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As I snuggled on the sofa in my quaint period cottage, my leg started to itch.
I rolled up my pajama bottoms and was surprised to find a cluster of small, red marks.
“Must be gnat bites,” I sighed.
That evening, in March 2011, I shrugged off the sore sight. But days later my nose was constantly running and my eyes and throat swollen.
It wasn’t long before I stumbled across the problem – fleas!
Black, hopping specks peppered the carpets, covered my clothes and shared my bed. They were everywhere. It was just my luck. I’d only been in the house for a week!
I’d spent the previous three years in a house in Great Yarmouth but, being single with grown-up kids, decided to move into one of my landlord’s smaller homes in nearby Beccles.
I knew the fleas weren’t my fault – I didn’t have any pets – so called my landlords, Linburn Properties and Homes.
Linda Milburn, the owner, answered with a cheery ‘hello’.
“Hi Linda,” I stuttered back. “It’s Vanda.”
I told her about the fleas. She said not to worry.
“We’ll send someone over to spray the property,” she soothed.
“Thanks,” I replied, running finger nails up and down my itchy leg. “Please be quick.”
Sure enough, pest control arrived. They verified an infestation and sprayed the home.
I thought that would be it, but the parasites, known for their speedy reproduction and carrying diseases, didn’t seem to budge. That’s when I contacted Environmental Health. And their words made my skin crawl …
With it being an old house, it was likely they’d burrowed into every nook and cranny.
“It means they’ll be tricky to clear,” the voice on the phone told me. “They hide everywhere.”
“What about my furniture?” I quizzed.
“Nothing’s safe,” the man replied.
Devastated, I returned to Linda for help. Luckily, my previous house was still empty and she said I could move back.
“But what about my things? They’re flea-ridden,” I said.
“Just take your essentials. We can claim for everything else from our insurers,” she said.
Just a month after moving out, I was moving back to my original rented home. Only this time it was empty. And so was my pocket.
I was supposed to be saving money by moving home – the rent was a reasonable £425 in the cottage compared to the £615 a month I was paying before.
I’d spent £700 altogether on removals and then setting up things like a landline and TV. I was happy to pay that, but not the £1000s I now stood to lose.
Compiling a list of what I had to leave behind – two beds, a sofa, linen, books, cases and cases of clothes – it was easily worth £7,000.
There was one thing that got me through it. At least I would be flea-free. Or so I thought …
One morning in April, just a few days after moving back, I spotted marks on my white bathroom towels.
“Oh no,” I gulped.
My heart raced as I leaned in for a closer look. And then I wailed.
They had followed.
Determined to not let them spread, I coughed up £200 for flea sprays and tried to call the landlord. But, suddenly, Linda and husband Phillip were hard to pin down. Texts, calls, emails, faxes … nothing seemed to get a response.
It all got too much. I was suffering from shock, not sleeping, and spent three weeks sleeping on the floor – I had to wait until payday to buy a new bed. And that cost another £400!
I ended up getting signed off sick from my job as an employment advisor for four months too. And where was I to recover? At home surrounded by fleas!
I decided to put my foot down. I wasn’t going to pay rent if I was being left to handle a problem that wasn’t my fault. Weeks trickled by and in July 2011, with still no support, I went to see a solicitor.
“Sounds like you’ve got a case,” he nodded.
It was a relief to hear, but then he reeled off his fees. They were too high. I was penniless by this point.
Back at home, constantly scratching, I looked into court claims online. I could do it all myself and pay in small installments. It would end up costing around £900, but it would be worth it to fight for what was right.
I launched a fast-track claim then, realising I’d need evidence, went flea hunting.
“Gotcha!” I’d yell, after catching a flea and sticky-taping it to a piece of cardboard.
I taped up the slats of my bed too – I was desperate for a bite-free sleep.
By October 2011 I’d had enough of the house. My son, 32-year-old Richard Beamish, had a spare room and invited me to stay. I felt awful, and was paranoid fleas would follow me again.
“Don’t be silly,” Richard laughed. “You’ll be okay here.”
He was right. And I managed to catch up on my sleep and prepare my case. Then, in February 2012, I went to Norwich County Court.
“There should never have been fleas in the property,” the judge told Linburn Properties’ representative.
It was a small victory, but the judge allowed them more time to prepare. That’s when I got worried. What if the figure I’m given is low? I could end up even worse off!
In April 2012, before our return to court, we discussed an out of court settlement.
I totted up my losses. I’d lost more than £5,000 in wages from being ill and then there was the £7,000 from possessions I’d left behind, £2,000 replacing things. £100s on flea spray. It must have been around £15,000.
I knew I couldn’t expect that though. And there was the rent I owed.
After a lot of talks, we agreed on £4,000. It was little help financially – I had to use half to pay off my overdraft – but I saw it as my trophy. I won because I kept on fighting.
It’s taken me 18-months to pick myself back up. I had to start from scratch.
I have a new (and minimal!) home and a new job as a housing assistant. I’m still itching though – I’m itching to get on with my life.
Linda Milburn, owner of Linburn Properties & Homes, said:
“Vanda rented a property from us in Great Yarmouth and decided she wanted a smaller property.
“We went to great lengths to help her out. There was a flea infestation, and it was sorted out. There was no settlement. There was no court issue.
“She ended up owing us £3,000 and just cleared off.”
“They got their money. The rent was deducted from the settlement and I didn’t just clear off – someone came to inspect the property before I left.”