How can I find a room in London without viewing it first?
August 29, 2009 2:53 AM   Subscribe

How can I find a decent room in London without being there to view it first?

I'm starting a postgraduate degree in London at the end of September, and need to find a room reasonably close to Russell Square (less that 4 miles away) for a reasonable price (less than £130/week). To add difficulty to this, I won't be able to actually be in London until I move there to start the degree (I'm not in the country at the moment), so I'll need to be able to find somewhere and secure it before I arrive there.

I've been looking at for flat listings (is there anywhere better that I should be looking?), and most of the places that get back to me are obvious scams: sent from fake-looking Hotmail accounts, attaching pictures of gigantic rooms supposedly in Covent Garden (etc), and asking for tiny rents. The ones that do seem real are extremely relucant to deal with someone they can't meet before confirming everything. In general though, most people don't even bother replying to my emails. (Am I doing something wrong or is this normal?) I don't know anybody in London who would be able to look at flats for me.

I'm really stuck – if you have any advice about finding a nice room in London without being able to view it first, I'd really appreciate hearing it!
posted by SamuelBowman to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any contacts in the city? I've done some traveling in the USA, and when trying to secure a space when I can't be there, I use Craigslist and have a friend or contact meet the landlord, verify the "vital info" about the flat, and generally just check it out for me. Is this possible?

Alternatively, is there anyway you could stay short-term at a hostel, friend's place, or somewhere using and then find a long-term place once you arrive? Or is this not an option? (I know you said you couldn't move there before you started the degree, but perhaps even a few days would give you enough time if you had leads already mapped out so you had a list of places to visit once you got there.)

Good luck!
posted by ifranzen at 3:11 AM on August 29, 2009

I teach at several Universities in London; your school should have an office that can advise you accordingly when it comes to securing a residence, especially so as it appears you're a foreign student (lucrative for UK Universities).

Have about bounced this query off them? Even if they've only been able to provide flats that exceed your budget, limited resources is a problem they're well familiar with and I'm sure they could help you. You WILL NOT be the only student with money troubles, and sometimes they will operate an introduction service or direct you to University specific postings (typically web pages on their own site) where roommate ads are posted.

Given that you're just starting a degree I'd exhaust every possible avenue before resorting to couchsurfing or some other, temporary and perhaps volatile living situation; school will be challenging enough!
posted by Mutant at 3:26 AM on August 29, 2009

Just noticed this "I don't know anybody in London who would be able to look at flats for me."

If the University is a wash out for some reason, I might be able to help.

What part of London are you looking in? I can visit and photograph a reasonable number of flats in E1 or The West End (Mayfair) for you. We'd have to work out schedules and locations, but as long as the number of flats is reasonable I'll help out as best I can.

Maybe a few other London based MeFites would volunteer some time as well, then we'd have you covered.

Mail me with details. Payback is a pint at a meetup.
posted by Mutant at 3:33 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm a fool, I missed the part where you said you don't know anyone. I wonder if you could pay someone to take pictures of the place for you.
posted by ifranzen at 4:07 AM on August 29, 2009

I live within a stone's throw of Russell Square and could try to give you some intelligence about any options that you find in the area (and might be able to visit one or two as well). FWIW I tried to find a flat for myself while I was still in NYC and ended up instead staying at a hotel here and flat-hunting as soon as I arrived.

Also, (which someone recommended to me) has listings for flats and flatshares (available once you click into the To Rent section), which you can sort by price. You would presumably want to search for the location WC1 (as you probably already know). I think that I first saw my current home on that site.
posted by sueinnyc at 4:36 AM on August 29, 2009

There are other sites that aren't Gumtree, like or, so have a look there too? Also, the problem might not be that you can't view the flat, it might be that the people living there now can't view you, so to speak...
posted by so_necessary at 6:50 AM on August 29, 2009

STRONGLY seconding Mutant. Many of the buildings around Russell Square seem to be setup as communal student housing. Track down someone in your program who can direct you to someone who can assist you with housing. You will pay much less than if you try to go out on your own.

Still, the search term you want is 'student residences' and there are many in the area. Heck, from my window (I live in the area too) I can almost see this place which specializes in student housing - not specifically recommending them, just pointing out that finding housing for students is itself a specialized market here and one you should look into.

Further East will get cheaper, as Mutant points out. You don't want to go West - that gets more expensive. If you do want to stay in the Russell Square area, I live here too (sueinnyc lives close by) and can also help out with any further on-the-ground advice.
posted by vacapinta at 6:56 AM on August 29, 2009

If you're looking at a uni in Bloomsbury area, just check out the Mornington Crescent, Camden, Chalk Farm, Finsbury Park areas. All are quite laid back so you might find people willing to deal with you over the internet and there are plenty of ex-council shared flats round there running between £90-£120/week which should be within your budget. Bear in mind that if you share with students too you don't have to pay council tax. All those areas are an easy walk/cycle ride onto the campus but other cheap studenty areas with decent nightlife you might want to look at are Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Mile End although it's a bit far out of the way.

In my experience universities are pretty useless at finding affording lodgings for students - as overseas students pay so much in tuition fees, they expect them all to be loaded anyway and able to afford £140+/week. You seem smart enough to avoid the scams so Gumtree and are your friends. Definitely try flying out a week early to scope places out if you can.
posted by turkeyphant at 7:35 AM on August 29, 2009

One thing to keep in mind if you're coming from a place where first-of-the-month move-in dates are the norm is that in London, it's usually more flexible.

As you've probably noticed from surfing Gumtree, move-in dates are completely random, and most places are available within a week if not right away. So although I understand it's not ideal, you should still consider staying in a hotel/hostel for the first week while you are here and doing your flat hunt that way. At least it means that once you find a place, you won't have to fork out tons of cash waiting for a move-in date that's a month away!

As you've said, scammy ads abound, and I find there's a lot of tricky photography and/or wording to make a shit place look nice. That's why if I were you, I'd start the hunt in earnest once I landed here.

Good luck!
posted by vodkaboots at 8:22 AM on August 29, 2009

Just in case you haven't seen them, the University of London (The umbrella organisation that encompasses many of London's colleges) has some pages with advice about accommodation. As an incoming foreign student you might be eligible for a room in student halls for a short time, but their websites keep lists of landlords and commercially run halls that the Uni deals with a lot.

UoL Housing Services
UoL Accommodation

Alternatively, a few of my friends turned up without a flat sorted out and stayed in hostels for a week or two while looking at flats in person. The flat rental market in London is very rapid, so you'll have ample opportunities to visit a comprehensive cross-section of what's available in the space of a week. If you spend too long researching and mulling a given flat (where "too long" is more than a day or two), someone else will snap it up.

You can find London's hostels on Hostel World and Hostel Bookers. I've booked through both of these websites with no problems, but it might be a few pounds/night cheaper to find details then book with the hostel directly.

I've stayed overnight in The Generator and The Clink. Both were clean, comfortable and had enough lockable storage space that you could turn up with a couple of weeks' clothes etc. and stay before moving into a flat and having the rest of your stuff shipped to you.

(As a side note, Holloway Road/Seven Sisters Road is a nice area. A good high street with a couple of supermarkets and lots of local pubs and shops, cycle to Russell Square inside 30 minutes. It's just north of Camden, the goth/alternative centre of London, which has some great nights out available but can be a bit grimy to live in unless you find a nice quiet side street).

Finally, make sure you look at TfL. It'll plan your public transport routes around London and even plan cycling routes that favour quiet roads and roads with dedicated cycle lanes. It'll be invaluable for deciding where is too far away to live.
posted by metaBugs at 1:32 PM on August 29, 2009

Russell Square is super-expensive - I've had a friend who lived up near Angel-Islington instead (still walkable), who found a flat-share through one of the websites above (I like She couldn't see it before she went (American grad student doing a year of research at the BL), so she always did the stay-at-a-hostel for a few days thing, then checked it out.

My experience has been that flatshares or rented rooms were much cheaper than anything designated as a student residence. I had a room in Kew for £70/week - others I have known have paid about £100/week in North London.

Something to find out is how much a Tube pass costs per week/month. If a tube pass is something like £30 (I think it may be less, actually), and you can save more than £30/week by living farther away, than you are better off living out a bit.
posted by jb at 3:21 PM on August 29, 2009

Also - where ever you go, make sure you can get kitchen facilities. You can't live on eating out in the UK like you might in North America. I've seen people try to do it, but it isn't pretty. (Think baked potatoes for lunch and dinner every day).
posted by jb at 3:22 PM on August 29, 2009

I'm sort of in the same boat, so I can't really offer advice on how to sort it all out before you go, but whenever you're ready to start the hunt in earnest, globrix is the best property listing site I've found. You can define your search in quite a number of ways, including price range, type of property, distance from specific train stations, number of bathrooms, etc. There's also a secondary tab that maps all listed properties. This might be a good place to start to get an idea of what's available now, and you could dispatch willing Mefites to check them out for you. (That's really very nice of you guys, btw)
posted by Eumachia L F at 4:38 PM on August 29, 2009

Thank you all for your help, especially to you who've offered to look at rooms for me. That's so much more than I was expecting when I asked my question – I'm really stunned by the generosity shown :-)

I'm going to contact some posters here individually about looking at rooms, with the back-up plan of staying in a hostel for a couple of nights while I look for somewhere if that doesn't work out. Thanks again to everyone, you've made my weekend!
posted by SamuelBowman at 1:39 AM on August 30, 2009

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