A while back, like thousands of ruddy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed Kiwis before me, I left the sunny, if avocado-free, shores of Auckland for the drab weather, poor customer service and sticky carpets of London.
Having bid an unfond farewell to Auckland’s housing hysteria, I “pfffted” at the prospect of flat hunting in London. “I’ll be set up in a room atop a castle turret, complete with a clawfoot bath and bidet, in no time!” I thought.
Au contraire. Try looking for a flat in central London without getting ripped off by waxy-haired property agents or Bible-quoting online scammers. Or waking one morning to discover you’ve inexplicably signed a two year lease on a black mould covered rathole in a suburb claiming to be London, but whose manhole covers proudly proclaim Croydon – like finding yourself sentenced to life as a Hamilton-to-Auckland mega-commuter.
I moved here with a good job in my back pocket (nothing to do with my blondeness or aptitude for flirting with older men) and a decent understanding of where to start looking. But even with a reasonable salary, the process of finding a minuscule cupboard to call my own – or God forbid, trying to buy in Greater London – was easily one of the most stressful and precarious experiences of my life.
I started my search by approaching a letting agency. My experience with them began with being perpetually ignored, and ended with me standing on a roadside in the friscalating dusk light, surrounded by an ever-expanding gaggle of prospective tenants, each glaring at the other while smoking furiously.
When I did show interest in a property, I was cheerfully informed that my squeaky clean New Zealand rental references would be as well received as a one-day-only, all you can eat KFC voucher during the 40 Hour Famine. In an oily voice, and with barely hidden pleasure, the agent told me he might be able to talk the landlord around if I paid six months’ rent up front. When I replied with non-euphemised displeasure, telling him he had a shit show in hell of getting $11,000NZD out of me, he claimed three months would do, only to backtrack yet again when I said I’d rather leave it to some other mug. This level of money-grubbing dodginess was one step too far for me, and I left the agency creeps for the private sector.
If you are moving to London with hopes of living in a converted church or on a charming Victorian industrial estate, well, I hope your father is an ex-futures trader with a successful career in politics, because otherwise there will be no Location Location Location happy ending for you. In the past two months I have been shown the following monstrosities:
- A studio claiming to be fully self contained, but which had a shower in the all-in-one room and a single toilet on another floor, shared with five other flats.
- A place so small there was literally half a metre between the bed, the “kitchen” and the bathroom door.
- My personal favourite, a one bed flat claiming to feature “all mod cons” but sharing a toilet with the dentist’s office downstairs (don’t worry, it’s only used by the public during working hours!).
It turns out, my rental horror stories are far from uncommon – and neither is someone trying to rip you off. The Gumtree “nice guy” scam is a step up from the dethroned Nigerian prince, but only just: on enquiring about a flat, the hopeful renter (that’s me in this case, but friends have experienced this scam too) receives a vast email explaining in excruciatingly pointless detail the landlord’s life situation: their job, qualifications, wife, children, preferred clothing brand etc. Followed by the offer of prayers and blessings from their God. He or she claims to have been screwed around by prospective tenants before, so an initial condition of viewing the flat is a bond deposited with a second party which will be refunded should you chose not to take the flat. This is where the squeaky clean façade starts to curdle. Handing over a bond before you’ve even viewed a place sounds ridiculous to me, but I wondered how many people naively transferred hundreds of pounds to a “Scottish Deposit Holding Company” before realising there was no flat, or possible hope of a refund.
In my case, the reply “Kevin” received from me included the following; Google image searches proving the photograph of his “family“ was ripped off a Romanian portrait photography site, links to the real listing for the flat from a realtors site and the following message: “Scamming people is the epitome of scummy. God is watching you and judging your behaviour. You’re a terrible human being and I hope you get what will inevitably be coming to you.”
Due to my current life situation (a semi-impoverished museum worker slash writer) I am yet to be in a position to purchase anything larger or more homely than a name-brand toaster. So, in lieu of personal experience I asked my friends and colleagues about the realities of buying in the London housing market. It turns out the English property market is as poorly organised and ineffectual as their sporting teams (a joke for my dad, there).
Let’s start with the astronomical prices. All up, with fees and unforeseen palm greasing, you’re looking at paying NZD $400K+ for a a studio hovel in a nightmare suburb, on a scary housing estate, on the outskirts of London, with no tube access and only one recalcitrant bus service, on which you will spend four hours each day crying quietly into your off brand handbag surrounded by screaming toddlers, sweaty old men and gobby youths.
But that’s not the worst of it. The whole process of buying a flat in the UK is a nightmare of biblical proportions. Your entire future happiness relies on “The Chain”. The Chain (of purchase) is the catalogue of people/estates relied upon to complete so you can sell one house and buy another. Ergo: the dude selling your dream home has to find a house he wants to buy and the people living in that house have to find and purchase a place they want to buy. And on and on until one day you realise you have been waiting 45 years to finalise the contracts on your first home and it’s time to move straight into the nursing home with the other ageing millennials to drink turmeric lattes and take endless selfies from your rocking chair.
In London, The Chain can stretch on into infinity. Any estate agent you speak to will cheerfully tell you the whole process will take approximately six to eight weeks once your offer has been accepted, but from my intensive research I can tell you this is a crock of shit. I have been told anywhere from five months to a year can go by before you finally exchange on your contracts, during which any member of The Chain can pull out and ruin the sale for everyone.
One such situation occurred in the purchase of my colleague’s home. Their chain consisted of only six properties, and after much contract juggling and money wasted on lawyers, everyone involved settled on a deal. Unfortunately, at the last minute one man informed his seller he wanted to pay £20k less for the house he was buying and that he was going on holiday for two weeks, somewhere beyond all contact. He was pretty much holding everyone else to ransom, but was well within his legal rights to be such a total and utter bastard. The other members of the chain, knowing they were over a barrel, banded together to pony up the extra £20K to allow all their contracts to complete. The bad man got his money and the only retribution will be of the karmic variety or at the pearly gates of St Peter.
Don’t mistake my facetious tone for hubris. The prospect of coming back to New Zealand one day with hopes of buying a livable structure anywhere within the Super City boundary wakes me at night in a cold sweat. But after my experience with the London market I expect I’ll feel relieved to be out of the British pan and into our less extortionate Kiwi fire.