So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding a Flat, Part 1

For the previous posts in this series, please see So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding Work on Tier 5So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: The Visa and So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Circular Finances.

Hopefully, you’ve now managed to wrangle yourself a bank account or have access to a place to store your funds so you’re able to put down a deposit down to let a flat. Assuming that this is the case, you can now begin the arduous process of finding a place to live. There are quite a few considerations when flat hunting. I’m splitting this into a two-part blog series to take you through the elements to consider. This post will focus on finding the right neighbourhood and property for you, and the second post will focus on dealing with letting agents and making an offer.

I highly recommend that you have a look at the property listings available on the market and use the pictures and information on the sites to form your preferences. You will likely not be making offers on flats in this information gathering phase, but you will be developing a list of requirements for a flat in your desired budget range. Some of the popular sites where most agencies post their properties (in order of most useful to less useful) include Zoopla, Rightmove, Spareroom, Gumtree, and OnTheMarket. You can also check out the websites for the bigger lettings agencies to see postings on their sites (Foxtons, Knight Frank, Hamptons, and Winkworth). Keep in mind that oftentimes a flat will be posted as available, but by the time you call to arrange a viewing, the flat will have already been let – that’s how fast the real estate market moves in London, which is why it’s more helpful to use these websites as research. Additionally, there are loads of smaller lettings agencies within each neighbourhood, so do not view my above list of lettings agencies as exhaustive.

When I was looking for a flat with my flatmate, there were generally seven factors that played into us being able to find a property that was a good fit for us. These considerations helped us narrow down the properties / neighbourhoods for which we wanted to view flats, and helped speed up the vetting process so that we weren’t wasting our time viewing flats that weren’t going to be a good fit. It also helped to manage our expectations for what would be reasonable requirements given our budget and the neighbourhoods in which we wanted to live.

Lettings prices are generally represented as per calendar month (pcm) or per week (pw). Note that pw pricing isn’t as simple as multiplying by 4 to get to a monthly rate: you will need to multiply by 52 weeks and then divide by 12 months to get to a monthly rate. Prices are primarily driven by the following seven factors:

  1. Supply and demand for a particular neighbourhood
    Generally, the worst time to look for a property to let is during August as this is when students descend upon the city; while there is increased supply as old students move out, the influx of new students provide fairly fierce demand, even in neighbourhoods that don’t border major universities and schools in London. Moving in mid to late September or October will make it an easier process to find a flat. Additionally, some neighbourhoods are simply popular with certain communities thereby driving up the rental prices; for example, many Australian expats choose to live in Clapham, and so Clapham is quite expensive in spite of the fact that it isn’t in Central London.
  2. Transport links / distance to London city centre
    Another consideration is the proximity of your property to Central London. Two things you need to understand: London is very large in area and London is a city comprised of boroughs. If you understand these two facts, there really is no notion of “downtown” as there is in North America. Central London is primarily where a lot of major government offices are concentrated, where property prices are highest, and where there is generally a high population density / high entertainment density. However, within each of the boroughs in London, there are enough shops, amenities, and interesting things to do such that you would never have to leave your borough to survive / not be bored on the weekend. So while being close to Central London means you will be close to an area that is quite lively, it is a completely personal choice as to whether this is important. The other important aspect of this is a property’s proximity to transport links (tube, rail, bus routes). Because London is so big, it can take two hours or more to travel from the east end to the west end. Consider the places that you will need to go most frequently (work, school, fun, etc) and make sure that you’re selecting a borough that will be a decent commute; otherwise, you’ll end up wasting time and money (see cost of monthly travel cards) if you live far from where you work / study / play.
  3. Condition of property (new, period conversion / refurb, old)
    Generally, new or period conversion / refurbished properties will cost more than properties that have not been renovated. If you see wooden floors, retrofitted / modern appliances, exposed brick kitchen walls, modern windows, and new faucets or newly tiled bathroom floors, these are all indications that the property has been renovated to some extent, and you’ll likely be paying a higher rent vs. properties that have carpet or older fittings.
  4. Type of property (council flats / estates, maisonettes, flats)
    Council flats / estates are essentially government housing that are now privately owned due to a buy back scheme. They are often cheaper rents as the properties may still be in dodgier neighbourhoods, or less safe bits of a borough, and some of the council flats within a council block or estate may still be publicly owned. Read more here. Maisonettes are two level flats with internal stairs. For more information about the definition of a flat, read here.
  5. Size of property and number of rooms / living space
    Oftentimes, living rooms get converted into bedrooms in some properties. Rent will usually be cheaper in these cases since there is no longer any shared living space, other than the kitchen. The needs of multiple flatmates will have be factored in when searching for a property as well. Some two bedroom flats, for example, are one massively sized master bedroom and a small double or even a single room. If your flatmates aren’t willing to split the rent according to the amount of space, it can cause headaches and disagreements. Equally, it can sometimes be difficult to find two equally sized double bedrooms if you’re looking for an equitable rent split, so do keep this in mind when viewing properties. Another consideration is the number of bathrooms; some flats have one bedroom with an ensuite bathroom which typically means that the letter of that room would pay more rent. You will typically pay more for a property overall if there are more bathrooms.
  6. Basement / ground floor flats vs. above ground flats
    Basement and ground floor flats are generally cheaper than above ground flats (2nd floor and up). The main reason is that basement flats typically don’t have good views and the sunlight is somewhat limited, though there are usually windows. Ground floor flats can sometimes be perceived as “more dangerous”, depending on the neighbourhood, as ground floor flats are more accessible at street level. Sometimes, ground floor flat windows have bars over them for safety reasons, and so ground floor flats may command lower rent.
  7. Other fees / costs
    On top of the monthly rent you’ll have to pay, you will also have to factor in one-time costs such as lettings agency fees (including inventory fees, reference / guarantor checks, and agency fee), as well as monthly recurring expenses including utilities (water, gas, heat, and electricity) and council tax. For one-time costs, make sure you clarify with the agent what the total fees will be, and then determine what it will cost per person, if you are renting with others. For the monthly recurring expenses, it is usually a good question to ask the agent if the rent price includes any utilities, and how much the non-inclusive utilities typically cost per month. For council tax, use the council tax band tool to look up the council tax band, and go to the respective council’s website to look up how much council tax is owed within the council tax band. For example, for the City of Westminster, these are the council tax rates across different bands. Then you can calculate how much you’ll need to factor in per month for council tax. Adding on these other fees / costs will give you an accurate total cost of rental.

People often ask me which neighbourhood or borough they should live in. Unfortunately, I give them the answer that it really depends. Even if you ask me which neighbourhood or borough is the safest, the answer is relative. Even in the safest neighbourhoods, there may be pockets or certain streets that are not as safe. The best way to see which neighbourhood or borough is right for you is to spend some time walking around the neighbourhood and getting a feel for the atmosphere. When you consider that visceral experience with the factors I’ve mentioned above, you’ll likely have a better idea of your perfect area. Good luck with your flat hunt!

If you have any flat hunting experiences or tips to share, please leave them in the comments below.

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One thought on “So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding a Flat, Part 1

  1. Pingback: So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding a Flat, Part 2 | Stephanie Cheung

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