Renting in London: How to find your perfect home


London is a truly cosmopolitan city, drawing in foreigners from all walks of life, and from all around the world. Whether you're there to study as a young professional looking to take advantage of the career opportunities, or to settle with family, it can be a fantastic expat destination.

If you’re relocating to the UK, then finding a home will be a priority. London is a huge city, and each different area has its own character. The upside is, that there will be a place you fall in love with. The downside is that it can be pretty overwhelming to start with. Housing in London is also notoriously pricey. A one bedroom apartment in the city centre will set you back £1685 on average a month, excluding utilities. The same apartment in one of the outer suburbs will still cost £1174 a month. Be prepared to make some compromises and give a whole lot of thought to what you really need from your new home, before you make a decision.

Life in London is expensive, so if you’re just making plans, it’s important to take into account all the costs associated with your move to the UK. Compare the cost of living in London with that of your home town using a comparison site such as Numbeo, and check out this quick guide to renting in London, to find the perfect place for you.

What are my housing options in London?

London has a huge rental market, covering everything from flatshares and studios, to single family homes and luxury serviced apartments. The bigger challenge will be narrowing down what you want from your London rental, and then finding it within your budget.

Furnished vs. unfurnished

You’ll be able to find homes in London which are advertised as furnished, part furnished or unfurnished. Furnished will mean that everything is already in the rental property for you to use - usually all the furniture, soft furnishings like carpets and curtains and electrical appliances. In many cases, these properties also come with a kitchen full of crockery, pots and pans, as well. It’s worth checking in individual properties, what appliances are provided, as this will vary somewhat. While all furnished places will have a stove and washing machine, fewer will have a dishwasher, and very few will provide a dryer, for example.

Part furnished places are unlikely to have smaller kitchen items like crockery, but will have large pieces of furniture like a bed and sofa, as well as electrical appliances already installed. Even properties describes as unfurnished will most likely come with many basic furnishings, unlike the norm in some European countries. An unfurnished property should have a functioning kitchen with a stove or oven, and probably a washing machine, as well as window treatments. It won’t come with any furniture at all, though.

If you’re only in London for a relatively short time, there are fully furnished short term rents available, although these tend to cost a lot more.

Flatshares and student housing

Private rentals, anywhere in the city tend to be eye wateringly expensive, so for students or those looking to find a cheaper deal, a flat- or house share might be a better option. This is a very common choice in London, as students and young professionals try to balance out getting a place in their budget, and staying in a relatively central area.

Shared living arrangements vary hugely, and you should make sure you understand the deal on offer, as well as the type of people you’ll be living with. Some places are simply a room to sleep, occupied by relative strangers, with other shared flats operating much more socially, as a group of friends living and partying together. Either way, the existing occupants are likely to want to meet you and get a sense for whether or not you'd fit into the house. You can find flat shares through a site like Spareroom, although it’s also well worth looking through your contacts and friends and asking if anyone has a room to rent at their place.

You might also find a place through specialist (but obviously unregulated) Facebook groups. There are several different Facebook options, but whichever you choose, remember it's a small world. Landlords may post flat share offers in several different groups. Being quick to respond, honest and straightforward in your dealings will reap the best results.

If a flatshare isn’t your thing then another lower rent option is to look for a studio, or bed-sit (bed-sitting room) which usually will be a self contained flat in which your bed and a small kitchen are all in the same room. Some have shared facilities such as bathrooms, while others are slightly larger and have private facilities.

Where are the best locations to live?

Naturally, where you choose to rent in London will be largely dictated by the location of your job or university. And, of course, your budget. There are 33 London boroughs, each with a distinct flavour. In general terms, the further away from the heart of town you go, the more affordable the rents - but the type of neighbourhood, and quality of public transport connections makes a huge difference to average pricing too.

How to choose a location

It’s not possible to search for a rental property without narrowing down your search area quite significantly. It’s a good idea to do this based on your work or university location, taking into account the public transport options. In many cases, living a little further away from the centre of town, but close to a well connected tube or bus stop, can mean that you balance a more reasonable rental price, with an acceptable commute time.

Driving in central London is slow and congested, and parking can be very pricey. Because of this, most Londoners commute by taking the tube or bus to work. If you’ll be using public transportation it’s important to understand the zone system, and the cost bands associated with it. The very centre of the city is zone 1, with concentric rings moving out from the centre making up zones 2 to 6. You can buy a travel ticket, covering the tube, bus, and some trains and trams, which covers a fixed number of zones. So for example, you might buy a ticket good for zones 1 and 2, zones 1 to 4, or zones 1 to 6. Tickets are valid for anything from a day to a year, and a weekly card for zones 1 to 4 will set you back £47.50.

Because public transportation is relatively expensive, you’re going to have to take the cost of travel into account when you choose a home. Although looking to the very outer suburbs will find you a cheaper rental property, the travel prices will rise, meaning it’s not always a good deal overall. Many rental ads will specify the zone, to help you figure out the commute costs.

If you’re moving to London with your family, then it’s also worth noting that public school places in the UK are usually allocated based on where you live. You have a better chance of getting a place in a specific school if you live close to it - so if you have a strong preference about the school your children attend, then finding a home close by is a good move.

City centre districts

Many of the very central areas of London are a mix of residential properties, with boutique stores, and upscale restaurants and hotels. Prices here are very high, although having a home in one of the central zones might mean your morning commute is a slow walk through some of the most historic and scenic areas of the city. Among the most expensive (and exclusive) central neighbourhoods, you have Mayfair, home to the US Embassy and Savile Row Tailors, and Chelsea (known for it’s football club). Just north of Mayfair is Notting Hill, favourite of artists, families and expats alike.

If you’re looking for something a bit more alternative, than central Soho is a vibrant mix of nightlife of all types, from the glam to the seedy, and also includes London's Chinatown. Camden Town, north of the centre is similarly known as a destination for live music, wild nights and lazy days by the canal. Here, and in the nearby areas, accommodation is less expensive than in the very centre, but the public transportation connections aren’t always that convenient.

Outside city centre

Moving away from the very heart of London, there are some very trendy boroughs with prices which are more accessible. To the east Docklands is a popular choice, home to Canary Wharf and very close to the east end action. Many young professionals choose to base themselves here, in some of the newly developed (and often very luxurious) apartments. This whole area has seen a huge amount of infrastructure investment recently, and significant gentrification.

South of the city centre, Clapham, Brixton and Streatham are popular and offer a wide mix of accommodation prices and types. These areas are hugely ethnically mixed, making for a vibrant atmosphere, and have great parks and gardens for families to enjoy.

To the north of the centre, Islington has long been popular with families and young professionals, and has good public transportation links to the centre. Harrow and Wembley, to the north west of the centre, are further out but well connected. Harrow has a generally quiet feel, while Wembley, as home to the national stadium, is often buzzing with people coming to football matches, concerts and events.

Finally, many of the people who work in London actually don’t live in the city, but choose instead one of the towns outside the city with good rail links into the centre. Whether or not this is feasible depends largely on where you’ll work, and whether there's a train station nearby with fast routes to one of the outlying towns. For example, if you work in the south of the city, you could consider living as far away as Brighton on the south coast. And in the north, commuters even come from Milton Keynes, some fifty miles out of London, but on a fast train line meaning a manageable 30 minute journey.

Student areas

London has a large number of universities and colleges, spread all over the city. Finding something which is in an easy walk or commute to your campus should be a priority if possible. Because of the high prices of rentals in the city, most students will share flats or take a place in specialist accommodation, such as student halls provided by their university.

Specialised companies focus on locations near university campuses, but might give more budget-friendly choices. In many cases, you can find student accommodation newly built and designed to suit the specific needs of the student population. That said, individual landlords will still rent out larger homes to groups of students to share, which might be fun, but won’t always include much communal space. All of the larger London universities are very familiar with helping international students find their feet, and will be able to help. Ask your university for their advice on reputable agencies or try an established umbrella site like Accommodation for Students.

What are the best websites to find a rental?

The UK National Landlords Association is a good place to look for legitimate brokers and agents, or to cross check an agent you’re thinking of working with. Use a broker with membership, or choose an umbrella site like those below, which host ads for properties represented by many individual agents.

  • Zoopla is a good umbrella site, which hosts ads for properties all over the country, and connects you directly with the agent representing them
  • Rightmove is another umbrella site with a nice map based search function for properties to rent or buy

Where are the best sites to find a flatshare or roommate?

  • Spareroom is a popular, UK based site connecting people looking to share a flat or house
  • Facebook - Groups may be closed, so you’ll need to ask to join. A quick search within Facebook will pull up several options but some are larger and more active than others. Try London Housing as a starting point
  • Gumtree, which is similar to Craigslist, advertises flatshares, rooms, apartments, and houses, but be wary and apply common sense and caution

What should I be familiar with in the local market?

It can feel daunting if you’re just setting about finding the right place in another country and culture. Here are some of the things that can help you be more prepared.

What are the local terms I should know?

Even for fluent English speakers, there are some phrases used in the UK rental market which might seem a little odd. For example, rental properties might come with a price tag listed as ‘p.c.m.’ (per calendar month), or ‘p.w’ (per week). If you look at a place which has a ‘per week’ rental arrangement, you'll most likely still pay on a calendar month basis, and the bill at the end of every month will be the weekly cost, multiplied by 52, divided by 12. It’s complicated, but it makes the rental price look lower - and is therefore favoured by landlords, especially in London.

There’s a really helpful glossary of terms on SpareRoom’s website, which can shed a little light on the oddities of English used in rental ads.

How and when are rental contracts signed?

Although you can get by with a verbal contract in the UK, it's always best to ask for a written contract. There’s advice, and model rental agreements, provided by the UK government, which detail what your tenancy agreement should cover. Having a written rental agreement is the best way to make sure that your rights and responsibilities as a tenant are protected.

To look after your interests, you should sign a contract before handing over any money or moving in. Make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to before you sign including details like clauses about terminating your agreement and notice periods.

What are best practice tips for dealing with landlords?

Good landlords are the majority, but in London, as in any other city, you’ll also find your share of unethical individuals or agents. It’s worth checking the landlord or managing agent is registered with the National Landlords Association. Because housing in a reasonable price bracket can be hard to find, there are horror stories of scams or unethical private landlords letting substandard accommodation. Proceed with caution, and make sure you know what you’re getting if you're asked to hand over any cash.

Give yourself the best possible chance to find a place that suits you, by taking a short-term place in a hostel or hotel at first to buy some time. Having a friend along with you when viewing flats can also help to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with information.

Once you do find a good place, it’s worth trying to make a good impression on the landlord, or the existing tenants in the case of a flat share. In a shared housing arrangement, the tenants are likely to want to let their spare room to someone who is really enthusiastic about the place - so if you like the flat and the group dynamic, say so!

Don’t forget that many London apartments are rented out by word of mouth. If you're in London for work, then make sure your colleagues and local friends know you’re looking. You might find that they can hook you up with a place with a friendly landlord without incurring agent fees. Alternatively, if there are a couple of you looking for a place, you can work together to find a place to share on the open market.

What's the amount of a normal deposit?

For a deposit, you can expect to be asked for anything from two weeks, to two months of rent. You’ll also be liable for costs of credit checking, along with any realtor fees agreed. The deposit you pay has to be put into a deposit protection scheme, according to UK law. This means that it's held separately to the Landlord’s private accounts, and can’t be accessed during your tenancy.

There tends to be several different charges applied when you rent a new place, for administration and your agent’s time. Typical charges include a fee for drawing up tenancy agreements and an inventory of the property, carrying out credit checks and referencing, and administration. All agents are obliged to publish their fees, so make sure you understand what your realtor is going to charge you on top of rent and your deposit payment.

Can I pay my rent or deposit from abroad?

If you’re relocating, you might find that you need to make a deposit payment before you have opened a local bank account, or even arrived in the UK. Or if you've already moved, but need to travel from time to time away from the UK, you might have to pay rent by international money transfer. If you do, it’s worth remembering that your home bank might not offer the best value when it comes to making an international money transfer. Often banks will add hidden fees by using a poor exchange rate, even with their own account holders.

Instead, try a specialist service like Wise to make your payment directly to your new landlord or agent, with no hidden costs and a fair exchange rate.

Anything else I should know?

Be wary of common scams, such as properties offered for rental without proper contracts, or landlords or agents who ask for fees for a service you don't want or need. There are unethical landlords who will try to let properties which aren't in good condition, or who don't fulfil their obligations. However, the good news is that the rights of a tenant renting in the UK are well protected by law.

If you ever experience any problems with your Landlord or agent, there are charities and government backed bodies you can turn to for advice. The Citizens Advice Bureau has a wealth of information, and is a good starting point if you need to understand your rights as a tenant in the UK.

The rental market in London is very competitive - but there is a wide range of choice for new tenants, depending on your preferred location and budget. However, by casting your net wide, using your contacts well, and being quick to make a decision on a place, you can have your dream London rental in no time. Good luck!

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