Note exposes the nightmare of renting
"ARE you here for the inspection? I have something to give you."
A man peers out of the doorway, my flatmate and I are early and we're the first ones to arrive at the inner Sydney property, a unit in a large apartment block in Darlinghurst.
The man crosses the road, hands us a note and tells us to read it, but to be discreet. The real estate agent would be arriving at any moment and he doesn't want them to know he's out to sabotage. He warns us against renting the apartment before running back inside.
Puzzled by our brief exchange and as more hopefuls begin to arrive, the two-page essay is burning in my hand. The apartment looks cute enough, clean, what could possibly be wrong?
My flatmate and I scurry off into a corner. The note mentions the usual complaints, with warnings about strata by-laws, noise, infestations of rats and how "we had to seal the door out to the courtyard to prevent garden slugs from entering en masse".
OK, nothing too dramatic.
But then it took a darker turn, warning of the discovery of used syringes and allegations of sordid, underworld behaviour. Of course, we only had one side of the story, but it was enough to turn us off.
Welcome to the exhausting world of renting in Sydney.
Needless to say, my flatmate and I did not apply for the apartment, nor do we know if the tenant managed to slip any other warnings to potential renters; we hopped, skipped and jumped it out of there pretty quickly.
What followed was a haze of houses, crowds, lazy agents and frankly, some pretty sh*tty apartments for a sh*tload of money.
Sydney rentals are notoriously expensive. Following the trend of young professionals moving back home, I spent two years saving dollars with the parents. But even two years didn't leave me with enough, and I had to get out and get myself a life.
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, "an average of 6 years is needed for first time buyers in New South Wales to come up with a 20 per cent deposit".
The publication, citing data from Bankwest's First Time Buyer report last week, calculated that in Sydney alone, "the price of a deposit on a median priced home sits at a staggering $215,133, it will take 8.2 years to come up with the necessary funds".
So, without enough cash to buy my own place and desperate to move, I settled on an apartment share.
Sydney has become a progressively more expensive city. According to price aggregation website Numbeo, one month's rent for a one-bedroom apartment in central Sydney is $2619, compared to $1746 in central Melbourne.
"So expensive have Sydney rents become that Numbeo rates Sydney as the 16th most expensive place to rent in the world," reported the Herald.
The financial wasteland of the rental market is only ruined more so by the fact that despite the sh*tty houses and the sh*tty cost, real estate agents are also pretty sh*t at their job.
When I was apartment hunting in New York City, agents were clawing at my feet to get that commission. They gave a damn.
In Sydney, after countless property inspections, my flatmate and I finally received approval for a two-bedroom unit in Surry Hills, next door to Darlinghurst. It came after unanswered emails, calls that were never returned and a generally bad attitude from agents all around. Who cares about commission, right?
Never mind the dodgy carpets, the cockroach infestations or the tiny apartments; in Sydney the rental race is swift and stressful. The agents have the power and the renter is left to pick up the pieces.
When we signed for our new apartment, I was surprised to find out that the woman who inspected the apartment with us wasn't in fact our agent, nor was the agent who dealt with our signing. No surprise then, that she didn't even have a set of keys ready for us. We still can't even access visitor parking.
Our actual agent, it turns out, is a woman we met in passing, once, after repeated pleas to meet her, and who has never contacted us since, despite repeated emails.
All I know about her is from her Facebook profile photo: A revealing shot that shows off her buttocks. Charming, doll. No need for a reply about those by-laws you never sent, I can tell you're busy.
Having seen how real agents work in other countries, it's disappointing that renters are treated in such poor taste.
The Age's Simon Castles wrote a piece recently comparing renting to "doing time in Shawshank" - and he has a point.
"The standard rental property is, of course, nicer than a cell at Shawshank. (Just.) But there's a price to pay for this luxury," he writes. "The renter must, for instance, ask permission to hang a picture on the wall - something even Tim Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne, didn't have to do when he put up his Rita Hayworth.
"Renting involves many small humiliations - the inevitable result of a power imbalance. The tenant has little choice but to suck up to the real estate agent and landlord, but the real estate agent and landlord pretty much wish the tenant didn't exist.
"The tenant is mostly made to feel like an annoyance for wanting or expecting anything."
There's no sign Sydneysiders are any closer to gaining rental freedom or respect, but reassuringly, it's nice to know we're not alone.
"Some measures estimate that as little as one per cent of available accommodation in the City of Sydney is affordable rental housing. This is totally unacceptable for a global city," Sydney City councillor Linda Scott told City Hub.
With Australia's housing affordability crisis forcing more and more residents to rent instead of buy, I challenge agents to turn the tide and free us from this prison.
Because when residents are skipping meals just to pay their rising rent, there's something very wrong.