June 26th, 2006

Another Story Of ALP

Originally published at blog.scatmania.org. Please leave any comments there.

My rant about ALP Property Management continues to gain interest and attention from all kinds of folks. Recently I received an e-mail from a young man (who’d like to remain anonymous), telling me about his experience with what might well be Aberystwyth’s least ethical estate agent.

If you’re interested, his story is below. Do bear in mind of course that this is his experience and his opinions, not mine.

Part One
My story begins in 2003. I had just moved out of my shared student house. The people I’d been sharing with frequently played very loud music at ungodly hours of the morning and I’d had enough, so I figured that I’d find myself some new accommodation.

I looked around several property companies, but none of them seemed to have anything in my price range. It was then that I stumbled across ALP Property Management. The agent was welcoming and helpful and found a few properties within my price range. I chose a few that looked good and he told me to come back tomorrow when he’d be able to take me to look around them.

Returning the next day, the agent seemed to be bending over backwards to help me, giving me a lift to several different properties and showing me around them. I liked one of the properties and agreed to take it; a small bed-sit for £60 per week. Back at the office, I handed over £100 holding deposit, and, a few days later, returned to sign a contract and give him a further £165. The total deposit was £265, £5 of which was for the “key deposit”. I also parted with £260, to cover the first month rent.

So far, everything was going well, and I thought little more of it until the day I was due to move in. I went along to the office to pick up the key and begin moving my stuff. This time I was not greeted with the same welcome. The agent seemed very slightly agitated. When I asked for the key, I was told:

“Unfortunately I made a mistake with your property. The rental price is £65 per week instead of £60. You’ll need to give me an extra £43.32 to cover the excess on the deposit and the first months rent. I’ve drafted another contract for you to sign here.”

He showed me a new contract with these new terms.

“I can’t give you the keys until you sign it.”

These may not be the agent’s exact words, but this is the gist of what I was told. At the time, I was confused by this. I felt that this was wrong of him, but thought that there was nothing I could do about it. I told him to wait while I got the money.

Instead of getting the money, I went and got some backup in the form of my fiancé and her parents. We went back to the ALP offices again to confront the agent. We told him that what he was doing was illegal as I’d already signed a contract to £60 per week. The agent told me that he’d lost (convenient, that!) the contract and so I had to sign another one. Unfortunately for him I had a copy of the contract with me. Once he realised that I wasn’t backing down, he gave up and gave me the keys. He apologised and said that he would pay
the extra £5 per week from his own wages.

He also showed us the contents of his top drawer, which contained a ripped up contract bearing my name. He told us that he panicked when he realised his mistake and ripped it up himself! Not only was what he was doing illegal, but he knew it!

Part Two
While at the property, so new neighbours moved in upstairs. These new neighbours were probably the noisiest people one the planet. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night they would play loud music before going out and even louder music upon returning home, often until 5am. Since this was a little familiar - the very reason that I moved out of my last property - I decided to have a word with them. Not surprisingly, they ignored me.

Since their property was also rented through ALP, I thought that maybe the letting agency could have a word with them for me. I went into the offices and explained my problem to the agent. I explained why this was such a problem for me and tried to be as humble as possible. I was essentially told that “boys will be boys” and there was “nothing they could do about it”.

Part Three
One day when I went in to pay my rent, I was told:

“I tried to get into your place the other day, but the key didn’t work so I couldn’t.”

I remembered feeling relieved because I had not been told about anyone being shown around: this was the first I knew about it. It worried me more that he might have been lying… Maybe he had been in my property and shown someone around! The very thought of this angered me.

Part Four
When I came to move out of the property, I didn’t want to take any chances. On the final day when the agent came around to inspect the property, I had my parents, my fiancé and her parents all waiting in the room. When he walked in and saw the amount of people… surprise surprise, he was a nice as pie.A few months later, I still hadn’t received any bills from the property. I rang British Gas to enquire about the electricity account, which the ALP assured would “all be taken care of”. British Gas had no knowledge of me renting the property and said that the electricity was being supplied by another company. I rang the letting agent to find out who was supplying the electricity, as I didn’t want to be hit with a huge bill. The response I received from ALP was hostile, saying that it wasn’t their responsibility. Getting nowhere, I said:

“I fail to see how why you don’t know who is supplying the electricity”

To which they said:

“Don’t be cheeky to me. If you want to sort this out, then come into the office and we can talk, but don’t get cheeky with me!”

And they put the phone down.

Part Five
In 2005, I was returning to Aberystwyth after my “Year In Industry” as part of my degree. This time, I was looking for a property to share with my fiancé. Unfortunately, once again, the only company with any affordable property was… you guessed it… ALP. I told my fiancé that I didn’t want to go with them, but she told me that many people were saying how they’d cleaned up there act. I was still sceptical, but after seeing that they had a lovely house to rent, I decided (against my better judgement) to rent with them again.

This time, the renting went fine. They were very nice throughout the tenancy and I actually started to think that maybe they had cleaned up their act. I was wrong!

When we came to move out, we had arranged with the agent for him to inspect the property on the Friday. It was made clear that he was looking round to assess any damages. It was also arranged (and had been verified several times) that he would decide how much of our £546 deposit would be returned and write us a cheques there and then.

Friday came and so did the agent. He looked around the property for a total of five minutes. He said that he didn’t want to be long as he was “meeting the boys down the pub for a drink”. After he had looked around, both me and my fiancé asked him if we would receive the full deposit. He told us that we would. We asked if he could write a cheque. His response was as follows:

“We don’t give cheques anymore. Instead we do direct bank transfers as it’s a better way to prove transactions took place. Give me your bank details and we’ll transfer the money next week.”

Straight away, alarm bells started ringing in my head! We had specifically asked for the cheque today, as we were leaving Aberystwyth. But, in the interest of good faith, we took his word for it. We figured that he’d been good throughout the tenancy, so it would be fine. We moved home and awaited the transfer.

A week went by… No deposit.

We telephoned the agent at ALP and were greeted by the familiar hostile tone. It turns out that although we were promised the £546 refund, he has since been round the property with “a more thorough inspection”. He’d found sufficient reason to withhold £114. When asked what the reason was, we were told that the oven was dirty and there were crumbs in the toaster. We offered to come back to Aberystwyth and clean the dirty items, but alas we
were told a professional cleaning company had to be employed. We tried pointing out that the entire house was dirty when we moved in but to no avail. Oh yeah… Did I mention that we left a sofa and a chair (totalling £70) in the property out of good will? Apparently that didn’t count for much either.

I have since been in touch with ALP to request receipts for the “professional cleaning”. I was told that they will be sending them to me. Fingers crossed, eh?

I’ve heard other stories about ALP, and I’d love to collate them all here together in one place. If you’ve got any horror stories to tell about them (or even if you’ve got something nice to say) leave a comment with your e-mail address and I’ll publish them.

Computer Games And The Monetary Value Of Entertainment Time

Originally published at blog.scatmania.org. Please leave any comments there.

How much does entertainment cost? Well, it depends on the medium. A recent inteview with Bing Gordon (who has not only a crazy name but also a high ranking position with videogames company Electronic Arts) talks briefly at the end of the article about the comparative cost of different forms of entertainment, and tries to demonstrate that computer games are cheap if you factor in the amount of time they provide entertainment for.

The article’s not terribly interesting unless you’re an undergraduate student wondering how you can join the EA galley when you graduate, but it got me thinking about what we spend on entertainment. Here’s a few thoughts.

I might spend £10-£15 on a good book, and it’ll provide me with, say, 10-20 hours of entertainment, depending on the number of words and the re-readability of the story. I’ll frequently spend more than this on non-fiction books, but I’ll disregard them as entertainment for the time being (despite the fact that I’m frequently caught enjoying a good reference volumne in the bath), because most normal people don’t read these for fun. So that’s 50p to £1.50 per hour of entertainment, on average - and I’ll frequently buy books that are cheaper than this. Books are also great in that I can hand them on to friends or family, which doubles or triples the value if we’re counting “person-hours”. Some of my favourite books, such as Imajica and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I have read multiple times and passed on to friends to read too, have values like 10p/hour or less. That’s pretty good value as far as entertainment goes.
Sometimes I rent DVDs (typically, only where it’s more convenient to do so than to download the film, and, sadly, it’s currently easier to download pirated versions of films than legitimate ones, so they win, but I look forward to being able to rent films online in a sensible manner). A DVD rental costs me about £3. If it were about an hour and a half long and I watched it alone, that’d give me a value of about £2/hour, but films not only have the advantage of being able to share them with friends, but they can be shared simultaneously with friends (try this with books and you’ll quickly get frustrated, particularly if you have an uncommonly fast or slow reading speed). If I watch a £3 DVD or (shocker) videotape rental with three friends, that’s a value of about 50p per person-hour. Pretty good value.

Buying films isn’t such good value, because at about £15 or so each you’d have to watch each one five times to get the equivilant value as if you’d rented it. Plus, you’re likely to rent the film (or see it at the cinema, which has only slightly greater cost than renting it) before buying it, which is a cost that counts against you because if you’d bought it in the first place you wouldn’t have needed to pay to rent it: so; assume I rent a DVD (£3), like it, and buy it (£15): I’ve then got to watch it a further five times before it becomes worth the same as re-renting it. Plus, buying a film puts you at risk of the disc becoming scratched (or the tape worn out), nullifying the value of your purchase. You have to particularly like a film to be worth buying it at retail prices: that, or be willing to sacrifice the money for the convenience of having the film always available at a moment’s notice, or really want the special features you don’t get on the rental copy.

Now let’s have a look at computer games. Computer games are a complicated beast, because their value on this (very simplistic, I know) scale is so hard to assess. I bought a copy of Civilization IV and I’ve probably played it for about 40 hours: at £25, that’s about 60p per person-hour so far, not counting the time that Claire has spent playing it, and based on my enjnoyment of it’s prequels I anticipate I’ll have gotten it as low as about 4p per person-hour before I get sufficiently bored of it to put it away forever. But on the other hand, there’s a huge difference between NetHack, which is free, and has consumed well over 100 hours of my life, and Myst 4, for which I paid £35 and which has taken no more than about 6 hours of my time (that’s almost £6 per person-hour: unbelievably bad value).

Not only is the value by straight “person-hours” of videogames very variable, but they suffer from another complication: the loss, in the majority of cases, of the benefits of the social element. Books are high-value because they’re cheap and you can lend them to your friends. Films are medium-to-high value because they’re cheap to rent, you can try them out (by renting them) before you commit to buying them, and because you can watch them with a whole roomful of friends (although if there’s more than nine of you, or money changes hands, it might be considered a “public screening” and is illegal). But computer games are complex again: Civilization IV is a multiplayer-capable game, for example, and I can play it with anybody in the world, but if I want to play it with my girlfriend at the other end of the room, I have to buy another copy of the game. I can play with her on the same computer, but because the game has a copy-protection mechanism that requires that the CD is in the drive to play (and for no other purpose than this - all the data is on the hard disk), I’m restricted from playing accross my local network. Well, until I install a No-CD crack or duplicate the disc, but you see my point.

Several of the early games in the Command & Conquer series came with two CDs, and allowed two players to play together from the same copy (if you wanted more players, you had to buy more copies). That seemed fair. The original Command & Conquer cost me under £20 and ate most of my life during the last few years of high school: the value is immeasurabley high. But so many computer games these days are so expensive and the risk that you’ll pick up a crap one is high. Combine that with the fact that nobody does rentals of PC games, and you’ve got a great explanation of why the piracy rate is so high. I’d far rather download a copy of Latest Game 2: The Revenge and play it, and, if I like it, buy a copy. So that’s what I do. Only the companies who make crap games lose out, but all of the companies try to make it difficult for me. What’s up with that?

An interesting side effect of this approach is that I am more likely to pay for a game with no copy protection or weak copy protection than I am to pay for a game with strong copy protection (or shitty crippleware-laden copy protection like StarForce), simply because I’m less likely to have downloaded and played it already.

Wow; that was a fair meander from my original point.