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Expat living – How to find a flat in London – tips for first-timers

Expat living – How to find a flat in London – tips for first-timers

This is our second stint living and working in London, and wow, was it easier this time around to find a place to live. Not so much in that it’s simple to get a place here – on the contrary, unless you’re seeking to rent a single room for yourself (which is achievable using services like Airbnb.com, spareroom.co.uk, easyroommate.com or Gumtree.co.uk), finding a home can be a tricky affair. It was easier for us this time however, because we knew exactly the area we wanted to be in, which is half the battle, given this can be one very big, daunting place for the uninitiated.

How to find a flat in London - Dalston view

For those new to town, “homes” here usually come in the form of a studio (literally one room, possibly with a bed on a mezzanine level), one or two bedroom “flat”, otherwise known as an apartment or unit in other parts of the world. London’s renowned for its small spaces so don’t expect to rent a huge house or apartment which potentially you’ll be used to if coming from somewhere like Australia (unless you’ve already secured a high powered job – good on you if so). Never fear however, because London’s palpable energy makes up for any of these other concessions you may have to make.

When we first arrived in 2010, the only area we were aware of was Notting Hill because, you guessed it, we had seen the movie! We ended up in a studio room in Bayswater (next door to Notting Hill) which, while well situated in terms of transport and convenience amenities, didn’t really do it for me regarding value for money, comfort, nice neighbours and a homely type of feel. It’s also very touristy – not very “English” at all, unless you’re talking tacky Cool Britannia gift stores. When we first arrived we had no idea how to find a flat in London. In fact, everything we looked at seemed overpriced, dingy, dirty and overwhelmingly bad.

How to find a flat in London - travellivelearn.com

Fast forward a year on from the Bayswater experience, and by chance we ended up in a one bedroom basement flat in a gorgeous area of the east called London Fields. Our flat had been newly refurbished and was positioned as the lower section of a beautiful Georgian-period three-level home. This was a private rental that we happened across by chance (good timing) on Gumtree.com one Sunday morning – the location wasn’t even listed! We loved London Fields so much that we truly believe it was fate that lead us there. With a serene park up the road, coffee shops, markets, many cute dogs and nice people around, we’d finally discovered a part of the city we could truly enjoy; it is what I describe as “my authentic London”. London Fields presented an opportunity to settle in to a community, topped off with the conveniences and joys the east end now offers, including fabulous transport links (at that point our nearest stations were Haggerston and London Fields).

How to find a flat in London - neighbourhood

How to find a flat in London – top tips (particularly for first-timers)

This time around we knew we wanted to be in the east, which has really developed over the past few years to become the new, “hip” area of town. With fantastic overground and underground transport links, as well as bus routes heading every which way, and hot new bars, restaurants, coffee shops and cool communal areas opening every day, we knew this is where we wanted to be. Ironically, the flat (or one bedroom apartment/unit) we’ve ended up in is part of a relatively new complex we saw being built when we were last here, and we’d eyed it off saying, “we’d love to live there one day”! The application process and waiting period can be a bit stressful though. Patience is required. Here are my top tips on how to find a flat in London:

1. Start looking the moment you get to town – turnover of properties here is swift, and you have to be online and making phone calls every day to secure an appointment for the properties you want to view. There’s not much point in looking before you get here because real estate agents want you on the ground. Flats are snapped up in a jiffy so be on the ball and check your favourite websites every morning and afternoon. Our go-to sites included rightmove.co.uk and gumtree.co.uk (for private rentals and agency – but be mindful of scams, if it seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

2. Make calls rather than sending emails, in the interest of saving time.

3. Be mindful, real estate fees for those looking to rent may include the agent’s time for showing you around, referencing and administration fees. These are legitimate, BUT only if they’re outlined on a “terms and conditions” agreement. We once had someone try to charge us after showing us around, with no prior warning of a fee, and invoiced via a very dodgy PayPal transaction – I refused to pay and they did not chase me. These costs are part of finding a property here though, and can range from £99 (AU $200) so save your pennies before you arrive.

4. Have savings! In London you need around six weeks deposit, four weeks rent and additional fees (as mentioned above), and you’ll need to have this on hand (or accessible in a bank account/credit card) to secure the accommodation you want. Also, keep in mind it can take weeks to find a job here, and most people are paid monthly, so potentially you’ll need another month’s rent saved too. Rent here is expensive, but once you’re earning the pound it’s not as bad, and cost of living in London is actually rather inexpensive once you begin to “live like a local”, so keep that in mind at the beginning if your outlays are feeling really large and getting the better of you.

How to find a flat in London - travellivelearn.com

5. The referencing process is rigorous, so be prepared – ensure you have details of personal, rental and employer referees on hand, make sure they know they’re likely to hear from a referencing agent (in our case, it was via email) and ask them nicely if they would mind facilitating a swift turn-around of information. You may need pay-slips and/or personal taxation documentation (if you have been/are working for yourself), and ideally you’ll have (or one of you, if you’re a couple) London-based employer details, to show that income will indeed be coming in, and at what level it will be. The process can be a little stressful, but if you’re prepared with all this information and contacts on hand, you’ll be fine.

6. Be open to meeting the owners (landlord(s)) if they’re interested in meeting you. It’s great for keeping the lines of communication open and easy, and you never know when you might need to call on them.

7. If you need to establish yourself with anything from cutlery to kitchen appliances and linen, head directly for inexpensive options (until you’re earning the pound, at least) like the pound stores (e.g Poundland, everything just a £ (situated on most high streets/within high traffic areas)), argos.co.uk, Primark and Matalan. When I first moved here I bought everything from M&S because I didn’t know any better – talk about watching as your money disappears faster than you can say Superman!

Essentially you need to be organised with information, thorough with following up on all aspects of the process with your agent, make sure you have funds saved and available, referees ready to vouch for you, and details of your past, present and future financial situation on hand.

Also, don’t take it for granted you’ll be approved for the property you hope for – have a few options on the boil until someone makes you a solid offer. You definitely need a plan A, B or C, otherwise you’ll be in that hotel/hostel/staying with friends for a good while.

If you’re unsure as to where in London (or any big city, for that matter) would best suit you, do some researchask your friends on social media for advice, or drop a line to bloggers and expats on the ground in the city – most are happy to share what they’ve learned and we’ve all been in the same boat. Don’t just choose an area because you’ve seen it on TV or because a friend recommends it – it might not feel or be right for you, or it could be miles from where you’re meant to be working. If in doubt, and if possible, consider signing a six month lease so that if for any reason where you first end up isn’t ideal, you can move on. In summary, read, ask questions, and discover a life you love here in old Blighty!

How to find a flat in London - food

 

Do you have a question, or perhaps additional advice to share? Please let us know in the comments below. 

-Sarah

 

 

Our first week (back) in London

Our first week (back) in London

I tell everyone I meet how amazing it is to be back in London. I’m so grateful, and I think I’m being rewarded for a positive attitude because it’s been sunny! And hot! Although I could do with it being a few degrees cooler (don’t tell the locals I said that though, they’ll not be pleased with me). Have I mentioned lately that I just love it here?!

Sarah and Cooper in London

It’s been a jam-packed first week in London as we hunted for accommodation – a task we commenced the morning we stepped off the plane at Heathrow. We’ve been blessed in that we have two beautiful friends, Barry and Paulo, who invited us to stay with them in SE1, not too far from Tower Bridge. This enabled us to not have to worry about expensive hotel fees while house hunting, and we’re so thankful to them for sharing their space with us. We met Barry and Paulo on the Mediterranean cruise we did back in January of 2013 and have been friends ever since, although this was an opportunity to get to know each other much better, and let me tell you, they are two of the nicest people you could ever know. I’m not even saying it because they read this space, in fact, they’ll probably never see this post, but still, we are lucky. They even got us into a new show, The Honourable Womanwhich we’ll continue to stream on BBC’s catch-up viewer online.

Broadway Market

We explored trendy Bermondsey – an area new to Cooper who took to sampling a Guinness in every pub we encountered (he’s on holidays, after all); and indulged at Brick Lane Coffee along this same strip which offers a funky, arty-type atmosphere, nice coffee and fast free WiFi. Another business of note which we found here is Holly & Lil, Handmade in England – a boutique pet store with gorgeous wares and cute dogs hanging out inside for good measure.

We also sampled our way through Borough Market – tip: find the vegetarian Indian curry stand – best curries I’ve had in a looooong time. Delic!!

As Tower Bridge, Tower of London and St Katherine Docks are within a short walk from this area too, we explored across the Thames to where, this very week, moving tributes commemorating the beginning of World War 1 – The Great War – have commenced.

On Tuesday, Barry, Paulo, Cooper and I wandered across for dinner at The Dickens Inn, a divine pub situated along St Katherine Way, a bit of a local secret, even though it’s only a few steps beyond the Tower of London and the bridge. The reason for our journey in this direction though, aside from dinner, is that we wanted to see what’s being called an “evolving installation” by artist, Paul Cummins, and award-winning stage designer, Tom Piper, surrounding the famous Tower of London. Called Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation is, in fact, thousands of ceramic red poppies which by 11 November 2014, will be “planted” around the Tower of London, and will number 888, 246 representing all British military lost during the war. The poppies – each uniquely hand-crafted – will be sold off in November and monies raised will be shared between the UK’s six key service charities. –Read more here.

Tip: Head into the area late afternoon so you can view it all as the sun goes down and then prettily lit up into the evening. 

Night fell around 9pm, and the sound of canon fire from outside the Tower of London rung through the air. As we walked across the bridge we could see smoke billowing out from around the river front – a surreal experience in 2014! We then noticed a tower of blue light beaming into the night sky in the distance. We’ve since discovered it originates from Victoria Tower Gardens, and is another of the city’s commemorative nods to The Great War. On closer inspection, the light – called “Spectra”, by Japanese sound and light artist, Ryoji Ikeda, is a square of black matting on which 49 powerful spotlights are beamed upwards into eternity.

Background story and image source: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/05/ryoji-ikeda-spectra-first-world-war-artangel

Background story and image source: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/05/ryoji-ikeda-spectra-first-world-war-artangel

The light was actually launched on the evening of the fourth, when the city plunged into darkness as a mark of respect commemorating the beginning of a terrible and tragic time for families of the period. It will be visible for seven evenings from sun down, and I hope it reminds everyone of how lucky we are 100 years on. “Spectra” is visible for miles across the city, and indeed we can see it from our new place in Dalston, east London.

Spectra from Dalston TravelLiveLearn.com

Spectra and London Eye visible from Dalston – evening view across the East by Sarah Blinco.

All in all it’s been a memorable and wonderful first week back. We’ve now secured a place to live and are gradually catching up with friends. Here are some of our discoveries, August 1 to 7, 2014:

Best free WiFi:
Costa coffee, Shepherd’s Bush
Westfield Shopping Centre, Shepherd’s Bush
Brick Lane Coffee, Bermondsey
Le Ziz Restaurant & Lounge Bar, Dalston Junction
Cafe Route, Dalston Junction

Best coffee:
Brick Lane Coffee, Bermondsey
The random little stand on platform 2 at Highbury & Islington train station

Best food:
Lime Orange, Victoria (Korean cuisine)
Le Ziz, Dalston Junction (Turkish)

Coolest discovery:
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

Dalston