Flat-hunting in London

We discussed already the different phases that, usually, an Italian expat goes through over a year when crossing The Channel. We also saw the daily challenges that come with being single in the British Capital and some of the local traditions which initially might appear odd to us, but that we will eventually try to export in our Country (not the local way of washing up! Not that one!)

It’s time we have some serious talking about something more practical and useful, like flat-hunting in London.

for-rent4Within almost five years across The Channel I moved about 8 times, which makes an average of 1 time and a half every year. Not bad! It won’t probably give me the status of expert in the English real-estate market, but it definitely helped me to gain a good expertise and know-how when it comes to deal with the enemy, the who will never listen to what you need, the one who will always try to serve one’s interests: the estate agent!

I would skip over the reasons as for why I moved so often in such a short period, at times because of unfair Landlords, apartments that would have made Oliver Twist misty-eyed, flat-mates apparently (too) friendly and even a psychopath, sociophobic nuts with whom I ended up living. Alright, I must admit, for intellectual honesty and the great respect I have for this blog: my natural skill of messing it all up somewhat contributed.

Before proceeding, I’d like to make it even clearer that this article and the tips in it will most likely fit Italian expats (or non-English native speakers in general) who want a place in London for their own.

The real estate agent, this unknown.

1. Real estate agents tend to not listen to what you tell them. Even after years that I’ve been living in this Country, with a good knowledge and experience in moving, with a bunch of good tips received from local Brits, with an advanced English knowledge, a tie and a suit because you can always judge a book by its cover and above all after making it crystal clear that (a) These are the requisites that the place I am looking for must have and (b) I do not want to waste time, the agent just treated me as though I had just came ashore on the island without the slightest idea of how the world works. Will they try to cheat you? Far from me the intention of throwing slanders on a whole category. Let’s say that they will try with diplomacy (at times not even that much) to sell you all the crap that they cannot sell to the British nationals.

2. Yes, they will try to give you the leftovers. Just think of all those situations in our home Country where often 15 people who have just crossed the national border live together in a 30-square meter apartment. Would you live there? No, but if that place is still on the market it means that somebody is willing to pay for it. It works more or less the same way here: the number of Italians, Spanish, French and Greeks who come here just to make “an experience abroad” is so high that agents know it’s always worth it giving it a try because 7 times out of 10 the will find the person who has actually just landed in Stansted and is still enough inexperienced to take that place. I happened to be a part of those 7 a couple of times.

3. Respect, what (according to them) you deserve. I’m sorry to say so, but that’s how it goes: generally, an estate agent from central London will feel the right to treat whoever has a low English level, little knowledge of the city and ideas not clear with almost or total zero respect. You will go to the viewing on the day and time booked and, when the agent doesn’t show up, you will phone the agency and a colleague will pass the message on that “Oh, I’m sorry, James had a hitch, didn’t he tell you?”. You will go to the viewing just to find out that the property James is showing you is not the same you booked the appointment for. “I’m sorry, that property has gone off the market. This one is similar”, James will reassure you, ignoring that he should have told you beforehand. The new property that James shows you, which is not the one on the ad because apparently that one has been rented overnight, meets not even one of the requirements that you have given. Stick it in your mind before now: most of the viewings you go to will turn out in a waste of time.

Ads. Learn how to read

1. You will find many, too many of them, more than you were expecting. Learn how to filter them out. I’m referring especially to those who decided to cross The Channel in the near future and are having a glance at the web just to get an idea of what the market has to offer: distrust (like everyone with a bit of common sense would do) of those ads that offer a penthouse in Knights Bridge for £500/m, just because the owner lives abroad and needs someone to live there so “If you transfer the deposit to me via Western Union I will make sure to let you have the keys ASAP”. I know people who bit it, even after years of London.

2. Gum tree (like Craiglist in the US) is where you can hopefully find ads directly from the Landlords, so to avoid the useless agency fees.  Gum Tree though is also a bottomless pot where people post everything, so be sure to have a good feeling about it and to have at least spoken to the Landlord on the phone before going to the viewing. Anyways, even on Gum Tree most of the ads will have been posted by agencies.

3. Bait-ads. You find the ad just for you, the price perfectly matches your budget, it’s in the area where you’d like to live and the pictures even look nice. It’s 8.30am, you woke up early just to beat everyone else on the time, you phone James up and he will communicate that the property has been rented out already. It happens more than often. I still wonder: the property on the ad, has it ever actually been on the market or is it just a bait to get people to call the agency and give their details? As a spare-time, I did some cross-checks on few of those ads and I have to say, sometimes the property actually exists and was on the market. Most of the times though it’s just a bait!

4. Some websites will ask you to pay a subscription fee, most likely if you are looking for a flat-share. I tried both and I found the last house where I lived (sharing with two other people) through one of those: I paid the monthly fee, about £12, I created my profile and few days after my flat-mates, along with other people, got in contact. This is absolutely not the only choice you have, perhaps the best if you are running out of time and you want to avoid time-wasters. But if you can give yourself time, then you will definitely find something without paying any subscriptions.

The viewing. Be solid and extremely eager.

You booked the viewing, James shows up and the apartment he shows you is even the one you saw on the ad. 72096_galleryYou’re in! Here is a short list of things you should check and ask.

1. Carpeted or wooden floor? Let’s admit it, carpeted-floor with huge tumbleweed rolling all over the place blown by the wind as if in a Spaghetti Western movie sucks. Nonetheless, carpet here still rules. If the property you are viewing has carpeted-floor, check that it has been professionally cleaned recently and, if not, that it will be before you move in. The Landlord must get the apartment (carpet as well) cleaned up by professionals before the new tenant takes possession, you have to claim it. Carpeted-floor needs to be taken care of if we want to avoid sharing the couch in the evening with gigantic mites that will ask us to change the TV channel. Check whether there is a good vacuum cleaner in the house and if not, that will be another cost on you.

2. Little mice are common here, get over it. It doesn’t mean that houses are dirty and it doesn’t mean that Brits are dirty either. Personally, I put it on the way houses are built and maintained. Where I live now, a new building no more than 4 years old, I’ve never seen mice or found any trace of them, but in the old building of central London or in the traditional Victorian houses you might have guests. No panic, it’s normal! Nonetheless, during your first viewing check cupboards, especially the low ones and if you see something like 10 traps in a 15-square meter place, then you should worry. Check also surfaces in general and the window sill to look for droppings that the flat-mate might have left around (both human and non-human ones, you never know)

3. The bathroom. During my viewings when I was last flat hunting, one of the first things that I used to check was the bathroom. What do we want to check? (a) The sink: has it got the size of a small bucket or is it big enough to at least wash your face in the morning? Has it got a tap for hot water and one for cold water or it’s got a mixer faucet like one would expect in every house of the 21st century? (b) The shower: does it have a good pressure or do you get just a small rivulet that drips down the wall so that one has to smash against it like a gecko to rinse from the soap? Does it have an external pump (you’ll notice it, it seems like one of those box where you can insert your coin to have a 5-minute shower) or a centralized one? The latter being better than the first as this tend to break down more easily. (d) This will give you goose bumps: is there a carpeted-floor in the bathroom? Yes, it does happen.

4. The windows. Keep this in mind: if the rent of a property in zone 2 is £700/m, it does not mean it’s a deal! There are many more additional costs than you would expect. Heating costs and having good windows might be crucial. Windows will need to be double-glazed with no cracks or splits in the frame. In the old buildings sometimes you will see wooden-frame windows, no double-glazed and with such drafts that will bring an unpleasant north wind across the whole place.

5. Electrical appliances: are they class A? If they are not, you will pay more on the electricity bill.

6. Council Tax. I won’t tell you what it is because you will find that out soon, but it’s got to be paid and it varies from areas to areas, sometimes street to street. If you ask James how much that is for that flat, he won’t know but James, as a professional estate agent, should be able to give you a rough idea. If he doesn’t know, ask him to find it out for you! You can check here what band that building belongs to. If you are single, you’ll get 25% discount; if you are a student as well if you belong to specific categories, you won’t pay it at all. Council Tax and what mentioned on points 4 and 5 will affect what your monthly cost comes up to and it’s what you want to be as clear as possible on before signing the contract. A good agent should be able to help you out.

7. Are there additional costs, like any condo fees? Ask. You will be told at some point, but not before James is sure you have fallen in love with the place. Falling in love makes us dumb, so ask before that happens!

8. Furnished or unfurnished? If the place is unfurnished it will be cheaper, but keep in mind that getting the pieces of furniture you need might be challenging: long journeys to Ikea or to second-hand market, purchases on Gum Tree of things that you will have to go and collect. In some situation it could be convenient, but that depends on you only. If the apartment comes furnished, make sure that all you see will stay (usually when you go for a viewing the old tenant is still living in, it’s good to know what he/she will be taking away). Don’t be shy to lie down on the bed or sit on the couch to make sure that all works:  you are going to choose the place that you will be soon calling home, and lots of money is involved!

9. Flatware, pots and pans: will they stay? If so, are we talking about stuff so rusty that would give tetanus to an armadillo or can they actually be used?

10. Current tenants: it will cross your mind to ask them information about the flat and the area. Be very careful: it might be people who broke the contract before the expiration or didn’t give enough notice, which means that if they don’t find a replacement before they leave, there will be extra fee to pay or a loss on their deposit. Just to get you to take the place they will tell you that the Queen Elizabeth herself pops in every morning to personally deliver breakfast and that the bedroom’s closet leads directly to  a Central Line station. Other times the current tenants is leaving just because the contract expired and has no interest in you taking the place, so what he/she has to say might be useful. As I always say to whoever decides to come here: trust no one!

How are rents in London?

You will find yourself answering this and many other questions during your holidays back home (How’s  life in London? How’s the food in London? Does it really rain all the times?). Rents in London? They’re expensive! Everything is expensive here, sooner you’ll stick it in your mind, the better for us all! With that said, living here is not impossible. This article refers mostly to who decided to rent a whole apartment rather than to share, as it is based on my personal experience and I have always tried hard to run away from every kind of forced cohabitations. Obviously living alone costs much more so I’m sorry to tell you this, but not always you will have a job that allows you to afford it. If then you are lonely hearts, even worse. Beyond the fact whether you live alone or not, there are some common factors:

1. Rents are expensive and public transports even more. As I said already, don’t get too over exited with a cheap rent but try to look at the bigger picture. The rent is cheap but the house is in zone 3: you will be paying £136 for monthly travel card to get to zone 1, if that is where you work. The rent is cheap but the place is in central Richmond: it will be about £115 of monthly Council Tax plus £167 of monthly travel card to get to central London. Do I have to spell it out for you?

2. Living in the city centre or not? I’m not a city-centre guy, I decided to live in zone 3 and I’m happy that way. I must admit though: there are some disadvantages, like longer journeys to get to work, underground change to get to the centre and really limited choices of night buses if I happen to meet my friends and be late at night. These are all things that sometimes make you feel like just putting your PJs on and never leave the place. Living close to the city centre sometimes allows you to save on public transport and to enjoy the classic London as you see it in the postcards. Nonetheless, in areas a bit further from the classic touristic spots you get that sense of “Britishness” that sometimes it’s difficult to find elsewhere. If it’s your first time in London, you will end up in a central area for sure but don’t get anxious, you will find your little, perfect corner in London. This city has got one for everyone.

You like the apartment and you want to take it: the negotiations.

James will ask you to put an offer on it straight away because there are other 17 people who want the same place. James is obviously exaggerating, but he’s not completely wrong: the London estate market travels fast! Do you remember the flat rented out overnight? That might happen, so don’t waste further and put an offer. You will be asked to pay a security bond: if the Landlord accepts your offer, what you paid will be calculated against the deposit. If the Landlord doesn’t accept and proposes something else, you can either accept it, get back with a further offer or just get your money back and walk away. If the Landlord accepts but you have second thoughts, bye-bye to your money. Don’t exaggerate too much with the game, put reasonable offers and motivate them with things that you noticed in the flat. Most of the times you will manage to get away with something less on your rent, others the Landlord will be as sturdy as goat (In Italy goats are sturdy; I don’t know whether this works in English too). Usually negotiations start and end in a day.

The deposit: it’s your money, don’t forget it!

According to the law, the Landlord (or the agency if this acts as intermediary) must put your deposit in one of the three Protection Deposit Schemes. Make sure that gets done and the tenancy contract should mention which of the three schemes has been chosen. This will make your money safe and, above all, you know you will get it back at the end of the tenancy. I’m still waiting to have my deposit back for the first flat I rented when I moved to this Country.

London is big, it’s got so many good and bad things as well to offer. Open your eyes and get a feeling of what you are dealing with. Even at 3,000 kilometers from where you were born and grew up you can find a little corner that, with time, you will learn to call home. As I said, London has got one for you too, I’m sure. You just have to go and seek.

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