How not to go househunting in London: 2011 redux

If the blog’s been quiet the past few months, it’s been because of the pain of househunting. Again. Wasn’t it only a year ago we did this last?

I thought this time would be simple. We’d had the experience of coming to London like green little northern monkeys, couldn’t tell our Hackney from our Hampstead. By this point we’d been in the city for almost a year and were virtually Londoners ourselves now: breaking our fast with a refreshing pie ‘n’ mash each morning and cleaning chimneys all day long (this is what Londoners do, right?).

Of course, it was not quite to be.

The first shock of the process was the abrupt notice we had that our landlord was increasing our rent by £20 per week. We already felt it was too expensive, but this tipped the balance for us. As soon as we indicated this to the estate agent, Atkinson McLeod, they were quick to write to us telling us we needed to pay them to have the flat professionally cleaned once we left. Their letter indicated they’d arranged a “discounted rate” for this, at only £160. “One-sixty my arse”, I said. “We can do this ourselves for a tenner’s worth of cleaning products”. I turned out to be mostly right, but it also took two full days’ worth of work and more time scrubbing the inside of an oven than any human being should have to do.

But I digress. Before the joys of moving out came the joys of finding somewhere new to live.

We decided on Clapham as our next destination, something of an upgrade from Elephant & Castle. Also in the running were Highgate (ultimately ruled out as too expensive and tricky to find non-”apartment building” locations as opposed to good old fashioned “houses”), Bethnal Green (Maddy loves it but my heart wasn’t in it) and Kennington (hard to find places fitting our requirements). We booked some appointments, and the wild rumpus began.

The very first place we saw in Clapham was a weird mixture between perfection and hideousness. We stepped out of the estate agent’s car on a pretty little street near Clapham North tube. A decent-looking pub was across the road, and as we walked down the street we passed a bakery, a deli, and then a fabric/knitting shop. When Maddy saw these things she turned to face me with open-mouthed excitement. I smiled but tried to keep things low-key: let’s not get our hopes up too much I mentally cautioned, er, myself. Based on the street, it was, well, right up our street.

The estate agent carried on walking past the friendly shops until we passed a boarded-up bookmakers. Next to it was a dodgy-looking wooden fire door. Please don’t be this one, please don’t be this one we both thought, until she pulled the keys out of her pocket and began unlocking said door. We trooped in. The flat was ugly, totally not in keeping with the street outside, and was one of the most expensive ones we ended up viewing too. Great start.

A few more failed viewings later and we saw one we liked. Online it looked great – similar in size to our current flat, nice garden, lots of storage space. A little Google Maps work revealed that it was directly opposite an enormous tower block. Snobbery aside, it also looked pretty unaesthetically pleasing. Still, I was prepared to give it a look.

When we arrived for the viewing, another couple were there waiting outside. It seemed we were both being shown around. This must be ideal for the estate agent – they know they don’t even have to play the “I’ve shown four other people around this afternoon” card, as you’re acutely aware of the competition even as you’re sizing up the sash windows or whatever.

We walked out of the viewing and Maddy wanted us to sign up there and then. I urged caution and suggested we go home and do a bit of research. The area was a bit far out of Clapham North (more like Stockwell if you ask me) and the estate agents gave me bad vibes somehow. Over the course of the evening though Maddy wore me down and in the morning I phoned up to make an offer.

That was short-lived, though. They called back and said the other couple had made a counter-offer. Would we be able to go higher than 18 months? We didn’t want to go for more than a year, just in case. We said no and that was that.

There was one place we saw in Balham that looked really nice – lots of space and well decorated. We put an offer in. The estate agent was the aforementioned Atkinson McLeod, our current estate agent. Better the devil you know, I guess? How wrong I was.

Atkinson McLeod charge a £400 fee simply to “take the property off the market”. This is deducted from your deposit when you pay it, but you still need to pay it upfront to make a formal offer on a flat. Some of my work colleagues were astounded that you now have to make offers on places purely for rental, so for those not in the know: you’re expected to state your rental offer (eg do you attempt to haggle on the rent, or go with the landlord’s asking price?) and the time period of the rental, and see if the landlord accepts.

This £400 fee doesn’t guarantee you anything: the landlord can still say no, and if so, you get it back. You can’t back out without losing it, though. We were shown around the flat in question with another couple, and were very conscious of being beaten to the punch again.

The sales rep showing us around was a young guy in his early 20s who looked like he was quite new to the job. He showed us round well enough, but when we got back to the office to do the paperwork, he messed things up a few times. On the first document he asked me to sign he listed the rent at £200 more than it was supposed to be. I pointed this out and he corrected it, then on the second attempt I noticed the deposit cost was wrong too. Third time around, the total (deposit + rent) was added up wrong. By this point he’d called me over to his computer to verify the amounts before he printed it, and I half felt like saying “£100 a month rent, that sounds about right, doesn’t it?” and seeing if he went with it.

By this point his angry boss had showed up in the office and angrily bossed him around, shouting at him in front of us for getting it wrong. A bit embarrassed, we signed the papers and got out of there.

Two days later we get a phone call. The landlord wants an 18 month rental and more rent than we’d offered. We said no, then had to wait a week for the £400 to be back in my account. Always fun. Another “plus” of the Atkinson McLeod contracts is what I like to call their “arbitrary fee”. This is the “administrative costs” or similar that these companies append to your contract costs. Atkinson McLeod were the only company we saw where this fee was a variable: one week’s rent. Everywhere else it was a flat fee. I wanted to ask our young sales rep about this: if we managed to negotiate £50 off the week’s rent, how come the admin fee magically becomes smaller? Does that £50 require just an extra bit more work to process? I had a feeling this would mangle his brain, so didn’t bring it up.

To top this story off, when we phoned back a few days later to check the status of the offer, we asked for our sales rep. “Alex doesn’t work here any more”, we were bluntly told. It’s a harsh world.

This story does have a happy ending, though. Eventually we saw a flat just off Clapham Common. It was smaller than our current place, but characterful and nicely finished, and in a great location. The estate agents, Hamptons, didn’t set off any warning bells, and all their dealings with us before and after were great (no “arbitrary fee” rate, no paying for anything just to make an offer). We’re all moved in thanks to some help from some fantastic friends (Dave, Sean, Moritz and Camilla, to name but four) and we’re loving it.

But what’s this year’s lesson? Well, estate agents are basically scum, or at least, liars, cheats and thieves. Don’t let them mess you around even when you think you know what you’re doing, and if something smells dodgy, it probably is.


2 Responses to “How not to go househunting in London: 2011 redux”

  1. Kevan says:

    Unless the legislation has changed, it is a criminal offence under the Accomodation Agencies Act to request or accept any money prior to a rental agreement being signed.

    I would check up on this and, if still the case, complain to the relevant authority.

  2. Karen says:

    Hiya … I stumbled across your blog…. Read these post!!!! Jessssssussss. Am new to London , but have property in liverpool which I rent out!! … Can’t believe how much your getting rinsed by this estate agent !!!