Flat hunting in London is a harrowing experience.
I get a lot of questions about it from readers but I have put off writing about it because it’s an elaborate issue and it requires a lot of attention to detail. There are so many factors involved that this post will have a lot of little asides and it took me awhile to organize it in a sensical fashion.
What are my credentials?
So, what gives me the authority to talk about flat hunting in London? I’ve been living in the same place in Finsbury Park since April 2014, and I’m genuinely sad to be leaving it. Before that, I was a subletter in Holloway. I’ve also been on the other side of the couch: I’ve had to replace 2 flatmates and find a subletter for my place when I went to Morocco for 6 weeks.
My experience is mostly limited to flatshares in North London, in the low-to-mid-range budget.
You can get started with reading about how to find a flat in London or jump to the Helpful Terminology to help you along:
Start With Your Budget
Determine the top end of your budget, including bills. You can expect to spend 50% of your take-home pay on rent in London. Sucks, but it’s true. I pay £640 rent + £80 bills for a decent two-bedroom flat, with a living room, 5-minutes away from a Zone 2 Tube station on the Victoria & Piccadilly Lines. It’s pretty lucky, but the reason it’s cheap-ish is because it’s above a kebab shop overlooking a busy road.
My partner pays about £550 + £100 bills for a 3 bedroom duplex house, 10-minutes from a Zone 3 Tube station on the Piccadilly Line. I have a friend with a one-bedroom flat in East London who pays somewhere in the realm of £11-1300 + bills.
Understanding Rent Prices
Rent is usually written in one of two ways: £1100 pcm (per calendar month) or £253 pw (per week). They’re the same amount, just displayed differently. A per week figure is not just £150 x 4 = £600 pcm. You must multiply £150 by 52 and divide by 12 to get the pcm price. Rent is normally paid monthly.
There are two factors that affect your budget: where you want to live (Zone, distance from a Tube station and N, S, E, or W London) and the number of people you want to live with.
Where in London Should I Live?
Start with the cardinal direction you prefer: North, South, East, or West London. It doesn’t necessarily need to be close to where you work as long as you’re near a Tube station. They all have a different character and reputation.
Then, choose a set of Zones – this refers to how far away from central London Tube stations you will be and it isn’t really a big deal. Zones 1-4 are fine and the difference in travel costs are negligible. The further away from Zone 1 you go, the cheaper the rent is but the more expensive travel cards are. It’s unlikely you’ll ever live in a Zone 1 flat unless you have hundreds of pounds per week to spend on rent or you’re okay with sacrificing space for location. Try Kennington, Whitechapel, Elephant & Castle or flats near Zone 1 DLR/Overground Stations for the best value for money.
Finally, pick a few areas you would like to live in. Keep an open mind but you have to narrow down your search so you’re not traversing London for viewings. My ideal was Zones 2-3, short walking distance from a Tube station, lively North London area, and living with a maximum of two other people. I tended to look in Tufnell Park, Finsbury Park, Holloway Road, and Manor House. Sometimes Bethnal Green as well.
I’ve lived in Finsbury and Holloway, always 5 minutes away from a Tube station on foot. I was close to places like Angel and Stoke Newington, and a few stops away from Kings Cross. A night bus that goes through Camden and Leicester Square drops me off in front of my current flat and I’m overall pleased with the location.
How Many People Should I Live With?
It’s up to you and how comfortable you are sharing your space. Typically, if you live with 5 people, you’ll get more communal space than if you live with 2 other people. You might even be able to rent a nicer place. Most people I know live with 1-3 housemates. You can get good value by sharing with a couple as well – a nice two-bedroom at a third of the rent.
Overall, make sure the amount of space is commensurate with the number of people. If there are 6 people in your house, look for a place with at least 2 bathrooms.
I only looked at places with a living room. Once I became more experienced, I learned to always check the “Shared living space required” box. A lot of landlords try to get more money by renting out living rooms as bedrooms. Personally, I want a place to hang out with the people I’m living with that isn’t one of their bedrooms or the kitchen. Where would I binge watch Netflix all day or have parties?
The number of people you would like to live with will influence your budget in relation to the location of the flat. I live with one other person, and you know my situation. You can live in a mansion with 4 other people in Zone 4, a bus ride away from a Tube station for less rent. You can live with 10 people in a fancy part of London for 50% more than what I pay. Just consider your sanity.
How Do People Find Flats?
If you’re looking for a flat or houseshare, get yourself set up on Spareroom.
Tips for Spareroom
- Fill out your profile and keep it positive. I usually didn’t respond to messages with people who didn’t have a profile because it made me think they were dodgy. That said, don’t overshare. Stick with things like where you’re from, where you work, and what your hobbies are. Be positive as well. Instead of explaining all the things you don’t want, just ask about deal breakers in messages or on the phone. Read some ads that you think are good and go with that style.
- Avoid ads written in all capitals. Also, ads that don’t mention the tenants or that are written by agents. Spareroom is meant to be quite social so people write about the kind of flatmate they’re looking for and about themselves. Agents tend to have crappy rooming houses where no one really talks to each other or is in bad condition. Go to Gumtree if you’re looking for that sort of thing.
- Send messages, text, or call. Don’t just ‘Show Interest’ – as a person looking to fill the room I just went with people who were keen enough to contact me. There is a way to favourite a flat to save it for later, so don’t use it as a way to bookmark ads.
- Beware of fisheye lenses and panoramic photos. Yes, they just used that to make the room look bigger.
Usually on Spareroom you will find people who already have a place and are looking to fill a room. But you also have the option of joining a buddy up. You join another person or group and look for a property to sign a new lease on together. This is a great idea if you have the time to find the right place. Typically, you’ll get a nicer house and you’ll be able to negotiate on items like rent prices (e.g. we’ll sign a 3-year lease if we can pay £x per month) and work that needs to be done before you move in.
Gumtree is like the Craigslist or Kijiji of the UK and I find it to be very hit or miss. There is the occasional gem but I often found them to be flats advertised by agents instead of the flatmates. I rarely used Gumtree, except to advertise my sublet.
Beware of scams. Never give anyone money until you’ve seen the flat and have signed a contract. Even then, stay skeptical – especially on Gumtree.
If you’re looking for more of a studio flat or to rent a place on your own or with a friend or partner, head to Zoopla and Rightmove. Those are property websites where you will deal directly with the agent. Generally, you will sign a new lease on the place and this requires a lot of reference and credit checks. It’s hard to do until you’ve got a job and have had it for awhile.
Keep This in Mind
Unless you have an unlimited budget or a higher budget than average (and most people in London share, it’s just a fact), you will have to compromise on something. Determine your priorities: are you willing to stretch your budget for a better location or fewer housemates? Are you prepared to sacrifice location for a well-fitted house? It’s rare to get everything you want in London if you’re hunting on a budget – even if you find a place that’s “perfect” you could get rejected by the people that already live there. It’s a dog eat dog world in the London property market!
I’ve Found a Place I Like, What Happens Now?
You’ve been trawling through ads and have gotten in touch with people whose flats you’re interested to check out. What’s next?
Make sure you’ve met the other tenants. Usually they will schedule a time for you to see the flat and meet everyone. They’ll ask you questions or organize it in a way to gauge your fit and interest in the flat. Some people throw parties and invite everyone, others just have you walk around the flat and then say bye. The better the place and the closer the flatmates, the more selective they are.
The type of flatshare it is will usually be demonstrated through your viewing. If it’s a social house, they try to get everyone together to meet all the potential housemates because they want to consider how they’ll fit in to the “dynamic”. A party house will probably throw a party or organize drinks. A house where no one knows each other very well is where you’ll probably just meet the person who’s leaving and no one will give a shit about meeting you, only that you can pay your part of the rent.
What should I ask at the viewing?
Now this is important. As I said, it’s like a job interview and not asking questions makes it seem like you’re not keen.
- What is the rent and bills? How are they paid?
- How much is the deposit and fees? There are usually administration and reference check fees.
- Is the place warm in the winter? Is there double glazing on the windows? Brits don’t heat their houses the way we do back home so you double glazing on the windows helps to retain heat.
- How is the landlord or agent? You want to know that he or she is helpful, easy to contact, and gets things fixed when needed.
- What’s the dynamic of the flat? Do people hang out, are you loud, do you throw a lot of parties, are you friends, do you ignore each other? What are your working hours? Are there fights for the bathroom? What do you do for work?
- Why are you leaving or why is the room available?
- Have many people come to see the flat? When will you make a decision? This lets you know how competitive it is and when you can expect to hear back – great if you’re under time pressure.
Obviously there are tactful and not tactful ways of asking these questions, but this is the kind of information you should want to find out. Keep it conversational and try to suss out anything they might not be telling you.
My One Most Important Tip For Everyone Who Wants A Place to Live in London
As I said, I’ve been on the other side of the couch. I never offered a room to someone if I wasn’t quite certain they would accept, no matter how much I liked them. If there is even the slightest chance you could see yourself living somewhere, tell them how much you like it. “It’s great and I think we would get on, so definitely let me know what you decide!” Send a text afterwards so they’re sure.
I was always confused when someone seemed ambivalent and then sent me a text after a few days like, “Hey, haven’t heard back – did you choose anyone yet?” And I’d think: So the flat you really wanted fell through and now you’re interested? Nah, bro.
Similarly, if you get an offer JUST SAY YES (if it’s a place you like) especially if it’s a popular place. Say yes even if you want to see other places or you’re waiting to hear about something better. My partner missed out on a couple of places by hesitating – when he finally accepted they had already offered it to someone else. If you get a better offer, just tell them or say that you didn’t know about some fee and you’ve changed your mind. Yeah, it’s a dick move but like I said: dog eat dog world.
They Like Me, They Really Like Me! What Now?
If the current tenants are renting through a letting company (with an agent instead of directly from the landlord) usually there are fees and background checks. They will want 3-months’ payslips, bank statements, a copy of your passport, and an employer reference. It’s tough if you’re new to the country, self-employed, or a student, and if you are they will ask for a guarantor.
There are fees for the reference and credit checks, as well as a contract name change fee (this can cost up to £200). Be sure to factor this into your budget.
Deposits are anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months’ rent. Be sure that your deposit is paid into a deposit protection scheme. This protects you from the landlord or agent running away with your deposit. If they don’t use a deposit protection scheme and they seem a little shady, I would tell them to take the rent from the deposit when you give notice. It might not fly, but it’s safer than trusting you’ll get your money.
Can’t provide the paperwork?
A few terms to help you keep your flat hunting straight.
Flat share vs. House share
Flats are apartments or condominiums. These are typically 2-3 bedrooms. Houses can be anything from 2 to like 10 bedrooms. In a flat, you have flatmates; in a house, housemates. Roommates are a totally different thing, which I will elaborate on below. There is a difference between flat conversions (a house that has been converted into self-contained flats) and purpose-built flats (they were developed to be flats).
Single Room vs. Double Room; Twin Room vs. Triple Room
A single or double room refers to the size of the bed – singles have single or twin beds in the room while doubles have a double bed.
A twin room means that you will share your room with another person, i.e. double occupancy bedroom. A triple room means that you will share your room with two other people. Cheap, but not necessarily cheerful.
Monday to Friday Lets
Usually for people who work in London but live elsewhere in the UK. You can only occupy the room from Monday to Friday.
Live-in landlords normally own the house or flat and are renting out a room to help cover the mortgage. Not a bad deal with the right person, though I’d always feel like I was stepping on toes or not taking care of someone’s investment.
Studio vs. 1+ Bed
Studios are self-contained flats – your bed and kitchen will all be in one room. One thing you must be wary of is that you have your own bathroom. Sometimes the studios have a bed and kitchen but share a bathroom with other studios. These set-ups are more common than I’m comfortable with.
Furnished vs. Unfurnished
Rental properties can come fully furnished, semi-furnished, or unfurnished. Unfurnished flats are cheaper and is another thing to negotiate on if you fill a house on a new lease. Some landlords will provide just the bed and white goods – these include a refrigerator/freezer and washing machine. Occasionally you will get a diswasher. And yes, it is very unlikely you will have a dryer. Energy is EXPENSIVE in London and even people who have a dryer still hang dry their clothes. Invest in some good fabric softener if you don’t like crispy clothes. Some flats have these integrated washer dryers, but the technology isn’t very sophisticated and it’s never dried my clothes. Buy a drying rack – end of.