I’ve got this energy beneath my feet, like something underground’s gonna come up and carry me…
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
There are few things more important to a Londoner than the tube map. Nothing is more important to a working Londoner than the tube, the local name for the Underground system ran by TFL. I remember one time there was a tube strike because the train drivers wanted higher wages, and it completely disrupted the city’s way of life. In the hospital where I work, cases were delayed because both patients and nurses couldn’t get to work. The buses were so crammed that if, like me, you’re just barely over 5 feet you were basically standing under somebody’s armpit. And that’s only if you were fortunate enough to get on a bus at all. It was one of those times that I felt extremely lucky that my flat was at a walking distance from work. It really got me thinking about a) how much Londoners depend on a working tube system; and b) the close relationship between the tube and the choice of where to live.
Deciding where to rent in London is a really big and often difficult decision, especially if you’re new to the city. You don’t have enough information to know better and I think everyone’s first London flat always has that tinge of desperation on it, like we settled for the first available house or flat that would have us, even it means sharing a room with another person and losing all privacy. You learn from every experience though. God know I have, and I think I’ve come a long way from Mount Pleasant Road, where I had to constantly look over my shoulder when I come home at night to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Now, because I don’t want any of my potential followers to go through the same experience, I thought I’d share some tips on looking for accommodations in London.
Have a budget and stick to it.
This comes first for me because London is an expensive city. All those stories about astronomical flat prices are not exaggerations. If you’re not smart, you could end up paying half your salary for what is basically a double room in a tiny flat that is an hour’s commute from work. Figure out how much you are willing to and can afford to pay and work around that when looking for flats.
Have a selection criteria
I am not suggesting that you have to make some obsessive-compulsive checklist, but I do suggest that you have a mental checklist about the things that are important to you when it comes to living conditions, and highlight which ones you refuse to compromise on. For example, I will gladly pay a little extra money to know that I live in more or less a safe neighbourhood. You cannot pay me to live in Peckham. I’m sure its a perfectly fine area but I went there once I just got bad vibes. Which leads me to my next point:
Do a preliminary visit
In most cases, you will have a viewing before you decide to rent a house or flat, and i think this is a really great idea. No only does it allow you to check out the house, you also get a chance to have a feel of the neighbourhood. Sometimes decisions can be based on the most mundane of things, like that quirky cafe a few blocks over your flat that you can just picture yourself reading a book in or that park that you can see yourself running in. I personally like the hustle and bustle of the city, and I feel at home anywhere there are lots of people. I guess its the kind of security that comes from knowing that you’re never really alone. Doing a visit also gives you the chance to check out what the transport is like to and from your prospective address. Do you have decent access to a bus stop? What is your nearest tube station, if you have one? These are all important questions to consider.
As I said, commuting comes part and parcel with working in London. You really want access to a tube station, and more to the point, you want to be on a line that provides the most direct route to work. I know it’s sad to plan your life around work, but let’s face it. On average you will be spending 37.5 hours a week at work, why add commuting time to the time you’re already losing to work??? I’ve always said I will gladly pay an extra 100£ for an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning. In an ideal world, you want your flat to be on the same line as the nearest tube station to the place where you work and still be affordable. Here’s why that wouldn’t necessarily work.
London is divided into Zones. I work in Warren Street, right in the heart of central London, which comprises the whole of Zone 1. If the map below, which shows the average cost of renting a one-bedroom flat on each of the tube stops, is accurate then I would have to be living as far as Edgware or High Barnet (Zone 6), which is probably an hour’s tube ride away at least, to be able to afford rent. And even then its equal to nearly half of my monthly salary.
This map basically tells you really can’t afford to rent a one-bedroom flat on a nurse’s salary. If you attempt to do so, you’ll basically be spending all that money on a flat you don’t get to enjoy because you’re working overtime shifts to be able to pay for said flat. Most people opt to flatshare. And you can look for those on sites such as Gumtree, or Spareroom.
There are also other options available for key workers such as nurses and teachers. We get what they call intermediate rent price, which is a lower price compared to what someone who’s not a keyworker would pay. Housing associations that offer intermediate renting include Catalyst Housing and Genesis Housing Association. Generally, you have to fill in an application form and wait for it to be approved or your employer may have arranged this for you before you even arrive. I’ve lived on flats provided by both of those associations. the latter being the official provider of accommodation for those who work for our hospital. And let me tell you, there are definite pros and cons
The highs and lows of living in a housing association
As the header of this post suggests, its all about location, location, location. There’s really no faulting the location of the buildings owned by housing associations. Most of them are in central London or if not, an easy commute away. On average, it probably took me 25 minutes via bus to get to work when I was living at Ashgrove Court (Catalyst). It took me 10 minutes to walk to work when I was living at John Astor House (Genesis). Both locations were really central. Ashgrove Court is a short bus ride away from Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Market. John Astor House is close to the famous shopping areas of Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road.
However – and the same is true for flatshares as well – having a flatmate that you get on with depends mostly on the luck of the draw. I once had a flatmate who had some kind of light that she shines over the kitchen surfaces so she’ll know whether I’ve cleaned it properly or not. We also had washing facilities inside our room, and as her room was next to mine she claimed that she can hear the drip of the faucet whenever I failed to close it as tight as I should. Seriously, this person threatened to report me to the council for singing along to the songs on my iPod because this was apparently not allowed after 10pm. Jesus. Its a funny anecdote now, but back then I had only been living in London less than a year and I didn’t realise I was being bullied in my own flat until much later.
John Astor House took the meaning of cramped to an all new level. I never really understood the term “matchbox-sized room” until I moved there. But I thought, you know, this is probably better for me because JHA was more of a dormitory than flat. You don’t really have a “flatmate” and after living with a psychotic one for about 2 years, this was a huge draw for me. JHA also had cleaners who were responsible for cleaning common areas. What I failed to realise is that the cleaners were off on the weekends, and that I would be smelling how good other people’s Friday night went whenever I have to go to the toilets on Saturday. The toilets, like the kitchen, are shared by at least 10 people maybe more. Boy was it interesting to take a leak in those toilets come weekend. Do not let me get started on having to wait to take a shower that is shared by more than 10 people, some of whom take forever to have a bath. I wake up some nights to people either running screaming down the hallways or “unmentionable” noises in the room next to me as other people…”get to know each other” if you know what I mean.
Unfortunately, if – like me- you’ve been hired as a nurse in one of the hospitals and you don’t know anyone in London, chances are your first flat would be in one of these accommodations. Its the easiest choice, I suppose. In these accommodations, the rent you pay per month includes bills and council tax. You don’t have to worry about setting up all kinds of payments, which is a huge help during the first few months when you’re still settling. Its not that bad. You get to meet a whole lot of people from different walks of life and you get to meet people who may have been in the same position as you 6 months earlier who can give you the benefit of their experience. You get to have some kind of support system in these accommodations because everyone there more or less knows what you’re going through as a London newbie because they’ve all been a newbie at some point. Some of the things that people have done for those who are new to London just restores your faith in humanity. Some of them buy cookware for you, or give you some of their secondhand stuff for free. They cook you welcome dinners in the common kitchen, show you around London and do what they can so you feel just a little less lonely. I was lucky because whilst my first London flat was not an accommodation and left much to be desired, I already had lots of friends here who gave me the support I needed.
If you do decide you’ve had enough of accommodations, you can try your hand at looking for a flat of your own. Maybe you decide its worth paying the hefty price for the sake of comfort and privacy. Its up to you. The important thing is to plan ahead, consider different options and to move only if you’re absolutely sure its right for you. Moving flats is a huge undertaking and requires a lot of organisation, you do not want to do it again and again and again. Believe me, I’ve moved flats three or four times and it amazed me how much stuff I’ve managed to accumulate in all the years I’ve lived in London. In addition, two or three bedroom flats are probably cheaper than one bedroom flats so be on the lookout for potential flatmates.
For those working in and around central London, there are ways that you can get affordable flats. That’s what I did, because let’s face it, without the benefit of key worker discounts there is no way I’ll ever be able to afford a flat in Soho. Visit Peabody Housing or Dolphin Living for more details and a list of areas where developments are being built. You’ll probably have to be living in London for at least 18 months to qualify for these though, so if you know someone who’s been here a while who might be a good potential flatmate, maybe you can lure them into moving with you so that you can ride on their coattails. This what I did for my sister. I applied for both of us because I had been living here longer and was therefore eligible for the scheme.
I hope this helped. Either way, don’t get too worried about accommodation. These things have a way of falling into place in a way that you don’t expect. Enjoy the experience of being here. Welcome to London, newbie!