Renting in London doesn’t have to be shit

Yes, renting in London is tough and overpriced. But you don’t have to accept it.

Looking for somewhere to live in London is fucking depressing. Online searches, courtesy of Zoopla, Right Move and the like, seem to offer either overpriced shitholes or even more expensive regular places. Space is at a premium thanks to the greediness of landlords and the many perks of living in London.

Take an average from online searches for a 2-bed flat and you’re looking at a minimum of £1,000pcm (excluding bills) for a flat featuring one small double, one single that you can only fit a bed in if you don’t mind not being able to shut the door, and a kitchenette either stuck on to the living room as an afterthought or so small that you can only get half a person in there at a time. (I’m not exaggerating; these are actually descriptions of some of the flats I viewed when looking for a 2-bed with my partner. The place with the single room as above was described as a “good-sized two-bedroom apartment”. After that, we didn’t bother with anything termed “cosy”.)

Go into an estate agents and tell them you’ve got an upper rent limit of £1,000pcm and three things will happen:

  1. They’ll pull that “ooh, that’s gonna be tough” expression – that wince you normally only used to see on a plumber’s face when you asked him how much it’d cost to fix your blocked sink.
  1. They’ll tell you how rare 2-beds in that price range are, and ask you if you could manage with a 1-bed instead.
  1. When you tell them it has to be a 2-bed, they’ll keep sending you to view flats that are c.£50-100pcm over your budget, despite what you’ve said at the start, and they won’t tell you the exact price until after you’ve looked round.

You can do two things at this point:

  1. Admit defeat – it’s pricey, pricey London, after all – and struggle to cough up the extra dough month after month, sacrificing things like having fun, eating right, and being warm in winter.
  1. TRY HARDER.
A grubby little estate agent touching your money

A grubby little estate agent touching your money

What I’m about to tell you goes against the vast majority of rental experience in London. Yes, renting property in London is competitive and grossly overpriced. Yes, many landlords are greedy arseholes who know what they can get away with (and will try it on even with the stuff they can’t get away with). Yes, you aren’t just paying to live in the property, you’re paying for the perks that come with where it’s located. And it’s worse for couples. Generally speaking, you get a much better deal if you share as a group of three or more. I guess wanting to live with your partner comes under the heading of “perks” for which landlords can justify pushing up the rent.

Nevertheless, your number one policy when looking for property to rent in London must be that of non-acceptance. Do not accept that you are asking too much to find a 2-bed flat and keep it under £1,000pcm. Do not accept that your rooms will have to be poky, or unfurnished, or that to get a good deal you will have to live in a terrible area with sod-all transport links into town. There are good places out there (with good landlords) – you just have to expand your search.

Start early. If you know when you’re going to be moving, start searching a couple of months in advance. Yes, I know most places will want you to move in either immediately or with no more than a month’s notice. But starting early gets you a feel for the current market, along with contacts and a sense of what estate agents mean when they use certain phrases. It also gives you time to sign up to agents in the areas you want to live in and get an idea of which ones are fairest in terms of fees etc.

Get your name on some lists. Go visit some estate agents. Discuss what you’re after and don’t budge from your budget. If you have an upper limit, you’d be screwing yourself and your landlord to exceed it. Badger them regularly and go view some places, even if they’re available now. It’s all good practice and all good information and experience.

Talk to people. You never know which of your Facebook friends might have connections to a friendly landlord with a property due to become available around the time you’re looking to move. I know that sounds a bit far-fetched, but that’s exactly how I came to be living where I am currently. “Dealing direct” allows you more flexibility in negotiating things like monthly rent and what might be included in that – landlords are more willing to offer you a reasonable rate because they aren’t staring into the giddying maw of agency fees, which are often substantial for both parties. Also, they are dealing with “real people”, rather than renting through a middle-man to total strangers – it builds a degree of trust, which can also encourage a landlord’s generosity.

Be a bit flexible with your requirements. The place you move to doesn’t have to be a palace – you can make it what you want once you’re in. Make it your home – if it needs a bit of work (fresh paint job, for example), be prepared to roll your sleeves up. The result: you’ll get it looking the way you want it, and the landlord doesn’t have to shell out on decorators (making him or her less likely to increase your rent when review time comes around). The cheapest way to get your hands on some decent quality paint is by visiting a paint reuse project like The Paint Place, where you can buy surplus/reclaimed paint from as little as £1 per litre.

Yes, I know it's beautiful - but you'll only have to clean the damn thing...

Yes, I know it’s beautiful – but you’ll only have to clean the damn thing…

Many landlords justify charging obscene rents because they’ve just had the place done up to look really good. Well, that’s great for them, isn’t it, but it’s no business of yours if they want to put in a deluxe shower or marble tiles shipped in from bloody Rome. They should be giving the place a rudimentary smartening-up – a lick of neutral paint, replacement white goods if they’re knackered, and so forth – and ensuring that it functions as a place to live, not throwing a ton of glitter at it and then charging you extra. You’re looking for somewhere to call home, not a polished turd that you don’t dare step in.

Hoof it. Your dream pad doesn’t have to be situated right on top of a Tube or train station. So what if you have to walk for five or ten minutes to get on to the network – GPs recommend 20 minutes of walking per day to gain a whole host of health benefits (including warding off cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer). So, move somewhere a bit cheaper that requires you to walk to and from the nearest station. You’ll be healthier, and you’ll have more money. Oh, and all that free exercise means you won’t have to pay out for that gym membership. There, that’s saved you even more money per month. You’re welcome.

Look further out. Okay, no one’s going to insist you live in deepest darkest Cheshunt or [crosses self] Luton – apart from anything else, even places this far out are now costing too much thanks to their “excellent transport links” (that’ll be an overpriced journey by train into the capital every day, which would eat up any savings you’d make by renting that far out).

Empty Tube Train

Start your journey from farther out, and you too could get your pick of the seats! There’s often a view out of the window, too.

Anyway, the point is that, if you’re within walking-distance of a Tube station, even one in zone 5 or 6, you really aren’t that far away from Central. Travelling within zones 1-3 can often take far longer than it should due to the higher population density. If you’re going to lose some of your precious time on a packed train platform or a bus at a standstill, you might as well just start from further out – at least you’ll get a seat.

And it won’t necessarily be more expensive – take my old journey to work, for example. I used to live in Oakwood (zone 5 Piccadilly line) and travel to Old Street (zone 1 Northern line) every day. You can either do this by getting the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross and then changing to the Northern line (takes around an hour), or you can take the Piccadilly line to Manor House (zone 3) and get a 141, which, er, takes about an hour.

The difference is that the first journey will cost you a zones 1-5 travelcard, but you can do the second journey with a zones 3-5 travelcard, which comes with an all-zones bus pass thrown in (because, unlike the Tube network, buses don’t have travel zones). A zones 3-5 weekly travelcard is approximately half the price of a zones 1-5 weekly travelcard. Which should hopefully go some way towards mitigating the agony of having to use public transport a bit more than your financially-crippled, Central-London-dwelling colleagues.

So – I can’t give you any guarantees, of course, but the above will increase your chance of not getting royally screwed for rent in the capital. It’s a ballache, I admit, but pressing on instead of accepting what estate agents and online searches tell you is “the average” can really pan out. It can mean the difference between you paying £350pp, pcm in a three-bed sharer two minutes’ walk from a Zone 5 tube station, or £650pp in a five-bed sharer in Zone 3. Given the choice, I think I’d rather keep that extra £300 a month and spend it on getting myself out of London altogether every once in a while. But that’s just me. I’ve met people who love London so much, they move into Zone 2 and never go on holiday. This article probably isn’t for them.

Advertisements

Sustainability: What’s in it for me? How we owe it to ourselves to be better consumers

My waste composition analysis adventure (see last post for all the grisly details) certainly highlighted a couple of things for me. First, it seems the UK throws a shitload of stuff away every week. Second, a lot of what’s thrown away is still usable, whether it be materials for reuse or recycling, or food that could’ve been eaten.

In various conversations over the years, I’ve noticed a certain minority attitude to waste in general, and recycling in particular, that I find both counterintuitive and counterproductive. It’s a sort of suspicious, harassed, borderline-paranoid opinion, which views the council/government (for they are one and the same in such conversations) as The Enemy, throwing around red tape willy-nilly, choppin’ and changin’ the rules, with the sole intention of making life difficult for The Working Man. The common question from such people, when confronted with any request to change household waste disposal habits (particularly with regard to recycling), is “Why should I?” All usual arguments against this aside, my very brief and essentially selfish answer is that “it will cost you less money!”

Sod the environment for a sec – not wasting resources is beneficial to you, the consumer. Let’s start by exploring the part of this topic that makes me saddest: food waste.

If you throw away food, you’ll have to buy more of it, which will cost you more money.

This is a complete and utter no-brainer. Okay, so the pros and cons of recycling are a dark and mysterious beast, with so-called experts arguing about whether it’s actually worth recycling, politicians using contradictory stratagems for point-scoring, and journalists scaremongering and getting it wrong half the time, I mean, I understand why some people just ignore it…

But food? If you buy food, and then don’t eat it, you have wasted your money as well as wasting the food. That’s it, really. Yes, I know that supermarkets make those oh so tempting offers – the multibuys, the BOGOFs – but consider this: the more we buy (and often waste, because we’ve gone and bought more than we can eat before it starts smelling funny), the more has to be produced. That means more land, more people to grow or raise the raw materials, more storage facilities, increased transport and storage costs… Who do you think those extra costs get passed on to? Stand up and take a bow, it’s you.

I Need One Red Pepper.

I know that supermarkets teach us, through their advertising, that we are ‘losing out’ if we don’t go for the best value option. Take the following example, using prices from a major UK supermarket chain. One red pepper costs 60p, but a mixed pack of three costs £1. The supermarket is telling you that, selling them three at a time, peppers only actually cost 33p, but to buy them singly will cost you almost twice as much. It’s tempting to go for the three-pack, as it’s better value. But you only need one pepper. What are you going to do with three times the amount of peppers you came in for? Yup, it's one red pepper

If you can think of a way to use the other two peppers before they go wrinkly and horrible, I commend you. However, I know from personal experience that often these extra, unwanted items end up languishing in the fridge drawer until they are good for nothing but the bin. To be responsible consumers – only buying what we need rather than falsely inflating demand, pushing up prices and adding to landfill – we need to just buy the one pepper.

And, logically, isn’t it better to spend 60p on something you need than £1 on something you don’t? If you only end up using the one pepper you originally went in for, but you bought three, you haven’t just wasted two peppers (and all the energy that went into growing, transporting, storing and packaging them), you’ve also wasted 40p. That 40p could have gone on something else you actually needed. It’s only “better value” if you are going to use it all.

Here’s a few little food-saving points to consider next time you’re standing poised over the bin, unopened packet of veg or whatever in hand:

The “best before” (or even “use by”) date is not some magical deadline – the carrots aren’t going to turn to mulch in the fridge come the stroke of midnight, the milk isn’t going to curdle, the eggs won’t have metamorphosed into black slime in their shells once their date has passed. Use your common sense (and your other senses, while you’re at it). I’ve found that many items are fine past their date if they’ve remained sealed, due to that good old “protective atmosphere” they were packed in. Have a look, give it a sniff, but please don’t rely wholly on the date. It’s a guideline to be paired with common sense, not an absolute to blindly obey.

The Cow Says: my tits hurt, stop wasting the milk!

The Cow Says: my tits hurt, stop wasting the milk!

If it’s in date, it’s in date – I observed some strange behaviour in a previous job a few years ago. Due to a communications error, the staff kitchen ended up receiving two deliveries of milk. One of my colleagues, having checked the dates on the cartons, opted to open the one that had the furthest date on it. The cartons delivered earlier in the week were still in date, but only by a couple of days. She dismissed the option of using these because the second delivery had provided her with the opportunity of using milk that was “even fresher!” Never mind that the carton in the first delivery wasn’t even open. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. If you use the milk that’s likely to go off first, you won’t end up wasting a load of milk.

Impulse buys – if you’ve bought something cheap because it’s got only a day or two until its use by date, and you’re not sure when you’re going to use it, stick it in the freezer. I mean, check it’s something that can be frozen (preferably before you buy it), but most things can be. Then you can just retrieve it when you’re ready to eat it. Easy.

Fruit and veg – it is so saddening – nay, maddening – to see fresh produce binned, especially given that the West is apparently in the grip of an ‘obesity epidemic’ and we could all do with a more balanced diet to help stave off things like diabetes and heart disease (and constipation, flatulence, bad breath, not to mention that sluggish no-energy feeling that follows a sugar crash). FRUIT AND VEGETABLES CAN BE FROZEN, either with the minimum of preparation e.g. chopping up and then boiling for a couple of minutes, or just thrown raw into a Ziploc bag and bunged straight in the freezer. Have a quick look online, all the information you need is there.

Bread – oh, but there are SO MANY WAYS to use up excess bread. I’m not a fan of the thin pre-sliced stuff myself, but even this can be made to last longer by sticking it straight in the freezer (you can toast it from frozen, or give it a few seconds in the microwave for sandwiches). If on the other hand you’re faced with the last third of an uncut, rapidly drying loaf (and you aren’t in the mood for French toast), you can chop it up into breadcrumbs, which can be bagged and frozen for later use in a variety of recipes (again, plenty of ideas online). Or just tear it up and put it out for the local wildlife. At least then it’ll get eaten, rather than going to rot in landfill. Personally, I reckon this Apple Charlotte recipe is the best way to use up leftover bread (if using frozen breadcrumbs for this, don’t defrost them first).

And Now For The Inedibles

Here’s another no-brainer for you: the more material we recycle/reuse, the less we have to create from scratch, and the less we have to store in landfill. We have this little thing here in the UK called Landfill Tax, which is exactly as it sounds: we get taxed on the stuff we send to landfill. It’s in place to discourage us from sticking everything in a big hole in the ground, because the quicker we fill that hole, the sooner we have to either enlarge it or dig a new one (a process that is patently untenable in the long term, unless we start moving that shit up to the Moon. No, we are not doing that).

At its most basic level, why the hell are we putting perfectly good resources into a large hole in the ground? If we can use this stuff for another purpose, we should. When I buy a new pair of jeans I don’t take the old pair out to the park and bury them. That would be bloody weird.

This is another example of how we as consumers have a duty to acknowledge – and be responsible for – where our goods come from, and where they go when we’re done with them. Here are some points to think about:

Digging for jeans

Bob Evans of Conwy Vale, having realised he should never have bought skinny jeans, searches in vain for his buried flares.

Don’t you want that? Someone else might – So your toddler’s grown out of that ridiculous plastic chair thingy with the squeaky bits on it. It’s still usable, you’ve just run out of appropriately-aged people to use it. Fine. Stick it on Freecycle, or Preloved, or Gumtree, or a Facebook group for selling/giving away stuff in your local area. There are tons of ways to get unwanted crap out of your house without condemning it to a stinking hole in the ground (where it will stay, uselessly using up a portion of Planet Earth that we could’ve used for something fun, for many years to come, because plastic never goes away – it doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into lots of tiny pieces that get all over everything[1]). And this goes for loads of stuff: toys, clothes, books, CDs… Sell them, give them away, drop them off at a charity shop – but make sure that, if they’re still usable, someone else gets to use them.

“Recycling is a waste of my time” – Er, no it isn’t. It barely even takes any time. You just don’t want to have to make a change. Admit it: you just can’t be bothered. True, it does take a tiny bit more effort to stick an empty jar in the sink and run the hot tap into it for a minute than to just drop the jar into the bin… But then it takes a tiny bit more effort to drop that jar in the bin than it does to just leave it on the kitchen worktop for someone else to tidy up, and we all learned how to cope with that monumental change when we moved out of our parents’ place, right?

Recycling isn’t gross – I know some people don’t recycle some of their cans and bottles because they can’t bear to wash the last sticky bits out of the bottom of them. How the hell can you be too grossed out to wash the last remaining bits of food out of a container, having just eaten the rest of its contents? What, you’ll put it in your mouth but you won’t get it on your hands? That’s just weird. As for the empty tins from dog or cat food, well, it doesn’t smell that great, I’ll agree, but it’s still just leftover bits of food. It isn’t going to hurt you.

Recycling isn’t difficult – Ok, so some councils aren’t exactly clear in their explanations of what can and can’t be put out for recycling. A recent WRAP study[2] revealed that confusion and a lack of confidence about “the recycling rules” are still causing a significant number of UK residents to put recyclables into general waste rather than risk getting it wrong. Fortunately, many manufacturers are now writing helpful things on the side of their packaging, detailing the main materials and whether or not they are widely recycled. And, as ever, there’s plenty of information available online. My local council website, for example, has a lovely long list of recyclable materials, including examples of common items and clarification regarding what to do with mixed-material items. Check your own council’s site; there’s probably a proper explanation available that they just couldn’t fit on their leaflets. The Rubbish Diet is also a good source of helpful advice and encouragement for those wishing to give “bin-slimming” a try.

I admit it: recycling, finding new homes for our unwanted items, and being a bit more organised in order to reduce food waste, all take a bit more effort than we’re perhaps willing to put in, given our hectic lives. But even one small change can make so much difference.

However, if I haven’t tempted you to at least think about it, by pointing out the benefits to your health and your wallet, as well as that whole personal-social-environmental responsibility lark, then perhaps you’ll never be convinced, and in that case I shall leave you in peace with your weird, money-wasting, couldn’t-give-a-fuck lifestyle. I’ll just go talk to someone more willing to try making a little change. Just a teeny tiny little change or two. Y’know, for their own benefit.

Okay, I’m going now.

[1] See these two examples of where plastic “goes”: http://grist.org/list/beer-a-magical-mixture-of-hops-barley-and-tiny-pieces-of-plastic/ and http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/bees-are-building-nests-with-our-waste-plastic

[2] http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/barriers-recycling-home