I’m sure all expats will agree that one of the hardest parts of adjusting to a new country is sorting out accommodation. Like most expats in London, I’ve opted to rent a flat as opposed to purchasing one. Over the course of 2.5 years, my significant other and I have navigated our way through 5 different residences and browsed through hundreds (if not thousands) of online flat rental listings. To help out my fellow expatriates in London and London newbies, I’ve created a quick guide to interpreting these online listings.
The most popular website for finding flat rentals in the UK is Rightmove.co.uk. I’ve taken an example of an actual 1-bedroom flat listed on the site and broken it down to its key elements.
1. Base Rental Price
This value refers to the base price of the flat and is usually listed as ‘pw’ – per week. Some listings will have ‘pm’, which means ‘per month’. For the most part, rent is due monthly here in the UK, so to convert a ‘per week’ price to a monthly price, simply do the following calculation:
(£325 per week * 52 weeks)/12 months = £1408.33/month
Keep in mind that this is the BASE price for the flat. Most renters are also responsible for paying a flat’s council tax. This is a tax that ranges anywhere from £500 – £2500 per year, depending on the value of the flat. To determine council tax, find out the post code of the property and fill out the form here to determine the council tax band the flat belongs to. Once you have ascertained the band, look up the council tax rates from the appropriate London borough (e.g. Tower Hamlets, Hammersmith, etc.) and match the band with the figure. Most people renting 1 bedroom flats in Central London can expect to pay £1000 – £2000 per year in council tax.
Landlords determine what utility bills renters are responsible for. Most renters end up having to pay pretty much everything – water, electricity, and gas (if the unit has gas). It’s very difficult to estimate how much these utilities will cost you, but it should be safe to set aside £200 – £300 per month for utility bills in your budget if you’re looking for a 1-bedroom apartment. Keep in mind that in general, heating costs will be considerably higher for older buildings due to poorer insulation.
Putting everything together:
Base Rent – £325/week
Council Tax – £1716.75/year (this flat belongs to Band ‘F’ and is located in Tower Hamlets)
Utilities – £250/month (estimated)
Total Estimated Monthly Rent: £1801.39 (28% higher than the base rental price)
2. “Width” Litmus Test
Compared to the US, London flats are tiny. Estate agents, however, are experts at making tiny spaces look big. In order to save a whole lot of time when searching for a new flat, I’ve introduced what I call the “width litmus test”. Most listings will have a dramatic sweeping shot of the living room, making it look huge. What I look for in a living room is the width of the windows or sliding doors. Sliding doors work the best as they pretty much come in 1 standard size (around 6 feet wide). A comfortably-sized living room (from an American perspective) will be considerably wider than the sliding doors, so I look for the clearance extending beyond these doors in photographs. The living room pictured in the example is a pretty decent size. Believe it or not, some living rooms are only about the width of a sliding door. With a boyfriend that is over 6 feet tall, that’s just not big enough for the two of us.
This really only applies to my North American brethren – If you’re from the United States or Canada and are used to plush, soft carpet, you’re going to be sorely disappointed at carpet in the UK. Residential carpeting here is weird, flat and filthy looking even when it’s brand new. My personal tip is to avoid carpets when renting as they are just collection pools for filth. Luckily, wood flooring is pretty common in London.
4. and 5. The Address/Map
Copy this address and view it in Google Maps to make sure that it’s in the same place as what the map on the listing (below) indicates. Sometimes the map on the listing will just show you the centre of the post code that the flat belongs to.
6. Date Posted
Lazy estate agents will sometimes leave listings on sites like Rightmove and Zoopla long after they’ve been rented out. London’s rental market is pretty cut throat, so it’s rare that a flat listed at a reasonable rate will be available longer than 60 days. In this example, the flat was listed just 7 days ago, meaning that there is still a decent chance it’s available. If you find a flat listing that seems really cheap or too good to be true, chances are it’s pretty old.
Flats in London either come furnished, partially furnished or unfurnished.
Furnished – The flat has everything (except perhaps a television) and all you need to bring is your clothes and kitchenware.
Partially Furnished – The flat usually has a bed, couch and coffee table, but not much else. You should have some room to bring in a few smaller pieces of furniture like nightstands and desks if you wish.
Unfurnished – Pretty self-explanatory.
It’s possible to negotiate with landlords on furnishing. For example, my significant other and I are pretty minimalist and actually asked for extra furniture to be removed from out current flat so we would have more open space.
8. The Description
Estate agents do their best to twist and skew their own words to help move a listing. Luckily, they’re usually awful writers and this is pretty easy to see through. What is handy about their lack of creativity is that they stick to a familiar roster of keywords that every renter should be familiar with.
Fully Fitted Kitchen – This means that the kitchen comes with all the essentials, including a stove (aka hob), sink, refrigerator, freezer and sometimes even a microwave and dishwasher.
Double Bedroom – This bedroom will fit a double or queen-sized bed (they’re pretty much the same size) and two people.
Single Bedroom – Don’t try cramming two people into this bedroom.
Bedsit – Essentially just a room with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities – pretty much a dorm room.
9. Distance from Overground/Underground/DLR Stations
Assuming the map on the listing is accurate (see 4. and 5.) check to see how close the flat is to public transport stations. This obviously won’t apply if you have a car or don’t plan on using public transport. Coming from suburban America, I’ve found that I can only tolerate being about .3 miles away from a station. Any farther and it starts to get annoying, especially in the winter when the temperatures here regularly drop below freezing.
10. The Bedroom
Not surprisingly, bedrooms in London can be ridiculously tiny. When I examine photos of bedrooms on Rightmove, I look at the size on the bed in relation to the size of the room. The photo above clearly shows a double bed (it is a double bedroom after all). Notice the small amount of clearance between the end of the bed and the wall. This is a good indication that the bedroom is pretty small, but it looked like two people would still be able to navigate around it without too much trouble. On a personal note, I like to have a window in the bedroom. The natural light makes even tiny rooms a lot less glum.
11. The Kitchen
If cooking isn’t too important to you, then it’s fine to overlook a few kitchen flaws and shortcomings. However, if you do plan on cooking, I recommend examining the kitchen photo of any London flat listing very carefully. The kitchen in the photo above is a popular layout found in all kinds of flats in London. I like to call it a “pocket kitchen”, since it’s kind of in its own little pocket. This tiny pocket kitchen (pictured above) will really only accommodate 1 person at a time. Take note of the appliances and counter space. Ask questions like: Is there enough room for prep work? Can you fit all your smaller appliances (e.g. kettle, coffee maker, toaster) on the countertop? How many people will be cooking in your flat?
Unless you have a generous budget it will be difficult to find EVERYTHING you’re looking for in a flat. If you’re an expat and moving to London shortly, pick a few ‘must haves’ and be prepared to make a few compromises on other aspects of your would-be flat. As long as your goals are realistic, you should be fairly happy with the results.