Renting in Sydney: A horror story

For just $550 a week all this could be yours

I originally wrote this for Ghost Stories at Giant Dwarf in 2015. It was inspired by a very real house of horrors in Redfern/Surry Hills that I briefly considered renting in 2012 — at least until a woman fell through the floor at the inspection. I’m republishing the story because this week the Stanmore house pictured above was listed on Domain for $550. The truth really is scarier than fiction.

Many years ago, when I was a younger man, inexperienced in such matters, I needed to move out. Obviously I couldn’t afford to buy — this is horror, not fantasy — and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to live in a share house.

Unfortunately, most of the suburbs I was looking in were haunted… by gentrification and rents driven sky high by a housing shortage precipitated by government policies that favour investment in housing over all forms of income generation.

There was nothing affordable. We began to despair. And then, suddenly, I saw it, practically the moment the ad was posted: “Victorian four bedroom terrace, short walk to transport, perfect for students or young family.”

Sure, the pictures were black and white, which was a bit weird, but it was perfect for us! (And a short walk to fine dining, shops, cafes and an entertainment precinct.)

Best of all, it was within our price range. We had to get our application in as quickly as possible.

I called the agent, from a company I’d never seen before, nor heard of since, but the phone rang and rang. Then, just as I was about to hang up, there was a click.

“Er, hi, I was hoping to inspect, but has there been some kind of mistake?” I asked. “It’s listed as $650 a week on Domain.”

“No mistake,” whispered the ancient voice on the other side of the phone.

“Great,” I said, “will there be an inspection this weekend?”

“Today,” said the voice. “Three fifteen.”

The line went dead. Real estate agents.

When I arrived, it became clear the photos were not entirely accurate. And I don’t mean that in the way you usually get on real estate websites. The upright Victorian terrace from the listing was, in fact, a gnarled, tumbledown facade that loomed over the street, swallowing the light of day as I approached.

Two real estate agents stood at the door, along with a small crowd of hopefuls. There was something about the agents I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was like they were faceless, and not in the sense that all real estate agents are faceless. They had no defining features. The moment I looked away, any impression I had of them dissolved to nothingness.

Also they were both wearing floor-length hooded black robes, which was weird.

As I approached, the agent closest to the door lifted an emaciated hand. Dry tendons slid under his parchment-thin skin as he pushed the heavy door open with a creak.

“The floorboards… are original,” he whispered, beckoning the throng inside with a skeletal finger.

I could feel the floorboards straining under every step as I approached the combined living/dining area suitable for a modern lifestyle. Of course, the first thing I noticed was the charming period touches, though the pentagram etched in the floor was a close second.

The crimson candles burning brightly at its points were a nice touch, though, especially considering the promised natural light was nowhere to be seen.

We couldn’t have walked 10 steps down the hall, but the light of the sun suddenly seemed miles away, its warmth a forgotten memory. I was going to have to buy a lamp on Gumtree.

I walked deeper into the darkness, approaching the kitchen (with gas!). The hob was slick with copper-coloured grime and the room smelled like cooked fat and unidentified charred meat.

I looked up the impossibly steep stairs, which tumbled up and away from the living room into darkness.

The first bedroom was just off the landing. The paint was peeling off the open door, but what caught my eye was the lock — it was on the outside.

Inside, the room was bare. Bare, that is, apart from the bolts in the floor and the scratches on the walls. It smelled: not of university students or even of damp, but of something sour I couldn’t put my finger on. Then I realised: the little room stank of human fear.

Undeterred, I turned down the corridor towards the light and airy, street facing master bedroom. But as I opened the door I had a sudden sensation of vertigo, like I was standing on the edge a cliff.

The place had been advertised as unfurnished, but there was literally nothing in this room. It was a yawning abyss — nothingness. The floor, walls and original pressed metal ceiling stretched away to infinity. The wind howled and suddenly I felt bitterly cold.

“Spacious, isn’t it?” whispered one of the real estate agents. He was right behind me, but I hadn’t heard him come up the creaky old stairs.

He was right, and it did have three power points.

“Yes,” I said, turning past him, wondering what horrors might await me in the bathroom down the corridor. And sure enough, it was unrenovated.

The shower pointed into a black claw-footed bath. I turned on the tap and the plumbing sputtered and groaned. As I noted the deep red stains on the floor of the tub, sulphurous fluid suddenly vomited forth from the retro shower head, which was shaped vaguely like a screaming mouth. Nice pressure, though.

“Bills are not included,” said the agent, who by this time was standing in the doorway.

I’m not sure what compelled me onwards at this point, but I needed to see the last bedroom.

The paint wasn’t peeling from the final door, and it stood solidly on its hinges. I breathed a sigh of relief. This room was the smallest, but maybe I could pay less rent.

Yes, the room was tiny, but it was in perfect order. Some of the old tenant’s furniture was still in there. A multi-coloured chest of drawers. A woven mat. An empty cot. Hundreds of children’s dolls.

The faint sound of a music box echoed as I looked into what once must have been a nursery.

The tinkling melody was soon joined by the faint sound of children singing. One of the dolls shuddered to life, slowly standing up like a drunk crawling out of the gutter.

“Bin night is Sunday,” it sang.

I turned and ran. Past the real estate agent on the landing, and down the treacherous stairs, two at a time, turning towards the door and the light.

I knew what I had to do. I sprinted down the hall, my legs suddenly heavy. The floor groaning beneath me. But as I reached the exit, something blocked out the sun. The hooded real estate agent filled the entire doorway, staring down at me.

I mustered what little courage I had left: “I’ll give you $50 over the asking price.”