Moving to the UK (Pt 4): Housing

“Hey, come take a look at this rental. It’s 3 bedrooms, near the river, has a nice kitchen, good insulation. Oh wait…it’s £1,700 per month. And…it just got taken off the market. They just posted it!!! Argh!”

This image of the map of Cambridge showing available properties is virtually tattooed on my retinas.
This image of the map of Cambridge showing available properties is virtually tattooed on my retinas.

“Oh, wait, come take a look at this one. It looks great. Has a nice backyard, near the bus stop, has not just one but two toilets (would be great for hosting guests, you know). Let’s take a look at Google Maps Street View. … Wait … seriously … is that the high speed rail line … no, it can’t be. There’s not even a fence??? This house sits right on the backside of the rail line? Like 15 feet away?!? With no fence!!! No wonder it’s only £1,400 per month. Argh!”

“Ok, last time tonight, I promise. I know it’s 11pm. I know you’re tired. But I’m flying over in 14 days and we have to have a list of rentals to look at. Okay, here’s this one. Gas heating, good energy efficiency rating, nice residential area, one of the parks is only 0.2 miles away. Yes, I google mapped it. I know, I’m insane. Anyway, it’s only a 2 bedroom but they’re big rooms. Like, 8 feet by 8 feet. No closets. Oh … wait … you have got to be kidding me. Landlord says, ‘No families with children.’ Right, because college students treat a house a whole lot better than a responsible family with children. Ok, I’m done. I’m going to bed.”

This scene played out in our household for approximately 48 days in the summer of 2013. Welcome to the world of finding housing in the UK.

This is my fourth post that shares my family’s experiences in moving from the US to the UK in late 2013. So far, we’ve covered a variety of topics, and with this final post I will deal with finding housing. Originally this was to be combined with “setting up,” but both require their own post.

  1. Visas and Immigration
  2. Academic Planning
  3. Healthcare
  4. Financials
  5. Moving
  6. Travel 
  7. Finding a place to live (this post)
  8. Setting up your new life

(7) Finding a Place to Live

Finding a nice place to live, in a good area, at the right price point is arguably one of the most important tasks of any international move (especially for the wives, and doubly so if you have children). It is unsurprisingly challenging to pull off from afar, but hopefully these pointers will help make it somewhat less terrifying than it was for us. Personally, I was never all that worried about the visas, or the banking, or some of the other big issues. Okay, that is entirely untrue. I was worried about all of it. But arguably the housing issue gave me the most stress because I felt like it would really be bad if I blew it, since the decision would largely determine the quality of the experience for my wife and children. No pressure.

I will try to be as broad as possible with the following information, but some of it will unavoidably be a little Cambridge-oriented. I will also be working from the assumption that the reader will be renting, rather than purchasing.

What are the main options on the table for housing, if I’m a student?

The situation will vary for each university town if you are coming as a student. But in general, there are three options:

Dorm-style accommodation at St. John's College
Dorm-style accommodation at St. John’s College
  • University-owned accommodation: Each university will, of course, have a variety of housing options that are owned and operated by the university itself. At Cambridge / Oxford, housing will be run out of your college, so the first place to look if you are interested in these options is with your college (once you are accepted to one). Regardless, university accommodation will be 90% geared towards single students, with ample dorm-style housing available. If you are married and/or have children, there will be fewer options at the university level. Some will have two-bedroom flats available (with the rare 3-bedroom), but in many cases you’ll still be “on campus” (to use the American idiom; they don’t talk about it that way here). For some, this may be appealing; for others, the thought of living with your children right across the sidewalk from a huge group of undergraduates may be terrifying. The upside is that university housing is substantially cheaper if you can find it. To explore options, you’ll need to contact your university’s accommodation service (e.g., Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh).
  • University-affiliated housing: If living in dorm style housing (or otherwise “on campus”) is not your preference, then many universities also offer more family-friendly housing through various affiliated entities. For instance, in Cambridge the university operates 5-6 off-site housing complexes that have a handful of 1- or 2-bedroom flats or maisonettes (see below). Often these are less centrally located but offer greater proximity to other families in your shoes. Many are near the bus lines. Typically they are pretty bare-bones but priced competitively. In addition, some universities may contract with private landlords—e.g., some professors who are on leave of absence or sabbatical outside the country may sublet their house. This can be a nice route to take, since the university is effectively vouching for its quality since they have a relationship with the landlord. They are few and far between, but it’s a good way to probe the private market.
  • Private housing market: If none of the above options work, then the final option is the private market. Fortunately the UK has a fairly efficient rental market with loads of options in most of the big cities. In the university towns, however, you should be aware that the market moves very quickly for good properties. A well-priced and quality rental in a decent location will get snatched up in 3-4 days in most cases, especially during the time of year when most students will be looking, because, of course, everyone else is looking then, too. If you see a property that has been on the market for 4-5 weeks, then there’s probably a reason. Such as a sewage plant nearby, or it is moldy, or it smells like moldy sewage. I’ll speak to the process for the private market below.

What is housing like in the UK? What are the options?

This is an important high level question to consider, since housing types are quite different here. It took me some time to figure out exactly what the rental websites were even talking about.

Important reality check about UK housing for Americans:

  • Housing is smaller here. Unless you live well outside the heart of the major cities (they do have standard suburbs), you will be looking at pretty small spaces. The impression you get in a lot of UK houses is “cramped.” But that is the norm. If you are from anywhere other than Boston or New York City, you will be taking a major hit in living space. Everyone sort of knows this if they have done any research, but you don’t really internalize it until you realize just how small 800 sq ft really is for a family of 3 or 4.
  • Housing is expensive here. Unless you’re in a smaller city, you’ll be paying NYC prices, at least when you convert from dollars to pounds. In London, you’ll be paying London prices, which are higher than NYC! But in a city like Cambridge, Oxford, or Edinburgh, you’ll be looking at at least £1,000 per month for a 2 bedroom in a decent location (which is nearly $1,700 USD right now). The reality is that there won’t be many at that price point, and you’ll be well north of that.
  • There is (basically) no such thing as a 4 bedroom house. And there are few 3 bedrooms, at least at a reasonable price point. In the main cities, the average housing setup will be 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, kitchen, living room, and a garden (UK-speak for a small, usually fenced in backyard). Occasionally you’ll have a little nook attached to the kitchen. But that’s about it.
  • One shower is the norm. I have yet to hear of anyone with a “normal” house that has two showers. It’s almost unheard of outside of the very large mansion style houses.
  • One bathroom is the norm, too. We were fortunate to land a 1 and 1/2 bathroom house, but we felt lucky. Most places just have one bathroom.
  • Apart from new build houses in suburban areas or high-dollar new flats, the bedrooms will not have closets. In fact, you may have no closets at all, or maybe one hall closet. No bathroom closets, no bedroom closets, no pantries in the kitchen. Just walls. And so you have to use wardrobes and other such devices to store your stuff. In my opinion, this is the single most impactful contributor to why British houses (again, talking about those near the heart of the city) feel so cramped. There’s nowhere to put your stuff!
  • Parking spaces are hard to come by. Most housing along streets will not have dedicated parking. A few housing types may offer a parking spot, but it’s not the norm. In some cities, this is no big deal since biking and public transit are the norm, but not everywhere.
  • Mold. It’s a legitimate issue in a lot of older-construction (and by older, I mean hundreds of years!).
  • Bathrooms are … quirky. Many still have the old school hot water on the far left of the sink and cold water on the far right, which still makes no sense to me. Many also do not have mirrors above the sink. It’s odd to look at a plain wall when you’re trying to shave or otherwise do useful things in the bathroom. But it is what it is.
  • Say goodbye to your big stainless steel refrigerator. Most refrigerators are either dorm-style (yep!) or 3/4 sized. Surprisingly, you can get a lot in a 3/4 size fridge, but it is still an adjustment.
  • Say goodbye to your clothes dryer, and say hello to your clothes washer in your kitchen. The UK style is to have a clothes washer right there in the kitchen (often to the exclusion of a dish washer), but not to have a dryer. A dryer is kind of seen to be an “American luxury.” So most folks line dry clothes—even if it is raining—or hang them all over their radiators. One American family told us that it takes them 36 hours to do a full load, since that’s how long it takes for all their clothes to dry. We were fortunate to have glass-enclosed patio with a place for a dryer, so we bought one as quickly as possible!
  • “Double glazed.” Go ahead and incorporate this into your vernacular. This is the UK term for insulated windows (two panes of glass). As it gets cold in England, you want to avoid a situation where the accommodations only have single-glazed windows. Inadequate windows not only make the house colder, obviously, but they also impact moisture levels in the home, which are hard enough to regulate as it is.
  • “Letting”: The UK term for “rental” or “leased” property is “letting.” The verb form is “let.” So a rental house will be marked with a “To Let” sign by the real estate agent (which is actually called the “letting agent”). The lease is called the “letting agreement.” Etc.

There are basically four types of housing on the private market:

  • Flat: In UK parlance, a flat is any accommodation that is (a) part of a multi-unit building and (b) is limited to a single floor. It’s essentially a one-floor apartment. It can include a studio style (all one big room) or your standard 1- / 2-  / 3- bedroom layouts.
  • Maisonnette (aka terraced house): In the UK, a maisonnette is a style of housing in which the living space is spread across at least 2 floors, with a staircase. Normatively a maisonnette is part of a multi-unit building, but the difference relative to a flat is that there are not other units above and below you. You are, rather, side-by-side. Essentially a maisonnette is like a town-home or row-house, but sized more like old Boston: tight hallways; often “shotgun” style (e.g., narrow facing the street, but elongated going backwards); and random configurations. You might have a maisonnette that is 9 feet wide, with a bedroom at street level, then another bedroom on floor 2, then the kitchen and living room on floor 3, then a random bathroom on floor 4. It can get quite creative. The other thing to note about maisonnettes is that typically the front door is right on the street or the sidewalk before the street. They do not typically have a driveway. So, yeah, get some curtains.
  • Attached house: These units are typically structured as duplexes, with a separate rental unit on each side (rather than being part of a long row of, say, 10 maisonnetes). Size, quality, and configuration can very significantly.
  • Detached house: As the name suggests, these units are standalone, single-family houses. As one might expect, in most UK cities these are fewer in number the closer you get to city center, but they become quite the norm as you move farther out. Many of these will have a driveway or on-street parking.
Get to know this website really well
Get to know this website really well

How do I find housing using the private market?

The best thing about the UK letting market is that essentially one website has everything: Rightmove.co.uk. There are two others—Zoopla and PrimeLocation—but I would estimate that I rarely if ever found anything on those two that was not listed on Rightmove, but the reverse was not true (Rightmove often had far more listings than the other two).

Landlords enlist a letting agent (of which there are many, just like the US), many of whom are also attached to a buy/sell real estate agency. The letting agent is responsible for marketing the property from start to finish: photographs, posting the listing, interacting with interested tenants, and facilitating the contract process.

On Rightmove, the process is pretty straightforward to identify prospects: (a) select a geographic region you’re interested in; (b) input your criteria for number of rooms, price range, etc.; and (c) start looking at the options that show up. Rightmove will display the results in a list format, but it’s far more helpful to look at them in map view.

The level of detail for each listing will vary, but in general you should be keen to look at the following key facts about the property:

  • Rooms: A “double” room is a good-sized room that you’d be used to in the US, maybe 8×10 or 10×10. A “single” room is basically large enough for a double bed and nightstand. They’re tiny. I saw one “single” room that was literally 6′ by 6′. Keep in mind I am 6′ 6″ tall, so that wouldn’t work. Also keep in mind that the UK letting scene is a bit loosey-goosey when it comes to definitions. If a landlord can somehow figure out a way to call it a “bedroom”—even if it is basically the size of a closet and might work as an office at best—they’ll call it a bedroom. So pay close attention to the room descriptions.
  • Bathrooms: Basically, the key here is not to get your hopes up. Bathrooms are simply not a priority here. They are functional and that’s about it. I have yet to see or hear of a bathroom with, say, a double vanity, heated tiles, multi-headed shower, etc.
  • Kitchen: Note the size of refrigerator; also pay close attention to the description of the other appliances. Counterspace will be rare, as will cabinet space.
  • Efficiency certificate: Most lettings will have an energy efficiency rating somewhere on the advertisement. I have yet to figure out if these are complete hogwash or if they are actually accurate. Either way, the lower you go on the efficiency scale, the higher your electricity and gas bills will be.
  • Pets / children: Most lettings will not allow pets. Some lettings will not allow children. Seriously. It’s weird.
  • Availability date: Most lettings will be available immediately, but not all. Some will list a specific date when they come available. The important thing about this date is that they will charge you rent starting that date, regardless of when you actually move in. For instance, our “availability date” was about 3 weeks before we even got on the plane, and we were on the hook for all that rent. Sorry.
  • Garden / parking / etc.: Pay attention to what they say about the garden (if there is one), parking availability, etc.
  • “PPM” or “PPW”: The price listed for a letting will be some ungodly amount in pounds followed by “ppm” (or sometimes ppcm) which means monthly payment (or calendar monthly, which is the same). Or it may be listed as a weekly amount “ppw” (ppcw).
  • Photos: Most lettings will have a good set of photos. The nice thing about the UK letting scene is that they really don’t try to sell you. The photos may have dirty laundry in them. They’re typically not “staged” and the agents probably spend about 7 minutes putting them together. So it can be jarring to see someones junk everywhere. The upside is that they are more realistic.
  • Postcode: The UK is brilliant in that the post code, because it is so granular, is very precise: it usually gets you within a few houses of where you need to be. So while the letting ad will not tell you the actual address, you can get pretty close with the post code and street name alone.
Here's a pretty standard letting ad (partial view) on Rightmove.
Here’s a pretty standard letting ad (partial view) on Rightmove.

Suggested process:

  • Develop a short list of geographic areas you are interested in. This will vary for each city, and the best guide is to ask other who are there to give you some feedback on what parts of town might be best for your situation (kids, no kids; want a car, don’t want a car; nightlife vs. parks; etc.).
  • Begin to search on Rightmove to get a sense for what housing is like in those areas: some areas will be more expensive than others; some will have more units available than others, etc.
  • Use Rightmove’s “favorites” feature to start marking ones you like. Chances are, they will be gone by the time you can do anything about it, but you at least can start to get a sense for what your priorities are. Which is more important: an extra bedroom or a full-size kitchen? A parking space or a garden?
  • Enter the street / post code into Google Maps and get a sense for what is around the property. Then do StreetView, if available, and start to look around at the area. Here’s where you can get some great intel that the ad won’t have: is there a busy street nearby? Is there graffiti all over the place? Is there a lovely park nearby? Are you right nextdoor to a tattoo parlor? Etc.
  • Once you have a few candidates, use the Rightmove system to request more information or a viewing appointment from the letting agent. I often used Skype to call the office numbers of the letting agent to find out more. The great thing about British salesmen is that they really aren’t trying to “sell you.” They just want to get you off the phone. In fact, many of them seem to be so nonchalant about it that they are almost not selling you. It’s strangely reassuring, actually. If you ask, “What do you think about this property? Is it nice?” they may very well respond with blunt honesty, “Actually, it smells like urine and hasn’t been well taken care of.” At least, that’s what one guy told me!

How do I get a rental house under contract?

Ultimately, you have to decide whether you will (a) try to negotiate something sight-unseen from afar, (b) fly over the UK before you arrive and find housing / sign a contract / etc. before you official move, or (c) stay in temporary housing once you arrive for good, and try to find a place to rent within the first week or so. Option (a) may not be possible for a lot of letting agents. Many require you to view in person and pay a cash deposit. Others may be more flexible for your situation.

Option (b) is ideal if you can afford it. Option (c) is doable but stressful, obviously.

Regardless, the process is as follows:

maisonette
Oooh…those look really nice. Too bad they’re £3,400 per month.
  • Request a “viewing appointment” through Rightmove or directly with the letting agent (e.g., if you phone them)
  • View the property. Be very comfortable to ask questions. As mentioned above, the letting agents are pretty straight-shooters. They will generally be pretty honest, in part because in most of the main cities, the rental market is so frothy that they can always find someone else to rent a good property if you decide to pass.
  • Once you have decided on the one you want, you will need to pay a cash deposit (often 1/3 or 1/2 of a month’s rent) and sign a tenancy application form, which results in their pulling the property from the market; the rental becomes “let agreed.” Some agents will still show a property even if it is “let agreed,” but most won’t. You will also have to pay a few other fees that go to the letting agent to compensate them for their labors in marketing to you and conducting the background check.
  • You will then have to offer the information they require for background checks and financial verification (e.g., bank account statements, etc. showing your ability to pay).
  • They will then conduct background checks with past employers or whomever, and the landlord will ultimately decide whether to lease to you.
  • Here’s the kicker for Tier 4 students. In many cases (and certainly for us), the landlord can request that you PRE-PAY rent for some period, since generally speaking you will not have income. We had to pre-pay the first six months; he would have required 12 months in full before we ever arrived, but given our cash balance (which we needed to pay tuition) he agreed to six months. This may not apply to all cases, since it is up to the landlord, but apparently it is become quite standard for graduate student tenants, especially given the economic conditions of recent years. So, when I said in post 2 that you should be ready to hemorrhage cash, I was not kidding!
  • Pay very close attention to the lease agreement. They are indeed quite different than what you might be used to in the US. Be sure to note what you are responsible for paying above and beyond rent: e.g., utilities, city council tax, trash collection fees, etc. Sometimes those items will be included in rent, but usually they will not be. Also, you will likely have to pay a security deposit of 1.5x rent, on top of your prepaid rent.
  • Sign the lease and you’re done…sort of. You will also have to pay a check-in fee when you actually move in, and there will be a few other pieces of paperwork and back-and-forth, obviously.

What are some other key things  about the UK rental market that I need to be aware of?

Here are a few closing thoughts about the rental process, based on our experience.

  • The lettings market here is far less regulated than I was used to in the US. In many ways it just felt a little like the wild west. No clear centralized standards for how letting agents are to operate, no standard documentation, and very few apparent laws to protect tenants. I am sure they’re there somewhere, but I was never able to find them out!
  • As an American emigrant, you are in the position of the least possible negotiating power. The market is generally quite healthy in the big cities, so the landlords tend to have all the power (unless it’s a protracted downturn). The letting agents are busy and basically don’t care about you. And as an American, they are predisposed against you anyhow. So just be ready to take everything on the chin.
  • On that note, there is no such thing as negotiating. This is a broader British thing. People just do not haggle over prices. If a used car salesman has said the vehicle costs £2,000, he means it. He’s not inviting counter offers. Same thing with furniture, or with crafts in the market. They do not haggle or negotiate, ever. Or basically ever. I’m sure it sometimes happens. But with the lettings market, you should not anticipate that you’ll be able to negotiate a lower price, or a later start date, or get out of your lease early, or anything of the sort. You will pay what they want you to pay, for as long as your contract states, or they will gladly give it to someone else who will.
  • Landlords have all the power. If they do not want to fix something, they probably can get away with not doing it. If they want to raise rent in year two by £300, they can do it, no questions asked. If they want to keep all your security deposit even though you leave the place in better condition than when you first arrived, they can. In theory, there are protections for tenants, but I generally do not trust them. The letting agent is at their mercy and will try to be your advocate…but they won’t try very hard. Basically expect to get kind of screwed over, and you will be content.
  • At the times of year when a new school term is about to start, the market moves very fast. So while it’s good to start looking early to get a sense for neighborhoods, etc., you will not really have your viable list of candidates until a few days before you can visit them, since they’ll already be gone otherwise.

Next time: how to get set up in your new life in the UK.

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8 thoughts on “Moving to the UK (Pt 4): Housing”

  1. Also, it is noteworthy that our rental house was considered “part-furnished” which included two bed frames, one wooden wardrobe, one canvas wardrobe, one mattress and one table. So you will probably not know what is included in “part furnished” until you arrive. The previous tenants also took light bulb covers, hooks out of the bathroom and other decidedly household fixtures. Be prepared for anything.

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