Monday, February 8, 2010

Flat hunting

My father said he would ship my computer this week, and once I have it I'll be able to be more fully online and do thinks like feed the poor, starving dragons here on on my site. Poor babies!

Last post I promised I'd talk about finding a place to live in London. One thing that's changed about the UK since I lived here last in my 20's, more Americanisms have penetrated the language. When I left, the terms were "flat" and "to let". Now I see a lot of "apartment"s "for rent". But whatever you call them, they are very pricey, something we knew long before coming.

I started my search while still in the US, using By the middle of December I had over 80 listings of flats in our price range, which led me to lower our price ceiling. Trevor is making a tiny fraction of what he made in the US, and I am currently making nothing other than a few dollars on royalties and short story sales. The stress here isn't so much learning to live on less. I actually don't mind having a simplified life. The stress is figuring out a whole new budget in a whole new country, where the relative prices are so different. Real estate is expensive - like one would expect. Groceries are very cheap - we buy the store brand of anything and everything we can. So, anyway, when a lot of properties showed up, I lowered the maximum rent we'd pay and redid the search.

When we arrived in the UK, we still had 100+ listings. Now, I suspected that many of these were properties that had already rented and that the estate agencies hadn't taken down. I was right about that. What I didn't expect was that estate agencies were very leery of dealing with a couple of foreigners, even ones who had been upstanding, suburban, home-owning, two-car driving, excellent credit score types in their former life. The first question we got time after time was whether or not we had jobs yet. When we explained that Trevor was a student on a stipend, many of them just broke off the conversation. Even though he's a student at a well thought of school and had documentation showing his income guaranteed for three years. This behavior also made me wonder how often they dealt with American families with small children who just show up in the UK with a visa and have no plans to support themselves. Who are these people?

Some estate agents wanted us to prepay 6 months rent, which was possible, but very inconvenient. We'd have to sell stock and empty out savings accounts that we've worked hard to build up. Others wanted a UK guarantor, and there was no way we'd even consider asking any of our friends to do something like that. We could tell this whole thing was going to be an ordeal, and it was further complicated by the fact that we hadn't yet opened a UK bank account. To get the kind that would suit our needs, Trevor needed to get a letter from his advisor, and this would take a few days.

In fact, everything took "a few days". Even when we looked at properties, when we asked for information on things like taxes, we were told that they would call us "in a couple of days" with the answer. In the US, a couple of days is often all it takes for a property to rent, depending on the market. We were warned by our friends, Neil and Yvonne, that it might take several weeks to get a place to live, which meant several weeks before Trevor could start work on his course.

Before our arrival, I'd narrowed down the search of London properties by neighborhood too. Imperial is in South Kensington, which is extremely expensive, areas near there that a lot of Imperial students favor, were out of the question for us. Most students are single and live with roommates. So I'd found some cheaper areas near South Kensington, and then also looked at areas of east London which are much farther away, but are along the Underground lines that go to South Kensington. The commute from each area was roughly the same, time wise. Near the school was a shorter distance with more train/bus changes. East London was a longer distance, but all one train ride.

We called estate agents and finally went to east London and just walked in to several. In the first week we managed to see several properties.

And I'll blog more on that soon!

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