30 August 2009

Finding a Flat in Edinburgh: The Apartment Hunt

(This is the second post in a two-part series on finding a place to live in Edinburgh. You can find the first post here.)

Finding a place to live is tricky business in any city. When you're moving to a new city, or even a new country for that matter, it only gets trickier. Add in the chaos of the Edinburgh Festival, as we did, and you're in for a pretty wild ride.

This guide, put together with other Edinburgh newcomers in mind, will help you make quick work of your househunting--and save a few pounds in the process.



What You Need:

  • At least five nights at a local B&B. Not only are most B&Bs budget friendly, you can ply the proprietors for information about your new hometown. The Visit Scotland listings are the place to start. (Note that, if you're arriving in Edinburgh in August, you'll need to book at least six weeks in advance.)
  • A mobile phone. If you don't have a UK mobile, you can rent (try Adam Phones) and have it delivered to your B&B.
  • Internet access. If your B&B doesn't have wireless, consider springing for a 3G wireless modem (Adam Phones again), or a hotspot service like BTOpenZone.
  • A draft list of properties to view. Use the websites reviewed here.
  • A map of each target neighborhood. Print one from Google and label every property you'd like to view, with the name of the letting agent, contact info, and monthly rent. Update as necessary.
  • A Visa check card. Don't forget to put a travel notice on it. Try to get the lowest foreign-currency transaction fee you can.

Before You Arrive:

First, familiarize yourself with Edinburgh's geography and identify a few target neighborhoods. The city centre is very walkable, and Lothian offers excellent, affordable buses, so don't be afraid to cast a wide net. And don't rely on the postcodes--they have almost no connection to the actual neighborhoods. For this step, a map search like that provided by LettingWeb is best.

After you've gotten an idea of where you want to live, and you've booked your B&B, use these three sites to start making a list of flats you'd like to view. Start about two weeks before your departure and you should have at least a few properties still on the market when arrive. Even if you don't, you'll at least have a better sense of the market. You'll also get to know some of the letting agencies that have properties in your area. Write their contact info down and mark their offices on your maps.

Then, on the last couple business days before you leave, try to schedule a few viewings for the day after you arrive. You'll have time to schedule more once you're in town.

Finally, if you don't already have a UK bank account, you may want some local-currency travelers checks. You can order them for a small fee through American Express and pick them up at the airport in Edinburgh. Order at least enough to cover te equivalent of two months' rent on the priciest place on your list and pay with your Visa upon arrival to get the best rate. This will make reserving your flat easier (see below).



Let the Hunt Begin:

If you can, try to book a flight that gets you to your B&B around midday on a Monday. If you've done your homework, you'll have a phone and internet access waiting for you, so you can spend that first afternoon updating your list of flats and scheduling viewings. Don't forget to confirm any viewings you've already booked.

Your goal in scheduling viewings is to see as many flats as soon as possible: not only do flats turn over quickly (three flats on our list were let less than 24 hours before our viewings), you want to get into your new flat before your B&B reservation runs out.

The typical viewing will take about 10-15 minutes, so plan accordingly. A half-hour between appointments is more than enough time to get between properties in the same neighborhood; leave about 45 minutes if you'll need to take a bus.

When you go to a viewing, take a notebook and a digital camera, and don't be shy. Ask everything. Here are a few important questions and, in parentheses, the answers you want to hear:

  • What's the coucil tax band for the property? ("A" is the cheapest, though full-time students are exempt.)
  • Double-glazed windows? (Yes.)
  • Gas central heating? (Yes.)
  • Cable point? (Yes--for TV and for speedy internet.)
  • Subletting OK? (Yes, if you hope to make some money from your place during the Fringe.)

Note that many letting agents are also residents of the neighborhoods they show, so don't be afraid to ask about local grocers, pharmacies, restaurants, etc.

At the end of each viewing, then, jot down a few notes about the place. What did you like? What didn't you like? Could you live with the place if you had to? If the answer to this last one is "no," dump it. If "yes," no matter how tentative a "yes," don't rule it out. Hopefully, though, at least one of the places will feel like home.


Going In for the Kill

If you find a place you like, don't wait. Go straight to the letting agent's office if you can; if not, schedule an appointment for as early as possible the following morning. At the very least, you want to get in before someone else has a chance to view the place.

To reserve your flat, you'll be asked to put down 25% of the deposit. Most letting agents prefer bank transfers; some accept credit cards, but charge a steep fee (around 3.5%); very few take cash. If you ask, though, many agents will let you cash your travelers' checks at the agent's bank, deposit the money directly into the agent's account, and bring in the receipt.

You'll also be charged a non-refundable application fee (ours was GBP35) once you've been led through the lengthy application process. If you're a foreigner, some letting agents will ask for a guarantor, and use your inability to find one (you've just moved here, for pete's sake!) as an excuse to levy a larger deposit. This is normal, but remember that it's illegal to demand a deposit of more than the equivalent of two months' rent.

A letting agent might also ask you to pay a certain amount of rent up-front, before you move in. Normally, they ask you to pay up through the end of the next calendar month. Sometimes, as a semi-legal means of discouraging undesirables (read: students and foreigners), letting agents will demand enormous amounts up-front. One agent even asked us to pay six months' rent before moving in! If someone asks the same of you, do us all a favor and tell them, politely, where they can stick it.

Keep in mind, though, that most rental contracts will have a fixed term of between 6 and 12 months; you're on the hook for that rent in one way or another, you just don't have to pay it up-front.


Moving In

After you've reserved the place, but before you move in, the letting agent will run a quick background check, which takes 3-5 business days. Don't be shy about asking to speed the process up: every delay costs the landlord money, too.

Before you move in, you'll also need to put down the rest of the deposit and pay your rent through the end of the first calendar month. You can use the same process described above, supplemented by cash if you run out of travelers' checks. Luckily, if your card issuer gives you any trouble, you've got a phone and time on your hands.

After you've paid up, the letting agent will bring you in to sign the lease and get your keys. You'll have a few more bits of paperwork to wrangle--an inventory, a cleaning order, stuff like that--but your letting agent will be able to walk you through.

Otherwise, it's on to the first order of business: finding a good local pub!


A Note on Safety

Throughout this post, I've assumed that you'll be renting a property through a letting agent rather than directly through a private landlord.

For safety and convenience, it's best to avoid private lets.

Letting agents are in the business of renting, and their success depends on building a good reputation with both tenants and landlords, so it's in their best interests to be kind, professional, and fair. There are fine upstanding private landlords out there, but in general the convenience and security offered by letting agents are worth it, especially for foreigners, who have less access to safer forms of payment, like domestic credit cards or bank transfers.

If you do fall in love with a private let, though, be sure you read these articles before paying a penny.

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