The Complete Guide to Finding a Flat to Rent in London from Abroad (that isn’t Insanely Expensive!)

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Finding a flat to rent in London is notoriously a bit of a nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be.

Read on for my complete guide for finding a flat in London when moving from abroad.

Editorial credit: one pony / Shutterstock.

Figure Out Where You Want to Rent a Flat in London

First of all, it’s much easier if you know where you want to live. I've done a full post on the best neighbourhoods to live in in London, but, here are a few main points to keep in mind:

  • If you’re on a budget, you might have to live 45 minutes to an hour from work or uni. This is a great way to save some money and, if you don’t have to change tubes, you get some “me time” on your commute. I used to read, meditate, or watch TV during mine.
  • It’s a good idea to look up crime statistics in your chosen area. The Metropolitan Police and websites like this one will give you all the info you need. Don’t get scared if the crime numbers are higher than you’re used to where you currently live. That being said, it’s a good idea to check them against the average crime rate in London just to be safe.
  • Generally, living in East London will be cheaper than West or Central London. You should be able to find somewhere with good transport links there as well. However, some places that are more central have more recently been gentrified and are still fairly cheap. For example, Elephant & Castle is still pretty affordable for Zone 1.

Find a Flat or Room

Once you’ve decided on a general location, you have five main options for finding a place. While you can do this from abroad, if you’re able to, I’d recommend looking at them in person before you sign anything. Before you move, you can set up appointments for your first couple of days here and stay in an Airbnb in the meantime. The housing market moves pretty quickly in London, so if you find a place you like, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to move in within a week or two max.

1. Spareroom

This is perhaps the most popular option for finding a place to live in London. Spareroom has listings for full flats as well as, well, spare rooms in current flatshares.

On Spareroom, you communicate directly with current tenants and landlords. That means you’re unlikely to have to go through lots of background checking hoops to secure a place. Since the landlords do not have to pay a fee to fill their rooms, the rent should be a bit cheaper. There is a paid version of Spareroom but it’s still WAY less than paying an estate agent’s fees. My current landlord had to pay an agency fee equivalent to three months' worth of rent of our 12 month tenancy.

There's also a feature where you can buddy up with other people on the platform who match your profile to share together.

Best of all, it’s free to use! I found my first flat in London on Spareroom and met one of my best friends there. When you first move to London, moving in with strangers can be super fun and a great way to make friends. However, it's always best to meet the flatmates beforehand (even on Zoom!) if you can to make sure your living styles mesh.

Sometimes there’s a lot of competition for a room. In my friend’s house there are so many people who apply for a room when it’s free that they have a spreadsheet to rate all the applicants. However, if you don’t get your first choice, it’s usually not personal! Keep trying and you’ll be sure to find a place where you gel well with the house.

2. Gumtree

Gumtree is another good option for finding a flat to rent in London. However, I’d caution even more strongly against using it if you’re not planning on seeing the flat in person before you rent. At the very least, request a “live” virtual tour from the current tenant and/or landlord. It’s a good idea to try to talk to the landlord on the phone or in person as well in this case. That being said, I didn’t meet my first landlord here in person until I’d lived in the house for almost a year.

Gumtree will have a lot of the same listings as Spareroom, but may some cheaper, additional options. It’s always worth a look!

3. Estate Agents

Going through an estate agent is the more traditional way of finding a flat to rent in London. This is particularly useful if you already have flatmates you’re looking to share a whole property with and/or if you want a studio. They also now focus heavily on virtual tours which is great if you’re moving from abroad.

However, it is often more complicated to go through an estate agent if you’re not from the UK. They’re not supposed to, but a lot of estate agents discriminate against foreigners. This is often the case even if you’ve lived here a long time and can prove you’ve paid rent on time and in full for the entire period! They often require LOTS of extra background and credit checks before renting to you. I’ve even been required to have a guarantor (who owned property in the UK, which is pretty hard to find if you’re in your 20’s and your parents don’t live here) or pay 6-12 months of rent up front. They also really don't like renting to students. Unfortunately, they get away with stuff like this, so I’d generally use them as a last resort.

The one benefit to using an estate agent is you won’t get scammed into paying a deposit for a place that doesn’t exist, etc. However, if you’re careful with the other options you should be fine and can avoid the ball ache that is using an estate agent.

Also, if you’re using an estate agent, go for a smaller, local one instead of a giant one like Knight Frank or Foxton’s. They’re more likely to work with you and give you the attention you need to find the right place. The bigger ones tend to be the worst combination of INCREDIBLY pushy but also only responsive/helpful when it suits them. They generally make the experience a bit of a pain.

On that note, avoid using Foxton’s at all costs. You can read more about why they’re so universally hated in the UK here. I used them twice. The first time, when it came time to show my house they regularly tried to come in using their key without even knocking or having an appointment (which is illegal). When I found my current place, they just jerked us around LOADS (okay, rant over).

4. Open Rent

If you’re looking for a full place to share with people you already know or for a studio, Open Rent is a better choice. On this platform, you liaise directly with the landlords to rent a place. Rent is usually slightly cheaper here. Landlords don’t have to pay massive agency fees, and you avoid going through the lengthy admin processes required by estate agents.

5. Facebook

Facebook is a final option for finding a flat to rent in London. I’d generally use Facebook Marketplace as a last resort for finding housing. There are a LOT of scams and I don’t think it’s as well monitored as, say, Spareroom. However, Facebook Groups are a pretty good source. Check out groups like “[Nationality] in London” (i.e. “Italians in London”) for rooms going spare. I know lots of people who have found housing this way and, as a bonus, if you’re just moving to the UK, living with people from your home country can be a good way to help you settle in.

Ask Loads of Questions

When you’re viewing houses, be sure to ask loads of questions. Here’s my list of questions you should ask:

  1. Are utilities included in the rent?
  2. What is the average cost per month of bills?
  3. Who pays the bills (i.e. does one tenant pay for them and you reimburse them)? Pro tip: if you have recently moved to London, it’s a good shout to try to get your name on at least one of the bills to start building a credit history here and/or to get proof of address.
  4. What is the landlord like? How much interaction do you have with him/her? This one is SUPER important. I once had a landlord who forgot I was living in the flat and told some builders they could remove my windows IN FEBRUARY for two weeks while they replaced the roof, so it’s important to get a good one. My current landlord is WAY more reasonable and nice and responsible!
  5. Is the landlord good about fixing things in a timely manner when they break?
  6. How long have the other tenants lived there? What do they do for work? What time do they generally come home for work and what do they like to do in the evenings?
  7. How is the water pressure? (A lot of flats in London have TERRIBLE water pressure, so be careful of this one, especially if you have long hair!)
  8. What’s the area like? Are there good pubs nearby, etc.?
  9. Do the flatmates hang out together or do you generally independently coexist?
  10. When people have moved out, what’s the landlord like about returning deposits?
  11. Is it quiet at night (outside and also from flatmates)?
  12. Does anyone in the house smoke?
  13. Do you have a cleaner? If not, how do you split cleaning duties? Most flatshares with strangers have a cleaner that they split the cost of. It’s generally just easier, as cleaning is one of the things housemates more commonly disagree about.
  14. If you’re sharing a bathroom, what time do the others use the bathroom in the mornings?
  15. When someone moves out, are the flatmates responsible for finding replacement tenants or does the landlord take care of it?

Know Your Rights

There are a lot of rules (in place since June 2019) about renting in the UK to protect tenants you need to be aware of to avoid getting taken advantage of by shady landlords (of which, unfortunately, there are quite a few in London).

First off, your landlord must protect your deposit in an officially registered deposit protection scheme. This company will hold and protect your deposit throughout your tenancy and will be your first port of call for mediating any deposit-related disputes at the end of your tenancy. At the end of your tenancy, once you request it back, landlords have 10 days to return your deposit (or give a reason why they won’t be returning it).

On that note, the maximum amount a landlord can charge for a deposit these days is 5 weeks’ rent. If landlords break any of these rules, you may be entitled to compensation. Definitely seek advice through Shelter or Citizen’s Advice if you find yourself in that situation.

Similarly, charging tenants end of tenancy, check-in, or agency fees is now illegal, so keep that in mind. Stand up to slimy landlords if you need to!

Finally, you have the right to quiet enjoyment of your flat while you live there. Your landlord must give you at least 24 hours' notice before he or she comes into the flat, conducts repairs, or shows it to prospective tenants.

Already found a flat to rent in London and looking for more guidance on what to expect once you move? Check out my practical tips for moving to London. If you're about to move in check out my list of first flat essentials.

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