House hunting in London

Adrien Kunysz, Wed, 9 Sep 2015 20:04:00 BST

This was initially written in 2014 as advices for someone who was about to move to London without having visited the UK previously. I have since seen other people this would help. This document has benefited from comments from colleagues and friends. Thanks to them. You are welcome to send me your comments and suggestions.

This is about renting. Buying a house is probably a different can of worms I have no experience with.

do your homework

You are going to have an interesting time. The housing market in London is pretty fluid. This means you won't really be able to do much meaningful house hunting while you are abroad. I suggest you look around on sites like OpenRent, Zoopla or RightMove so you can have an idea of what you can hope for but actually contacting any agent or landlord if you are not able to visit within a couple of days is probably a waste of time. You should probably plan for 4-8 weeks of temporary accommodation before you find something you want to stay in for more than a few months. It's probably a good idea to stay somewhere close to where you want to live eventually so you don't spend a lot of time and money on travel to visit prospective flats.

Many rental agents and landlords are happy to abuse the high demand to play all kind of more or less legal tricks on renters. I can tell you a few horror stories but in the end I think the most important thing is to know what they are actually allowed to do (have a look at typical renting agreements in advance and research things you may find questionable; the Citizens Advice Bureau and are good starting points) and to try and have some good alternatives when negotiating (or when they do stuff they are not allowed to do but do anyway).

The Process

I don't know how the process is in other countries but the way it usually works (or has worked for me) here is:

  1. you find some place that looks like what you are looking for on rightmove or zoopla;
  2. you contact the rental agent (preferably by phone if you want a quick answer, and you do want a quick answer);
  3. they tell you it's not available any more but they may have something else for you that is not listed yet and take your details (name, phone, address, employment status, do you smoke, do you have kids, how many rooms you are looking for, price range, location,...);
  4. they tell you about what they have that matches (which may be nothing at all);
  5. you schedule a visit (preferably within a couple of days);
  6. repeat steps 1-5 until you find somewhere suitable and available;
  7. you make an offer which means signing a pre-agreement and paying O(£200) which can only be refunded if you pass the credit check and the landlord decides to not go ahead with the rental;
  8. they make you take a credit check (which involves giving all kind of information about yourself to a third party);
  9. you wait until the current/previous tenant leaves (usually weeks);
  10. days before your move-in date, you get the final agreement, argue in vain about some points, sign it and pay the deposit (usually 6 weeks of rent) plus possibly an agency fee (£300-400);
  11. on the day of the move, an inventory clerk goes around the place with you.

About the offer, you should really be able to make it within a couple of hours of viewing the place otherwise it is likely to not be available any more. Also, making an offer doesn't mean that someone else won't get the place anyway. Usually it only ensures nobody else will visit the place until your offer is accepted or rejected.

Some places are rented as "furnished" but you are unlikely to have any kind of proper commitment as to what the furnishing will be until you move in as the agent doing the viewings often has no idea or the wrong idea about what furniture is owned by the landlord or the current/previous tenant

I haven't had any experience renting from a landlord directly (without an agent getting in the way). I expect it's less painful, quicker and cheaper but somehow most landlords seem to go through agencies. Some people prefer to deal with agencies as they find them more responsive and efficient in dealing with problems.

before you even look for a proper place

As for the initial accommodation itself, I am lucky enough to have been able to avoid the short term rental market so I can't tell you much about that. The way I would go about is:

  1. find somewhere reliable with some flexibility while you are still abroad: the idea is to secure a roof regardless of the price while you go hunting for a few days for a cheaper temporary place;
  2. find somewhere cheap you can stay at for a few weeks while you go hunting for a proper place (this should be doable within a week or two);
  3. find a proper place (typically takes 4-8 weeks).

If you have money to spend you can skip step 2 and stay in a hotel for the whole time it takes you to find your "final" accommodation. You can also skip step 2 if you already know someone who can host you for multiple weeks for free/cheap.

For step 2, you can often find rooms in shared houses available on short notice on Gumtree or craigslist. With any luck this can even turn into your permanent home but at that point I would focus more on finding somewhere you can stay at for several weeks without bleeding too much money while hunting for the right place.

In any case, welcome and good luck.

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