We’ve been in temporary housing since we arrived in London, so we were very excited to meet with our estate agent to search for long-term housing. Similar to most expats, we plan to rent (called “letting”) because it’s very expensive to purchase property in London. To give you an idea, the cost of purchasing a flat (i.e. apartment) in central London averages £1,200,000 (around $1.8mm)! In that price range, you can probably expect something between 500-800 sq. ft. After checking multiple sources, there is little agreement on which city in the world is truly the most expensive but London is typically in the top three. Other cities that frequent the top spots are New York, Geneva, Grand Caymen and Zurich. As a result, the cost of housing has pushed many locals outside of central London.
We researched housing prior to our move so we were prepared for the costs as well as the fact that we would be significantly downsizing from the home we had in Atlanta. But even with that preparation, I started feeling anxious once we arrived. First of all, our temporary housing is not what I expected from the photographs (more on this later). Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly fine for a month or so, but definitely not what I would choose as a long-term property. The kitchen is separate from the rest of the flat, meaning you have to walk down a flight of stairs to sit at the dining table (which I later found is relatively common), there is very limited closet space and storage (again, very common) and “open floor plan” is NOT a phrase that would come to mind.
The housing market moves very quickly in London so there’s no use in searching for places until you’re actually ready to move. So while we had done a good amount of research in advance, we couldn’t really start bookmarking properties until a few days prior to our showing date. We booked our estate agent a month in advance but she didn’t research our housing agenda until the day before our search. During this process, I learned several things:
1. The role of an “Estate Agent”
Since our move was part of a corporate relocation, we were lucky to have a relocation company handle the legwork for us and assign us our own estate agent. In most situations, looking for properties is very time consuming. Each agency lists their own properties and only shows their own properties. To position it in US terms, it is as if there are only “seller’s agents” but no “buyer’s agents”. On the positive side, that means the sellers only have to pay commissions to one agent. On the negative side, someone looking to purchase or let a property must contact each agent separately to set up showings. There is no “MLS” equivalent here either. There are some great listing sites similar to Realtor.com, including Zoopla, Right Move and On the Market. (For fun, click on one of the links and look around to see the property sizes and costs. Eek!) We also found that the estate agents are not in any hurry to remove properties (since they use them as advertising), so many that are listed on the websites are no longer available. This can lead to a lot of time spent searching properties only to find they’re long gone.
2. Property photographers are miracle workers
I learned this lesson with our temporary housing! Let me tell you, it is AMAZING what these people can do with a wide-angle lens. There were places that we toured that looked really spacious only to find out you had to hold your breath to squeeze between the wall and the bed. Or wash one leg at a time inside the shower because there was absolutely no chance of an entire body fitting in there at once. And hire butlers to bring you your food for dinner because the dining area was two flights from the kitchen. As such, I began to search for clues to determine the room size and layout. In the kitchen, I would look for an appliance, like a dishwasher, and use it for reference. Many times, the width of the kitchen may only be equivalent to one and half or two dishwashers (and the dishwashers here are typically more narrow!). Or in the main rooms, look for a door frame or a sofa and use that to reference the width of the room. I saw one picture where I have no doubt that the photographer was crouched on the countertop above the toilet just to get a shot of the bathroom! Also look to see where the windows are placed. Do they have skylights? Likely top floor or positioned on multiple floors. Windows placed high in the rooms and/or missing? Likely a basement flat.
3. There are no rules as to what can be called a Bedroom
In the states, you’re probably aware that in order to be listed as a bedroom, a room must have a closet and a window. There are no such requirements here. We went in several places that were listed as a three bedrooms only to find that the so-called third bedroom was teeny tiny. We went in one that was 8.6″ by 5.8″. And of course, no closet. So, yeah – not gonna work. The picture below is of one of the houses we were scheduled to see but we decided against it. In the bottom left corner of the picture, you can see the corner of the room. This room was 9 x 6.
4. Properties come Furnished, Partly Furnished, or Unfurnished
We were told that almost everything is furnished, so we only shipped our clothing, the nursery furniture, toys and some miscellaneous other items. BIG mistake. Our estate agent told us that larger properties (3 bedrooms +) are often unfurnished. While we did see some properties that were furnished, our favorite one was not. Looks like we’re off to Ikea!
5. Lettings are typically listed in PW (price per week)
Even though you pay per month. To calculate the per month cost, multiply the per week by 4.33. In addition to the monthly rent, you’re also responsible for utilities as well as Council tax, which is a type of property tax.
6. If you want to watch TV, you must have a license
This runs about £150 for color televisions and must be renewed yearly. Since this is a tax, it’s a criminal offense to not purchase one (even if you’re only planning to watch shows online). This money is used primarily to fund BBC’s public broadcasting.
7. Storage is very rare.
Even though we got rid of a ton of stuff, I have already realized that we brought way too much of stuff we probably didn’t need (i.e. clothing) yet way too little of what we did (see “furnished” above). Luckily, we chose a property that has been remodeled, so they’ve added a good amount of storage. Most homes have added wardrobes in the rooms since closets aren’t typical. But actual storage space is uncommon. We didn’t visit a single property that had a food pantry; you simply utilize the cupboards.
8. Air Conditioning very, very rare.
Of the 16 properties we visited, only one had A/C. Sorry dad – that’s not the one we picked. 🙁 We do, however, have A/C in our temporary housing, but it’s not what I expected. As you can see from the pictures, it’s a machine that’s simply pushing out the warm air while bringing in the cold. In order to do this, you open your window and place a plastic piece in the base of the window that holds the tube in place. Well, whatever works, right?
9. Purchased properties come “as is”
In other words, don’t expect to write into your offer that you want the owner to upgrade your countertops or put in new carpet. Not gonna happen. The general consensus is you should feel lucky you found something, so take it and run. Landlords for lettings are a little more lenient, but if you don’t write something into your offer before you sign, it’s unlikely to happen. Of course if something breaks, like your stove (called “hub” over here) then it will be fixed. But if you want them to paint the walls a different color, you better write that in the offer. And again, the general consensus is not to do anything that might cost you the deal, so it should be something pretty serious.
10. Once you find something you like, make an offer RIGHT.THIS.MINUTE
As mentioned above, the housing market moves fast. The property we ended up selecting had 4 more showings after we saw it (around 2 pm) and three more scheduled for the next morning. So don’t expect to mull it over too long or you’ll be in a never-ending property search.
I hope this has been interesting and informative! Now you know everything you need to know to come join us over in London!