Posts Tagged ‘landlords’

Lesson 1: How not to go househunting in London

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

It had to start somewhere.

Armed with the smug knowledge of Gumtree and RightMove, I felt like an expert. Years of being led around poky student digs in Leeds by fresh-faced letting agents barely older than myself had given me a false sense of security. I knew this stuff. No smooth-chinned salesman was going to rent me a flat with a broken chimney stack, I told myself. I wasn’t going to fall for any carefully-worded pitch telling me about the ‘cosy’ living room or the ‘colourful’ neighbourhood. How hard could it be?

Of course, pride comes before a fall. We found a few nice places online that looked like they were nice enough, in fairly respectable areas, and within our price range.

Price range? What’s a London price range? Was £200/week a bargain? Extortionate? Compared to my £266/month house in Leeds this seemed unbelievable. Were the streets paved with gold in London? Maybe the ones outside estate agents’ offices.

Without quite knowing what we were getting in for, we made some bookings to look around a few places. There was one North London property in particular that we had our eye on. It looked gorgeous, was in a good location, and seemed about right price-wise. Admittedly, the website photo gallery featured a shot of the living room which contained a Twilight/Robert Pattinson poster, but I suppose that wasn’t the letting agent’s fault.

Friday dawned and phone calls informed us that 90% of the houses we’d booked to see that weekend had been let. Doh. London moves fast. Travelling down from Leeds on increasingly extortionately priced East Coast trains, we only had one day to get this right. Luckily, our Twilight house was still available, although, somewhat confusingly, we’d seen the (3 floor) property advertised on at least a dozen different websites.

Reading around, we discovered a page on one estate agent website which described the process for making an offer on a flat. This particular letting agent required the usual references from previous jobs, landlords, etc. They also required a non-refundable £600 ‘signing fee’ in order to remove the property from the market. In cash. I guessed this was just how they did things in London.

How could I get six hundred quid in cash, I wondered? Incremental withdrawals from cashpoints? Or maybe one awkward trip to the bank, which is what it turned out to be. Wandering around Leeds with over half a grand in my back pocket was a scary prospect. We bundled it up along with passports, letters of recommendation by tutors, bosses and landlords, and hit the train to London.

Upon arrival we managed to make our way to the first viewing, showed around by a friendly young agent who did the stereotypical thing and tried to talk to us ‘on our level’.

“Students, eh? Leeds is a great night out. Loads of fit girls!” he winked knowingly at me, as I gamely tried to nod along, grinning a kind of “yeah, we’re both lads out on the town” conspiratorial grin as I tried not to catch Maddy’s eye in the back of the car. He pulled out a bunch of keys as we arrived at the property and let us into the Twilight house, the one that we were ready to sign for there and then, and had brought the £600 cash to put down as a deposit.

The basement flat door opened to reveal a grim and cramped apartment. The photographer taking snaps for the website must have been a genius in the art of trick photography: every shot he had taken had managed to disguise the fact that the main living room was about the size of a banana crate. The ‘kitchen’ was more of a corridor-with-an-oven-in-it and the bedrooms looked like they’d formerly been warehouse storage rooms. Conversions are all very well, but when a ‘basement flat’ still looks a bit like a basement, you’re not quite there yet.

It took around 8 seconds for him to ‘show us around’ and the atmosphere in the room wasn’t great. For a second I felt badly for the agent for having to spend his days flogging properties like this, but then I remembered that he wanted £1200 of my hard-earned wages a month for this place and lost most of my pity. We mumbled vague sentiments along the lines of “oh, there’s the bathroom” or “I like the… cupboard”. We filed back out and that was that.

We looked around another place, including a former council-owned property in the middle of a concrete village reminiscent of a Cold War-era Europe. The flat was passable but the prospect of paying to live in an environment that looked built to withstand a nuclear war didn’t thrill me. I began to feel even more aware of the £600 floating around my pocket somewhere.

After that, it was off to South London, where expectations were even lower based on the dread-imparting tales I’d heard beginning with “don’t go south of the river”. We got on a Northern Line tube and disembarked at the mysteriously-named Elephant & Castle.

We were met by another friendly letting agent, this one explaining to us that due to a heavy night out the previous evening, he was a little worse for wear. We looked around the small but airy flat and instantly knew it was head and shoulders above the rest. We told him we’d like to sign up.

He drove us back to his office and pointed out where local celebrities lived.

“Jack Straw lives down there,” he gestured, explaining that the close proximity to Westminster attracted MPs, “and Kevin Spacey drinks there, he’s running The Old Vic just up the road.”

Once inside he mentioned a £400 signing fee. “Do you take cash?” I asked, hunting for the envelope of notes. “Cash? No, no,” he said, a little taken aback. “… We’d been carrying this round for deposits” I finished lamely, indicating the envelope. “You’ve been carrying all that around London? Wow…” he said, perhaps amazed at our greenness. I was too, now we were sat inside the professional surroundings of the letting agent. We’d pay by card, or cheque. That’s normal. Who asks for £600 in cash? “Some landlords get into money laundering schemes” he told us by way of explanation. Oh.

We paid the signing fee and walked out of the office a few hundred pounds poorer, but slightly richer having learned our first lesson in London.