London Calling
February 16, 2009 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Advice for a New Yorker moving to London.

Hello MeFites.

It's looking rather probable that I'm going to be moving to London from New York for work in the next couple of months.

I'm a young professional and I've lived in the US my whole life - apart from a casual appreciation for Premiership football and an affinity for Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, I don't know all that much about living in the UK.

I've seen previous AskMe threads akin to this, so I've read up on the VAT, the Council Tax, and the benefits of having a bicycle, but there's still quite a bit I don't know:

*What's a good neighborhood for a young professional to live in, and why? I like the bar scene, but I don't necessarily want to live over the bar. And after years in New York I'm hoping a dishwasher isn't too much to ask for.

*Many of the apartments I've seen in my price range on Craigslist are furnished - this is a bit unusual in NYC, but is it fairly commonplace in London?

*What are some common mistakes expatriates make when they move over, and how can I avoid them?

Thanks in advance, friends.
posted by CRM114 to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should note also that my office is more or less in Central London - Shoreditch, if I'm not mistaken.
posted by CRM114 at 1:40 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Furnished places are almost always the case here ; it was a bit of a shock for me moving here from Oz, as that's not normally the case, but there you go. I would warn you about the size of rooms and cost of housing, but you're from NY, so you probably know what to expect.

Common mistakes - by far the biggest thing I can think of is setting up a bank account beforehand. A bank account here is utterly crucial to pretty much everything, including securing a place to live. The rules regarding opening bank accounts are incredibly strict though, and often require not only proof of employment, but also proof of home address - which is difficult, when you're getting a bank account so you can rent a place!

I know that HSBC offer a "Passport Bank Account" specifically for those moving to the UK. I think there's some upfront cost involved possibly, but it is worth the hassle - I cannot stress enough how much of a runaround it is to secure a bank account for a foreigner. Other banks such as Barklays, Halifax and Lloyds may also offer an equivalent service. Make it easy on yourself.

In terms of places to live...well, this is a tough one. London is strange in that there aren't necessarily entire areas that are dodgy - you can often find that one street is gorgeous, safe and lovely, and the next street along is dodgyville and not a safe place to go at all. Weird.

I would highly recommend first choosing rough places to live based on where you're going to work, and the public transport available to them. South of the river is generally cheaper, but is nowhere near as well covered by the tube (but with extensive bus services). North of the river is more expensive, but better served by transport.

You'll probably find anything within zone 1 to be too expensive (or not worth the money), but there can be great finds in Zones 2 and 3 that are still relatively close but offer good bang for your buck. Inner-west London is pricey, east London is traditionally cheaper (and generally far more interesting, to be honest). Bear in mind that a 2-zone monthly tube/bus pass will set you back £99, so factor this into your rent equations.

I'm currently living just off Victoria Park in Mile End, and I love it here. I've lived in King's Cross (found a place for a steal a few years back, but had to move out *sob*), Bayswater (rubbish), Canary Wharf (dead, soulless, but handy if you work at Canary Wharf) and hopped around a few other places. As far as east london, I'd recommend having a look around Bethnal Green, Mile End, and the Whitechapel / Shoreditch areas ; they're reasonably close to the action, but not absurdly bad on your wallet. The Islington area is not too bad a pick, although it's gotten more pricey. Camden Town has a great nightlife, markets and a very urban feel to it, but that comes with a bit of dodginess.

I'd recommend checking out for demographic information on any areas you're looking at. You can enter the postcode of a particular street and get accurate information on all the gory details, which may help your decision.

Can't think of anything else off the top of my head, and others will chime in with probably better info, but if you have any more questions, shoot!
posted by sektah at 1:51 PM on February 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ah, just saw you'll be working in Shoreditch. That's on the eastern side of central London, so yeah, check out the east areas first. I can walk to Shoreditch from my house in a little under 30 minutes, or get tubes/buses there in a little less time.

Also, Craigslist isn't as popular here - check out Gumtree instead. Beware of stupid accomodation-finding places that will advertise places for rent, then tell you to come into their offices when you call, where they'll try and cajole you into paying £50 for their info. Bugger that.
posted by sektah at 1:54 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Just popping in to say, the benefits of having a bicycle in London are vastly overstated if you aren't accustomed to the way traffic moves here - the drivers are unforgiving and it's all coming from the wrong direction!
posted by methylsalicylate at 1:55 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: I'm envious: Shoreditch is a cool area. Very happening at the moment with lots of great pubs (get used to calling bars pubs) and restaurants, so after-work drinks are definitely in the cards. Definitely a good place for a young professional to hang out in.

I'm not sure about your budget, but I would recommend getting a flat in Shoreditch/East London too, as that would cut time and money on travel which can be a major expense in London. Assuming you like the area of course. I've had experience living in West London mostly, but spent the majority of my free time in North/East London. They all have a completely different vibe and have to be experienced to figure out which is the most suited for you.

Furnished apartments are pretty standard in my experience. I moved flat every year for the 6 years I was there and this was pretty common among my friends too (early to mid-twenties back then) so it was very convenient to have them furnished.

I don't know about common mistakes as such, but I found the English to be quite a welcoming bunch as long as you don't mind hanging out in pubs, complaining about the weather and being the butt of the occasional joke. The casual appreciation for Premiereship football will definitely be something worth nurturing. Learn to love the Tube, but not to rely on it.

London's a great place, hope you enjoy your stay!
posted by slimepuppy at 1:57 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Sektah, thanks for all that! I'm going to pore over it a bit more closely in a bit.

it's all coming from the wrong direction!

Ye gods, that's a fact. My first couple of business trips here nearly ended with me splayed across the hood of a taxi because I couldn't grok which way I was supposed to be looking. Only later did I realize that it quite literally says "LOOK RIGHT" or "LOOK LEFT" right on the damned ground.
posted by CRM114 at 2:00 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Shoreditch is a good area for young professionals to live as well as work - it's full of bars and clubs. Nearby Clerkenwell is also good for that sort of thing. If Shoreditch and Clerkenwell prove out of your price range, Hackney and the East End beckon. Both are wildly variable in quality, but packed with young professionals and nightlife. They're also both convenient for Shoreditch, and you'll probably want to limit your commute; it can be a dispiriting experience, commuting in London.

Something that's worth noting is that London in general - and the East and North-east in particular - packs in remarkable diversity. So you might go and see a flat and find it's really grotty, and you don't like the street or the building or the estate - but it's a mistake to write off the whole neighbourhood on that basis, because literally around the corner might be lovely. Oases of charm coexist with bustling nightlife and real pits of squalor. Listn to what your colleagues say, but if they haven't actually lived in an area take their words with a pinch of salt because people do develop weird prejudices.

Personally I live in Mile End and find it very agreeable, but it's a little short of nightlife compared with Whitechapel, Hackney or Shoreditch.

Furnished apartments are quite common here, yes.

I absolutely adore this city and I hope you do too.
posted by WPW at 2:03 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: If you're based in Shoreditch come live in the East! Seriously, if you're only around for a few months you don't want to live far from work. Central London is a transit blackhole, time slows the closer you get to the singularity of Holborn...

Anyhow, Shoreditch is the mecca of twenty-thirty-something arty/media/music types. Or was until very recently, I have no idea what the kids are up to these days, but it's still a great, vibrant place. It's not that pretty but the east is the most historic and (I think) characterful. Shoreditch itself can be expensive to rent (unless you're squatting!) but nearby areas are Bethnal Green, London Fields, Dalston, Islington. I live in Bethnal Green, minutes from Victoria Park (Hi Sektah!) and it's a twenty minute stroll to Shoreditch from here.

Here's quick guide. I bike everywhere so I can recommend it as the best way of getting about, however point taken from above on preview - the roads here are really disorientating if you're used to a grid layout.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:07 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sektah and freya_lamb: As far as I can see, we three are basically neighbours ...
posted by WPW at 2:10 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Meetup time when I get there in the spring, yes?

Thanks all for this bounty of info so far. Follow-on question: are leases generally for a year like they are here in the states? I seem to get that impression from Sektah and slimepuppy's answers. Is the rent actually paid weekly, or is that just the way realtors list flats?
posted by CRM114 at 2:17 PM on February 16, 2009

Woohoo! An axis of Mefi! There's a recommendation for you CCRM114. But re: the dishwasher, depends on your price range - should be fairly standard in high-end leases but not in your average young-prof rental.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:22 PM on February 16, 2009

Generally leases are for a year (but I've seen six months) and rent is paid monthly. It's often quoted weekly though. For laughs.

I would advise against cycling, but that's personal prejudice. Certainly friends of mine do cycle and to date they are all still alive.
posted by WPW at 2:23 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: What are some common mistakes expatriates make when they move over, and how can I avoid them?

Here's some of what I've learned. I moved here a year ago from San Francisco. I also lived in Manhattan for a few years.

1. As slimepuppy points out, consider the cost of transportation when choosing housing. Transport in London is expensive. It might be that, yes, that flat a bit further out is a bit cheaper but when you calculate transport costs to work - its not.

2. Rents will often be quoted as X number of pounds per week. What this means on a monthly basis is (52*X)/12. Thats right - 4.3 times the weekly rate.

3. If you're renting a flat you'll also pay council tax on top of that. This is not insignificant. I pay about £100 a month for example.

4. The deposit is easy to calculate. The maximum allowed by law is six weeks rent. So everyone charges six weeks.

5. Get a bank account ASAP. Your work is your best bet. They can probably help you open one or provide references. This is probably your best bet. A local bank account is needed for just about everything.

6. Regarding point 5. It is common here to pay all monthly payments (rent, utilities, phone, internet) withdrawn from your bank account directly every month. Nobody here uses checks.

7. Your credit record from the US is irrelevant. When you apply for housing they are more interested in your employment (how much you earn, how long you've been working etc)

8. Don't underestimate buses for getting around. Most newcomers do. They're cheaper than the tube and a great way to get to see and know the city (especially from the top of a double decker) Nowadays, I only take the Tube if I'm in a hurry.

Shoreditch is a great place to land. Its a good balance of not-too-expensive (as more central would be) and not too far out.
posted by vacapinta at 2:24 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Standard is a year's contract but some offer a get-out after six months. You can get shorter term sublets through sites like Gumtree. Or just ask around your UK-colleagues, word of mouth is a good way in.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:25 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: All my flats were contracted for a year minimum though some offered shorted extensions after the first year was up and were paid monthly. Deposits varied from one to two months of rent up-front, returnable at the end of the contract. The prices are quoted weekly for some bizarre reason.

It's probably a universal truth that applies to New York as well, but landlords can be anything from ever-present hellish tormentors to absent benevolent angels. All estate agents are evil though (unless the recent downturn in the economy has brought a modicum of humility to the field).
posted by slimepuppy at 2:26 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: If you're wanting up-and-coming, Dalston seems like it's the way forward - all the Hip Kats seem to be moving north. Great Turkish food, decent bars, decent pubs, jazz etc. Seconding Bethnal Green and so on too - I live somewhere between the two (hellos y'all). And totally with Freya_lamb on the bike thing. If you're coming in a couple of months, you'll be here in time for spring, where it's much nicer to cycle.
posted by YouRebelScum at 2:28 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: freyalamb, WPW - ha, hello neighbours. I see East London is represented well!

Every place I've lived here has been rent paid monthly, so I'd expect that's just the way they're listing the price. It's probably some dodgy underhanded way of making it sound slightly cheaper. Quotes with PCM (per calendar month) will give you the most honest indication of what you're expecting to pay. Bond is usually four months rent, occasionally six.

Leases, I'm not so sure on. I know of a fair few people who have six-month leases, but from my experience it's usually yearly.

Your questions made me remember a few more bits. Some places will be advertised with bills included, some will just be the flat price. On top of standard rent, the bills will usually be electricity, gas, water and council tax. Council tax varies greatly depending upon which borough you live in. When I was in Westminster, I was paying £11/month ; in Islington, it was something like £60/month. Council tax is based on the valuation of the property and placed in different bands. Unfortunately, property value is pretty hard to know when you're just looking at rental places - but you can get an idea of the difference from here - select "Greater London" from the dropdown, and you'll see the variation between band prices.

It's hard to say exactly how much bills will ultimately cost you, but you can roughly assume £50-£100/month, so factor that into your rent searching. That's a really rough estimate though.
posted by sektah at 2:31 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Question for the OP - did you want to rent an apartment or flatshare with others? If the latter, you should try moveflat which is really great for sharers. Also, you should expect to pay a month's rent plus one month as deposit upfront, but we don't (thank god) do first month last month here. (Though I see up top people do charge six weeks, ouch).

And don't be afraid of the buses either... the drivers will tell you when you need to get off and most of them now have voice overs. Maybe leave the bike till you've come to terms with traffic flow.
posted by Augenblick at 2:48 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Sharing a flat isn't in the plan at the moment, but thanks for that link Augenblick.

Definitely reconsidering the bike in light of my obstinate desire to remain on this mortal coil.
posted by CRM114 at 3:10 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: council tax registered bandings for individual properties can be searched here, and then you can look up the exact annual tax on the council website.

wandsworth currently has the lowest council tax in the UK. i live in wandsworth, and my council tax for band B is £50/mo.

many leases start out 6 months, then revert to month-to-month. many places are offered furnished, but can usually be negotiated as unfurnished as well.

definitely investigate your transport costs. travel for anywhere outside a single zone will cost you about £100/mo.

vacapinta covered all the other major points. except it is incredibly unlikely you will find a dishwasher. it's hard to compare with nyc - i lived in nyc for 8 years, london for 6, and it's apples and oranges, really (or apples and pears, as they say here!) just different.

and a souf london girl here, innit? ;)
posted by wayward vagabond at 3:18 PM on February 16, 2009

also: biking loses it's appeal when most of the days are wet, wet and cold, or wet and windy!
posted by wayward vagabond at 3:19 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: I'm gonna disagree with sektah because I really hate the passport account and that people still recommend it in every damn thread where someone is moving to the UK. the passport account is a trick. they are trying to scam you out of 60 bucks you don't need to pay. all you need is your passport, visa, ni number and a gas bill (sky tv will do) and you can open one. so once you move in get some utilities into your name, make them send you a bill right then and there and walk into the next hsbc branch. that's all you need and they are solely banking on you not knowing how to work the system.

I also recommend over gumtree. the listing quality seems better on moveflat and you get a map.

*What's a good neighborhood for a young professional to live in, and why?
northern line, no further than golders green (which actually is a very nice place itself). close enough to get to the bars easily and yet not as overpriced as camden or hoxton. skip south london. transportation gets tricky in off hours.

Sharing a flat isn't in the plan at the moment, but thanks for that link Augenblick.
reconsider. it's a great way to jumpstart your social life and help you figure things out, which you'll have lots to do given that this is your first expat experience. I'd suggest doing it for six months.

*What are some common mistakes expatriates make when they move over, and how can I avoid them?
note tube closing times. have a second shirt with you when using the tube during the summer. always give yourself extra time when using the tube. don't giggle when they say "mind the gap." do not -ever- use your index and middle finger when ordering two drinks. the inverted victory sign is flipping people off and will get you into trouble. accept that cops have the authority to search you anywhere and anytime under the premise of terrorist laws. accept the omnipresent CCTV camera coverage. accept that oyster cards are tracking systems. accept that facilities will be dirtier. accept that food expiration dates need to be taken very seriously.
posted by krautland at 3:25 PM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

addendum: if you ever notice sawdust in a pub entrance leave immediately.
posted by krautland at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: have a second shirt with you when using the tube during the summer.

Wait, what? :)
posted by CRM114 at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2009

oh, just trust me on that one. especially on the northern line.
posted by krautland at 3:34 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: It gets hot and sweaty.

BTW, I live in Mile End near Victoria Park and I walk into Shoreditch every day. It takes 30-35 minutes and there's never any trouble, even late at night or early in the morning.

Definitely would recommend at least looking at flat shares through Gumtree or Moveflat.

Depending on your budget, Aldgate East or Brick Lane is a little closer towards Shoreditch and seems to have loads of short-term bedsits - like dorms. Some are even nice to live in.
posted by tapeguy at 3:44 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: krautland makes good points regarding the passport account. I'm probably a little scarred from my own experience back in 2004 when jumping through the hoops to get it. The bills part of it was the most difficult, as every place I looked into demanded proof-of-bank-account before considering my application (hence, I couldn't get a bill). The place I ended up moving into was a cash-in-hand flatshare deal, but that meant I couldn't easily get my name on the bills. Major pain. It took eight weeks for my National Insurance number to come through. Were I not shacking up at my sister's place, I would have been royally screwed.

Having said that, if you can find a place to rent that doesn't require a UK bank account, then you can take all your ID, visa, and a letter from your employer stating "x is employed full-time here, and I can confirm his home address is bla bla bla". That did the trick. Might be best going for the same bank as your employer.
posted by sektah at 4:09 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Oh, and yes, the tube in summer is horrible. It can be pretty horrible in spring and summer too. I avoid it as much as possible during those times and bus/walk it. Nothing like being crammed in a stuffy, stuffy train like sardines (standing-room only) when the train stops in between two stations and the driver says "er, we're experiencing some delays because of a signalling problem".
posted by sektah at 4:11 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: Check out the Gold and whatever you do, don't miss the canals.

Everything everyone has said about the heat in summer is true.
posted by emhutchinson at 4:30 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: A tip on the bank account front: you basically need to show proof of id and proof of residence. For the former, your passport with valid visa. For the latter, you need either a utility bill or a bank statement to a UK address. The latter is the tricky one.

If you have a temporary place to live arranged, get your US bank to start sending statements to that address before you move. I didn't, and had to wait weeks for the statement to arrive before I could apply for a bank account (this is why my first attempt to open an account failed). Print-outs don't work, and keep all pages of your statement, even the blank ones (this is why my second attempt failed).
posted by tavegyl at 2:31 AM on February 17, 2009

Best answer: Oh, a few things I learned or found useful when I moved to London a couple months ago (not from the US):

- Get an Oyster card immediately. Essential for bus and tube travel. A handy way of getting rid of loose change.

- You can easily start with a mobile phone pre-paid package in which you top up at corner stores, and convert to a contract once you've got your bearings. There are special packages for calling overseas cheaply.

- You will need to register with the NHS for medical cover. Again, you will need to take proof of residence and proof of identity, with visa, to an NHS surgery (doctor's offices in your neighbourhood). They will make you fill out a form and a few weeks later you'll get a purple card with your NHS number. If you know someone already registered at the surgery, it may help: I took one such friend along, and they didn't bother asking for my proof of residence (ie bank statement) at all.

- This came as a shock/horror moment for me: the number of flats which have the loo and bathroom separate, sometimes without a sink in the loo. Don't expect dishwashers. In-house washing machines seem much more common here than in the US. Remember that with a bedsit (and sometimes a studio) you may have to share a bath/ kitchen.

- In my flat hunting I've also received two tips: (a) you can break leases without penalty after 6 months and (b) rents are more negotiable than you might think. These may or may not be true. Council flats were originally built for public housing. They're sometimes, but not always, cheaper, but can be dreary or have separate baths/ loos, if that matters to you.
posted by tavegyl at 3:12 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Vespa/Scooter

Anything to avoid the hot, crowded public transport. Best thing I did. It can reduce an hour on the bus-tube-bus-walk trip to a 10 minute fun ride.

Ignore what they say about it being hard to cycle or ride the vespa - the traffic moves a lot slower than most cities and you have big bus lanes to use (avoiding the buses of course.) The congestion charge for cars got rid of most cars - and the cab drivers all did a 3 year learning thingy on scooters so give them respect.

There are companies that can help you move, especially if you contract. I use - but they specialise in moving from Aus. But there are lots of tax concession type things you can get because you are 'relocating' your business. And they will know how you should set yourself up tax wise. You could get things like first 6 months of rent tax deductible/rebatable. They can provide short term accom, set up bank accounts, phones, provide temp offices etc. I am sure there are companies that specialise in people moving from the US.

Check the shower pressure - make sure your flat has a powered shower.

Oh, you will realise that New York is NOT the centre of the universe. Most people who live most of their lives there seem to think like that ;-)
posted by lamby at 4:10 AM on February 17, 2009

Best answer: Welcome to the neighborhood! Get a bike - East London is flat. Watch out for the giant mutant canal rats by the gas depot and make sure you touch down at Stoke Newington International Airport. Sorted.
posted by Hugobaron at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2009

Best answer: Another East London type checking in - Lower Clapton, Hackney here

I'd second the suggestions above of looking East towards Hackney. People get scared by the lack of tube lines but the buses are excellent and the Overground and National Rail connections are great as well the incorrectly perceived "lack of transport" makes it a bit cheaper as well.

I'm guessing you're probably working round Hoxton way in Shoreditch, so there's plenty of direct buses to Dalston, Clapton, Stoke Newington etc. which would get you into work in 25mins and you'd be paying a MAXIMUM of £2 a day on your commute.

Hackney is great. Sure it's got rough parts but if you've got even an ounce of street smart you'll have no trouble. It's old-school London and ridiculously mutlicultural in a "we all live together so we just get on" natural way.

Plus the pubs are excellent - I hereby nominate The Pembury by Hackney Downs for an official MeFi East Lahndahners meetup! :)

Don't worry about moving here, you'll do fine and have a fucking wonderful time.

I did the exact reverse (London -> New York) of what you're doing for a year and a bit a couple of years back. It took me about a week to realise that New Yorkers and Londoners are, in terms of citizenry, the same people but with different accents. I've no doubt you'll find the same.

Don't trust anyone from South of the River though. I hear they eat their own dead down there...
posted by garius at 12:28 PM on February 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everybody, this is all great. I'm going to be a hack now and mark everything as best answer.
posted by CRM114 at 3:46 PM on February 17, 2009

Just on the Oyster Card. Everyone's recommended it, but to emphasise why: pay cash, and a single bus trip is £2. Use the Oyster, and it's £1. (Which is a great idea, it makes buses so much faster now that we don't have to wait for people to pay the driver).

On renting: landlords will want references, proof of income, proof that you have a job, all that sort of thing. References from US landlords may be acceptable, I don't know. You really, really want to have those things. If not, be prepared to bargain - when my girlfriend and I got here, we didn't have jobs, but we had cash savings. So we offered the landlord a larger deposit than she was asking for (2 months instead of 1). She was happy with that (it helped that her partner is from the same country as us).
posted by Infinite Jest at 8:15 AM on February 18, 2009

Everyone has covered your questions pretty well, I have one piece of bonus advice:

When taking the tube, ALWAYS go to the end of the platform and get in the last carriage. If the entrance on to the platform is at or near one end, walk down to the other end. It will always be worth your while, even if you miss a train whilst on your walk down the platform. Even if the end carriage is full and you have to stand, it will always be less full than the central carriages.

Good luck!
posted by Lotto at 2:23 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

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