I have searched for apartments to rent many times in my life. I did it three times in college, once after, four times in NYC, three times in Seattle, and this is now my third time in London. The first time, we had no credit, no rental history, nothing, but I still found a place for us in about three days. The second time, in two days when we had enough with the first place not fixing the illegal gas line in 18 months.
This time? In London, in 2022, amidst dramatic inflation and a serious drop in real wages? It’s something else entirely. We don’t think we have to move when our lease is up in October, but last year our landlord tried to increase our rent 16%. We eventually agreed to an 8% increase, but even that is borderline obscene, so we’re wary about what he’s going to offer this time around, especially seeing what other landlords are getting.
A big caveat up front is that we have two cats, and landlords in London are deeply disappointing when it comes to pets. Legally they are supposed to be open to them, but in practice most are not. We had one estate agent tell us that the landlord’s insurance won’t allow pets. I don’t know if that was true or just an excuse, but if landlords are supposed to be open to a discussion, it seems illegal to have insurance that won’t allow that discussion.
So we know we are already picking from a limited pool. At the same time, we are both employed full-time, and make very decent wages, so we are able to spend more than a lot of people on our housing. Basically, we are in general really well positioned (other than having pets) to find a place, and yet it is still exhausting, depressing, and infuriating.
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Over the last two weeks, we have sought information on 19 flats. Because we are who we are, Austin and I have a spreadsheet with a link to the posting (we scour Right Move, Zoopla, and Open Rent daily), address, viewing, status, date last contacted, and any notes. Thirteen days later, we’ve viewed eight flats, and only one was borderline okay for what they were offering it for.
Austin viewed the first one, and it was fine. Not great, not horrible. Clean (which will turn out to be a rarity) and in generally good repair. But then he received this:
Let’s talk through it.
1. Offer price – I am not buying a home. I am renting a flat. I have no information about it; I cannot get an inspection report, I don’t get references from previous tenants about the landlord. I am 100% reliant on what the landlord decides to charge. If one says it is available for £XXXX/month, I’m going to take that as the price. I’m not going to get into a bidding war to pay someone else’s mortgage.
In fact, just for fun on this one, I decided to look up what the unit sold for, assumed 20% down and looked up the interest rate that year to work out their likely monthly mortgage. They were asking for about £800 more per month than their mortgage. Even if one allows for setting aside a certain percentage for repairs and improvements, there is absolutely no reason to charge that much. None. I wanted to go back with a bid of £100 above their mortgage (so about £700 under asking) but we ended up just moving on.
2. A year is reasonable, and asking people to commit to more than that in a neighborhood they might never have lived in before, living at the mercy of someone they likely will never meet, is not.
3. Yeah, I get this. Makes sense.
4. Another flat we looked at and left after a couple of minutes had a similar process and said that if we wanted them to replace the missing washing machine (which would fit in the current GIANT HOLE in the kitchen), we should put it under requests, but we should really limit such requests. I’m sorry, what? I have a few ‘requests’ that I’ll be making of any landlord – that they have the place completely deep cleaned before we move in, that all expected appliances be installed and in good repair before we move in, that any broken cabinets, busted doors, cracks, scraped up paint, all be sorted out before we move in. None of this ‘as is’ crap, and it is obscene to make people have to accept places as is for fear of not having a place to live.
5. HELL NO. I’m sorry, but a photo and bio? Why? So landlords can pick people who remind them of themselves? So racists can rule out people of color? So ageists can avoid young people or older people? I can’t even believe this made it through because it seems like it is asking for discrimination lawsuit.
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Since then we’ve seen a variety of places. There was one that had a very lovely outdoor space, but the kitchen was janky and the ‘second bedroom’ was maybe the size of one of the small meeting rooms they put in open-plan offices, that could fit a desk and maybe a plant? There was one that was absolutely fine, but there were like 15 other people there walking around and we didn’t like it enough to fight for it. Additionally, while I know everyone can make their own choices, and some people cannot wear masks for health reasons, we are still in a pandemic and would love it if people would wear masks during these showings, but it’s usually just us.
We’ve had a couple just straight up disappear on us. One was rented before anyone had the chance to view it. Another, we signed up for what we were told was the first opportunity to view it, then a few hours before our appointment the viewing was canceled because they had rented it to someone else. Just this week, one was posted in the evening, my partner called first thing in the morning, and was told it was no longer available … because the tenants were renewing. What? How does that make sense?
One estate agency that has posted a couple that we like insists on us completing an ‘application’ before we can even view the place. It’s frustrating because they do have properties that look good, but they want a lot of personal information (including the contact info of our landlord!) that I think is absurd to request just so someone can look at a flat. I don’t want an estate agent calling our landlord for a reference before we even know if the flat has a functioning refrigerator (one didn’t).
By far the most common thing we are seeing are flats that should be 25-30% less than they are due to their size and overall condition. Obviously if someone is living somewhere it isn’t going to be pristine, but these places are almost universally run down and sad, and landlords are asking for basically my entire monthly salary.
Yesterday was the worst so far though. Pictures looked great, and it was in a decent location, close to one of the better tube lines. I got there and knew within 30 seconds it was not the place for us. The two bedrooms were each a decent size, but one of them had a shower in it. Not, like, an en-suite bathroom, but just a cubicle shower in the corner of the room. And in that shower was a toilet. No, this wasn’t a boat. It was an apartment. (And there was no sign this was to accommodate any sort of disability – anyone living in that flat and accessing that shower would still need to go up a set of stairs to get to the kitchen and living room). And the person showing it seemed proud of this set-up.
The actual bathroom reminded me of my college boyfriend’s bathroom he shared with two other dudes. I didn’t go into it.
The main area could have been great – it was really big and open, lots of light. But the kitchen was in bad shape, including missing all of the kick boards under the cabinets. The ceiling had maybe been primed to be painted, and patched a bit, but looked like it was mid-renovation. It was not.
Look, these are not unlivable apartments. The electric, water, and gas all presumably work. I didn’t see evidence of mice or bugs. But they are expensive, they are poorly kept up, and people are fighting over them. This is not an acceptable way to treat people. There is absolutely no need for the housing to be this way. Yes, much of it is very old. But being old doesn’t mean it can’t be kept up well.
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I know that some landlords who read this (lol, none will) will just shake their heads and say I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the thing is, I do! Austin and I were landlords for over three years after moving to London because we didn’t want to sell our home right away in case we had to move back. For the first two years we didn’t have a property manager, and we still managed to get things fixed from 6,000 miles away. The dishwasher broke and leaked, creating the need for some serious repairs. So we cut our tenant’s rent during that time, because they had to deal with construction.
The boiler acted up, and we had emergency repairs sorted out the next day. Meanwhile our first landlord here spent at least 18 months requiring us to run our gas off of giant propane tanks that ran out every three-four days, because they couldn’t be bothered to get the required permits for a legal gas connection to the mains. (They also never properly registered the address for the building, so we didn’t exist on those find my address forms on literally every website.)
As landlords we allowed multiple pets. And the rent we charged only JUST covered our mortgage, to the point that we had to dip into our savings each month. Last summer we agreed to sell because we didn’t like being landlords, it just felt … weird.
And I think it kind of is weird. Like, I get it if someone has to move away from their home but will be moving back. But owning multiple properties? Doing it as one’s ‘job’? Making one’s living off of gouging people who need a safe, secure, healthy place to live? I don’t think it’s okay, and I think it’s why so much of the housing stock available now is so expensive and so very very sad.
We have another viewing tomorrow, and we’re waiting to hear from our landlord next week what he wants to charge next year.
Wish us luck. And please wish even more luck to the people who have very little money to spend on rent and who need to move now. It’s just brutal out there, and we need to figure out a better way.