How to rent in London for dummies

// Tenancy duration and break-clauses

I cannot stress how important this is. The majority of landlords or managing agents will try to get you to sign a year-long lease. Feel free to sign a year-long lease, but insist on a six-month break clause. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has refused this request, in fact it’s probably illegal to do so. It’s really important to protect you. Usually with these break clauses the tenant must give a month’s notice and the landlord must give two.

Let me give you a hypothetical situation to illustrate how important this is: you move into a property and your neighbour kicks your door in at 5am one morning and holds a gun to your head, insisting that you have been stealing his dole cheques. He’s off his head on drugs, you manage to get him out, but you spend the entire day at the police station reporting this. You then stay with friends to stay away from the property and from him. The police are so concerned that they want to send in a SWAT team. But as it turns out, over the course of three days, they change their minds. So you’re left with a conundrum: return home, or do not. So you’re living next door to a mentally unstable drug addict/dealer and can’t even pay your way out of the lease, there’s nothing protecting you against nuisance neighbours, and you have no reasonable way to get out of it. Added to that, he knows you grassed him up, and is clearly mentally unstable. Now what are you going to do? Unfortunately, due to the lack of a break-clause, your landlord insists that you remain there for another eight months because it’s not their problem. *

*this happened to me four months into a lease, my landlord let me move without dispute, but she was exceptionally good and kind. This is rare. A landlord would be perfectly within their rights to insist that you stay for the remainder of a lease.

I realise this is an exceptionally extreme example, but please just bear this in mind: you can live in the most beautiful suburban area of London and have great neighbours, but you cannot control who lives around you when tenants come and go. Whether it be noise nuisance: all night parties, babies that keep you awake all night, unhinged drug dealers or simply someone who has taken a disliking to you and therefore goes out of their way to make your life difficult – you can’t really control any of this. But you CAN protect yourself by getting a break clause. A year-long lease with a six-month break clause is the perfect solution. Note: you probably won’t be able to get an earlier break-clause as most leases must be at least six months.

// Inventory, inventory, inventory

A reasonable landlord or managing agent will provide an inventory before you move in. It should be part of the lease that you’ve accepted this. However, as a renter, you are almost certainly going to have to accept that this is an extra cost that you must bear. The cost of having an inventory varies wildly. I didn’t have to pay at my current place but previous places have charged £80 plus (8 years ago); I hear these days that most cost £150+. It was a cost that I resented at the time but came to appreciate. The rules are usually that you pay for the rental inventory and the landlord pays for the exit inventory.

Let me give you a personal example of why this is so important (and this illustrates the callousness of some London landlords).

I lived in an £850 a month flat. I pay six weeks deposit: £1,275. At some point during my tenancy, I have a shower and the brass fitting at the end of the extractor fan pings out of my hand and causes one or two tiles within the shower to crack. Why anyone would be daft enough to a) put an extractor string within the bath shower/space rather than near the door and b) put a brass fitting on something that’s clearly going to be slippery when wet (see what I did there?) is beyond me. But they did. Cue moving out time: landlord: ‘I need to replace all of the tiles throughout the bathroom, it’s going to cost £850.’ Me: ‘I’m afraid not. The inventory clearly states that there’s a brass fitting hanging underneath the showerhead within the shower space, and if you are daft enough to do that and not realise the consequences and want to charge me for a whole new bathroom, I am going to take you to court.’ Result = I got my full deposit back.

You MUST have an inventory. If you cannot afford to have one done professionally before you move into a flat, do one yourself. If your landlord refuses to sign it then he is probably dodgy, and you probably shouldn’t move in. Here are some things I’ve spotted and marked up on my last inventory:

Damp on windowsills

Cracked wall tiles (bathroom)

Subsiding floor (I have a desk that weighs a lot, but the floor was already bad)

Marks on or burns on wooden flooring

Unclean ovens or general uncleanliness*

Partially working electronics: the towel rail is hot at the top but not at the bottom, it’s also rusting

Oven missing oven trays or racks, hob has stains which are impossible to remove

Had to cross off missing furniture (often people are slack and forget what they have removed)

All appliances: if no instruction manual is provided, ‘missing instruction manual’ – this may seem pedantic but if you screw up a £500 washing machine by accident and there’s no manual, you are protected by adding this

I added 31 additional points to the inventory for my current flat. I also photographed examples of most of these additions. Yes, this may seem as anal as hell, but I have an Indesit oven and hob, and I don’t want to be charged £400 for a new hob simply because there are irremovable stains which were there when I moved in, nor do I want to be charged hundreds for missing (Indesit-only) oven racks which were never there. My managing agent signed and returned this with no problems whatsoever: this is what a good landlord should do.

Re: cleaning: you are meant to return a flat to the condition in which it was received. If you don’t, you can get shafted for hundreds of pounds in cleaning fees. If it was filthy when you moved in, get that noted on the inventory – they cannot charge you if it is not spotless when you move out. Also, be aware that landlords will scam you for costs such as professional dry-cleaning of window curtains. Again, make sure you note on your inventory if your curtains were damp and stinky or mucky when you moved in so that you don’t have to pay professional cleaning costs (carpets too).

// Duration of lease and previous rent increases

Try to find out how much the rent has increased on your potential flat over recent years before you move in. Example: landlord undervalues the flat (which was fair given the market at the time) and increases it from £850 to £950 to £1050 over the space of two years. Suddenly it becomes terribly unaffordable. It may well be the actual value of the flat but if you want a long-term rental, it’s really important to know such things.

I have negotiated an additional two years on my current lease: at the beginning of year three, it’s going to go up by £15 a month. This is extremely reasonable and quite unusual for London, however, my point is: ask about previous rental values so that you can gauge if you may be able to afford future increases. If you can negotiate a long lease (but with that all-important six-month break-clause), please, please do so.

// References, guarantors and deposits

These factors are ever-changing and will vary wildly from landlord or managing agent, but in a worst-case scenario, expect: – To pay a month’s rent in advance and six weeks deposit – If you have been in your job for less than four months, you may need a guarantor who is a home-owner who will sign an agreement to agree to be responsible for your rent: this is a serious form, it’s designed to assess their value and I think they probably get credit checked, they ask for details including car registration numbers – Expect the possibility of being turned down if your rent exceeds 33% of your income; I have no idea how much this is enforced, but just be aware that some places check this – To have a credit check, previous landlord check and employment status check – Self employed applicants will be required to supply either accounts or their chartered / certified accountant’s details (copy + paste) – If you do not have an accountant, your self-assessment or at least 3 months of bank statements will be required (copy + paste)

Tenancy deposit protection

// Location

Of course I’m sure we’d all like to be in Zone 1 and within walking distances to our place of work, but try to rationalise costs when you consider your location. Ask yourself:

Where is my work/where are my friends based?

Where do my friends mainly meet up? If they live in zone 1 and I want to move there too, but they mainly socialize in zone 2, I’d be daft to pay the extra rent premium to live nearby

Am I rationalising living somewhere within zones 1-3 when in fact, I’m probably only going to want to get home at 3am once a month? Should I pay hundreds extra a month in rent for that one or few nights out? Try to calculate your social patterns. If desperate to get home from Z1 at 3am in blistering snow is only going to be once a month = a £30 cab fare, you can probably justify living further out and having much cheaper rent.

// Structure and utility cost of flats

A word of advice from the bitterly experienced: look at the flat in detail. Look at the outside structure. Look at the outside walls to the property. You want to avoid: – Flats with little sunlight; not only to avoid SAD syndrome but because they are more expensive to heat – Flats that aren’t surrounded by neighbours; if your (older) flat has three external walls and nobody above and/or below, expect to pay a fortune to heat it (£60 in summer and £120 in winter – per month, and I live in an 18 x9 ft studio); ideally you’d have neighbours on all sides – Check either side of the building; if there are huge cracks along external walls, there are going to be damp problems which will cause you health or finances problems: it’s extremely expensive to heat a damp flat – If you can visit your potential flat in a particularly rainy period, run your hands along the communal walls to check for damp spots – Find out what council tax band your flat is in before you even consider renting it

// Not living in the ghetto

Keep an open mind about this. I’m sure everyone has heard bad stories about certain areas of London, but local councils are always seeking to improve. What might’ve been a no-go area two years ago could now be a very safe place to live. Ask around for recent opinions, don’t get stuck with other people’s pre-conceived ideas of nice areas. Look at the area during the day, and then return again at 11pm on a Friday night when the pubs kick out and you can see how bad (or not) things are.

// Utilities and council tax

Always make a point of finding out the council tax band, as costs vary wildly from one borough to another.

It would be great if you can find out utility bills for the last year too (electricity etc), but you must consider that the majority of estate agents are never going to be able to get this info and landlords may consider you a pain in the arse for asking! It’s a landlord’s market, it’s never a renter’s market. So just bear in mind the level of pain in the arse-ness you may cause, even if it seems reasonable to all of us.

When you are viewing the flat, test all utilities. Turn every light switch on and off, turn the kitchen and bathroom sinks on to full power to get an idea of the the strength/temperature. Flush the toilet to see if it has a weak flow. Turn on the bath taps and the shower to get an idea of their strength and heat capacity. I’ve done this for flats in at least the last five years and agents don’t give a shit! But water is REALLY important on a day to day basis. A pissy shower can ruin your tenancy.


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