Our quest to find a flat in London was nothing like an episode of House Hunters International. Unfortunately, it was a lot more involved than spending an afternoon looking at attractive properties and choosing our favorite of the three.
London’s rental market is competitive and pricey, and as expats with no UK credit history, my husband and I were at a disadvantage.
Despite all of these challenges, we found the perfect dog-friendly rental in a great neighborhood. Flexibility and preparation were the keys to our success. If you want a low-stress method to find a flat in London, check out this detailed guide.
Although it’s written with expats in mind, most of this guide is applicable for anyone trying to find a flat in London.
This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, click here.
Plan everything around your visa timeline
The biggest struggle to find a flat in London was timing our visa application with our flat search. Because you need to mail your passport with your final visa paperwork, you won’t be able to travel while your application is being processed.
In addition, you’re supposed to document in your application every international trip you took for the past 10 years. If you submit the online application and then take a trip to London, you’ll have a discrepancy between your travel history and your visa application.
Finally, the UK’s Right to Rent law requires that tenants prove they are legally eligible to to rent. For expats, this means your entry visa needs to be approved and printed in your passport before your allowed to move into your flat.
However, it’s still possible to do your flat search ahead of time and get the paperwork started. We secured our flat with a deposit, and then emailed the estate agency a photocopy of our UK entry visa two weeks prior to moving in.
London flats tend to come on the market between 3-6 weeks prior to the available date. Depending on your home country, visa type, and work situation, this could make a pre-relocation search trip too challenging.
Instead of trying to find a flat prior to the move, you’re better off renting an apartment for the first few weeks. That way, you’ll have a comfy home base for conducting your search, and you won’t feel pressured to secure a place before the big move.
Although we were able to time everything just right thanks to our short UK visa processing time, it was stressful to only have one day to conduct our search.
If you aren’t sure how to get a visa, check out my detailed guide on how to move to the UK!
Set a budget
London consistently ranks as one of the world’s most expensive cities for cost of living. It’s one of the biggest cons of living in the capital.
While conventional wisdom in the US states you shouldn’t pay more than 30% of your income on housing, many people in London spend 40-50% of their take-home pay on rent.
Different estate agencies (i.e. rental firms) and landlords also have their own threshold for how much tenants must earn. In our case, the landlord required that tenants have a combined salary of 3x the annual rent amount.
Coming up with a reasonable budget for housing expenses can be challenging for expats. Depending on your contract and pay structure, it can be difficult to determine your monthly take-home pay.
Money Saving Expert’s salary calculator was a helpful starting point for us, but the best thing to do is ask HR/payroll to send you a pay stub estimate. Having an accurate budget is essential for deciding what neighborhoods to target, and figuring out how much space you can afford.
Of course, there’s more to monthly expenses than rent. See my monthly breakdown of our London cost of living to help you determine what to budget for food, utilities, transport, etc.
If you’ll be commuting to work in London, Transport for London (TfL) has helpful tools for finding single fare costs and weekly/monthly travelcard prices.
Dining out is pricey here, but you can save some quid if you know where to find cheap eats in London.
UK renters also have to pay council tax, which is the equivalent of US property tax. The amount you pay will depend on the borough you live in, as well as the value of the property.
KFH has a useful council tax tool that will show you the tax bands for every borough. Once you have a few neighborhoods in mind, use the tool to help you make a conservative council tax estimate. Note that students don’t have to pay council tax, and single occupants get a 25% discount.
Finally, don’t forget to factor in other goals, like retirement and travel. Many expats dream of exploring new destinations, but overspending on housing will reduce your vacation fund!
Learn the London flat terminology
By now, you’ve probably realized that flat=apartment. But there are plenty of other property-related terms that you’ll need to know to find a flat in London, especially if you’re moving from the US.
- Purpose-built: The equivalent of a US apartment complex. The building was originally constructed for flats.
- Converted: A building that was renovated to contain flats. Most of the rental properties in London will be in a converted house. Trendy areas may have flats in converted warehouses and churches.
- Studio: A flat consisting of a combined living, dining, kitchen, and bedroom space, with a separate bathroom.
- Flat share/House share: A living situation where you’ll be renting a room inside a flat or house. Due to high rent costs, many Londoners choose to live in shared accommodation.
- Terraced: A property that’s attached to the houses on either side of it. It’s equivalent to the US row home.
- Semi-detached: A property that’s attached to a house on one side but not the other.
- End of terrace: Same as above, except the property will be at the end of the row of houses.
- Maisonette: A house that’s been split into two separate flats, each with their own private entrance (as opposed to the typical shared entrances of terraced houses).
Create a list of deal-breakers and must-haves
London is a huge city, and there will be thousands of places on the market that fit your budget. In order to narrow down your search, you need to come up with a list of non-negotiables.
Note that these are different from your preferences, on which your willing to be flexible. For example, we had “dog-friendly” as a must-have, while “dishwasher” was a preference.
Your list of deal-breakers and must-haves should be well thought out and also fairly short (no more than 5-6 things in total). Here are a few things to consider when coming up with your list:
- Property type (ex: converted house vs. purpose-built complex)
- Commute time
- Proximity to tube/train station
- Number of bedrooms
- Number of bathrooms
- Garden/outdoor space
- Kitchen amenities/space
- Proximity to London grocery stores
A Note on Shared Accommodation
As I mentioned earlier, there are many Londoners that live in a shared flat or house due to their limited budget. It’s the easiest way to save money while living in the city.
As an expat moving to the UK, the minimum salary required for your visa to get approved means that you should have no trouble affording private accommodation. Because of this, I’m not going to get into the details of finding flatmates and rooms to rent.
Should you decide that renting a room is right for you, SpareRoom is a popular online platform for finding various types of shared accommodation.
Research London neighborhoods
From the posh and quiet Highgate to the trendy and youthful Dalston, London has a neighborhood for everybody. But with so many choices, it can be hard to narrow down your search.
Fortunately, GoodMigrations created a neighborhood guide tool to help you identify the boroughs that fit your personality, preferences, and budget. Having never visited the city before, this tool gave us a great starting point to find a flat in London.
You can filter the 158 London neighborhoods down to what fits you best, and then click on the guide(s) to learn more about the area, including its safety, walkability, schools, and restaurants.
Commutefrom is another great starting point for figuring out what neighborhoods will work with your ideal commute time. You can put a general area (ex. “south”) in the From field and choose the closest station to your work in the To field.
This only gives the station to station commute time, though, so you’ll need to consider your walk to/from your flat and workplace as well.
This is where Citymapper comes into play. Citymapper is an essential app for Londoners. It tells you–in real time–the fastest route between two destinations. You can adjust the departure time to see just how long it will take you to get from your potential flat to the office during Monday morning rush hour.
Finally, use Google Maps to take a virtual walk down your potential neighborhoods’ streets. Find a couple of residential roads and a main drag and go to the Street View. This helps paint a picture of what the buildings look like, the condition of the sidewalks, etc.
London Expat Neighborhoods
The Big Smoke is filled with foreign-born residents, but there are a few areas that are considered London expat neighborhoods. For example, there’s a large Aussie population in Clapham, a sizeable Zone 2 neighborhood south of the river.
South Kensington and Notting Hill reportedly attract American expats (I’m sure the eponymous film has something to do with the latter). And Islington’s affordable rental market makes it a popular London expat neighborhood for all sorts of people, including those from the EU.
Personally, I moved to London to experience local London life, so I wasn’t keen to choose an “expat neighborhood”. However, if you have difficulty adjusting to new situations or want to make friends quickly, consider finding flats in London expat boroughs.
Use websites and apps for finding flats in London
Once you’ve come up with a list of potential neighborhoods, it’s time to peek inside the flats for rent. There are tons of apps and websites to find a flat in London, but the three that I found most helpful were Movebubble, OpenRent, and Zoopla.
Movebubble has a website, but the mobile app is much better. You can create a profile with your budget, moving timeline, and preferred neighborhoods, and it will keep tabs on what’s new to the market that you might like.
It will also show properties in similar neighborhoods to the ones on your list, which is helpful for finding new places that flew under your radar. For some properties, the app also lets you request showings and make offers.
OpenRent is an online platform where private landlords list their rental properties. These flats will be managed directly by the landlord, rather than an estate agency. If you’re planning to relocate with pets, I highly recommend checking OpenRent listings, as it’s much easier to search for pet-friendly accommodation on their site.
The downside of OpenRent is that the stock is limited, so you might not find what you’re looking for in a property.
Zoopla is the most popular website to find a flat in London, and its travel time search allows you to filter results by commute time. Simply enter your commuting destination, budget, and property preferences (click “advanced options” to toggle off the shared accommodation if you want a place to yourself).
Save me for later!
Find reputable estate agencies for your top London neighborhoods
The trouble with using websites to find your dream property is that they aren’t always up-to-date. Estate agencies are notorious for leaving properties marked as “available” long after they have gone under offer. And if the property is listed with multiple agencies and it goes under offer with one agency, the others won’t update the listing status.
That’s why working directly with an agency is important, especially if your window for flat-hunting is only a few days.
Hamptons International and Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward (KFH) are two large and (in my experience) reputable agencies that represent a large number of London properties. They have branches in most neighborhoods, so they are a great choice if your time is limited.
Usually, you can set up a half-day viewing appointment with an agent, and they’ll walk/drive you around to a few properties that fit your criteria.
Alternate Option: Work with a relocation agency
If you live overseas, it can be quite complicated to find a flat in London. And if you’re a busy professional, you probably don’t have much time to spend researching neighborhood attributes and setting up viewing appointments with multiple estate firms.
Although I did spent a lot of time researching London neighborhoods, my husband and I ultimately decided to work with a relocation agency.
My husband’s company referred us to their preferred agency, and we were given a consultant who managed our search. The consultant did everything from connect us with an independent estate agent who knew our desired neighborhoods to negotiate the terms of our tenancy agreement.
Relocation services aren’t cheap, but if you have the money, it will make everything go more smoothly.
If you’re moving to London with pets, I highly recommend the property search specialists at Pets Lets!
Plan your London flat hunt trip for mid-week
According to the independent agent we worked with, Tuesday-Thursday is the best window to find a flat in London. This is because landlords often contact estate agents early in the week about wanting to list their property.
It can take a few days for agencies to upload a new flat listing on their website. Thus, mid-week viewers can see places that aren’t public knowledge.
Of the five flats that we viewed on a Wednesday, one had just been listed that morning, and another wouldn’t officially come on the market until that Friday. If you wait until the weekend, you’ll be competing against far more potential tenants.
This is also a helpful strategy if you’re doing a pre-relocation search trip. You can arrive in London on Saturday and spend the weekend scouting your preferred neighborhoods. This way, you can confirm if what you saw online matches reality, and weed out any places that don’t seem so great in person.
RELATED: Ultimate 4 Days in London Itinerary
Have references ready for your income and pets
Before you commence your in-person flat search, make sure you have your references and paperwork ready to go. For expats, estate agents and landlords will want to see a letter from your employer that confirms your salary and employment conditions.
If you’re moving abroad with pets, contact individuals who may act as pet references, such as a previous landlord or boarding/daycare worker. Some people even recommend writing a pet CV to submit with your application. We didn’t need to do this for our German Shepherd, but our landlord was very open to tenants with pets (most aren’t).
Ensure you have access to GBP for the deposit
One of the snags we encountered was having access to British Pounds (GBP) for the deposit and agency fees. Some estate agencies will accept debit card payments, but their payment systems don’t always work with foreign debit cards.
We ended up using Wise (formerly Transferwise) to make the necessary payments. It was SO much easier and cheaper than trying to do an international wire transfer from our bank back home.
We still regularly use Wise to move money between our US and UK bank accounts, and after the move, I opened up a Wise Multi Currency bank account so I can get paid and send money in around the world.
Do a thorough investigation during showings
When flat hunting day arrives, you need to view every property with a critical eye. This is your opportunity to ask questions and identify any red flags before being rushed into a tenancy agreement. And believe me, some estate agents will try to rush you through this process.
As you walk through the property, use your phone to take photos for future reference. In particular, make note of the following items (via photos and/or writing):
- Is the entryway shared or private?
- Is there a designated parking space?
- What appliances are included?
- Does the furniture come with the flat?
- What size bed will fit in the bedroom(s)?
- Is there an alarm system?
- Do the windows open, close, and lock firmly?
- Are the sinks, toilets, and showers in working order? Is there any mold present (check inside sink cabinets)?
- Are there any cracks or damaged spots on the floors, walls, or ceiling?
- Are there any exposed wires? Do all of the lights function?
- Is the outdoor space shared?
When the time comes to enter into a tenancy agreement, these notes will be invaluable. Any repairs you want done before moving in must be recorded in your tenancy agreement. Otherwise, the landlord will have no obligation to patch that hole in the wall or replace the stained hallway carpet.
Be flexible with your move-in date
Remember what I said about flexibility being the key to flat hunting success? If you find the perfect place, but it’s not available on your ideal move-in date, that’s okay. You could move into short-term accommodation while you wait.
If the property is available before your relocation date, you could try and negotiate a later move-in date with the landlord. It’s possible they would like a few extra days to do some repairs or touch-ups.
If they insist the contract start on the advertised available date, you might have to pay rent on a place you’re not living in yet. Depending on your financial situation and how much you love the flat, it could be worth it.
Be prepared to offer on the spot
You need to get comfortable making quick decisions in order to find a flat in London. It’s not uncommon for properties in trendy areas to go under offer within hours of the first showing.
If you see a flat that you know ticks all of your requirements, don’t hesitate to make an offer on the spot. At the very least, make a decision before the estate agency closes for the day. Otherwise, be prepared to lose out on your favorite place.
To clarify, making an offer is not the same thing as the formal application. You’ll usually fill out a short offer form with the estate agent, or just submit your offer in the body of an email.
At that point, the estate agent will present the offer to the landlord, and the landlord will select their preferred tenant to go forward with the application process.
Fill out your application and referencing docs in a timely manner
If you were lucky enough to get your offer accepted, congratulations! You’re nearly at the end of finding a flat in London.
The next part of the process involves a lot of moving parts and getting documents reviewed and signed, so it’s important to stay on top of things to avoid move-in delays.
You will be asked to pay a holding deposit when you submit your application. This also includes an agreement with the estate agency that the property will be taken off the market (note that if it’s listed with multiple agencies, they may keep the listing up on their website).
At this point, you’ve made a soft commitment to the property. If you back out, you will lose the deposit (normally equal to 5 weeks’ rent).
There’s also a referencing process that involves a credit check and a reference from a prior landlord. Some estate agencies use a third party to manage the referencing process, while others carry it out internally (or the landlord does it themselves).
Note that if you fail the referencing process, you’ll get your deposit refunded.
Nothing is legally binding until you and the landlord sign an official tenancy agreement, which is the final contract that locks you into the rental.
It’s critical that you read through the draft tenancy agreement in detail, as mistakes can come back to haunt you later.
Always confirm details are accurate, such as the date rent is due and the amount you owe each month. And be sure extra requests and add-ons are present, like a pet clause or gardening service.
Once you and the landlord are satisfied with the draft agreement, you’ll be given a final copy to sign. After both parties have signed, you’ll be allowed to pick up the keys the day your tenancy starts!
Bonus Tips to Find a Flat in London
Here are a few more insider tips to make your flat hunt a smashing success:
- Dryers are rare in the UK, so don’t go looking for one. Also, air conditioners (a.k.a. air con) are uncommon but usually unnecessary given the weather.
- If you’re looking for a pet-friendly flat, be prepared to offer more than asking on the monthly rent and security deposit. This will make you a more competitive tenant.
- If you aren’t sure about the location/your work situation/neighbors, ask for a six month break clause. This will allow you to terminate your tenancy agreement at the six month mark with the appropriate notice (usually no later than two months prior to the six month mark). But be warned: landlords usually want a reciprocal break clause, which means they can also end the agreement.
- London’s public transit system is known for delays and planned works (i.e. shutdowns), so keep that in mind when evaluating your commute options. If you choose a neighborhood that’s only served by the Overground (rail), heavy rain, wind, or snow can ruin your commute.
- Like many US cities, there is variation within London neighborhoods as well as between them. Make sure to walk the blocks around your desired flat to really get a sense of your surroundings.
- Use this moving to London checklist to ensure you don’t miss any paperwork deadlines or fall behind on packing!
Are you ready to find the perfect London flat? Let me know if you have any flat hunting questions or tips in the comments section!
Want more travel + relocation tips?
Become a member of my Patreon group for exclusive access to my resource library, including:
- Printable packing lists for moving + travel
- Money-saving tips
- Insider travel guides
- And much more