It’s that time of year again for the flat hunting feeding frenzy. September and October are prime time for flat hunting and even the most experienced Londoners boast war wounds. But if this article were a repository of flat hunting horror stories, it would never end. Instead, we aim to offer advice: How best to find your flat and keep your limbs — and (most of) your temper — intact.
Search Criteria: Where do I start?
One bedroom? Two bedroom? Flatshare? Central London? North of the river? South? Near a park? Near a tube station? Near the moon?
If you are new to the city, the best thing you can do is bend your ear and follow your instincts — listen to your friends’ advice on good neighbourhoods, look for a flat close to your office or university, gravitate toward the city’s larger parks (Hampstead Heath covers a large swathe of North London and is unbeatably beautiful), or troll the trendier areas, like Shoreditch, Hackney or the West End, for a place to crash post-party. The Office for National Statistics has a site that lets you find out about any neighbourhood. There’s also the more gruesome approach of London’s Murder Map — or better still, The Guardian’s interactive UK crime map tool. The latter lets you compare the crime rate, according to type, in different parts of London. Some rough data analysis reveals that the southeast, around Dulwich and Forest Hill, is the safest part of the city.
But don’t let these sites scare you — use them to get educated. As they say, in London it’s the street, not the neighbourhood, that matters.
If you’re studying, fidgety parents find that student accommodation is a very safe option — but it is highly expensive, and most private student housing requires applications months in advance. One of the newest blocks of trendy student flats towers over Spitalfields Market, and offers box rooms for up to £300 a week. This is obscene by all measure, so we’ll move on to more sensible options.
In general, there are a few price points to follow. £100 to £150 per week in central London is generally a steal — but you should make sure you get perks with it, like a living room (it is all too common for landlords to convert communal space into an extra bedroom), a working kitchen (preferably with an oven and a washing machine) and a pleasant neighbourhood. London Rents displays the average rent in London by postcode.
Flat listing websites (see Finding a Flat) allow you to search by location, price and furnishing (furnished or unfurnished), all of which will quickly give you a sense of an area’s affordability.
You can also approach the flat hunt at a different angle. Some areas, such as St John’s Wood, have high rent but low council tax. If you are not a student, you will have to pay council tax. You can check the rates of council tax, by area, on the City of London Council Tax site or Up My Street, an independent reviewer.
Finding a Flat
This process begins with the ultimate conundrum: to use an estate agent or not to use an estate agent?
Estate agents reside in the the slimy underbelly of the housing community. But they are also a guarantee against the fraud and scams that overrun sites like Gumtree.
Sites such as PrimeLocation, Find a Property and RightMove search estate agent listings (usually the same ones) and offer lots of pictures. However, the agents themselves might not respond quickly to e-mail requests — so it’s best to phone up and make viewing appointments immediately.
Alas, timing is not always perfect and you might find you have to move out of your current flat before you’ve found the next place. Take heart; you have options. Store your stuff at a friend’s place if it’s for the short-term, or put your belongings in storage for the longer haul. If you’re on the penny-pinch, you can always try Couchsurfing. Decent-priced short-term accommodation can also be found at Crashpadder — as expected, the cheaper options tend to be farther out of town. You can also ask your landlord to extend your lease — if it’s a matter of a few days, they might be flexible. In any case, you will eventually find a flat, so on to more pressing concerns:
Flatshares: Finding a Flatmate
If you find yourself unable to face the task of finding a flat by yourself, or find yourself with an empty room in your place, I (and several friends) recommend Spare Room or Move Flat. Spare Room works on the basis of profiles, and those with more detailed profiles tend to be considered first as potential housemates. Friends have called Move Flat a ‘better version of Gumtree’, which also hosts flatshare listings. But again, I’d recommend Gumtree as a more than last resort, and here’s why:
Avoiding Housing Scams
Gumtree is repository number 1 for fraudulent postings. If flat listings seem just too good to be true, chances are the flat is already occupied, doesn’t exist or is really a hotel room. You can even try it out yourself: request information on 15 to 20 similar flats. Chances are, you will receive at least five e-mails written in identically broken, unintelligible English.
If you do find something that seems trustworthy through Gumtree (or any establishment), remember to keep your wits about you. Don’t ever agree to wire money without seeing the flat, meeting the landlord and signing the contract. Be wary of people requesting transfers via Western Union — these are easy to fake and difficult to trace. And check your facts by making sure the flat in question actually exists; a simple Google Maps search should do the trick.
Before Moving In
Get the inside scoop
If you can, get in touch with the current tenants of the flat. Ask them about any problems they’ve faced, whether it be with the landlord or the flat itself. Try to talk to as many tenants as you can — you’ll find that some are more keen on ‘selling’ you the place than others. You will definitely need to be in contact with these people once they move out as well, if only to sort out the post, so be sure to maintain friendly terms.
One-Up the Agency
Estate agents can be particularly thorny, especially when it comes to the housing deposit. They are not afraid to bully and intimidate you. Your best bet is to keep your temper and get their individual mobile numbers so you can contact them personally when things go wrong — and remind them who you are, at all times of day, once the paperwork has all gone through.
Check the Gas, Electricity and Plumbing
Make sure the plumbing is updated and examine every ceiling and floor for leaks and holes. Check that the utilities all function normally. If the flat has different suppliers for electricity and gas, get that changed upon moving in — you get a discount if your electricity and gas are supplied by the same company. And if you are on pay-as-you-go systems for either utility, get that switched to a monthly or quarterly plan as quickly as possible; the rates for pay-as-you-go are at least twice the metered price. Be persistent on this; your utility company will try to flummox you at every turn.
After Moving In
You should also take a detailed, photographic inventory of the flat once you move in, and submit this inventory to the agency or landlord as soon as possible — this will serve as incontrovertible proof when they decide you need to pay to repair that hole in the ceiling left by the previous tenant. This includes furniture left in the flat; be sure to lift up the mattresses and check the bed frames. You never know what problems could be lurking just out of sight.
Know Your Rights
If something goes wrong with the flat and you didn’t cause it, it is your landlord’s responsibility to take care of the problem as soon as possible.
Your contract stipulates exactly what your landlord is liable to fix. It also states when he or she can enter the flat — the general rule is that they need your permission to come in, and you should enforce that. No landlord should feel free to waltz into your flat unannounced (unless it’s an emergency).
If your landlord or agency doesn’t respond or refuses to take care of the damage, it is well within your rights to report them to Health and Safety — this is done through your council (Camden, Islington, Hackney, Westminster, Southwark, and so on).
Hold up your end of the bargain
No rental situation is perfect, and it never will be. However, you can make things infinitely easier on yourself (and give yourself some much-valued leverage) by being a good tenant. Pay your rent on time. If you have loud parties, notify the neighbours beforehand. Take care of the flat and don’t let problems lie untreated — this will make things much harder to fix, and you could be dragged into paying. This does not mean you should be complacent — but it takes two to tango.
And finally, a message for those still desperately seeking flats: Estate agents and prospective landlords will try to fool you, bully you and intimidate you into thinking that the hell-hole you just saw is the find of your life. Do not let yourself get pressured into signing anything, even if you are desperate. There are always better places, and there are always interim options while you look for that place!