Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flat Out

Since our one day of exuberant tourist fun, our time in London has been a blur of apartment hunting.  I heated up my newly minted cell phone plan calling and texting with various letting agents, trying to get viewings of apartments before they got snapped up (which they very often already had been.  Why don`t they take the listing down when an apartment is taken??)

We first managed to get in to see a very cheap flat that was over an Indian restaurant.  We thought that sounded kind of fun, and it was in a good area for the Northern Line of the tube, which is right in line with Elephant and Castle underground station, where David's school is located (a primary concern for us in apartment hunting.)  We got to Morden station (end of the Northern Line) which is an area called Merton.  Morder and Merton - that's not confusing at all, right?  

The location was great, with a number of grocery stores and a library right there.  Unfortunately, the good things about the apartment ended there.  To access it, you had to walk all the way down a very long, winding, completely unlit back alley (keep in mind that right now it is getting pitch dark by 4:30pm).  Cars kept coming wooshing down the narrow alley at top speed (in the dark!!) because there was a sketchy auto body shop tucked in to the end of the alley, where the apartment entrance also was.  The apartment was accessed by about twenty steps up a narrow fire escape-type staircase, also unlit.  Then when we got into the actual apartment, the are carpet was very dingy - blech.  We exchanged glances and left pretty quick.

That was Sunday night, if I remember correctly.  I spent all of Monday (literally about an eight-hour "work day") on my computer organizing my listings for the next day.  I had exhausted most of the ones I'd already found, and we had expanded our idea of where we might want to live, so I needed to choose a raft of new listings to call about the next day.  Having taken a few trips around the city on the rail (not to be confused with the tube or the overground) we had a better sense of what it was like, and I felt more comfortable looking for flats near some of the rail stops, and not just near the tube.  So, I expanded my search from not only Wandsworth, Balham, Tooting, Colliers Wood and Merton to Loughborough Junction, Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, and Streatham (note: pronounced STRET-am.  NOT pronounced STREAT-am.  I made the mistake of saying the latter in front of Mark the other day and I apparently will never. live. it. down.)

On Tuesday I spent all day on the phone, calling letting agents and trying to set up actual meetings.  Some would say "no, that flat is gone unfortunately," and hang up and that was that.  Some would say the same, but take my details and vow to call me back once they'd looked up flats in my area.  That being the case, most wouldn't call back, but a few would (often with flats listed higher than our budget!)  (Which admittedly was a teeny tiny little budget, but still!)  By the end of the day, I had three viewings set up for Wednesday (12pm, 12:45 in the same building but with a different Estate Agent for some reason, and 6pm) and another couple of possibilities from a very helpful lettings agent named Nick.  David got to work planning our public transit journeys from place to place - what would I do without him?

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order - here in London (as in Sydney, as we've learned from Andrew and Anthousa) most rental agreements are managed by Estate Agents, much like Real Estate Agents handle home purchases here.  There are tons of Estate Agent operations all over the city, and they all charge a hefty fee for the dubious service of adding a middle man to the process of finding an apartment.  Occasionally you can find a private landlord, but all that got us in this case was a scary back alley and a dingy carpet, so.........!

On Wednesday morning, everything changed.  The 12:45pm viewing got moved to Friday.  Twenty minutes before we were going to leave for the 12pm viewing, an estate agent from an Estate Agency called Leaders called saying a flat I had inquired about the day before (one that looked quite nice) was available to view, and could we come at 2:15?  So I had to ask David to completely re-plan our public transit experience to get us to Mitcham (South East London) for 2:15, and we ran out the door to catch our first train.

By the time we got to our first apartment, I had a text message from Nick (the helpful estate agent) who had some properties he wanted to show us, and could we meet at 3?  Oh my... have to wait to call him back until we see the 12pm place.  We got to the house where this flat was, which seemed to be in a fair enough area.  The letting agent was late and we became unsure we were in the right place, so I called his agency at about 12:10 to see what was happening.  The guy on the phone said "it's just eleven..." and I thought he meant I had the wrong time, and it was actually only eleven across in the morning.  But then I realized he was telling me it was only 12:11 and his colleague was not that late.  Thanks a lot.  Well, this guy finally arrived and brought us up to the top-floor apartment, which was... completely and utterly ripped apart.  One lone crusty guy was up there, apparently in the process of renovating it completely.  All the floors were ripped back to the subfloor, there was construction debris everywhere, the kitchen was sort of done but the new toilet was sitting in the middle of the living room floor... and no one had felt the need to mention this when the apartment was listed?  After a minute or so (since it did look to have the potential to be a cute little place... eventually...) I "casually" said, "so, when were you thinking of having people move in?"  Crusty renovation man (the Landlord??) said "I'll have it done this weekend."  But it was quite clear the estate agent was ready to let the flat to somebody now, now, now.  

Um... no, thanks.

We breezed off to our next location, the newly-scheduled 2:15 neighbourhood, and of course got there very early but, after finding the place, went to find some lunch and give Nick a call back.  We went to a little greasy spoon just down the street from 2:15 and I ordered a chicken burger with chips.  The guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted salad and I was a little stunned but figured out just in time that that meant did I want lettuce and stuff like that on my burger.  I asked if they had Fanta and he said "no, Sunkist" (I think that's what it was) so I went with that.  Similar to Fanta.

After a few bites of lunch I got back on the phone and called Nick.  We had asked about a particular place called "Peabody Estate" (sounds quaint and British, no??) and he hadn't been able to set up a viewing there, but he had a couple of other places in mind, in line with transit to Elephant and Castle (he actually listened!)  After a fair amount of back and forth, we determined we'd get ourselves up to nearby Tooting Broadway tube station (10-15mins walk) and he would pick us up from there in his car to go to his viewings.

Finished up lunch (this greasy spoon was playing the BEST music, every song was a gem, capped off with "ooooh Heaven is a place on earth!") and walked back down to 2:15, an apartment on the top floor of a row house across from Figges Marsh (a green space in STRET-am).  The Leaders lettings agent was already there (10 points) and smartly dressed in a suit (10 points!)  He showed us the flat, and we were quite impressed by it.  We asked all our questions and looked around with more interest than we had the previous ones.  The letting agent was even kind enough to tell us that there had been a previous offer accepted by the landlord that was quite a bit lower than the asking price, but that tenant's references hadn't panned out.  Ooh, this is good knowledge.  We thanked him, and as we motored up the street to our next engagement we began to get very excited about the possibility of this apartment panning out.  What to do now??

For the next couple of hours we were chauffered around by the chatty and helpful Nick, who brought us to a house that had two flats available, one two-bedroom (cheap for what it was but still above our price range) and one one-bedroom.  It also had an outdoor staircase, but not as sketchy as the Indian restaurant one.  Unfortunately, the one bedroom flat had - get ready - no sink in the bathroom.  The only sink was in the kitchen, two rooms away.  Weird??

Next he was going to take us to the quaint-sounding flat in Peabody Estates.  However, I started to feel less sure about it when he was hemming and hawing a bit, and he said "well, you know, it's an estate in Peckham," with the same tone in which you or I would say "it's subsidized housing at Jane and Finch" or "it's in Moss Park" (or for you Dallasites, "it's in a project in East Dallas.")  But... the name "Peabody Estate" sounded so agreeable!  Well, our decision was made for us a moment later when Nick received word that it had been taken.  Well, there you go.  Helpful Nick kindly dropped us back off in Dulwich around 4:15.

Whew!  What a day.  We ended up cancelling our 6pm viewing, in the end - read on to discover more!

A selection from some of the hundreds of London flat listings I've read in the last few weeks:

"Luxury studio available to rent in Westminster."
(I'm sorry, but a one-room apartment can't be luxurious!!)

"The property is situated in a Very Desirable Area."  
(Listing written by A. A. Milne?)

"Lovely one bedroom to let in Clapham North, where all the cool kids live!"

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