Sunday, 8 February 2009

Home Sweet Home

"I've moved 5 times in the last 7 months" announced someone at work the other day; she sounded tired but not entirely surprised at the transient state of affairs. This is London after all, and a London currently wading through the economic crisis quagmire into which the housing market is slowly sinking. Houses are not selling, and when they are, only for far lower values than they would have done a year or two ago. Rents, however, continue to rise, as selling up and renting has become a far more financially sensible option in the city. People are on the move across our city, although often not very far. Our neighbours in the flat below ours, expecting a baby any minute now, have moved to a new house just a few streets away; still near the same supermarket, the same pub, even the same bus and tube stops. They are now renting out their former home, making easy money from those worse hit by the crunch, who have had to sell their homes, not buy a second.
Renting a property in London is a minefield, under the surface of which lurk unscrupulous estate agents, bathrooms riddled with painted-over damp, and shoeboxes masquerading as "double bedrooms". When I and my two housemates began our search for somewhere to live last January we were prepared for a hard slog, but none of us anticipated the sheer time and expense of hunting for a three bedroom flat in London, and we learnt many lessons in our five week quest.
  • Choose the people you live with carefully. If you can find friends, or at least acquaintances, to live with, do. Sharing living spaces with other people is always tricky but it is often a case of "better the devil you know". A first-time renter friend of mine took a room in a house-share, in a decent area in Wandsworth. All went well, despite the odd debate over which onions belonged on whose shelf in the fridge, until one resident waved kitchen knives under the bedroom door of another, late one night. She moved out soon after and has lived happily ever after with an old friend from university.
  • Similar rules apply to living with the landlord. We looked round one flat in our search which was above the landlady's own house, indeed both premises shared the same front door. ("She's separate" the estate agent assured us. "Really?" we asked unconvinced, as she lurked in the doorway. "Yeah, you know, from Cyprus." he replied. So actually Cypriote then, and not in the least separate.) No one wants the nosy neighbour complaining about noise or surveying your recycling collection/alcohol consumption levels, to be the same person to whom you pay your rent.
  • Be prepared to compromise on your requirements but never get too desperate. We started our search with a long list of, possibly unrealistic, requirements, including three double bedrooms, a separate kitchen and sitting room, a garden would be nice (but not crucial), the place should be fully furnished etc. As we viewed house after house and flat after flat, we seriously considered properties with bedrooms which a hamster would have been hard pushed to call spacious, and kitchens where one could have done the washing up whilst sitting on the sofa.
  • Avoid estate agents where possible. One agent who showed us a couple of properties bemoaned how little satisfaction he found in his job; "No one's ever completely happy" he complained, "The landlord wants the highest possible price and the renter wants the lowest. No one wins." This fact did not stop most agents playing the "I'm on your side card", which we found rather creepy. The individuals we dealt with were pushy, and took complete advantage of the fact that we had a limited budget and had never rented in London before. They harangued us via phone and email endlessly, and never listened to a word we said. To a man, and woman, they also all had hideous taste in shoes and drove like maniacs. One individual, whose acne and ill-fitting suit suggested he was younger than us, showed us one flat where the landlord's father was asleep in bed when we arrived, and he was not particularly thrilled to find us peering at his wardrobes when he awoke. The same genius also took us on an evening (i.e. in the dark) showing of a house where the lights didn't work; "I've found the kitchen, these feel like wait, sorry there's the bath". We ultimately found our flat through a property management company who, rather than pushing us to make an offer at full asking price instantly, encouraged us to take our time, and we have happily renewed our contract with them for a second year.
  • If a place is cheap it's probably for a good, if not instantly apparent reason. I don't think any of my housemates or myself regret the offer falling through on the seemingly bargainous flat in Clapham which we were afterwards informed overlooked the site of a recent grisly stabbing. "Situated in a quiet area" can also be estate agent speak for "in an area where there's no one to hear you scream". (If you'd be too scared to nip out for a pint of milk from the corner-shop after dark, it's never going to feel like home.)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that estate agents speak in their own coded language when describing properties. Excitedly we made arrangements to view a flat which had been described as containing "3 double bedrooms with split-level mezzanines". What we found were three tall but narrow rooms containing built in bunk-beds. What did we look like? 8 year olds?! "Separate guest toilet" means there's no loo in the bathroom, and a "kitchen-diner" is a room where you can cook and eat a meal without moving more than a few inches in any direction.
  • Never take a property based solely on its proximity to transport facilities. If the best feature of a place is that it is easy to leave, think again about putting down roots there. One housemate and I viewed what was undeniably a nice flat, but the area it was in was less than salubrious. It's major redeeming quality was its proximity to the local tube station. As it was an equal distance to the local prison, however, we politely declined the chance to make an offer.
  • Finally, never lose heart. Out there, despite many weeks of searching, is somewhere for you, and believe me, the hideous searching-process makes the final move-in all the more satisfying. And when you find somewhere good, hang on to it!

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