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The visa was finally approved. Your flight is next week. You’ve sold off your furniture. You’ve ended your lease. Your dream of moving to London from the US (or elsewhere!) has come true…but now, how will you go about finding a place to live in a completely new country? Well, having learned from our own bumps, we hope to share our tips in landing the perfect flat.

First things first, lets get some vocabulary out of the way. You aren’t looking for an “apartment,” you’re looking for a “flat”. You’re not looking to “lease,” you are looking to “let”. And you won’t find any “Real Estate” agents, instead you will find “Estate" or “Letting” agents. That’s it, you’re officially 5% more British.

1. You're moving to London…but what neighborhood in London?

If you’re here for work or school, you know where you’re going to be spending most of your time, so we recommend letting that guide your search. London is sprawling. Manhattan is ~13 miles long. London is ~35 miles long. You don’t want to end up on the other side of town with minimal tube access or you will likely be finding yourself on a lengthy and potentially expensive commute.

However, that does not mean to forgo a flat in Marylebone just so you can be within walking distance of a corporate park out in Slough (yes, the setting for The Office UK!) You just need to assess your tolerance for commuting versus need to be centrally located. 45 minute - 1 hour commutes are pretty average in London, so if you aim for that or less, you’re doing OK.

Based on our job prospects, we knew we wanted to be in Western London with easy tube and rail access to go further into London, and the motorway to drive out West. We used that to initially guide our search, and rounded that out with advice from any Brit we could connect with--friends, future coworkers, or even a nice older British couple we met on a wine tour in Bordeaux! Work those networks for suggestions. You never know who might know someone or have just the right bit of advise that sets you towards the perfect situation.

2. You found the perfect neighborhood that has a Waitrose, an artisanal coffee shop, and a yoga studio. Now, what’s your budget?

After you have some neighborhoods lined up, start thinking about everyone’s favorite excitement-dampener, a budget. That might disqualify a few neighborhoods you initially had lined up. We love Julia Robert in Notting Hill, too, but you won’t find a £1,000 3-bedroom flat with a balcony in Notting Hill. Don’t let this discourage you, though. Part of your initial location search can be filtered with a rough estimate of prices. There are plenty of resources a quick web search away to assess e.g. the average flat price by tube stop.

3. Maybe your budget is more like Zone 3, not Zone 1. Now, who can show you around?

Now it’s time to get in touch with an “estate” agent (see vocabulary above). There’s always a drive to try and set out an find a place yourself to avoid fees and all that, but unless you have copious amounts of time, patience and persistence to spare, getting in touch with an agent is essential. While in the states, an agency can focus on Manhattan as a whole, it’s common to be more specialized in London. Have no fear, every neighborhood is littered with big players (Foxtons, Dexters, and Savills) along with more local companies. If you’re looking in different neighborhoods, many of the big players can coordinate between their offices to show you various listings throughout London. Check out the listings on their website (which are often listed by week and by month) beforehand—which agency gives you the best vibe?

Expect to really hit the ground running about 1 month (a little more, a little less) before you’re ready to move in. Many of the listings on the website show the expected move in date.

We had the luxury of having some temporary housing to hold us over until we found a place. We were able to take our time a bit and shop around using multiple agents over a few weekends in a few neighborhoods until we found something perfect for us! If you are pressed for time or limited to a single housing trip, do a bit of research and pick one agent or company that covers all of the area you are interested in and try and arrange a whirlwind tour. Exhausting but productive! There are also people you can hire who can arrange these whirlwind tours for you (we ran into a few people using them on our search) although we never looked into that.

Though you can just walk right into the office, we recommend calling and setting up a full day to search because—sorry to break it to you—but that perfect listing you saw online 3 days ago is probably gone. Having at least some idea of what you want, including non-negotiables, is a must to preserve your sanity. Be upfront with the agent if you must have something like a second bedroom, easy tube link-ups, a parking spot, or anything else. And remember to stick to your non-negotiables! Like most, agents will try to get you to compromise to get a deal done. Reg and I were shown one flat that was enormous and quite luxurious for prices underneath our budget. We actually couldn’t believe we were seeing a place this nice, but the location was inconvenient, and despite our agent’s insistence that this was a great deal for us, we ultimately turned it down and are happier for it.

4. Great, you are booked to see listings next Saturday from 9am - 5pm. What if you like a place?

Any major city is going to have a housing market that changes daily, but don’t let that intimidate you. Reg and I advise to move quickly but not rashly. In our biggest day out seeing flats, we saw 10 places. Some beautiful places. Some dumps. We came across one place we quite liked and were strongly considering, but we had one last appointment left and decided not to sit on putting on an offer for the moment although we did make sure to note our interest to the agent. Sure enough, in our next set of viewings, we saw a place we absolutely loved (i.e. our current flat.) After a quick visit to the pub to talk about our options over a pint, we decided to put in an offer just as the letting office was about to close. We found out another couple had put in an offer! If we had waited until the next day, we may have been out of luck.

With that being said, NEGOTIATE! My experience renting in the Northeast, it’s rare to negotiate leases when it’s an in-demand city. In London, it is expected. Depending on the rent price, £50-£150 lower a month seems to be reasonable.

If the landlords refuse to go below asking, there are other avenues to flex. One major difference from apartment hunting in the states is quite often flats here in London come with an option to be furnished in some capacity. This can be partial (only major fixtures like beds or couches) or fully furnished doing away with a need to any trips to Ikea! How much furnishing you want/get may or may not impact your price and will be part of the negotiation over the final details of your lease. Many UK flats will come with kitchen fixtures and/or in-flat laundry you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a stateside apartment, so also be cognizant of these type of perks. Move-in dates are also another option for negotiation. It’s not as strict as NYC in needing to move in on the 1st or the 15th of the month.

5. Wow! They accepted your offer! But now I need to pay more money?!

You negotiated hard for about a day or two after putting in your offer to the letting agency, and the flat owner finally agreed. You’re moving in! But first…the fees.

The costs are pretty trivial versus NYC, where a broker fee can be upwards of 1-2 months rent, but they add up quickly in London. There is likely an application cost (equated to 1-2 weeks of your rent), a contract write up fee per person (less than £100), could be a ‘lock fee’ if the flat owner uses a 3rd party property manager to move you in…etc. Each agency has their own list, and are good about being explicit with the fees upfront. I’ve heard Foxtons charges the most, and the others are comparable.

6. It’s moving day

You did it! You navigated an entirely new culture and scored a place! Congrats! As you cozy up on your couch in front of the fire sipping some tea…don’t forget to sign up for council tax, utilities, and your TV licensing fee (the BBC WILL find you!)

Good luck with the rest of your journey!


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