Renters despair over cut-throat London market

Landlords hit by mortgage increases due to interest rate rises pass on higher costs to their tenants, pushing up prices to record levels


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Estate agents rental boards advertising properties to let are pictured outside a row of Victorian terraced houses in Lavender Hill, in south London. -- AFP
Estate agents rental boards advertising properties to let are pictured outside a row of Victorian terraced houses in Lavender Hill, in south London. -- AFP

Published: Sun 16 Apr 2023, 11:26 AM

With soaring rent prices and cut-throat competition, Cyndi Cheng, 34, thought she would never find a place to rent in London after moving from Hong Kong earlier this year.

Her disillusionment is shared by many who have had to act fast and bid high to secure a home in a competitive rental market fuelled by high tenant demand and a dwindling supply.

Stories abound of prospective tenants being asked to pay 12 months' rent up front to secure a property, offering more than the asking price and detailed background checks.

Cheng says she was regularly "ghosted" during her search.

One landlord refused to let her view a property because she did not have a full-time employment reference, having just moved from Hong Kong on a UK special visa granted to residents after the imposition of China's security law.

"It's just hard for all these boxes and criteria to be out there in a rental market like this," she told AFP. "The competition is keen and real."

Housing body Propertymark found that for every 10 new prospective tenants registering in its member branches in February, there was only one property available for rent.

Matt Hutchinson, director of SpareRoom, a popular flat-sharing platform, said the hardest part for renters is "getting the attention of the landlord".

"Most people aren't even getting a viewing," he added.

Cheng eventually secured a "tiny" property, relieved that the stress of endlessly checking her messages to see if she had been successful is over.

London rents have historically been higher than the rest of the UK but in the first quarter of this year they have sky-rocketed, a SpareRoom study said.

Now, the average room rent in London is at a record high of £952 (nearly $1,200) per month.

As mortgage rates and other cost-of-living pressures jumped last year, landlords passed on costs to tenants or simply chose to sell, pushing up rents and squeezing already hard-pressed supply.

This is the "hardest time we've ever seen for renters, and we've been running the site for 20 years now," says Hutchinson.

Joey Mazars, 28, has been on the other end of the letting ad.

Last November, he and his flatmate put out a call on SpareRoom to find a third flatmate. Within 48 hours of posting, they received around 120 messages.

Unable to sift through all, Mazars had to eventually use random criteria to filter out applicants, from how their SpareRoom profiles looked to discounting those with "weird hobbies".

"We had to find any reason eventually to not choose them," he said.

Even then, Mazars added, the process took them hours. "I hope I don't have to do it again soon," he said.

Just two years ago, the situation was "dramatically" different, he explained. Only last year, he had received a mere handful of responses to an ad.

Will Barber-Taylor, digital campaigns officer at Generation Rent, which advocates for renters' rights, says many are hesitant to even enter the market, and have "been forced to stay in housing conditions that don't suit them".

This includes people staying in relationships that they want to leave and living in disrepair because they fear being unable to find a new place.

"There is a general worsening of people's lives," he said.

The government has promised to bring forward this year a long-awaited Renters' Reform bill that aims to improve conditions for renters.

However, Hutchinson fears that the regulations will reduce the number of rental properties.

Even though rent prices are high, Hutchinson says, landowners are reluctant to put properties on rent due to regulations and high interest rates.

"The market doesn't work for anybody at the moment."

Paris Williams, 24, has been on the rental market for over a year now, and has faced practices that she considers discriminatory, including being asked to share her LinkedIn profile.

Williams says that discrimination is rife right now because more landlords and prospective flatmates are "picking and choosing".

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