I think we’ve found a perfect place to live. This is the story of our two-day whirlwind search for it.
As most of you know, we checked into a hotel with a 4-day reservation and the goal of finding an apartment for the year within that window. That seemed manageable — with a lot of prep on craigslist, we were able to find our first place in Seattle within a weekend, and London is well served by websites and agencies eager to connect us to landlords with empty space on their hands.
We began with a pretty focused idea of the neighborhoods we thought we’d like (based on advice from friends), our main criteria (clean, furnished, within 10 minutes’s walk of a tube station, and in an area where either of us could safely walk at any time, plus a few wish-list items including hardwood floors) and a budget (based on the percentage of income we currently spend on rent in Seattle).
I actually really love apartment-hunting, so I was looking forward to the challenge of finding the one that was right for us. One bit of trivia already had me curious: the UK builds among the smallest homes in the developed world. While the average size of newly built homes in the US is 2,303 square feet, the average size of newly built homes in the UK is only 818 square feet (sizes converted from square meters, per the chart below).
Although our apartment in Seattle is smaller than the average, we’re both accustomed to living in a lot more space — and with a lot more stuff — than we need. In the UK, listings typically don’t disclose the size in square meters, and few people I spoke with during our search even knew that statistic. The number of bedrooms is a more common qualifier – weird, because bedrooms are absolutely not created equal — and the importance of other factors including layout, finishes, furnishings and of course location, is magnified. Size is relative, too, of course: I’ve seen apartments in Hong Kong designed to house families of 4 or more in less than 450 square feet. We only need a quiet place to sleep, cook and get our work done — hopefully we won’t be spending much time at home this year anyway.
After 30 hours of non-stop apartment viewing, it was clear that the we were more inspired by the surroundings than the spaces themselves. We jumped on the only property that met all of our criteria, and were even able to successfully bargain down the price by £25 per week (many thanks to Jordan & Magda for the bargaining advice).
I’m estimating it’s actually on the larger side of what we’ve seen, around 500 square feet, with one bedroom and an open plan sitting room/kitchen. It’s in a converted old pub, which gives character to the outside, but the remodel is only five years old, so the windows, kitchen and floors are all brand new and in good shape. The furnishings are really minimal and clean, which I like (we viewed some furnished places with truly ugly furniture, threadbare mattresses, etc.). It’s got kind of a funny layout with all of the rooms opening off a tiny boxlike space that you enter from the hallway — it’s hard to explain, so I’ll take pictures soon.
The neighborhood is a total gem. You can find the area on Google Maps by entering part of our post code, “London, N1.” I think we’re technically in Hoxton, just steps from a little green courtyard called Hoxton Square. The square is ringed with really tempting-looking cafes and art galleries, and its grassy center is in constant use by visitors picnicking, reading, walking their dogs and just enjoying the space. The neighborhood of Hoxton/Shoreditch at large is really charming and full of eclectic shops. restaurants and arts venues (there’s a circus and a small theater company right on our block). We’re less than a 10-minute walk from the Old Street tube station and have ready access to numerous bus routes and several of London’s bike sharing hubs.
The apartment is in a converted old pub building -- we like the green brick and signage.
sunny, south-facing kitchen + living room
new windows in the bedroom keep it quiet
just enough storage, we hope.
We’ll get the keys to our flat within the next few days, once our background checks have gone through. Many more photos to come as we set up our cozy home base!
For readers who want more info, here are the lessons we’ve learned about searching for rental flats in London:
First, as a renter, you can either work with an agency or directly with a private owner. If you have the time to comb the classifieds for private listings, you’re likely to save quite a bit of money; however, you lose the security of an experienced broker/manager and — more importantly in our case — you have to work with each owner to set up viewings, negotiate points of the contract including furniture and pre-move-in cleaning, etc.
Working with agencies streamlines the search, because they handle the majority of rentals in the market, and because they help ensure that the contract between you and the landlord is legit. This efficiency and security comes at a price, of course — in our case, we were expected to pay anywhere between £180 and £400 in fees, and other agencies routinely charge even more. The main components of the total include fees for our background checks and a “finders fee” to the agent, and charges for both fluctuate broadly depending on which agency ultimately gets your business.
Although we viewed several privately owned properties, we ultimately chose an apartment that was managed by an agent, and decided that it was worth the extra fees. A few tips from our experience:
1. Seek agents that know their submarket well. Agencies typically have proprietary lists of properties, therefore, if you find a place you like, you need to work with the one agency responsible for leasing it. Logically, the agencies with the largest pools of rentals in the most desirable neighborhoods can charge the highest fees. We found our agent because we noticed the name of the firm attached to several properties we liked in the neighborhood where we wanted to be. It turns out, this agency operates exclusively within three London neighborhoods. We found the focused expertise and local knowledge was appealing, and helped us quickly narrow our search.
2. Ask about every fee you may be assessed up front, and require your agent to spell everything out for you. You could be expected to pay a cleaning fee, a move-in fee, a move-out fee, etc., and agents won’t necessarily tell you this until you’ve already put down your nonrefundable deposit.
3. Know what you want, and be firm, just as you would in the US. Don’t let the agent show you apartments beyond your budget, outside of the area you want, etc.
We used the following websites to search and filter apartment listings:
globrix.com — this was the most helpful because it has the most user-friendly interface, with the most options for customizing your search by area, unit type, price and other criteria; however, all properties on the site are leased by agents.
gumtree.com — this is like the British version of Craigslist, and the most fruitful place to seek direct deals with private landlords (though agencies list here as well). The quality is variable and you’ll need to be wary of scams.
sabbaticalhomes.com – a great find for us, this site links academics who need to sublet their homes with other academics in search of rentals. Agencies don’t list here, so all negotiations are direct with owners, and prices are highly competitive. You need a .edu email address in order to use the site. (Thanks to Austin for this recommendation)
zoopla.com — this site was recommended by a woman at our bank, and although we were already well into our search and didn’t get to use it much, we did see some compelling listings from both private owners and agents.
Finally, there’s the art of bargaining. You’re expected to haggle over the price of your flat, which is listed on a per-week basis. When we knew what we wanted, we made an offer that was £45 per week lower than the asking price. The agent came back with the landlord’s counter-offer. Although he said her price was firm at that point, we responded with an offer that was £10 per week lower (at this point my stomach was in knots because after viewing several other options that turned out to be awful, I knew we really wanted to sign the contract). The landlord accepted, and we got in at about £100 per month off the asking price. I realize that if she signed at that amount, we’re probably paying no less than she expected we would in the end, but it still felt like a success.