H for househunting, H for hell

One of my friends from back home started her Business degree at Warwick this year. She travelled to London for a weekend, and stayed with me in the apartment I moved into in September. We compared it to the campus life I was living last year, the very same adventure she’s going through at this very moment. Sitting in my living room, reminiscing about my 8-square-meter room, half-filled vodka bottles and disgusting kitchen utensils.

Then she started talking about the house she was going to visit the next week to move into for her second year of uni. This was mid-November. In the meantime, early January, they are close to signing a 6 bed, for which they will start paying only after the summer. Listening to her house-hunting adventures made me think back on my decision, now almost 2 years ago, to enroll at Queen Mary and not, say, Warwick, or any other midland uni in the middle of nowhere that offered me a place.

Back then, I decided to play it cool and go study in London. The city that lives and breathes greatness: countless coffee places, blended cultures, unlimited opportunities, 24/7 events, international contacts, over 250 art institutions… you name it. Of course, the big city lifestyle was going to be more stressful and (much) more expensive than anywhere else. I thought I knew what I could expect concerning the pressure and perils that come with living in London, but until I looked for (off-campus) accommodation, believe me, I had no idea what I was talking about.

Whilst friends in Leamington Spa and Brighton sign their contracts about half a year in advance, us Londoners cannot do the same. Generally, in London, everything moves a hundred times quicker, rendering the process unbearably stressful. I knew this, but I did not realize to what extent. So, let me enlighten you.

The first couple of days looking for a house over summer were lovely. I felt like an adult. I was walking the streets of London with my future flatmate, shaking the estate agent’s hand, critically looking at tiny flats and comparing them to the (much more flattering) pictures posted online. Next thing I knew, I was having coffee in a hipster Shoreditch café and discussing my options with said flatmate. Options which, by the way, looked wide-ranging and exciting at that point in time. Around the third or fourth day, reality kicked in. Here is how London house-hunting really goes down after the honeymoon phase is over:

Step 1: You realise you can’t book a viewing appointment more than a week in advance. Thus, you call only a couple of days beforehand and plan full days of back-to-back viewings. You’re excited.

Step 2: Patiently wait until half your appointments get cancelled, whether it is because the property has been taken off the market in the 24 hours since you inquired about it or because the estate agent simply didn’t show up.

Step 3: At viewings, you’re expected to practically decide on the spot whether you want to make an offer or not. If you make an offer and it is accepted, you need to put down a deposit. If you change your mind in the period between the deposit payment and the contract drafting, that money goes down the drain (or, more accurately, straight to the landlord and agent), the property goes back onto the market and the whole process starts again.

Step 4: Step 1 to 3 usually happens within a week. Then, you get the contract. Once you sign, you start paying rent as quickly as possible, irrespective of when you actually start using the premises. This means that unless you’re willing to pay for an empty flat through summer, you cannot start looking months beforehand like your friends in Manchester might do. You, almighty Londoner, are going to have to come back for house-hunting at a date closer to the start of uni.

You will, at least once, not make an offer directly when visiting and subsequently change your mind. This is where countless “sorry, another offer has already been made on this property” come in. The first rejection will be a disappointment. After a couple more turndowns, that disappointment develops into frustration, and further down the line, that short sentence will feel like a personal failure. How can the property be gone – you visited only an hour and a half ago. Do not worry, the estate agent will tell you, a wide selection of new properties has been added to the market in that hour and a half, so if your offer does not work out, you can simply start all over from Step 1. Sounds nerve-wracking, doesn’t it? You can’t even imagine.

Be mindful of landlords who take full advantage of their position in a constantly competitive market: they know their property will get rented out to someone else if you don’t take it. Be wary of shady estate agents, too; there’s about a million different agencies in the city and they are not all as reliable. Actually, let me correct myself; be wary of estate agents in general. Do not forget they work for the landlord, not for you. They will try to get as much money off you as possible. They will respond to your enquiries on the phone, but they may not even be willing to give you your landlord’s direct contact details to actually get things fixed – believe me, I have been there. Mentally prepare yourself for a breakdown a day whilst house hunting. That is, on a good day.

Now is probably the right time to mention that however shitty it feels whilst living the process, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Those two weeks may have been more stressful than most of my internship interviews, and rent in central London may be twice as expensive as in Warwick, but hey, I’m sharing a flat with my best friend now, I’m living in London, and, well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

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