Finding a house in London

An afternoon in South Kensington.

Even before we touched down at Gatwick, we knew we had to find a house in London quickly.  Staying in hostels or hotels for any amount of time is expensive and exhausting, and job hunting without a fixed address can be difficult. Moreover, we had been warned that house hunting in London can be one of life’s most frustrating endeavors. For starters, real estate in London is heinously expensive. This is not news and has been well documented elsewhere. My hope before moving over was that Brexit would lead to some downward pressure on housing prices. This appears to be happening, but it has yet to affect the rental market.

London-based friends had given us words of caution about flat-finding in the city: it was clear that we would not be living in Central London, that we would likely be sharing a flat with other people, and that we would still end up spending more per month than we would renting a nice 1 bedroom in most Canadian cities.

There are other pitfalls beyond cost that await new househunters in London. It’s geographically massive: all those parks take up a lot of space, and fitting 9 million people into a relatively low-rise city isn’t easy at the best of times. If you don’t do your homework, you can end up looking for houses in places like Walthamstow or Romford, which are only in the most technical sense part of London. Of course, there are many lovely areas far removed from the city centre — Richmond comes to mind — but settling in zone 4 or 5 increases the chance that you’ll waste time on a long daily commute. Knowing where you’ll be working can make househunting easier.

For entirely legitimate reasons, you’re also disadvantaged as a foreign applicant. Convincing landlords to take you on as a tenant is difficult if you lack UK credit history, work history, references, or guarantors. And, of course, we faced the old catch-22 documented elsewhere: it’s hard to get a house without a bank account, and hard to get a bank account without a proof of address. (British banks have very stringent and somewhat archaic proof of address requirements — more on this later!)

Knowing that this sea of confusion awaited us, we had done some flat-finding groundwork when still in Canada. We contacted many landlords via Gumtree (similar to Craigslist/Kijiji) and Spareroom (“long-term Airbnb”). This meant that we had a few viewings set up before we even got to the UK, including one (ultimately cancelled) for the night of our arrival. Online research and advice from friends had given us a vague idea of which parts of the city we might want to call home. From previous experience of the city (not to mention a few Hugh Grant movies), we knew that Hampstead, Chelsea, Wimbledon, and Notting Hill weren’t bad places to live.

Our first viewings were in Fulham, a residential neighborhood in southwest London. We fell in love with Fulham instantly. Its high street lined with vegan restaurants, grocers, bars, and bike shops reminded us of the best Halifax’s North End had to offer. Fulham was also close to our initial (hostel) lodgings in Earl’s Court. While not quite as upscale as Kensington or Chelsea, it still felt safe, chic, and well connected to offices, museums, and other attractions in central London. Most importantly, Fulham hosts good parkland (Bishop’s Park, sitting in the old Fulham Palace grounds on the banks of the Thames), which is very popular with runners and dogs. Double win!

We didn’t want to limit ourselves, and also scheduled a viewing in Bounds Green, a far flung area of north London adjacent to the North Circular Road. Real estate is cheaper there, and transit connections were OK (Bounds Green is a stop on the Piccadilly line), but the neighbourhood didn’t have much to recommend it beyond being cheap. It seemed safe enough, but there was a big shortage of good grocers and restaurants — a non-negotiable — and no obvious place to go running. While saving money on rent would’ve been nice, we didn’t move to London to spend all our time in the ‘burbs.

We also had a viewing set up, and ultimately cancelled, in Dalston, which was recently labelled one of Britain’s hippest neighbourhoods. Dalston is not on a tube line (it is serviced by the London overground from Highbury & Islington Station), and the night we journeyed out there for our viewing the trains were stopped due to a train that had broken down blocking the track. We decided to avoid places that were difficult to get to. In such a sprawling city, it’s absolutely necessary to have good transit options close at hand.

We spent the three days doing little else beyond househunting. By Friday night, we were getting quite frustrated. Prices were high, agents wanted big deposits and posted large fees, and we still felt we needed to find a place stat. On Saturday, the fourth day, we looked at another place in Fulham. It was a shared house in a nice neighorhood. The price was high but fair. It wasn’t through an agency, so there were fewer hurdles to clear and fewer fees to pay. The whole thing felt serendipitous. We made an offer, signed a lease, got the keys, and became Londoners. At that point, we thought the hardest part was over and done with.

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