Notes on London flat hunting

So I’ve decided to move back to London, and yesterday I started hunting for a flat to rent. About four hours later I put down a holding deposit on a flat (ok, sort of a flat, it’s really more of a bedsit, but that’s actually what I’m looking for right now – a 6 month ish tolerable environment for as little money as I can get away with in London).

Apparently this is surprising behaviour and not at all what people are used to with the experience of London flat hunting. And there’s absolutely no doubt that I got lucky. But some of it is also that I’ve learned the tricks, and some of it is that I have flexibility available to me to solve the problem.

So I thought I’d put together some notes on what I’ve found helps in looking for a London flat.

Note that I’m very far from an expert on this (I have successfully done this three times, plus an additional two that don’t count, plus this one which I’m not counting as a success until I move in). So these are very much intended as descriptive rather than normative rules. They seem to be what I do that works. You may wish to emulate them.

Rule one: You have no time, you have no bargaining power. When you see the flat, if you want it you say “Yes I’ll take it. Show me the paperwork” right there and then. If you say “let me think about it” or “yes but” then you have said no. It is completely OK to say no and if it’s a shitty flat then you should of course do that, but London flats move so quickly that you don’t get to say yes conditionally. If you’re not walking away having put down a holding deposit you’re walking away from the flat.

And yes, this is terrible. It’s a large part of why the London housing situation is so bad. But as a renter there’s not much you can do about it.

Rule two: Flexibility about time and money will get you far. I can’t currently demonstrate a convincing income stream but I can pay for multiple months up front. This opens a lot of doors that would otherwise be closed to me. Flexibility about move-in dates is also a big deal: If you can say “I can move in at any date within this fairly large range” a lot more flats are open to you.

Obviously this rule is the very definition of financial privilege. Sorry.

Rule three: If it’s been on the market more than 24 hours it’s gone. Don’t bother. If you call up about it the letting agent will be all “sorry it’s gone but we do have this remarkably similar flat that costs about 50% more. Are you interested?”.

Rule four: Be specific about your requirements, turn them into a rightmove search (remember the 24 hours thing! You can filter by that). Look through the listings, turn on instant (not daily!) alerts for this search. You will get very used to calling up letting agents and saying “Hi I’m calling about a listing on rightmove and would like to check if it’s still available and arrange a viewing if it is”. They will often try to talk you into seeing other properties and you should let them.

Rule five: “I can do a viewing as soon as possible. Like, literally right now if you’re available. It will take me X minutes to get there. OK, so you’ve suggested a viewing at Y, can you maybe do a little earlier?”. Remember rule one: This is a race. If people are viewing before you then you’ve got a very good chance of losing the flat if it’s actually good.

Rule six: Make sure you have a hard upper bound on your monthly rent in mind because if you talk to letting agents they will try to talk you up. “I know you’ve said you’re only in the market for $X / month but I have this great flat for only $X + 200 / month. Would you like to take a look?”. It is OK to lie to letting agents about your upper bound and claim it is lower than it actually is in order to take advantage of this process.

I think that’s mostly it. It’s a shitty process and you have to be super aggressive about it, but it does seem to work.

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