HOW TO AVOID MY SPARE ROOM HELL
By Emily Parker
The Spare Room hunt in London is a bit of a wild west. Here are a few insider tips on how to sidestep some of the biggest potential errors in your search for your first London pad.
I moved to London three years ago, fresh from a master’s degree in English Literature at Oxford and feeling probably more pleased with myself than I had a right to be. It was brilliant subject, but one so divorced from the practicalities of modern-day life I should have been more prepared for the culture shock I had leaving it. I made many mistakes in the search for my first London flat, and I’d love nothing more than to rescue these mistakes from the realms of total pointlessness. Hopefully they can provide some practical guidance on how to, or rather how NOT to, go about the monumental task of finding your first home in London.
Moving to London was the first time I’d properly lived away from home, and certainly the first time I'd had to independently sort my own housing. Arriving in this brand new big and smokey city three hours from my childhood home in Chester it did dawn on me how easy it had been up until now. My experience of finding university accommodation involved speaking to Mum and Dad, wandering around until I found some friends who seemed just as clueless and unprepared for life as me, filling out a form, and suddenly having a house to live in.
In London things were a little more complicated than that.
My first thought was to list all the close friends I had living in London. I lined up a week or two at each of the homes of various kind hosts, beginning with my godparents in St Albans. From there I started my first job - a London-living-wage internship with a think-tank. A week later I moved in with a friend in Canning Town. I did several nights there, before moving into my cousin’s in Shoreditch. I then went on to a friend’s parents’ house in Notting Hill, before then going back to crash at my cousin’s. I was couchsurfing for two months, all told.
I must caveat that I was INCREDIBLY lucky to have so many friends and family willing to give me a bed and tolerate my constantly being in their personal space, but I was also naïve to underestimate how much I would need a place of my own, and how quickly I would come to feel that way. Living out of a suitcase, whilst feeling like a constant nuisance to people you’re close to, and having to get up and go into work everyday, performing at your best, is exhausting. I would advise against this.
Learning #1 - Must not worry about how I’m going to budget when I inevitably have to pay rent, and consequently end up couch-surfing for too long. Must get onto Spare Room the minute I get to London, start looking for places and arrange some viewings.
When it did finally dawn on me that I was going to need my own space, I got myself onto Spare Room and Rightmove. It took up every second of my free time. I was constantly glued to a phone or laptop, scrolling through shit grotty room after shit grotty room. Not because there aren’t nice places in London, but because yet again I was naive. “I’m not paying more than 450 quid per month for a room, including bills,” I stubbornly told people, and told myself every time I scrolled past another depressingly bleak listing. I eventually developed the Spare Room-equivalent of beer goggles from too much browsing. I began looking at places that looked like they might have animals dying in them and thinking they looked pretty nice, then showing them to pals and being seriously offended when they grimaced or said straight up, “That looks shit.”
I ignored my better judgement though, and went to visit some of these places. This was where I made the following decisions about all future house viewings:
If you walk up to the house or flat in question and feel like you could be attacked at any moment, do not bother proceeding with the viewing.
If the entire place smells like rot and mould, turn around and walk out.
If you are actually QUEUING ON THE STAIRS to get into the bedroom you’re viewing, do not wait in the queue. Abort.
If the bedroom looks somehow smaller than the bed itself, it isn’t a viable option.
If the bed is a mattress on the floor, again, abort.
If one of the other residents is sitting at the kitchen table for the duration of the viewing, drinking dark pink rosé from a greasy glass and eating processed ham slices straight from the packet with his fingers, whilst trying to talk to you, a total stranger, about his sex life and Grindr woes, do not live here.
You’re probably going to have to drop more than £450 per month for the privilege of living in a flat in London which isn’t norovirus-infested or too small to swing a cat in.
So that ill-advised period of time set me back a good few weeks of unnecessary stress and time spent in shiver-inducingly ropey properties, but I finally did the sensible thing and sat down to work out a proper monthly budget, realising that a suitable home had to be my budgeting priority. I worked out I could actually afford £700 per month for rent on my £18k salary, and immediately the listings on Spare Room began to look more sensible.
Learning #2 - Yes, I will pay a lot to live in London. But must not think in future that I can somehow cheat the system and end up with a great pad for less than everyone else is paying. Must sit down, work out a budget, and look at places in the best bracket I can afford from the get-go.
So I was back-on-track and ready to view some more places. This took up three or four evenings every week, with some viewings at the weekend too. It takes commitment, but it’s worth it. I finally found a place. A one-bedroom flat near Abbey Road in west London. I went to view it one night after work. Despite the uncomfortable feeling I got from the building, and the woman I met inside, whose smelly dogs kept licking me and rubbing their itchy fur against my tights as I tried to look around, I said I was interested in taking the place off her. I didn’t even listen to the alarm bells clanging when this woman told me I’d have to play along and pretend to be her whilst she was away, and that if there was any trouble with the landlord I was to call her immediately. I still text her later that night agreeing to meet to exchange keys and cash over a week later.
Then for some reason I just stopped looking for places altogether. I waited, trustingly, in no doubt that I was finally to have my own flat after all this time. I didn’t much care at this point whether it was even nice.
When the day finally came, she texted me saying I was to bring her the money in cash and that she would bring me the keys at a later date. This sounded fishy, so I explained I’d like to exchange keys and cash at the same time. After a few aggressive, stroppy texts, this woman refused to sublet the flat to me. This upset me more than anything else had since moving to London. I’d wasted over a week, been messed around by a strange woman, and now I was back to square one.
Learning #3: Must not trust anyone who is obviously not the landlord, an agent or someone I know. They could screw me over, waste my time, and it could cause me a great deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
A few days of feeling utterly miserable (still sleeping on sofas, working everyday, scrolling through Spare Room every minute and attending viewings every evening), and then I was back on the horse. I’d found a beautiful little flat at the end of Brick Lane. Two flatmates - one worked at the BBC and the other worked for the government. Just the sort of place I was looking for. It had wooden-beamed ceilings, quirky art, patterned tablecloths, an AGA - an AGA!! - and a beautiful big bedroom at the back for me. I fell in love with the place. I went to meet the landlord who showed me around, and before we’d even left the kitchen I knew I wanted it. And, to my disbelief, the landlord said it was mine!
We shook hands as I left, agreeing a time to meet so I could pick up the keys and pay my deposit, and all was well! I went straight to meet my cousin for wine to celebrate. I wanted to cry. By this point I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was emotionally exhausted too, feeling a mix of inexpressible gratitude to all the people who’d put me up all this time, and guilt about the many ways I knew I’d inconvenienced them all since moving to London. This moment felt like it’d been a long time coming.
Until I received a phone call 5 minutes into my second glass of vino from one of the current tenants, explaining that they hadn’t been informed that the landlord had offered the place to me, and that they still needed to approve of me as their housemate. She asked me a few questions about myself, before cutting me off mid-speech, curtly explaining that she was 30, had an important job at the BBC, and that as a 23-year-old intern I was unfortunately, “on a different life page to them” and not at all a suitable flatmate. I can’t explain how crushing that was.
Learning #4: Must not celebrate new flat until I have met the residents, officially handed over the cash and am holding the keys in my hands.
I can’t remember much about the time period after that. I think I’d probably slipped into some sort of emotionally-dead, robotic autopilot to get myself through a few more weeks of London. We were into December, but despite being one of those people who has always loved Christmas in a way that people seem to find annoying, I wasn’t feeling Christmassy at all.
I glumly re-read a blanket text I’d sent out to all my London-based friends upon the faux-offer of the lovely flat in Brick Lane, inviting them all around to watch Love Actually and bake mince pies in December in “my new Brick Lane flat!”. I scrolled through the even more painful enthusiastic and congratulatory responses I’d received to this text. And then the two or three confused follow-ups I’d got from friends after I’d gone quiet.
Mini-learning: Must not tell other people about things until they actually happen. It’s just awkward then when they don’t.
I’d decided after staying in Shoreditch with my cousin for so long that I really liked the area. Narrowing my search down in this way helped a little, because it meant there was less choice, which made the whole thing feel a little less overwhelming and more achievable. I found a place opposite Shoreditch Park and went to view it. I won’t lie, it wasn’t stunning. It was a house, and the rooms were all a decent size, but it was grotty, dark, cold and damp. But the location was perfect, and the housemates seemed nice. I even convinced myself I could make something of the bedroom, and by this point I was desperate anyway. I said I wanted the place. The residents said they had a couple more people to meet, but they’d let me know later that night.
I almost didn’t believe it when I received a text just hours later saying they’d love for me to move in. I can’t describe the elation and the exhaustion I felt after two full months of being homeless and working a full-time job, living out of a suitcase.
Learning #5: Must pick one or two areas to look for places in. London is big, and area is key. It makes the task of finding a place much simpler. And going everywhere on foot for the first few months was a great way to get to know the city (whilst getting fitter and saving money).
I went around the following evening to collect the key, and brought all of my stuff with me. When one of the residents Kate answered the door and saw me, her face fell. My heart sank, waiting to be turned away again.
“You should have told us you were coming,” she said.
“The guys text and said I had the room?” I began deliriously, hardly believing it.
“Oh no no, you do have the room!” Kate reassured me, “It’s just...you might not be able to stay in it tonight.” She led me into the hall and up the stairs to my new bedroom door. “Now, just to prepare you,” she said gingerly, a hand on the door-handle, “There are a lot of flies behind this door.”
“Flies??” I asked, at this point not even sure if I was dreaming. Kate sighed, “Well, basically they found a dead mouse under the floorboards, which is what’s causing that horrible smell by the way. It’s been attracting the flies. We’ve got an exterminator coming tomorrow to kill them all.”
“I don’t care about the flies,” I found myself saying, “I’m so desperate for my own bed I’ll sleep anywhere.”
But the minute I turned the handle, I was eating my words. There were more flies in that room than I’ve ever seen in my life. They were swarming around the space, hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands. I felt sick. I was itchy and trembly for at least three days after. I slammed the door shut and was fighting back tears. That night one of the housemates was away, so with his permission I slept in his - a total stranger’s - bed, and cried hysterically on the phone to my parents and my best friend.
Learning #6: Must check with roommates and landlord that room is ready before turning up with my suitcase. Or better still, go through an agency, and they’ll check that stuff for me!
A week later the exterminator had been to kill the flies, my parents had come to London to help me move in, and things were looking up. When we arrived at the house that morning and the flies were all still in my room, but dead and splayed across the carpet like a thick, black bumpy rug, my mum looked like she was going to cry at the thought of me living there. But I was feeling pretty upbeat about the whole thing. She was only seeing the absolute tip of the iceberg that had been my first two months in London. We hoovered, polished, reordered furniture and unpacked all my stuff. My mum hung up fairy lights, put out candles, smoothed blankets onto my bed and stuck up photographs of my friends and family. After 2 hours of work, the place was finished, and I was finally happy. And when friends came around the following Friday for pre-drinks and to get ready with me, I was even happier.
Learning #7: No matter how old I am, the people I love in my life will always make a building feel like my home.
I made lots of errors in my mission to find a place to live in London, which wasted a lot of time. So that first house, which I ended up living in for over a year, was pretty ropey. But I was particularly naive and stubborn when I first moved to London. I wish I’d listened more to advice from friends and family, especially the ones that know London. And had I sat down earlier to budget properly against my salary, and started looking for places in my favourite parts of the city from the get-go, I’d have had a much less painful experience, and a much nicer first home!
Image by Annika Wertz