Work out a budget
“Have one laid out, so you know exactly how much you can afford, taking into consideration that it shouldn’t just be the rent,” says Pancham Bansal, a helpline adviser at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.
“It’s got to be all the other things associated with it: bills, council tax, buying furniture, and insurance.”
When it comes to the actual rent, leave some wriggle room – or target homes that are on the market for less than you can afford. “We’re finding that a lot of properties are going for over the asking price,” Bansal says. “So you may need to go for those that are advertised for less than your budget.”
As a very rough idea of prices, average advertised rents outside London for all property types were £1,278 in the third quarter of 2023 – 10% higher than the same time last year, according to property website Rightmove. In Greater London they stood at £2,627 a month, up 12.1% since last year.
Know what you want
“Make a list of the things that are really essential for you in a home,” says Tim Bannister, a property expert at Rightmove. “Save time and effort by eliminating places that don’t match that list. That way you go after those you really want.”
Be willing to compromise
Dan Wilson Craw at the campaign group Generation Rent says: “In a lot of cases, people will have in mind an ‘ideal home’, in terms of where it is, how big it is, what it has in it and so on.
“But when it’s so incredibly competitive, like it is right now, you also need to think about what you can compromise on. Can you put up with a smaller home, even if it’s just for a short period, because you’re expecting to earn more soon? Is it possible to move further away from the area you prefer?”
Get in quick
“Letting agencies make money by getting the property let, and they spend resources by answering the phone and taking people around to do viewings,” says Al McClenahan at Justice for Tenants, a non-profit organisation offering advice and support. “They will want to take the first set of tenants that seem reasonable.”
With that in mind, you need to move fast. “Inquire as soon as the property goes online, which you can do by setting up alerts on some of the property sites,” McClenahan says. “Push to have the earliest possible viewing time. If it goes online on a Monday, and when you call they say they have viewings planned for Friday and Saturday, it’s probably worth saying ‘do you have anything earlier? I’ll be in the area on Wednesday and Thursday,’ because you don’t want to arrange to go on Saturday, then get told ‘actually, someone’s already taken it’.”
Pre-empt the paperwork
Think about the information that the landlord or letting agent might want – payslips, bank statements, references from previous rentals – and have that ready. If you like a property, confirm your interest by email as quickly as you can, and attach all of your pre-prepared information.
McClenahan says: “Send a politely worded email, explaining you very much like the property, you will take great care of it and treat it as your home, you’re clean, neat, and courteous. You’ve never had any problem paying rent. This is where you work, you get paid this amount, and here are your references.”
Do your research
Make sure the letting agent and landlord are trustworthy. A legitimate letting agent will not charge tenants administration or referencing fees. These have been illegal in England since 2019.
The agent must belong to either the Property Ombudsman or the Property Redress Scheme, and must display membership of their client money protection scheme. In Wales, they must be registered with Rent Smart Wales and belong to a redress scheme. In Scotland, letting agents must be on the Scottish Letting Agent Register.
You should be given a copy of the tenancy agreement to read before you are asked to sign it.
“Check that the name of the landlord shown on the tenancy agreement is the same as that on the Land Registry,” McClenahan advises. “It costs £3 to find out who the owner is. If the name on the agreement is not the owner, and they haven’t disclosed any change to you, there is a high chance you’re going to get scammed.”
You can legally be asked for a maximum of one week’s rent as a holding deposit in England and Wales (but not Scotland, where the practice is not allowed). That means that they can’t offer the property to anyone else. “The idea is they get some certainty that you’re actually interested, while they run referencing checks,” McClenahan says.
“Before you move in, they can ask for a maximum security deposit amounting to five weeks’ rent in total in England. That is held securely in case you damage the property.” (The maximum in Scotland is two months’ rent.)
Get everything in writing
Communicate by email as much as you can in the lead-up to your tenancy, so you have a paper trail. Once you have moved in, be certain to raise any existing issues of damage or disrepair that you might not have noticed before. Make sure you take photos and send emails.
Know your rights
Until, or maybe unless, the much-anticipated renters’ reform bill comes into force, landlords in England are still able to serve a no-fault eviction, or section 21 notice, giving tenants two months’ notice to leave. If this does happen, you may be able to challenge it. Organisations including Citizens Advice, Shelter and Justice for Tenants can offer advice.
One of the first steps is to investigate the legitimacy, or otherwise, of your landlord. If you can prove they or the letting agents are not operating within the law in other areas of their business – if they are not registered with the obligatory redress schemes, for example – then they will not legally be able to evict you.
Get your deposit back
You’ve given notice and you are moving out. Now comes the matter of getting your deposit back. “What should happen when you leave is that the agent or landlord does an inspection and tells you a couple of days later whether they plan to take money off the deposit [for repairing damage you’ve caused],” Wilson Craw says.
“Very often, we find that landlords want to deduct a lot more than they should reasonably expect to,” he says. “If this happens, it’s best to contact the deposit scheme they belong to. If you’ve got decent evidence that you left the property in a reasonable state, then the scheme will often support the tenant to get a better deal at the end of their tenancy.”