fed by me, shared my wine, watched my daughter grow up, and spent Christmases with us. But it taught me a valuable lesson.

The lodger might be the nicest, most considerate person in the world, but the second a boyfriend/girlfriend comes on the scene, they forget every manner they have ever learned. Don’t get too close to the lodger, because they are JUST a lodger. Sooner or later, they will move on, usually without a second thought. And that other people do not share the same standards of cleanliness and hygiene that I do. I have had lodgers who’ve moved in with their own bedding, and a year later moved out taking that bedding with them and you just know it’s not been washed once in that whole year.

That left me looking for a new lodger and fed up with the whole situation. I’d got too comfortable because that lodger had been with us for so long, it taught me to always be expecting them to hand in their notice, and to always been prepared for that.

So, the ad went up, and the phone began to ring with people looking to rent the room – lots of people – it quite surprised me how many. It seemed in the almost five years since I had last advertised, renting a room had become much more popular. Most people couldn’t afford to rent a whole house or even a flat by themselves as rents had soared, whilst wages had remained fairly static.

I realised I was going to have my pick of whoever I wanted, and that made me feel a lot happier about the situation. Then a man came to view the room with his young daughter. A big, bluff man, he did all the talking and by the time I’d shown them the room, all the areas accessible to the lodger, and the garden, and we were talking in the kitchen, she had yet to say a word. A tiny thing, with long blonde hair, I had dismissed her as someone I didn’t really want to share my home with – after all, I did want to have the occasional conversation with the lodger, and I wasn’t really into awkward silences.

The man was gushing on about how much he liked the house, the area, and me, and how relieved he and his wife would be that their daughter would be living in the house with a responsible adult around to look after them.

Hmm, I thought, I’ve already got one child I’m looking after, pretty sure I don’t want another.

I would have no problems, with his girl, he assured me, absolutely no problems. She didn’t drink at all, no she didn’t, and as for boys – well, his girl simply wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, she was too busy working and studying to get into university.

At this point, the girl lifted her head and looked at me from behind a long blonde fringe, and as her dad was extolling her nun-like virtues she slowly and deliberately dropped me a wink and pursed her lips.

Oh ho! I thought in delight, trying not to laugh. Your darling daddy doesn’t know you as well as he thinks he does.

Of course, there was no question about it after that. I offered her the room. Miss C moved in a week later and was like a breath of fresh air in the house. For one fun-packed year, this tiny blonde powerhouse lived with us as she worked towards her dream of going to the London School of Fashion. She was young, yes, but respectful and sweet and funny. Miss F adored her, and the two of them were like sisters. At Christmas and for my birthday, the pair of them would go shopping for my presents and would wrap them together. We would all pile on the sofa and watch films together. I taught her to cook nutritious meals on a budget in the year she lived with us, a skill she was later very glad of when she moved into her university digs.

When she moved in, Miss C said she didn’t like Doctor Who or red wine – but that soon changed, and I remember when we were sitting in the candlelit lounge late one Winter’s evening watching the episode of Doctor Who where he has landed in London during the Blitz. There’s a strange child wandering around the streets in a gasmask uttering a mournful cry of “Mum-m-m-y, are you my mummy?” in a voice designed to send chills up and down your spine.

“Ooh, this is spooky poo,” Miss C said, when suddenly the lounge door burst open, eight year old Miss F marched in wearing nothing but a pair of knickers, strode over to the TV, stopped and spun around to face us. Her face was deathly white, and her eyes were huge and dark. Frozen in shock, we stared at her as she stared back. Then she cocked her head to one side and said. “Mum-m-m-y?”

We both jumped out of our skins. Then I realised Miss F was sleepwalking and gently took her back to bed, and tucked her safely in. When I went downstairs, Miss C was opening another bottle of wine with hands that shook. As she handed me a glass, she just looked at me and said – “Shit!” – and I knew exactly what she meant.

Then there was the case of the exploding microwave dish. It was Miss C’s weekend to clean and Miss F and I were in our lounge reading a bedtime story. There was a sudden loud bang and we rushed through to the kitchen to find Miss C standing there in a state of shock, covered in powdered glass. She had cooked herself something to eat in the microwave, but it had splattered, so she’d taken the still hot glass plate out and gone to put it on a cold granite worktop. Of course, it exploded like a bomb!

I made her stand perfectly still while I got the vacuum cleaner and sucked all the glass from her hair and clothes, then gently wiped her face to make sure no glass was on it. She thought I was going to be cross because of the broken plate, but I was more concerned about the glass all over her!

At the end of the year we sadly said goodbye to Miss C when she achieved her dream of going to the London School of Fashion, but we stayed in touch, and when she came back to visit her parents she often came to see us. One year we even went and stayed with her when we went to the London Comicon.

Over the years, we have had all sorts of people share our home for varying periods of time. Some, like Miss C, were great, some not so. Some stayed in touch, some we never heard of again after they moved out. There was one I was afraid I was going to kill if he didn’t move out. There was even one I was afraid was going to kill me if he didn’t move out. But I will talk more about them in next week’s blog.

In the meantime, the current lodger has gone, and I have been left with a badly stained mattress that was brand new when he moved in, and a room that smells. But I know better now, the window is open to the breeze and a dehumidifier is freshening up the air. I took out insurance on the mattress and the lodger knows he will get back his deposit only after I have determined whether I am covered for cleaning/replacing it, or whether the cost of a new one will be coming out of it.

And so, I’m facing the chore of trying to find another lodger in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not sure how this is going to work. Is anyone even looking for rooms to rent at the moment? I guess they must be, but I won’t know that until I reactivate my ad. Luckily, there are amazing websites to do that through now, and those long-ago days of having to go to my local newspaper’s office to place an expensive ad that was charged for by the word are over. Now it costs me £10 for a week’s ad and I can say as much as I please, I can even upload photos. They also filter all responses through their website, so I don’t have to give anyone my contact details if I don’t want to.

I’m guessing having hand sanitiser by the door and requesting all who come to view need to wear masks, is sensible. But maybe when I take them out to see the garden, we can remove the masks so I can see their faces. I rely a lot on gut instinct when choosing someone to live in our home and I need to see their faces for that.

I’ve learnt to trust my instincts, and they don’t usually let me down. In over fifteen years and nine lodgers, I’ve only got it wrong twice. But like I said, I’ll tell you all about them next week.

In the meantime, stay safe and stay happy.

Julia Blake

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