Just to be clear, the kids, the husband and the job are doing just fine. Somehow, I have always managed to find reserves of energy and strength from somewhere which allow me to keep everything just about ticking over. However, all this has taken something, I don’t know quite what, away from me.
Before we moved to Malta, we found tenants for our house in Scotland, which stubbornly refused to sell in the then stagnant housing market. Our managing agent gave us a checklist of things that we needed to do before we could let our property. This included registration with our local council for a fee of 66 pounds. We also had to get gas and electrical safety certificates and make sure that smoke detectors were placed on each floor of our three storied house. I wrote to our telephony company, and gas and electricity suppliers to cancel our accounts with them. And that was that. We moved out on September 9th, 2010 and the tenant moved in on September 10th, 2010.
You see, it is not any Tom, Dick or Harry who can be a landlord in Scotland. It is not as simple as waking up one morning on a whim and thinking that you’d put your house on the rental market, later that afternoon. The Scottish government regulates what happens in the private rental sector. It doesn’t leave this important sector to the wherewithal of investor landlords, some of whom may only be interested in cutting costs down to the bone to maximize profits. And let’s face it, if left to their own devices, most landlords would fall into this category, human nature being what it is. The Scottish government, and I’m sure most decent governments all over the world, understand that they have a responsibility towards tenants.
So when we moved to Malta, it never entered our minds that we were entering a totally unregulated rental market.
We were ten days in Malta when we signed our first rental contract. I read the contract and it seemed fine to me. I never thought to have it checked by a lawyer because we never had to do that in Scotland when we rented on two different occasions. No landlord in Scotland would ever dream of making the contract tenant unfriendly because it just would not stand up in court.
The contract included a clause which stated that we were to pay 100 euro per month on account towards the Arms bill. That seemed pretty reasonable to me at the time so I thought nothing of it.
However, three years later, I was to bitterly regret that I was not a clairvoyant, when the 100 euro became 150 euro and then 200 euro, and still there were arrears of about 1 400 euro.
When I did some research on the Arms tariffs, I discovered that we had been paying at the incorrect domestic tariff. This tariff is designed for empty or occasionally used second homes. You are allowed 33 cubic metres of water per year at the slightly more expensive rate of 2.19 euro per cubic metre. You pay for your electricity at a slightly higher price per unit and are not entitled to any eco reduction. Perfectly fine for an empty or occasionally used property because you would not exceed these pitiful allowances. But for a family of 5 living in their primary residence all year round, these allowances are easily exceeded after 3 to 4 months with the result that you would then pay 5.14 euro per cubic metre of water (instead of 1.40 euro at the correct residential rate) for the remaining 8 to 9 months of the year. Plus you would not get your eco reduction.
At the correct residential rate, you are allowed an allowance of 33 cubic metres of water PER PERSON per year and 1 750 units of electricity PER PERSON per year.
In fact, over the three years, we were charged 6 185.01 euro, when at the correct residential rate we should have paid 3 270.28 euro.
Simple, you think. Phone Arms, explain the situation, get your overpayment back and get Arms to cancel the bogus arrears. But no, ‘tenants do not exist for Arms’. Arms only deals with the account holding landlord. So, you speak to your landlord and explain that you are not going to continue overpaying. By this stage we had overpaid by 1 600 euro. And we sure as heck were not going to pay the 1 400 euro or so arrears. The landlord is outraged, makes an application to the Maltese courts to establish that you are indebted to him. Court issues a garnishee order against your bank account and your salary. A garnishee order freezes your bank account and reduces your salary to the minimum wage until the money 'owed' is deposited in court. You correspond with the then Arms CEO and ask him to refund your overpayment and cancel the arrears, seeing as you were a family of 5 living in your primary residence, and that you had been on the incorrect tariff. If Arms were to do that, then you would not ‘owe’ your landlord money and you would not have to attend court once a month for years.
No, replies the ex Arms CEO. Arms cannot do that because Arms doesn’t do refunds.
It transpires that there are two barriers for tenants to be billed at the correct residential rate. The main one is that no one, I mean no one, tells the tenant that they are on the incorrect tariff. The letting agent, the landlord and certainly not Arms, do not provide the tenant with any information whatsoever about the two tier tariffs. Clearly, tenants are meant to be psychic.
The second is that even if a tenant knew, Arms cannot bill the tenant at the correct residential rate WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE LANDLORD. Because this would be illegal, don’t you know.
There you have it. How convenient is all this for Arms? Tenants are overcharged, tenants ‘do not exist for Arms’, Arms gets more money than it should from people living in their primary residences BUT ARMS DOES NOT DO REFUNDS.
And do you know who owns Arms? Why, Arms is owned by Enemalta plc and the Water Services Corporation. In other words, the Maltese government.
The title of this blog piece is: To regulate or not to regulate?
The behaviour towards tenants by my government on the Arms issue alone, does not fill me with hope that the answer to this question will ever be in the affirmative.