Saturday, 3 October 2009

Exchange tax - UOR's first petition

During the Summer of 2009 Under One Roof started it's first ever campaign by posting a petition on the governments Number 10 website.

The decision was made when it became apparent from the increasing number of enquiries that some housing associations and council landlords were attempting to charge tenants who wanted to exchange, a fee of up to £360 for gas and electricity checks.

These checks are a necessary part of the mutual exchange process, because the landlord must carry them out before letting the property to a new tenant. However it's only recently that some have decided to charge for doing this when it comes to exchanges. Their argument is that there is nothing within the 1985 Housing Act that says they can't do it.

So it seems that once again greedy landlords are out to make as much as they can from those least able to afford it.

We have advised anyone who's been a victim of this "exchange tax" not to pay it. Not paying this charge will not prevent your exchange from going ahead because it is not one of the reasons listed within the 1985 Housing Act that permission to exchange can be refused. So if you don't pay, they cannot refuse the exchange.

Unfortunately we also know of exchangers who have simply paid up rather than take the perceived risk of losing their exchange and there's the rub. These landlords know that exchangers don't want to do anything to lose their exchange and will worry that it might be refused (even though it can't be) so they'll pay up anyway.

Finding an exchange can take many years and involve lot of hard work, worry and stress. Then along come unscrupulous landlords to rip you off. Hence this petition against the exchange tax.

At the time of writing the petition has reached the minimum requirement of 500. But if you have not signed please do so. Some signatures may get rejected so enough are needed to account for this and the more signatures there are the more likely it is that something may be done about it.

Note: The petition closed on October 23 2009 with 604 signatures.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Avon and Somerset

When Under One Roof was started it was decided that it should include an area board for Avon.

It's not widely known that the county of Avon was in fact abolished in 1996 having come into existence in April 1974. Some places will have been originally in Somerset, then in Avon and now in Somerset again. The confusion is added to by some institutions which still carry the name, such as the Avon Wildlife Trust and The Avon and Somerset Constabulary. Road signs welcoming travellers to Avon can also still be found.

We decided that by having both an Avon board and a separate Somerset board we could leave it up to our members to decide in which one they lived in. At first this worked well but as UOR got busier problems began to arise, a few members were putting their advert on both boards, which gave us the problem of which one to delete.

It was when asking one member which advert to remove, that the idea of combining them into one came about.

Her argument was simple, if she posted in Avon then her advert might be missed if somebody just looked in Somerset and vice-versa. Which meant she could miss out on a possible exchange, not the idea at all! The two boards would both have to be checked by anyone wishing to move to Bath for example which just complicated matters.

We asked members what they thought about merging the Avon and Somerset boards into one. All those who replied agreed it was a good idea and so they were combined into one.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Marching to a different drummer

Right from the start we've claimed that Under One Roof is not the same as most other council house exchange sites. So how is it different from the rest, what makes it unique.

To start with UOR does not have a single "owner", it's been jointly run and funded from the start by a group of five people (now three). But the big difference is in our philosophy and ideas about how an exchange site should be run.

We wanted to administer the site from the view point of the members. Cutting out all those things we found annoying when using other sites. Heavy-handed administration was out for a start, if somebody didn't read the rules, who does anyway, we'll let them know in a friendly way and explain why we have the rule, not a "don't do that or else" manner, there's never an excuse for being down right rude. UOR was going to treat it's members with respect and as adults, after all without them the site is nothing.

We allow our members to post links to other exchange sites in their adverts, we know of no other site that allows this. Our aim is to help people find an exchange, where they find it does not matter and if UOR can help in any way then it has done it's job. People are going to join other sites in any case so why put hurdles in the way, Google is everybodies friend.

Members can also put their email address's in their adverts, most other sites don't allow it. UOR does because it helps people communicate, it's their choice even though their is an email button on every post. This is why the main boards are not visible to guests, if it was then spambots would soon be harvesting those email address's and sending them loads of spam.

It was also decided right from the beginning that we would keep our members informed about any changes that were made to the site or any problems it was having. If it was offline or running slowly we'd let everyone know as soon as we did. We will give proper explanations, if the server's crashed we let members know that's what happened. We never ever trot out meaningless glib little phrases like "circumstances beyond our control", whatever that's supposed to mean.

In the chat forums we allow our members to have an opinion and to voice that opinion if they wish. We do not close or delete posts simply because somebody disagrees with us.

Above all we want to keep it friendly and not have people afraid to post or add something to their advert in case the "admin" jump on them. What are "admin", just ordinary people, at least on Under One Roof they are.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

All dressed up...

Under One Roof was now online after 5 months of development, all shiney and new.

Now the worries, the fears and the questions started. Would anyone join?, would anyone post an exchange advert if they did?, could anybody find the site?, had we wasted our time?, was if worth it and would the site ever appear in google?

At this time UOR was suffering from the same problems faced by all new council house exchange sites. The structure of the site was in place but it had very few members and even fewer adverts. Most of the boards were empty which would in itself put off the few members we had from posting an advert, or even returning to the site. The internet is littered with sites that never got beyond this stage and which gradually fade away, there was a real possibility that UOR could go the same way.

Gradually the number of members began to build and the team got very excited when we reached 100! Also more adverts were being posted and more counties had at least one advert within them. The numbers joining UOR was also rising, word was getting out because still the site was very low in the major search engines.

One of the first people to join the site, Jen who was our 9th member became one of our greatest supporters and has now been a valuable part of the UOR team for a couple of years. Jen was the first person added to the team since the launch.

Towards the end of 2006 a milestone was passed when UOR finally had at least one advert on every county board. Even the tiny county of Rutland, which at that time had it's own board, had an advert on it.

On reaching it's first birthday in March 2007 our early questions had all been answered, membership was over 6000, more and more people were joining, google knew who we were and perhaps most importantly our members were recommending us to their friends.

Under One Roof was now a proper exchange site and it had somewhere to go.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The site without a home

During it's early development Under One Roof was hidden on the Internet and only accessible by five people, the only ones who knew where it was. When it was ready to launch Under One Roof needed a home of it's own, so began the search for a host.

We wanted a UK host because we are a UK based website with content that's only relevant to a portion of the UK population. Of all the thousands of hosts we could have chosen, one was picked and a hosting account set up ready for the launch.

It wasn't long before it became apparent that we needed to move Under One Roof to another host. The site was running very slowly, database connection errors were occurring daily and the in-house control panel was amateurish.

Fortunately we were not tied into an annual contract and so after just 3 months, we moved the site to it's second host, where it stayed for a year.

During that year the hosts suspended the site twice for spurious reasons and it was offline for several hours because their power supply back-up system failed. Once more Under One Roof needed a new home.

We found our current host after asking on the SMF forum if anyone could recommend a decent UK host that could handle a forum based website. SMF is the software we use for the council house adverts.

A small Canadian company, Monte Carlo Hosting (MCH), contacted us offering their services. We had reservations about hosting Under One Roof across the Atlantic, mainly speed. MCH convinced us that it would not be a problem and that they had "blisteringly fast" servers which were optimized for SMF.

Searching the web, we couldn't find anything negative about MCH, only praise. So thinking it couldn't be any worse than the UK hosts we'd used, the site moved to it's third host.

We are still with MCH where we intend to stay. Their servers are "blisteringly fast" and they are a brilliant company to work with. Any issues we have are dealt with straight away, despite the time difference. Any slowing of the server is also dealt with immediately, usually before we've even noticed it.

Under One Roof finally found a home, a pity we had to go to Canada to find it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Those early days!!

I remember them well, putting the site together seemed to take an eternity, The Housing FAQ's and trying to cover as many housing problems as I could think of, even choosing a name was a huge debate, which was voted, revoted and then voted again just for fun, eventually we came up with Under One Roof and there it was was suddenly brought to life!

I can still remember seeing the first Council House Exchange ad hitting the boards, I also remember the first housing enquiries - Look at us now, the content has grown beyond belief, we know have the site FAQ's, Jan's Recycle boards and we're still growing!!

Starting a council house exchange site

It all started with a simple question in an email, "...why don't we start our own site?".

A small group of five people, who'd all previously worked on a council house exchange site, had kept in touch with each other via email. After a flurry emails it was decided to go ahead, after all, how hard could it be?

I already had a website, so it was easy to install forum software there and hide it from search engines and the rest of the web. The plan was to develop the site into a useful resource before it was launched rather than jump in feet first with little more than an empty forum to show the world.

Having a test site up and running proved to be invaluable, it meant we could communicate easily and quickly see the results of any changes, which were being made daily.

We made several decisions about what we wanted to do with the site and how we intended to moderate it. From the start we stayed away from labels, there wouldn't an owner, this was almost a website run by a committee without a chair. I had my doubts, as did others, but the team got on really well with other, although actually coming to a decision could take a while.

Three months in and we were still going strong, the structure was in place and content was being added daily. A lot of our time on the test site was spent just chatting with other, but it did seem to be growing and starting to look like a proper council house exchange site.

Eventually, after 5 or 6 months we decided it was time to launch Under One Roof. There was still more to be added, but we felt it was just about there and if we didn't launch soon, we could be fine tuning it for ever.

So a domain name was purchased, a hosting account set up and the entire site moved to it's new home. Under One Roof launched on March 17th 2006.