The Market

Tale of two cities: London rental challenges that may make your NYC ones (seem) more tolerable

By Emily Feldman  | December 19, 2011 - 12:46PM

New Yorkers (this one included) love to complain/boast about how hard it is to find a suitable rental in this city. We one-up each other with stories about Craigslist scams and mouse hole-sized studios. But as my boyfriend--currently shopping for a one-bedroom rental in London--has reminded me, other cities can be just as, if not more so, challenging for a renter to navigate. 

Below, seven not-so charming characteristics of renting in London, which might provide an uplifting dose of schadenfreude to disgruntled apartment-seekers on this side of the pond.

1. Housing Crisis
With UK unemployment at a 17-year high and housing prices continuing to surge, would-be buyers are flooding the rental market and adding to a growing crisis. While New Yorkers are no strangers to high prices and competition, our city is faring better in terms of employment (8.7 percent unemployed here compared to 10 percent in London) and is--thankfully--not yet resorting to extreme propositions, like a campaign to boot "house hoarding" empty-nesters from their homes.

2. Agents
Like NYC brokers, so-called "letting agents" help landlords rent their apartments in exchange for a fee, which typically starts at 10 percent and is paid out (by the landlord) over the duration of a renter's tenancy. Renters have to pay an upfront, nonrefundable processing fee, which could run between £50 and £300.

This arrangement might sound like a bargain for NY renters accustomed to paying brokers one month's rent or more, but London landlords often bump the asking price of a unit to pass the cost of agent fees onto the tenant. It's not uncommon to see a privately listed property get re-listed by an agent at a higher price, just days later.

And, while some NYC renters manage to skirt broker fees by searching exclusively for privately rented properties, it's a lot harder to escape agents in London. Since they work for landlords and not tenants, it's easier and more profitable for agents to seek out landlords. For a higher fee, agents will even take on the job of collecting rent, managing repairs and doing all the day-to-day stuff that might appeal to a busy (or lazy) landlord.

3. Woe to the one without references
London's letting agents, who are responsible to the landlord with whom they have an agreement, need to make sure that new tenants aren't deadbeats. This means renters will be subjected to a thorough background check, which could include proof of employment, references from past landlords, a peek in your bank account, or all of the above. This poses a problem for anyone with off-the-books or untraditional employment, or a history of staying off leases (as I've done for the past four years, moving from share to share).

While a landlord might be willing to listen, bend, make a deal, agents must adhere to stricter policies, and as you read above, they're hard to avoid.

4. Taxes
Once you've figured the agent fee, you'll have to add the council tax, a local tax paid by a unit's tenants (or the landlord if the place is unoccupied). This could add about 100 bucks to monthly rent for a single person living in a 1-bedroom. 

5. Furnished apartments
If you're like me and don't mind furnished apartments, then you'd have no gripes about this one: Most rentals in London come furnished. So if you're really tied to your couch or canopy bed, it'll take extra effort on your part to find a place to put it. What might be more concerning is that London has also been affected by the worldwide uptick in bed bugs, which means renters have more worries that their furnished pad might come with unwanted roommates. 

6. Per Week Listing Confusion
Rental prices are often listed by the week, though usually paid by the month. The uninitiated might figure that £250/week would work out to £1,000/month, but that wouldn't be correct. The correct equation would be £250 per week x 52 weeks in a year ÷ 12 months in a year, which comes out to £1,083/month. That adds up to an underestimation of about one month's rent over the course of a year and a pretty significant error for anyone living paycheck to paycheck. 

7. Internet and phone
Once you've found the neighborhood, found the flat, figured out the price, accepted the unexpected fees and that your place comes furnished, there's the whole matter of setting up utilities. While in New York, Internet can be set up in a week, in London the wait time, when my boyfriend and I called around, was closer to three. And as awful as Time Warner can be, they understand "no land line," while in London, the salespeople kept pushing a return to the 1990s.


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