Renting with ghosts

30 September 2015

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

Some advertised rental properties seem too good to be true.

Sometimes they are.

When Stuart Hill, Robbie Simpson, and Anthony Benedyka moved into a newly refurbished house in East Brunswick, they quickly discovered the place had a murky history that was still alive and well.

They tell upstart about their experiences after moving in.

“As we were moving in, a young woman in her early 20s was hanging around,” Hill says.

“She ended up coming inside to charge her phone and told us she had met the previous tenant, Justin, playing the pokies, and he had asked her to live with him.”

“She was pretty harmless, but she seemed kind of desperate,” Benedyka says.

“She was asking me if I thought using ice was bad, and told me she’d had a problem with that.”

Over the next few months, there were more incidents.

A man approached Simpson and aggressively questioned him about Justin.

“Some other random guy came up and asked, ‘Is Justin here?’,” Simpson says.

“He was pretty aggressive, I told him no and he yelled ‘Well, where is he?’.”

Then one evening in early June, as the men were preparing for a night out with friends, the young woman who had approached them earlier appeared at the door.

She and a male friend walked straight into the house and sat down, nursing the remains of a bottle of vodka and acting as if they were among old friends. 

They asked Hill to keep the door unlocked so that “other friends” could come in.

With a little urging, the housemates were able to get rid of their unwanted guests and leave for their night out.

But Hill stayed home, worried that perhaps the pair had been casing the house for a robbery.

“She talked to us as if she knew us well, and reminisced about when she used to live here, and she was clearly inebriated,” Hill says.

“After they’d left I just didn’t feel like I could go out. I stayed home with the lights down and the TV muted, a D-Lock at hand for protection just in case, but in the end nothing happened.”

A stream of mail arrived addressed to the former tenant Justin, from various collection agencies.

They were seeking unpaid rates on a property in Queensland, among other delinquent accounts.

Hill and his housemates came to suspect that their predecessor had been engaged in shady dealings, that maybe he had cut and run.

Then came the first robbery.

On 27 June, the housemates threw a party and went to sleep without locking their back door. While they and several guests slept, thieves came through the back gate, cleared the shed of valuables, and then wandered through the house stealing a guest’s jacket and wallet.

When the police came to the house to take a statement, they confirmed the tenants’ suspicions.

“The police officer said she’d seen the house before, that the last time she’d been there it was to arrest someone,” Hill says.

“She told us that the house definitely has a history, but she couldn’t go into details.”

A few months later, Hill woke up to the sound of a large vehicle reversing outside the house.

It was early in the morning on garbage day, so he thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. He awoke when the real garbage truck woke him up.

His motorbike, parked out the front of the house, had been loaded into a van or truck hours before, and was long gone.

Another police officer reiterated the problems with the house.

“This officer gave us the same kind of story. He said it was a notorious address and strongly implied it had been a dealer’s home, and he’d also arrested someone there,” Hill says.

Despite the obvious safety concerns, their real estate agency was operating within the rules when they failed to volunteer the information.

According to the Tenants Union of Victoria, there is no requirement for agents or landlords to disclose information about past criminal activity in rental properties.

Less than a year into a two-year lease, and with no real legal recourse, the three housemates must stay put for now.

But they understandably feel less than secure in their accommodation.

The police have recommended they install a security camera, tougher locks, and alarms, and also suggested they move out as soon as their lease is up.

Tenants Union Victoria lamented the current situation, but said there are ways tenants can at least inform each other about potentially toxic properties.

“We advocate for mandatory disclosure on a range of critical information,” a union representative said.

“Often tenants get stuck in unsuitable housing because of a lack of information, but you can at least list properties at to warn other renters.” 


Joseph Tafra is a third-year journalism student at La Trobe University and freelance writer, musician, and occasional videographer. You can follow him on Twitter: @kinchkinski.