Monday, September 20, 2010

london :: relocation pt 2

photo via Living, Etc. UK / found on from london with love

Here's part two of our three part interview with Colleen Wagner from London Relocation. If you missed part one and are thinking about moving to the UK then you should definitely take a peek!

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R: What are the signs of a reputable relocation agent or estate agent?
C: Well, it certainly helps if they have their own car ☺ They would also never require you to make a deposit and pay your first month’s rent upfront in cash—I’ve heard of this happening, and no reputable agency/respectable landlord would ask such a thing; bank transfers, checks, or credit cards should be accepted. Similarly, being asked to transfer funds to secure a flat without your (or someone delegated on your behalf) having seen the property first in person is the sort of thing Craigslist scams are made of, so beware. Okay, so, yes, there are reputable agencies out there that will allow this per the tenant's request (upon which the tenant must sign an agreement confirming that they did not see the space and based their decision solely on the photos provided on the agency website), but you won't want to try this with an agency that has a sketchy website that may be suspect (see below).

If many of the listings you enquire about through an agency are no longer on the market, yet still being advertised, this could be a red flag as well—they may be boasting more properties than they actually have or at least aren’t on-the-ball enough to respect the accuracy and timeliness of their own listings (cut them some slack, though, if a flat has only just gone off the market in the last day or so, as property does move very quickly here, especially in summer!). It can be discouraging if an agent insists you’ll find nothing in your budget, but you may need to also take this with a grain of salt, as more often than not, flats are more expensive than people anticipate, so the agent may earnestly be trying to help you develop more realistic expectations. That being said, do your research in advance to get a good idea of average rent prices to make sure you aren’t ripped off.

Agencies with various branches (an agency with at least 3 different offices is likely a safe one to try) are obviously quite successful and may observe stricter codes of professionalism to maintain their reputations—e.g., Foxtons, Marsh & Parsons, etc. This is not to say that the smaller boutique agencies offer any less in service—indeed, because larger agencies may take for granted that they’ll have a steady stream of business, this runs the risk of breeding apathy toward individual clients. So give the little guys a chance, too, if their office looks presentable and organized, their listings comprehensive, and their staff personable and professional. My husband and I found our flat, for example, through FiveSevenTen (a single-office boutique agency that only services postal codes SW5, SW7, and SW10), and their approach was kind-hearted and truly looking out for our best interests. I appreciate when agents can be honest about the flats they represent, especially if it’s pointing out their shortcomings—then I don’t feel like I’m being schmoozed and promised perfection when they can only under-deliver.

Agency websites can be a good indication as well. You know a good website from a bad one when you first look at it. Does it look like a respectful amount of thought has gone into its design? Is it user-friendly? Are there any client testimonials? A blog or something that provides value-added information and shows some personality? Is their contact info clear and thorough (address and phone number should be there at the very least—raises a lot of questions if they’re not! A web form is nice, too)?

R: What are your thoughts on "Dreams vs. Reality" when looking for a place?
C: Because managing expectations really is a big part of London Relocation’s job, I was inspired to write a mini-series of blog posts a while back called “What to Expect in a London Flat.” Basically, Dreams vs. Reality will part ways when it comes to size, space, and amenities (e.g., older buildings without elevators, having smaller washer/dryers or perhaps only one or neither, no air-conditioning, etc.). That being said, there are new-construction options in areas like Canary Wharf, which is more commercial, though, than residential. London landlords also furnish their flats as inexpensively as possible, so you’ll see a lot of IKEA ☺ Even newer renovations may reveal a compromise in materials over time—there are a lot of quick-fixes that may not be built to last but at least to survive until the next tenancy. Be prepared to wait on maintenance services as well…there’s not much quick turnaround in London.

That being said, there is a tremendous amount of character to these buildings which offer a different type of aesthetic trade-off. Taking the stairs is good exercise, and narrowing down what you actually move to London in view of the space/storage issue is a valuable lesson in learning what you really need. At some point, one has to view this as an experiential phase of life (taking advantage of the history, culture, and travel by virtue of living here) rather than a material one.

R: Does a relocation agent work for us or the flat owner? Will they be on the look out for unfair contracts or illegal acts by the property owner?
C: Absolutely. The advantage of having a relocation agent watching your back is that YOU are the client; the fees are paid by you and not the landlord or lettings agency.

Lettings agencies, on the other hand, are compensated by the landlords—when you sign on with them, you may pay an admin fee (which London Relocation covers for its clients), but otherwise the money you’re putting down upfront is for your refundable deposit and first month’s rent. The lettings agency’s commission comes from the landlord, and I’ll be honest—I’m shocked how much of a landlord’s market it is here. Tenants have many rights by law, but you’d never realize it because unless they’re proactive in researching/asserting them themselves, you won’t see anyone else going out of their way to make them aware.

Anyone else, that is, except for the relocation agent. In our case, the agent is with you through all of the viewings and the entire lease negotiation and signing, ensuring everything is stipulated in your best interest and raising important points that might otherwise get overlooked.

R: I suspect that many people would consider relocation and estate (lettings) agents to be one in the same. What does a relocation agent offer that an estate agent doesn’t?
C: While there are exceptions, one primary difference between the relocation and lettings agent is that the lettings agent holds property listings whereas the relocation agent does not. The lettings agency is consequently paid their commission by the landlords of the properties they list, whereas the relocation agency is paid a fee by the tenants it represents.

What relocation agents offer beyond the lettings agency is more personalized service in their client’s best interest (as explained above) as they do participate in the viewings and lease negotiation making sure terms are fair to the tenant. They also do all the extra legwork to seek out available properties to shortlist for the client’s viewing. An individual lettings agency may have a handful or less of properties meeting one’s specifications on any given day, but the relocation agency coordinates with all the area lettings agencies to compile all eligible properties across their combined listings, resulting in more extensive coverage and with the added benefit of having the same point of contact with you along the entire way.

What distinguishes London Relocation Ltd. from other relocation agencies as well is that we compile a portfolio of approximately 20 properties for viewing in a single day, so our model very much centers on cutting to the chase for an efficient turnaround (without sacrificing quality for the quickness)—other relocation agents that charge by the day have more incentive to drag the process out. I mentioned earlier that London properties can fly off the shelves, so the relocation agent also has the resources to reschedule as necessary on the fly so that it’s business as usual. And as I also related above, our empathy as expats brings an intangible quality that overall helps put our clients’ minds at ease by fielding all of their questions from their perspective and managing their expectations to optimize their London relocation experience.


R: Are there common mistakes or issues that you encounter with Expats?
C: Definitely! And, to be fair, I was a na├»ve expat, too ☺

To start, we receive a surprising number of enquiries from folks who are not even aware they need a visa to live here. It doesn’t fall within our realm of expertise to sort this out for them, but we’re happy to explain the different visa tiers they can apply for and redirect them to the UK Border Agency for more information and application forms. It’s imperative for expats to already have this in place before officially finding a place to live.

We sometimes encounter issues with people’s work assignments falling through or changing as well. That is usually not the client’s fault, however, as much as the company’s. Situations like these sometimes simply can’t be avoided, but nonetheless, it is helpful if you can provide as accurate a confirmation on your relocation timeframe as possible.

Proper documentation and funds for signing on to a flat is also critical, and sometimes expats do not arrive prepared—I will discuss this in more detail in a later question. Another big stumbling block for students is typically being required to pay 3-6 months’ rent in advance, as they will not be earning a steady income to otherwise earn the landlord’s trust. This may be waived, however, if the student can provide a letter signed by a UK-based guarantor of the funds, along with evidence of their financial ability to cover that amount if need be.

Beyond that, any issues primarily center on unrealistic expectations. We never enjoy being the deliverer of bad news when we respond honestly how much they should expect to pay for a certain flat size or neighborhood, so the best clients are the ones who trust that we know what we’re talking about and approach the discussion/process the way we do for a reason. A London move is full of trade-offs—recreating one’s home environment and/or culture is nearly impossible and unfair to expect. The way to embrace it is just appreciating it for the new adventure that it is.


R: What questions should people moving to London ask themselves about housing? i.e. budget, needs etc.
C: Key questions are:

1. # of bedrooms
2. Budget
3. Neighborhood (bearing In mind desired environment as well as commuting distance to work/school)
4. Need-to-have vs. nice-to-have property specifications (e.g., wooden floors, balcony, etc.)
5. Bringing pets?

When these are known, the rest starts to fall into place.


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Will be posting the final installment next Monday. Stay tuned to what Colleen has to say in her final wrap up.

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