It depends a little on which part of the market you are in.
If you’re at the low end, for example if you are looking for a room in a shared flat for less than £600 or a cheap one bedroom place (maybe going up to £1200) you need to bear in mind that this part of the market moves extremely fast. It’s not uncommon for a room to be let in a weekend (I’ve done it myself). Use web sites directly, don’t bother going into an estate/letting agents’ – they will only waste your time trying to upsell you to something that is out of your budget. Be ready to put a deposit down on places you like very fast. I would turn up to viewings with your chequebook in order to pay the deposit on the spot. After you see a few places, you’ll get an idea for what is a good deal for you money. Depressingly, what you get in London is normally not a lot!
If you’re in the middle of the market, for example, looking for a typical one or two bedroom place or a nice share, it might be worth your while going to a letting agent. They could conduct a search on your behalf, or, more likely, they will just walk you through what they’ve got at the moment. Some of the bigger chains (Foxtons, Hamptons, Savills) will have quite a lot, and will possibly refer you to another branch if you aren’t finding what you want. Honestly though, you’ll probably get a lot further going through the web
I don’t have any experience renting at the top end, but I’d imagine the main difference from the middle of the market is that volume is a lot lower and things move more slowly.
Some general tips:
– Plan your commute from what you rent. Cycling is getting a better and better option in London. Buses take longer than trains, but are less frequent after midnight. The tube stops completely after 00:30. The circle line normally doesn’t run on weekends.
– Be aware of scams, especially on Gumtree, which has a reputation for scams. Never, ever, ever give anyone any money unless you’ve seen the propertyand at least got a copy of the contract. Things can be a bit ropey at the lower end when you’re often taking over a previous tenant in a house or flat share, but don’t budge on this.
– Try hard to speak to all of the other tenants if you’re sharing. Find out why there is a vacancy.
– Don’t forget to account for bills when working out your budget. You’ll have to pay for gas, water, electricity and council tax (unless you are a student).
– Look at Wikipedia to learn about different areas.
– Ask whoever shows you around what the council tax band is. Given the council tax band and knowing which borough the property is in, you’ll be able to tell exactly what you’ll have to pay for council tax. You’ll also have to pay some tax to the Greater London Council. Some boroughs charge less tax than others (specifically, Westminster and Wandsworth)
– Ask what the previous tenants pay for water and electricity. I’d make them dig out their bills if they don’t know. You’ll pay a LOT more in winter.
– Some properties (especially at the low end) have pay-as-you go electricity and/or gas where you topup a card or fob and insert it into the meter. These metered utilities are more expensive than the arrangement where you pay every month (maybe 20%?).
– Be prepared to prove your income. You’re employer might have to write you a letter and you might have to produce bank statements. You’ll also normally have to produce some kind of identity document – a passport or driving licence.
– Walk around an area you’re not familiar with and decide if you like it. Is there a nearby supermarket? Does it feel safe?