Of all the quests of modern life – finding dark matter, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, understanding women – there’s no denying that scoring decent lodging in London is probably the most difficult.
The London property crisis is nothing new and much of its root causes are down to mathematics. According to the ever useful UK government statisticians, (click here and look for table 253) from 2007 to date a grand total of 74,700 homes have been built within the M25 ring road: a lot, especially at a time when the economy braved a storm that, let us not forget, started from mortgage subscribers defaulting. But, in the same time span, the capital gained some 906,000 residents, from 7.7 millions to the recently announced 8.6m. If all of us Johnny-come-lates had to fit into those new 74,700 homes, then each new pad would have to accommodate an average of 12 people each. Cozy.
So, the picture is clear. London’s success is attracting economic refugees from all corners of the UK, Europe and the world, and the property market can’t – or won’t – grow at the same pace. There’s more of us and less of them, hence the prices for homes is bound to grow.
But it gets worse.
Yes it does, because there’s another driver for the property prices increases, and that’s foreign buyers. No, it’s not the benefit tourists the Daily Mail loves to talk about, and it’s not the fellas queuing up in Calais either: it’s the posse of wealthy overseas investors – sovreign funds, Russian oligarchs, Qatari oil supremos, Malaysian pension funds – that find the London property market a safe haven where to anchor their billions, tucked away from the freak waves that agitate the financial markets. It’s hard to say how many homes are owned from overseas, but 25% of all new developments are foreign-owned, with peaks of 80% such as a new landmark currently going up in Canary Wharf. In my limited experience I have so far signed two different letting contracts where the landlord was a Japanese company. And at least they rented them out; many homes in posh Kensington and Chelsea are left empty in buy-to-leave schemes.
All this might sound too detached and high level for the average Joe, but the fact is that it isn’t. If average Joe is planning to move to London, get a job and find a house he’s going to learn very fast, and very badly, that doing so is not a game for the faint hearted, I’ve done it four times and I know how it. So, average Joe, hear me out: if you want to move to London you might find these few tips handy.
There’s no such thing as cheap and cheerful.
Let’s start from the basics: forget about comparing London’s prices with your hometown. Unless you’re from New York, Singapore or Hong Kong, this city’s prices will be bonkers compared with what you can get with the same amount where you’re from. Saying “back home what I pay for this shitty studio would be enough for a semi” will only raise your blood pressure. Don’t do that.
You’re at a disadvantage. Always.
If you are an average person, earning the average London wage of £34,473, as a prospective tenant you have very little bargaining power, and I say very little because I’m polite. On one side, landlords are faced by a limitless supply of wannabe tenants like you and, on the other side, the law is tilting in their favour. Tenants and agencies can ask for six weeks of rent as a deposit and can charge hefty extras for referencing, check-in fees and inventory (myself and my friends once paid £500 for the whole shebang). They can still have the property marketed while you’ve paid a holding deposit, usually 2+ weeks, and if they wish they can increase the asking price; if you refuse to check their raise and fold, you’ll lose the deposit.
Quality? What’s quality?
When it comes to housing, different cultures have different concepts. In some places a house is the epicentre of life, something that will be used by the same family for generations and that evolves into something palace-like. In London, homes are largely investments. They’re capital and as such they need to yield as much returns as possible as quickly as possible.
There are exceptions, of course, but that’s the general rule for the homes for rent. This means that corners get cut, standards lowered and, in general, everything – furniture, appliances, décor – is made according to the same quality blueprints used by those managing Chernobyl power plant that day in 1986. You can find plenty of horror stories in the Internet and everyone will tell you theirs; mine include living in a non-insulated attic with a window that gave in to rain, or spending £725 a month for a room in a basement flat where only one radiator could work at any given time in the entire house, or having to ask the agent if she would’ve lived in the garden shed – seriously, a shed – that she was trying to induce me into letting for £850 plus bills. A friend was spending £600 a month for a room on the 10th floor of a Hackney council flat sub-let by a guy that decided to do some major overhaul of the electric system and thought nothing of having the mains running next to the cooking gas pipe, and I could go on.
These are extremes, obviously, but what you can expect to witness is poor water pressure – Britain is still very much Roman when it comes to hydraulics – shodding window insulation, dampness, approximate cleanliness and, obviously, carpets throughout. All this for at least £500 a month.
Be quick, but don’t be hasty.
We all know how house hunting works. You go on the Internet, or flicker through the pages of a leaflet, find something you like, then go and have a look, then make an offer. From first impression to the big commitment days, sometimes weeks, can pass.
Not in London.
In London demand is such that any ad older than a week is probably already gone. Any landlord will receive at least five inquiries a day, and might get as many visits in the same time. And can get an offer in the same 24 hours. I recently published an ad for the place I was staying in, as I was moving before the end of the tenancy; I posted the advert on a Friday evening and by Saturday afternoon I already had an offer; by Sunday the landlady agreed, and then I spent the rest of the day canceling all the other visits I had booked in.
The bottom line is: if you find something you like, snatch it, there and then. Be ready with the money, send the deposit straight away and don’t wait to come back with your mate, or for the occasion to FaceTime mum and ask dad’s opinion.
This doesn’t mean that you can cut corners. You’re basically deciding where you’re going to spend much of your time – and a sizeable chunk of your disposable income – on something you’re seeing for 15 minutes if you’re lucky. In a nutshell, you have to quick, effective and thorough: ignore all the bullshit that the agent is blabbing about – 90% of the stuff is worthless junk, I’ll get to that in a second – and concentrate on the basics: water pressure, heating, signs of damp walls (mould, bubbles on the paint or wallpaper) and general cleanliness. Oh, last tip: if the house’s been out for more than a week and is still available then you can smell a rat. Sometimes, literally.
The larger the tie knot, the more twat they are.
I’m not the sort of person to indulge in stereotyping, but I do make an exception for estate agents. I’ve never had a great relationship with them, but the London ones are the worst of the worst. How can a professional group be almost entirely represented by illiterate morons wearing repellent polyester suits matched to ill-fitting shirts-cum-flashy nylon ties with ridiculously large knots is beyond me. And fake tans, obviously.
London estate agents have a very limited vocabulary: “proud to present”, “period conversion”, “spacious”, “fantastic”, “ built-in storage space”, “kitchenette”, “ideal location” and the evergreen “will go soon”. All with plenty of spelling mistakes thrown in for good measure.
Agencies are becoming more and more thuggish, snatching as many personal contact details as they can grab, only to use them for cold calling to place homes that are neither in the desired location nor have the required attributes; and, I found out, the times I had to share my phone and mail with them coincided exactly with a surge in spam for penis enlargement, calls from automated voices offering to fight for my injury claims (which ones?) and so on. I still don’t understand how but I’m sure that the bastards at a certain West London agency have given my phone number to a company that’s now bombarding me with texts for concrete bags and tool hire.
Is it all worth it, then?
Well, it depends on whom you ask. Personally, I’ve had enough. I just finished moving and this will be my final one; the next time I’ll pack my bags, it’ll be to leave this island for good. The fact is that finding a place to live in London is becoming increasingly hard for the vast majority of the city’s dwellers; on the other hand, though, this is dreamland for homeowners. And homeowners vote.