How to Get a Flat in the UK

Renting a flat is a cutthroat process in the UK. It’s especially bad in the south of England, but most of the country suffers from a general lack-of-space and housing shortage. Of course, it’s the worst in London, where housing is as expensive and competitive as New York City or San Francisco. Bristol, where I live, isn’t as bad as London but worse than just about everywhere else.

Coming from Canada, I was woefully unprepared for what it’s like to find a flat in the UK. It’s possibly one of the worst things about living in the UK.

Polite and Friendly Canadian Apartment Hunting, eh?

In Canada, renting an apartment is a laid-back and direct process. In a vast majority of cases, landlords manage their properties and deal with tenants directly. Apartment viewings are often conducted by the current tenants, who have little vested interest in the property and will often describe it honestly, faults and all. Twelve month leases are the norm, but most provinces boast many protections for tenants like no damage deposits (Quebec) or automatic month-to-month leases (Nova Scotia). Renters get their landlord’s contact info, name, and address as a matter of course, and it is easy to raise your concerns directly with them.

Application fees and “moving-in” fees are unheard of, so moving often is relatively low-cost and easy to do. I have many friends in Canada who have moved several times in a few years on a shoe-string budget. If you don’t like a place and you have a bad landlord who won’t fix a thing, there are many other places available for cheap and it’s easy to move. This is true of pretty much anywhere in Canada that isn’t Vancouver or some parts of Toronto. Canada doesn’t suffer from a lack of space, so rent is cheap. (Montreal is famed for its cheap rent.)

Properties are listed privately on Kijiji, a Canadian classifieds website (think Craigslist or Gumtree). There aren’t rental agencies you need to arrange viewings through; either the current tenant or the landlord arranges the viewing and shows the property. Subletting and lease transfers are common and free, so tenants may list the property and then pass the info onto the landlord. That’s about as middleman as it ever gets in Canada!

The requirements to rent a flat are very simple: you will need a deposit and to provide your social insurance number for a credit check. It should cost you $0 to apply to rent an apartment and have these checks run on you. The landlord will pay for any costs associated with checking up on tenants.

Flat-Hunting in the UK: A Royal Pain

Finding a place in the UK is nowhere near as straightforward and fee-free. The biggest difference is that properties are marketed by companies called “Letting Agencies” instead of by landlords. These companies are some of the most maligned in all of the UK, and for good reason. They misrepresent properties, they’re uninformed, they’re lazy, and they’re very expensive.

Letting agents exist because many landlords contract out property management to local agencies. Many landlords either don’t want to manage the property themselves or don’t even live in the UK. My landlord, for instance, lives in Ireland, and it’s common for landlords to spend significant amounts of time in Spain, Portugal, or some other warm country. The common wisdom to avoiding them is to “rent privately on Gumtree”, but the number of properties available on Gumtree is often single-digit.

The problem with letting agents is that in England, these agencies are operating in such low-supply, high-demand environments that they can charge landlords for their services, then turn around and charge tenants as well. Sarah and I paid £530 as our “application fee” to rent our flat. This covered our reference checks (it’s been shown that these checks cost less than £30 to run) and an “inventory”–a list of what was in our apartment and the general state of it. The agency did nothing but act as a useless middleman between our landlord and us, mangling our requests and the landlord’s responses. When I finally spoke to my landlord in private, it was clear how much the letting agent fucked up.

So here’s what you need to do to secure your flat in the UK:

Know Where to Look

There are four websites you’ll want to use to find a flat in the UK; in no particular order: OnTheMarket, Rightmove, Zoopla, and Gumtree. The last one is a generic UK classifieds website that will only help you find private listings–well, letting agencies also list on Gumtree but their stuff is on the other three sites as well.

Each of the main property sites allow you to create a search criteria and have them email you as soon as a new flat that meets your criteria is listed. This is important as flats can go quickly and you will otherwise compulsively check listings like a crazy person. These services work reasonably well–you should use them.

Look the day before you arrive and no sooner

Flats in the UK–especially Bristol and London–are rented so fast it’s crazy. Zone 1 flats in London are usually rented the same day they’re listed. I found several places that were not available one day after they were listed. It’s a very aggressive market, especially if you’re looking for a nicer flat, or for creature comforts like hardwood floors. (Brits love carpet; I don’t get the obsession!)

Once flats are rented they are not immediately removed from websites, especially if they are attractive; these are left as “honeypot” rentals to draw out prospective renters to the agency, who can then take your details and offer you other flats.

Your best bet is to search for places online and call the agency as soon as you find a place you might like. Schedule as many appointments as you want, because every letting agency wants your money and will schedule another viewing no matter how many you’ve turned down. (Note that they may resent you for dragging them all over town, but feel free to remember how much you’ll be paying them if you ever feel guilty.)

Don’t look weeks in advance expecting any half-decent property to be available; it surely won’t be.

Fully Furnished

Most flats in the UK are rented furnished, from stoves and fridges to chairs and mattresses. Be sure to ask about any furniture in the apartment when you speak to the letting agent; our place turned out to have a dresser that was the landlord’s and it took several months of back-and-forth to get rid of the thing after we moved in. If you’re into furnished apartments, you’ll do great here, but if you want to decorate yourself or already have your own furniture, make sure you check to see if a flat is furnished or not.

Unlike where I’m from (Montreal), appliances generally come with a flat here. Dishwashers, washer/dryers, fridge/freezers, etc. are included (even in “unfurnished” flats) and should be checked to see they’re in good order. Sometimes things like microwaves are even included.

Put a ring on it

If you see a place you like and you have nothing more promising: take it on the spot. I actually saw a flat I liked and said I’d take it, only to have the person who saw it after me race me down to the office and make the deposit before me. After two weeks of looking I was gutted. The next flat I saw I paid my deposit in cash, on the spot.

Especially if you’ve just moved to the UK, don’t let a good flat pass you by: you never know when the next one you like will be available.

Have a (fake) address

Just like banks, letting agents will want to know at least your mobile phone number and your postcode, if not your full address. In general, they won’t send you post, but they presumably use this info to track where people move to and from. Just have an address that checks out, even if it’s your hostel or a hotel.

Factor in other costs (i.e. time to break open the piggy bank)

Unlike renting in Canada, you pay “property tax” (aka Council Tax) in the UK, along with paying all of your utilities: water, sewage, electricity, and gas. This generally means if you’re renting without roommates, you should expect to pay an extra £200 on top of whatever your rent is per month.

Deposits are also hefty in the UK: it’s normal for a deposit to be 150% of one month’s rent. If your flat is £600/month, expect to pay £900 as a deposit. On top of all of this is the letting agent’s fee, which is usually between £200-350–higher if you’re a couple.

Why Even Bother?!

Whew, that is a lot of work. It’s reasonable to ask: why even bother to move here when it’s so exhausting to rent a place?

It’s a fair question. Moving to England isn’t cheap, and it doesn’t look like these fees will be going away any time soon. Scotland has abolished fees for tenants but England sadly hasn’t followed suit. If you’re looking to move to England you need to be prepared not only for the higher rent but the other costs which can run you thousands of pounds in a year.

If you’re excited for life here but don’t know how to get it started, I hope this helped!