Renting in the UK
August 29, 2012 4:20 AM   Subscribe

Moving to England! Help us make our UK renting experience go as smoothly as possible.

After hearing some horror stories about letting agents, I've looked at online rankings and gotten some advice from friends. I feel forewarned, but not exactly prepared. What else can/should we do for the renting experience to go off without a hitch, from the actual finding of a place, to problem-free living and leaving with all our deposit? I'm sure there are plenty of things we would know if we were local, that are completely escaping us now!

The details:

My partner and I (currently living in the US and Sweden respectively) are moving to Cambridge in October. She has a postdoc lined up with the university. We've used Rightmove and the Cambridge University Accommodation site to narrow down our price range and the areas where we would like to live, and have a shortlist of preferred flats and houses. We're both flying over next week for a couple of days to try and secure a contract, so we have someplace to live once her job starts up. She can't stay, since she has visa paperwork to do in the US, whereas I could go back to sign contracts and pay deposits fairly easily. Under UK law, we count as civil partners.

What I would like input on is the actual process of picking a good place and securing such a contract with the least amount of hassle.

Some examples of the questions I don't have any answers for yet: How far in advance should we contact letting agents when we want a viewing? Is it possible to sign a contract the same day you view a property? What should we always consider, apart from the rent, council tax and energy costs? In places with just a washer, where do you dry your clothes? (In Japan, the answer would be "on the balcony", but those seem much rarer in the UK!) Oh, and - what's the difference between central gas heating and gas rad heating...? Is one much better than the other?

Please regale me with your horror stories and share your good advice, so we can avoid ending making ourselves miserable and instead get the best new (rental) home we can!
posted by harujion to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Contact agents now and let them know you'd like to look at X or very similar properties still available on Y date. Yes you can sign a contract same day if you have cash to hand over.

In terms of laundry, you dry your clothes on the radiators with these and hang them out on a clothes airer. Do not rent any flat that smells of damp.

Photograph the flat before you move any items in, and then again when you leave. Do NOT tell the agent you are departing for another country when you move out. Otherwise, my rental experience through three flats was the same as the US and other EU locations.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:31 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can answer some of these.

How far in advance should we contact letting agents when we want a viewing?

I don't know if the housing market in Cambridge moves as fast as London (where I am), but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of good places are snatched up within a few days to a week of going on the market. So my advice here is that if you see something you like, try and view it as soon as humanly possible. The estate agent is under no obligation to hold the property just for you to view it, so this is best done when you're both in the country and can jump at a moment's notice to see something this afternoon/evening/in an hour. However, if there's something you really really like and you won't be able to make a viewing, you can tell the agent you'd like to put an offer down without having seen it. You'll have to pay a holding fee, but it will mean the property won't be taken out from under you while you're sorting everything out.

Is it possible to sign a contract the same day you view a property?

For a decent place run by an accredited estate agent? I don't think so, unless you want to pay cash in hand, and then you have to deal with deposits you might not get back etc.

It has been my experience that contracts are only signed once you have submitted a number of references to be checked (and paid fees for them) and they have come back clean. But you can pay a holding fee, as mentioned above, to keep the property off the market for a certain amount of time while the paperwork is being done. Do keep in mind that you will probably have to pay a holding deposit (usually about a third of the first month's rent) + reference fees (these can be anything from £40 - £100, depending on the agent) + security deposit (usually equivalent to one month's rent) + the first month's rent when the contract is signed. So be ready to pay a lot of money just to register interest in a place.

What should we always consider, apart from the rent, council tax and energy costs?

Off the top of my head: water bills, internet, phone line (which you may or may not need to get internet installed), TV license.

In places with just a washer, where do you dry your clothes?

What DarlingBri said. Or if you're super lucky and manage to find a place with a garden, you can just string up a line between two poles and peg it all up.
posted by fight or flight at 4:41 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Welcome to British letting - it's fun!

I would strongly recommend that you look around for private landlords if possible, ideally using Gumtree. While a bad landlord can be awful, I have always found them much easier to deal with in general than agencies - less likely to rip you off and screw you on deposits, easier to negotiate with, sometimes more responsive. However, you really need to do your homework on them and walk away if you get the slightest inkling that they are not quite on the level.

Some places charge per calendar month (PCM). Others charge per week, which can lead to a higher overall monthly rent as it's distributed across 52 weeks instead of 12 months.

Most letting agents will require at least month (or in some cases six weeks) of rent up front as a deposit. Many private landlords will just do a month. All deposits are supposed to go into a deposit protection scheme to stop you getting ripped off, but in practice many private landlords don't bother. Personally I've always thought them more hassle than they're worth and they remove any flexibility you might have with return of deposits (a couple of times I've forfeited my deposit in lieu of a final month's rent, for example).

Other things to think about:
  • Get an inventory and check it, even if it costs you money.
  • Take digital photographs of every room from multiple angles the day you move in, especially any existing damage, otherwise you will be screwed on moving out.
  • Check your tenancy agreement carefully (likely a Assured shorthold tenancy in England) and raise anything you want to change or exclude - it isn't agreed until you sign it and you can strike things out! For example, we removed clauses about using candles, about putting in picture hooks and about keeping a pet.
  • Take meter readings for gas and electricity the very second you move in and record them, then get new gas and electricity accounts set up and submit these readings. The utilities sector in the UK is a mess and tenant's often move out without paying bills, so you must have a record of your move-in figures. Same applies the day you move out.
Now, as to your direct questions:
  • How far in advance should we contact letting agents when we want a viewing? - It's a good idea to get in touch with letting agents a week or two in advance and set up a day or two of multiple viewings. Don't let them bully you into a property though, the tiny cost of them driving you around for a day will be dwarfed by the fees they'll get from your rent over a few years. Also surfing Gumtree is a better bet in my experience.
  • Is it possible to sign a contract the same day you view a property? - yes, good rental properties are in very high demand so you will normally have an opportunity to put down a deposit the day you see a place you like. With private landlords it is less direct, some take deposits, others will want to choose between rival tenants.
  • What should we always consider, apart from the rent, council tax and energy costs? - see above.
  • In places with just a washer, where do you dry your clothes? - many older flats have shared drying greens, but new builds you're normally going to be drying clothes on a rack inside. If you go for a house, you will normally dry clothes in the garden.
  • What's the difference between central gas heating and gas rad heating...? Is one much better than the other? - They're the same thing, but watch out for 'white heaters' or 'radiator heating' or the dreaded 'storage heating' - these are various forms of horribly expensive, ineffective electric heating that you should avoid like the plague.
  • Hope that helps.

posted by Happy Dave at 4:44 AM on August 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth I've always called a "clothes airer" a "drying horse or "horse dryer". The latter of which is strange. From Glasgow to Paris I've I've used them and never understood why people need to use dryers so heavily. (For me they're wasteful and emergency only kind of things.)

Oh and I triple looking for private landlords (but do try and find reviews of them online, I did this far too late with a slimeball landlord... he was really a slumlord... but decent human landlords do exist... but then they don't always have reviews). Agents are horrible slime.
posted by jujulalia at 4:56 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience it's quite rare for UK houses to have a dryer - particularly rented places - and don't count on a dishwasher, either.
posted by mippy at 6:26 AM on August 29, 2012

Best answer: Take digital photographs of every room from multiple angles the day you move in, especially any existing damage, otherwise you will be screwed on moving out.

Plan/budget for paying for a professional cleaners when you move out, and agree this with your landlord. Some landlords will have a particular cleaning company that they always use, and if you pay for them to clean the house when you move out:
a) you don't have to bother with the last minute cleaning frenzy after packing all your stuff,
b) if the landlord has any problems with things not being clean enough, you can just say "not my problem, I used the cleaning company you recommended".

The alternative is that you clean the place yourself, and the landlord says "Hmm not clean enough" and charges you for the cleaning company anyway.

Personally I've used letting agents and private landlords - both are equally likely to whack you with ridiculous moving out fees* (cleaning, repairs, replacing carpets, etc), so document the hell out of the condition of the flat when you move in and make sure to leave it in the same or better condition when you move out. They'll still try and gouge you but at least then you have some leverage.

*I've had a letting agent charge us for the place being dusty when the move-in inventory specifically says the house was dusty, and a landlord charge us for damage when he had showed that exact damage to us when we moved in and blamed it on the previous tenants.

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst basically.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:05 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd definitely nth suggestions to try and find a private landlord if possible. We've rented many places over the last deacade and had far better experiences with private landlords than agents. I don't know about Cambridge specifically but in London the rental market has gone so crazy that agents are asking for hundreds of pounds in 'fees' for basicaly nothing before you even move in. They are also generally more a hindrance than a help when you need repairs doing or in emergency situations.

If the market is simlar to London expect to move fast and try to have all your references and deposit in order before you begin looking. Good luck!
posted by Dorothia at 7:34 AM on August 29, 2012

Best answer: Remember that many students are also renting places on the same sort of tenancies: there are lots of places around, but they also turn over fast. I have some friends renting a house in Cambridge; they saw it advertised in the morning, arranged a viewing at midday, and paid the deposit at the viewing -- and only just got in ahead of another group. Be ready with a chequebook to jump at the first place you see that looks good.

If you are affiliated with a college, you should email them and ask if they have any suggestions. I know my college had a few rooms for staff -- including some really nice old ones onsite -- and would put people in touch with recommended landlords.

There are nice and less-nice areas of Cambridge -- where are you looking?

If you have any questions about Cambridge renting specifically feel free to ask/memail me (I studied there and have friends who rent private accommodation).
posted by katrielalex at 8:20 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by katrielalex at 8:23 AM on August 29, 2012

Not rented in Cambridge, but I have in other University towns. You may find that turnover is quite high in September/October. Some areas I've lived in seem to have different standard tenancy lengths (In Leeds it was always 6 months, in York it's hard to get anything less than a year). Usually after the fixed term it moves to month-to-month.

I've rented directly from a very relaxed landlady: she just wanted to speak to a reference (and was happy with my Dad as a referee) and then a deposit that was equal to the first month's rent.

Other accommodation has been rented via letting agencies. Some of them ask to do credit checks on you (and charge you for it). I imagine it would be pretty pointless to do that for you, but I bet it wouldn't stop the agents asking! Some letting agents also seemed to require proof of insurance: but I avoided those because it seemed like a way for them to get a commission. I have also paid a "holding deposit" on the same day as viewing a property, but I'd have been on the hook if the credit check had come back with problems.

My deposit has always been at least the same as the first month's rent, and sometimes more. As HappyDave says, the deposit should go in a deposit protection scheme.

Also nthing noting the amount on the meters when you move in, and making sure you notify the relevant utility companies of the reading. You'll probably have to consider gas and electricity for this - you may need to find out who the supplier is for the property. You'll need to make sure that the water company knows you've moved in. You may also need to check if there's a phone line or internet connection and get those re-enabled.

I'm pretty sure gas heading and central heating are the same thing. But look out for only having an electricity supply, and not having gas, as this is likely to work out more expensive.

For drying clothes a clothes horse is ideal. You can search the Argos website for "clothes horse" and "radiator airer".

From my experience when you move in it's good to know:
1) When (and where) the rubbish collections are. Whether you need to separate recyclables (and how).
2) Where the fuse box is.
posted by SuckPoppet at 9:17 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you are OK with private landlords, Cambridge used to have a great property website here. It doesn't look encouraging, but I used it several times with great results. I've also had good experiences with St Andrews if you want an agency. Rightmove just doesn't get most of the properties.

In my experience, if you go with an agency you won't be signing a contract the same day, and most private landlords also won't do this. They will want to see your signed job contracts, get your references and run a credit check on you. I don't know how that works if you're not currently in the UK.

In terms of arranging viewing, with private landlords I've usually been able to give less than 24 hours notice, but with agencies it might be a couple of days. Never any more than a couple of days because the place will have gone by then. I've had several situations where I've viewed a house and cycled straight to the agency to make the application, only to find someone has already applied.

Many places you won't get your entire deposit back no matter what you do. I've had money withheld for professional cleaning of carpets, professional cleaning of windows and 10% for breakages (we didn't break anything specific). These will usually be things dictated by your contract and the policy of that agent, so you mostly can't argue with them. I've usually had the vast majority of my deposit back.

Costs: Rent, council tax, electricity, gas, water (some places have meters), telephone, internet, TV licence, extra TV channels.

If you plan to have a car: parking permits, car tax, insurance, MOT costs, service costs. I would avoid having a car in Cambridge - bikes are better.

It's worth asking about what maintenance you will be expected to do. If you have a house with a garden some contracts specify how often you must cut the grass and things like that. I've never seen them enforced, but they probably could.

I hope you've included the streets around Mill Road in your list of target areas - it's my favourite bit of Cambridge!
posted by kadia_a at 10:29 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all brilliant advice! Thank you all so much, this is so helpful. We're currently adjusting our strategies accordingly to what we're learning here. Please, do keep it coming. These stories of scummy slime are very educational, if slightly horrifying. (I've only rented in Japan before, where - the odd xenophobia aside - letting agents are incredibly polite, organized and helpful.) If I can solicit specifics, more recommendations like kadia_a's for letting agencies that aren't horrid would be great.

katrielalex - Thank you so much! Might take you up on that offer. My partner is going to be working in Addenbrook's, so no college affiliation. Her job location also means that our search is focused south of the city (roughly Trumpington to Cherry Hinton), though we wouldn't mind somewhere central. We're not getting a car.

Finally, looking at Gumtree (which we didn't know about before this!) there seemed to be a fair number of scam posts - as in, a Google image search turned up the same apartment listed in three different cities. Are there any common scams to be on the lookout for? In Sweden, a popular one is getting hopefuls to put down deposits for places the conmen have gained temporary access to. What's the best way of checking landlord veracity, other than gut feeling?
posted by harujion at 11:00 AM on August 29, 2012

Just to balance all the horror stories about letting agents. I've rented through an agency in the UK and it was fine, got my deposit back bar carpet cleaning which I'd agreed with the carpet cleaning firm & the agency would take place after I left and to be billed to the agency and the bill was in line with the quote. Got the remaining deposit back within a couple of weeks.

I now own a flat in the UK but live in Switzerland so I let the flat through an agency. The agency always seems to find new tenants within a couple of weeks. They do take up references and make a recommendation for me to accept or reject tenants but I decide. My last tenant got most of his deposit back within a couple of weeks of moving out. So I am not sure all experiences need to be horrid - mine wasn't as tenant and my agency and I do not make it a horrid experience for my tenants.

Nthing what everybody said about heating - you want central heating, not electric anything. Having had both they do not even compare both in terms of warmth and in terms of cost.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:10 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Adding to the pile-on re heating, electric storage heaters are expensive and useless. Also, with gas heating, it's worth making sure there's a central thermostat and a timer on the heating; neither is a given.

I rented from Tucker Gardner ten years ago and would do so again; the contract was a bit restrictive and they kept some of my deposit for a final inspection fee (probably not allowed these days), but they were responsive when there were problems, which is a valuable thing. (I'm renting privately now, which, as everyone says, is great with a good landlord. I actually found the property through Rightmove; the landlord had gone with the listing-only service from Upad.)

With regard to getting your deposit back: when you move in, you should be presented with an inventory, especially if you're taking a furnished property, detailing what's in the property and what state it's in. Check it very carefully and make any alterations you need to. One friend was presented with an inventory list that included a whole room that didn't exist!

How long do you expect to be in Cambridge? If it's more than a year, pay attention to the renewal terms. Some rental contracts run in fixed one-year chunks while others go month-to-month after the initial fixed period. Breaking a contract during a fixed period tends to leave you liable for the rent and possibly council tax until a new tenant is found, and subletting is generally not permitted. On the bright side, Cambridge properties tend to be in demand, so it's unlikely to take long for the landlord to find a new tenant.

On the costs front, I don't think anyone's mentioned contents insurance yet; the landlord should have cover for the furniture, but it's a good idea to insure your own stuff separately in case of fire/flood/burglary. Contents insurance is pretty cheap, a few pounds a month if you don't have much to cover, but make sure you count everything when you figure out how much coverage you need - if you need to claim on the insurance and they decide you were under-insured, it's a problem.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is your partner affiliated with a Cambridge college? Some of them own lots of property around Cambridge and have pretty solid, affordable accomodation for mature, partnered students and faculty. It tends to be convenient as well because you pay one bill per month to the college rather than separate rent, TV, water, gas, electric, etc...
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 9:34 AM on August 30, 2012

Response by poster: Again, thank you so much for all your answers. They were incredibly helpful, and until we've fully settled in I believe we'll be in need of more such useful advice.
posted by harujion at 8:02 AM on September 1, 2012

« Older Delicate Situation, a bit complicated   |   Acoustic guitar song from This American Life's... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.