There was never any doubt that we’d be letting our house – the rent was going to be our income and besides, insuring an empty house for a prolonged period is next to impossible in the theoretical flood zone in which we lived. Selling it would be madness – it would just leave us with a load of depreciating cash at a time of negligible interest rates.
Quite early on (about a year before departure) we invited a letting agent around to advise on what rent we could realistically expect and give us any useful tips. If you are planning on using a letting agent it gives you an opportunity to judge one – if they seem a bit clueless, try another.
Some people do go abroad and leave the letting management of their house to a friend or relative, but I would never do that unless they had sound experience. Letting a residential property is a serious business with a lot of legal implications and possible pitfalls – you need someone who knows what they are doing, bearing in mind that if your trip is prolonged there may be a change of tenant while you are away. We were fortunate in that we already had an investment property rented out via an agency, so we had already been through the painful process of finding one that we trusted (sadly many of them will lie quite shamelessly if they think it will earn them a quick quid). Otherwise we’d have had to research internet forums and ask around for personal recommendations – generally our experience has been that the larger the agent, the worse they are.
Our agent confirmed our estimate of rent and advised us to rent unfurnished except for large appliances: tenants tend to treat the place better if it’s full of their own furniture, and stay longer because they feel more at home. It makes little difference to the amount of rent and you get the kind of tenant who can afford furniture – but it may be slower to rent. She also advised us that our 2nd bedroom, which was full of wardrobes and used as a dressing room, needed to be made into a proper bedroom.
We also had to consider what kind of tenants we were willing to take – children (drawings on the wall, demands for stair gates?), pets (fleas?), housing benefit claimants (if they were overpaid we might have to pay it back), sharers (may not take joint responsibility for keeping the place in good order).
As existing landlords we already knew about the safety requirements (annual gas appliance checks etc) but we had no idea that an overseas landlord cannot collect rents gross unless they have prior approval from the tax office – the agent told us what forms we needed to complete. Otherwise the agent has to deduct tax and the landlord has to claim it back.
As we still have a mortgage on our home we had to request permission from the lender to let out the property. This just required the completion of a form and seemed to be granted fairly automatically, but the lender did impose a charge of 0.5% of the outstanding balance every 6 months while the property is let – it’s just added to the balance so we don’t have to pay it up front.
Even without definite travel plans we’d already done some work on the house that helped; decorated the stairs, landing and master bedroom in neutral colours, replaced a leaky extension roof, overhauled the garden removing a small pond to reduce the garden maintenance required, and replaced a rickety old shed. But there was still a lot to do as we’d been in the house for over 30 years: some rooms were well overdue for decorating, and once the furniture and pictures etc were removed they’d look even worse.
We did a lot of painting the summer before we left as well as washing curtains and replacing a couple of pairs, and replacing one carpet that had been cut around now vanished wardrobes. Magnolia paint throughout (well, Almond White actually) may be a bit boring, but it least it won’t clash with a tenant’s belongings – the same principles apply as when selling a house, if you’ve ever watched House Doctor.
Viewings by prospective tenants started 2 months before departure, so we tried to get the biggest jobs completed before this, and made sure the agent doing the viewings knew what else was going to be done so that she could tell the veiwers. A friend asked if I was sorry to be leaving now that the house was all newly decorated, but quite honestly I wasn’t – the decorating was a just a means to an end.
Once the furniture was out we could get down to serious cleaning; wiping out all the cupboards, washing down walls and woodwork that hadn’t been painted, getting the carpets shampooed, and having the cooker professionally cleaned (a job I loathe). Just doing this cleaning took over a week. At least the freezer was frost free so didn’t need defrosting, just a good clean. I made sure I was around when the electrician came to PAT test the appliances so that I could dive in and clean behind them.
During this final 10 days we slept on borrowed futons on the floor, sat on the floor to eat breakfast and lunch off borrowed plastic plates using a borrowed kettle, and went round the corner to friends for evening meals – I’m not sure what we’d have done without them.
On top of all that we had to do all the things people always have to do when moving house; contact the utility companies, cancel the telephone and cable TV contracts, notify a change of address to every man and his dog, and organise the redirection of our mail. The buildings and contents insurance was slightly different in that instead of cancelling the policy we were switching it to a landlords policy – we’d checked about 6 weeks before that this was both possible and a reasonable price with the same provider (staying with the same provider meant that we avoided any cancellation penalty charges, although this will depend on what company you use).
The final job was to had over one copy of the house manual and 3 sets of keys to the agent (two sets for the tenants and one for them to keep). Another copy of the house manual was left in the kitchen – it contained copies of all the appliance instruction manuals, details of the heating service cover, locations of gas and electricity main switches and water stopcocks, guides to the circuit breaker and central heating, details of refuse and recycling collections, utility suppliers, emergency contacts and even the names of the neighbours. Of course, we’d had to assemble all this information before we packed away the contents of our filing cabinet, PC and printer!