Learning London’s Lengthy Flat-hunt

IMG_7541 2As I peered over my Asian-style crispy chicken burger–the healthiest lunch I could find in the time ticking down to my afternoon workshop on supervising PhD students–I was reminded by my view of my extensive London-flat hunt.  I was enjoying the moment as well as the view and the new-found flavors. It’s not uncommon for burgers in London to include kimchi and I was developing fondness to the new taste. Like these Korean-infused breaded-chicken-fillet sandwiches, London flats have distinctive qualities all their own, I realized.

Flats in zone one and two seem darker, on average, than flats in other cities.

Hunting for a place to live in this massive and densely-occupied city has its own unique joys and challenges. I think it’s helpful to share pointers–I reviewed multiple YouTube videos during my three-month search. This blog explains some of what I learned and experienced during my search to help other roving scholars looking to settle here.

IMG_7544 2As I munched, I observed one of the apartment buildings I visited, across the leafy green Tavistock Square, over in the very far corner. The place was lovely. At the top of the building with a sweeping view to the north, it was served by multiple stairs, elevators, and even a porter. But it had just one room. One very expensive room, at that.

All the places I visited were expensive. Most cost above £1500 a month (that’s $2800), PLUS utilities and council tax. Such was the case for either a room in a shared flat or a studio apartment. In a shared-flat where you live with roommates, there’s a surcharge for having two people in one room. That seems fair enough, but the surcharge goes on top of the publish rate, often catching me by surprise. It can run £300, plus increased council tax (a per-head charge based on the estimated value of the property), and a larger (per-person) share of utilities.

IMG_7552Most surprising to me: (1) many flats had no living room since it had been converted to sleeping space in order to bring in more rent money, and (2) even very expensive flats had no views out. Sometimes the entire flat received no direct sunlight.

One room that had light and views came with five energetic dogs of all sizes but similar make and model. *Five.* Imagine five dogs in a small townhouse… and that townhouse had six sleeping rooms, so who knows how many roommates you’d end up tolerating in addition to the dogs?

I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t.

I had searched for months online and I visited London multiple times during my search. I found a number of online search platforms helpful:

UCL’s accommodation site is intended to help incoming staff, and accessing it requires a staff identification number. It was a good place to start, although I found its listings to be outdated. A majority were not available at the time I was searching. (They seem to be listed in perpetuity?) I believe this resource was developed before there were so many other options available for searching online. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have the resource as a point of comparison of what a traveling scholar could expect.

Sabbatical Homes is a great resource–especially for scholars needing short-term lets, long lead-times, and tailored dates. But the listings are very, very costly! We did view one Sabbatical Home that was in our price range, but it was underground. The hosts were super interesting and fun to talk with–an academic set–but the main window faced north (toward the garden wall) and was covered with a decorative iron grate. All the other windows were too small to crawl through. Plus, the furniture was depressingly old-fashioned. I just couldn’t get past that. I could have handled crawling out the end of the bed, since the mattress filled most of the room, because at least the mattress was not in the living room. Overall, we decided we had to find some light. Sun-filled homes on this site would cost at least twice what we would eventually pay.

I found Gun Tree to be too confusing–it’s not designed specifically for property searches and leaves many unknowns. The map locations are not precise and any transaction appeared to have a high level of risk involved. An AirBnB host of mine, who had used it to locate his own place, provided words of caution. If I need to move again when I’m more familiar with the city, Gum Tree might be more help.

I eventually viewed a number of flats in person. The ones I visited had been located using: (1) UCL’s staff accommodation website, (2) Sabbatical Homes, and (3) Spare Room.

I ultimately found our new place via Spare Room.

After uploading a profile about my partner and myself on Spare Room, offers actually flooded in. It appears many people want mates who they can count on to be courteous and pay the rent! Many are looking for older, established professionals with dual income. I’d had trouble early-on since I’d locate a possible flat and later realize the residents were all 20 and wanted young flatmates. You can input your age and other parameters into Spare Room to help with matching.

Spare Room’s matching may have entered the realm of creepy, however. I just today received this email message:

Hi Shannon,

Looking for the perfect flatshare? We’ve got the answer for you: science.

Yep, that’s right. We’ve dusted off our lab goggles, found a few test tubes and even got ourselves some lab coats – all to ensure you find flatmates you really click with.

According to Swiss science boffins at Karmagenes, your DNA influences as much as 60% of your personality traits. So we’re joining forces to create a DNA Flatmate Matchmaking Service – giving you the chance to reveal key insights into you personality that will tell you which characters you’d blend well with in a flatshare.

In other words: your DNA + saliva swab = new BFF.

Sound interesting? We’re giving kits away on Facebook – just head to the page and follow the instructions for your chance to win.

Find out more »

Good luck!

The SpareRoom Team
0161 768 1162

My trouble hasn’t been with roommates, thankfully! I read on-line, though, that various spots such as the nearby Shoreditch Library offer ideal get-aways from troublesome flat mates.

What was hard for me was being able to get a feel for any given advertised flat from its online profile. The actual spaces weren’t at all like the ads seemed.

But leasehold can also be stressful and complex. There’s high turn-over in residence in the London flat market. Young and/or single people seem to apartment-hop (move residence) quite often around London. It’s common for a person, for example my osteopath, to describe living 4-5 different places in as many year.

The market churns. Buildings get sold to the highest bidder, and apparently these situations — of sharing with many, many roommates and renting from the leasehold — are fraught with complications. Adam Smith’s invisible hand lands people out of home and, sometimes, on the street. There’s more non-drug-related homelessness evident here than in Dublin. Overall, though the social support system seems more caring here than in many other places. Doctor’s visits are free (though I had to pay an entry tax to the health system) and the mail gets delivered to my door–up four flights of stairs. Residents of public/social housing are far more diverse than in the States and much less deprecated. Taxes are higher but provide a greater range of housing possibilities, with varying levels of support.

Incidentally, when traveling to London to view apartments, I used AirBnB and Hotels.com. Of these, Hotels.com provided the best value for money. That surprised me as I am a lover of AirBnB. Aongus and I used AirBnB to get a feel for a variety of neighborhoods, which was good in many ways.

However, I have found that quality control related to AirBnB in London is not high enough. we ended up in a very bad situation one night, when I’d needed to re-book due to the host’s change of plans. I selected a cheap place that lacked ratings from past guests. Of the 60 or so places I’ve stayed on AirBnB, this was truly the worst. Apparently, the superintendent of a campus of council flats was renting rooms out between formal rentals. Most likely he was pocketing the money himself.

Come to think of it, the manager of an international student house I’d used with AirBnB, also here in London, was doing something quite similar, by forcing people to book through his personal friend in the Mediterranean rather than through the house directly.

In both cases, I should have known better. The room was cheaper than market rate. To avoid such problems, read the AirBnB reviews carefully and heed the ratings posted by prior users! Do not cut corners when reviewing rooms prior to booking. I only go with hosts who have earned four or more stars from at least ten people.

In searching for flatmates, one perspective host had us over for a night so we could gauge what the experience of living at his place would actually be like. That was great! The host was amazing–such a great connector and a get-it-done, can-do kind of guy who mentors dozens of young musicians and performers. But the room was also very, very expensive (ringing in at £1770/€2000/$2500 per month, youch!). The estimated commute for Aongus from that flat was over an hour. Moreover, the owner’s ex-wife was to conduct workshops from the flat rendering it off- limits several days a month, and the sound system on the TV was extremely loud. And so we continued our search.

IMG_7594Subsequently, we visited a beautiful red brick building at Old Street Station, but the flat received no direct light whatsoever. And we’d have had to be more tidy than we could imagine in order to suit our very refined 23 year-old lawyer host.

In retrospect, the north-facing studio at Tavistock Square presented the most viable alternative to what we found, despite charging NYC rates for a single room. The membership fee for the homeowners association was unknown and the association was in the process of setting new rules. But the place was very clean and provided multiple routes out, in case of fire. What a luxury!

Sitting here, eating my pickled-cabbage fillet-on-a-bun, I felt a sense of fondness for the studio at Tavistock.

Aongus and I did succeed in finding a comfortable and happy home. It has plenty of space to work and read and learn and cook. Nice light, with beautiful views day and night. Friendly hosts who come and go, but travel a lot. It’s a half hour commute for me using the tube–longer than most other places I visited but still far less than the average Londoner’s commute. We’re grateful for our hosts who let us flat-sit here and for the search features provided by Spare Room that helped us connect with them. We found a cozy place to call home.

Seems like filming crews are forever setting up to shoot in the surrounding area. The neighborhood’s timeless charm holds great appeal. In two months here, I’ve observed three multi-day shoots in just four-block leading from our place to the tube. I only learned the name of one of these, to become a BBC TV series here in the UK. Perhaps buying a TV is in order, to view their results?

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