Renting in London doesn’t have to be shit

Yes, renting in London is tough and overpriced. But you don’t have to accept it.

Looking for somewhere to live in London is fucking depressing. Online searches, courtesy of Zoopla, Right Move and the like, seem to offer either overpriced shitholes or even more expensive regular places. Space is at a premium thanks to the greediness of landlords and the many perks of living in London.

Take an average from online searches for a 2-bed flat and you’re looking at a minimum of £1,000pcm (excluding bills) for a flat featuring one small double, one single that you can only fit a bed in if you don’t mind not being able to shut the door, and a kitchenette either stuck on to the living room as an afterthought or so small that you can only get half a person in there at a time. (I’m not exaggerating; these are actually descriptions of some of the flats I viewed when looking for a 2-bed with my partner. The place with the single room as above was described as a “good-sized two-bedroom apartment”. After that, we didn’t bother with anything termed “cosy”.)

Go into an estate agents and tell them you’ve got an upper rent limit of £1,000pcm and three things will happen:

  1. They’ll pull that “ooh, that’s gonna be tough” expression – that wince you normally only used to see on a plumber’s face when you asked him how much it’d cost to fix your blocked sink.
  1. They’ll tell you how rare 2-beds in that price range are, and ask you if you could manage with a 1-bed instead.
  1. When you tell them it has to be a 2-bed, they’ll keep sending you to view flats that are c.£50-100pcm over your budget, despite what you’ve said at the start, and they won’t tell you the exact price until after you’ve looked round.

You can do two things at this point:

  1. Admit defeat – it’s pricey, pricey London, after all – and struggle to cough up the extra dough month after month, sacrificing things like having fun, eating right, and being warm in winter.
A grubby little estate agent touching your money

A grubby little estate agent touching your money

What I’m about to tell you goes against the vast majority of rental experience in London. Yes, renting property in London is competitive and grossly overpriced. Yes, many landlords are greedy arseholes who know what they can get away with (and will try it on even with the stuff they can’t get away with). Yes, you aren’t just paying to live in the property, you’re paying for the perks that come with where it’s located. And it’s worse for couples. Generally speaking, you get a much better deal if you share as a group of three or more. I guess wanting to live with your partner comes under the heading of “perks” for which landlords can justify pushing up the rent.

Nevertheless, your number one policy when looking for property to rent in London must be that of non-acceptance. Do not accept that you are asking too much to find a 2-bed flat and keep it under £1,000pcm. Do not accept that your rooms will have to be poky, or unfurnished, or that to get a good deal you will have to live in a terrible area with sod-all transport links into town. There are good places out there (with good landlords) – you just have to expand your search.

Start early. If you know when you’re going to be moving, start searching a couple of months in advance. Yes, I know most places will want you to move in either immediately or with no more than a month’s notice. But starting early gets you a feel for the current market, along with contacts and a sense of what estate agents mean when they use certain phrases. It also gives you time to sign up to agents in the areas you want to live in and get an idea of which ones are fairest in terms of fees etc.

Get your name on some lists. Go visit some estate agents. Discuss what you’re after and don’t budge from your budget. If you have an upper limit, you’d be screwing yourself and your landlord to exceed it. Badger them regularly and go view some places, even if they’re available now. It’s all good practice and all good information and experience.

Talk to people. You never know which of your Facebook friends might have connections to a friendly landlord with a property due to become available around the time you’re looking to move. I know that sounds a bit far-fetched, but that’s exactly how I came to be living where I am currently. “Dealing direct” allows you more flexibility in negotiating things like monthly rent and what might be included in that – landlords are more willing to offer you a reasonable rate because they aren’t staring into the giddying maw of agency fees, which are often substantial for both parties. Also, they are dealing with “real people”, rather than renting through a middle-man to total strangers – it builds a degree of trust, which can also encourage a landlord’s generosity.

Be a bit flexible with your requirements. The place you move to doesn’t have to be a palace – you can make it what you want once you’re in. Make it your home – if it needs a bit of work (fresh paint job, for example), be prepared to roll your sleeves up. The result: you’ll get it looking the way you want it, and the landlord doesn’t have to shell out on decorators (making him or her less likely to increase your rent when review time comes around). The cheapest way to get your hands on some decent quality paint is by visiting a paint reuse project like The Paint Place, where you can buy surplus/reclaimed paint from as little as £1 per litre.

Yes, I know it's beautiful - but you'll only have to clean the damn thing...

Yes, I know it’s beautiful – but you’ll only have to clean the damn thing…

Many landlords justify charging obscene rents because they’ve just had the place done up to look really good. Well, that’s great for them, isn’t it, but it’s no business of yours if they want to put in a deluxe shower or marble tiles shipped in from bloody Rome. They should be giving the place a rudimentary smartening-up – a lick of neutral paint, replacement white goods if they’re knackered, and so forth – and ensuring that it functions as a place to live, not throwing a ton of glitter at it and then charging you extra. You’re looking for somewhere to call home, not a polished turd that you don’t dare step in.

Hoof it. Your dream pad doesn’t have to be situated right on top of a Tube or train station. So what if you have to walk for five or ten minutes to get on to the network – GPs recommend 20 minutes of walking per day to gain a whole host of health benefits (including warding off cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer). So, move somewhere a bit cheaper that requires you to walk to and from the nearest station. You’ll be healthier, and you’ll have more money. Oh, and all that free exercise means you won’t have to pay out for that gym membership. There, that’s saved you even more money per month. You’re welcome.

Look further out. Okay, no one’s going to insist you live in deepest darkest Cheshunt or [crosses self] Luton – apart from anything else, even places this far out are now costing too much thanks to their “excellent transport links” (that’ll be an overpriced journey by train into the capital every day, which would eat up any savings you’d make by renting that far out).

Empty Tube Train

Start your journey from farther out, and you too could get your pick of the seats! There’s often a view out of the window, too.

Anyway, the point is that, if you’re within walking-distance of a Tube station, even one in zone 5 or 6, you really aren’t that far away from Central. Travelling within zones 1-3 can often take far longer than it should due to the higher population density. If you’re going to lose some of your precious time on a packed train platform or a bus at a standstill, you might as well just start from further out – at least you’ll get a seat.

And it won’t necessarily be more expensive – take my old journey to work, for example. I used to live in Oakwood (zone 5 Piccadilly line) and travel to Old Street (zone 1 Northern line) every day. You can either do this by getting the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross and then changing to the Northern line (takes around an hour), or you can take the Piccadilly line to Manor House (zone 3) and get a 141, which, er, takes about an hour.

The difference is that the first journey will cost you a zones 1-5 travelcard, but you can do the second journey with a zones 3-5 travelcard, which comes with an all-zones bus pass thrown in (because, unlike the Tube network, buses don’t have travel zones). A zones 3-5 weekly travelcard is approximately half the price of a zones 1-5 weekly travelcard. Which should hopefully go some way towards mitigating the agony of having to use public transport a bit more than your financially-crippled, Central-London-dwelling colleagues.

So – I can’t give you any guarantees, of course, but the above will increase your chance of not getting royally screwed for rent in the capital. It’s a ballache, I admit, but pressing on instead of accepting what estate agents and online searches tell you is “the average” can really pan out. It can mean the difference between you paying £350pp, pcm in a three-bed sharer two minutes’ walk from a Zone 5 tube station, or £650pp in a five-bed sharer in Zone 3. Given the choice, I think I’d rather keep that extra £300 a month and spend it on getting myself out of London altogether every once in a while. But that’s just me. I’ve met people who love London so much, they move into Zone 2 and never go on holiday. This article probably isn’t for them.