Finding a home in Britain will be the first and most important step in any relocation. As described in the previous chapter, Homesearch is a fundamental part of the relocation process and will usually be the first step in the professionally managed relocation process. Relocation Providers will guide new arrivals to the UK around the complexities of the Homesearch process and will take care of the legal necessities of tenancy agreements, purchase processes and so on. A brief explanation of these processes is included at the end of this chapter, but we will start by looking at the types of housing in the UK.
Housing is provided by the state, through the Local Authorities. In order to qualify for state housing, residency in the area must be proved. It is not possible to qualify to be added to local housing lists on a residency permit.
Social Housing (still referred to by its old term of Council Housing) is now rarely provided directly by the state. Instead, the Local Authorities contract this part of their function to Housing Associations, non-profit quasi autonomous government organisations. Housing Associations are responsible for the construction, maintenance and tenancy management of social housing. In one respect this has improved the quality of housing available in the social sector. In another it has made the process of eligibility much more complex. Although most local authorities have a single application process and waiting list, some do not and this necessitates applications to any one of up to ten housing associations operating in a local area.
During the 1980’s, government policy moved towards making Britain a country of owner occupiers. This led to the policy of social housing tenants being given the legal right to purchase their homes. This in turn, at a stroke, led to vast swathes of social housing being removed from the market and created a vast shortage of subsidised housing. This has led in some areas, particularly in the capital, to vastly living costs, and extremely long waiting lists for social housing. This has also led to the re-emergence of slum landlords, a phenomenon not seen in Britain since the Rachman trials of the 1970’s led to changes in the law protecting tenants of private landlords. From 1957 onwards, Perec Rachman bought up derelict buildings in London’s Paddington, and used intimidation and force to clear out sitting tenants with fixed rental lease agreements, so he could re let the flats at higher rents. The practice was brought to an end by a tightening of the tenancy legislation, but in the absence of sufficient social housing, unscrupulous landlords are again in a position of power.
Many large areas of Britain’s towns and cities that were once large social housing estates, have become gentrified and are almost exclusively now in the private sector. Although there is still a slight stigma in “Ex Local Authority” housing as it is termed by estate agents, it nonetheless tends to represent better value for money in both purchasing and renting. Certain developments in London have been bought wholesale by developers and renovated for sale to wealthy urban dwellers. One such development is Keeling House, an East End tower block by Denis Lasdun, the architect of the National Theatre, which was bought by a commercial developer from the council and where two bedroom apartments now sell for upwards of £700,000.
Large scale developments of apartments (“flats” to the British) are more or less limited to urban centres. Until the 1980’s modern flat living was largely limited to social housing tower blocks. The British have never embraced high rise living in the same way as other cultures and it is only in the last 20 years that urban developers have created large scale private housing in this way. In 2018 the penthouse of One Hyde Park, a flat Kensington, adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It fetched £160 million. It’s interesting to note that there are areas of London such as Fitzrovia, where whole buildings have been bought by overseas buyers and are completely unoccupied. Brook Street, home to London’s famous Claridges hotel, is dark at night, with very few apartments having people inside.
In most cities, living in flats originated during the Victorian era, though London was notably slow to embrace this modern innovation of the industrial age, and most large apartment complexes date from the Edwardian era. The grand and leafy red brick blocks which typify areas of London such as Earls Court and Kensington, were built at the end of the 19th century for the needs of the new middle classes and were usually a second or third home. In Scotland however, Edinburgh and Glasgow town corporations embarked on massive building schemes resulting in the tenements the cities are still known for today. Where other industrial cities such as Liverpool and Manchester opted for terraced houses (houses built in rows, sharing walls with one another), Edinburgh and Glasgow favoured buildings of four or five stories, containing numerous apartments. These tenements were built to house industrial workers and were not the homes of the rich as were the similar blocks in fashionable London streets.
Even before the Victorian era, the Georgians had the idea of building communal living areas, the best examples of which can be found in Bath, London, Edinburgh and outside the UK in Dublin. Most of these grand ornate stone buildings were originally the town houses of the wealthy but have since been converted into flats.
Today, urban living on such a grand scale is rare. Most of the tenements are still in place, now providing renovated comforts such as indoor bathrooms, but the grand Georgian town houses of Bath and Edinburgh have almost all been split into flats. Few original houses still remain and those that do command high prices. A five story Georgian terraced townhouse recently sold in Edinburgh for £4.5 million.
The most common flats in Britain’s towns and cities are those where large houses have been split into smaller units. In London for example, many of the large three story Victorian terraced houses of the northern and southern suburbs have been split into flats, one on each floor. The reason for this is a combination of economic necessity (there is a limited part of the British population able to afford to live in a large house in an affluent urban area) and changing lifestyles. Although the Victorian picture of the wealthy middle class having multiple staff is accurate, it is almost unheard of in middle class 20th Century Britain. The need for houses that would accommodate four family members plus butler, two maids, cook, and nanny has diminished.
Whether a flat is part of an old house, or in a purpose built block, prices will not be significantly different. As is noted in the Area Guides in Part Three, property prices in both rental and purchase sectors are entirely dependent on three factors: the economy, the location and the condition.
An Englishman’s Home is his Castle
Unlike Britain’s continental neighbours, two factors dominate the housing market; the desire to live in a house with a garden and the desire to own it. No other European country has a higher ratio of house to flat dwellers, or so many of the occupants owning their property. In Germany for example, people rarely purchase their first home before the age of 35, and then rarely move from it. In Britain, people move frequently. Indeed it will not take any relocatee long to notice the profound impact this attitude has on the housing market, which is dynamic, unpredictable and a major driving force of Britain’s economy. The hosing market has been unstable since the banking crises of 2008 and there has been a sharp rise in bank repossessions as property values have dropped below the amounts that people borrowed to buy them. However, the property market has maintained far better than other countries such as the USA and Spain, who have seen the property market in some areas devalue by half or more.
The “average” British house is less difficult to describe than one may think. Take a drive to any provincial town in England, Wales or Scotland and you will see examples of the same types of domestic architecture.
The terraced house is usually the starting point for most Britons on the housing ladder. These small, attached houses, dating from 1850 onwards, are also referred to as “two up, two downs” on account of the number of rooms on each floor, one at the front and one at the back. Originally built with an outside toilet, these houses were for the working classes. Today in many towns and cities they have been gentrified and many boast original (or re-instated) Victorian features such as ornate cornicing and fireplaces. In the South East, and particularly in London, this type of house is fashionable and relatively affordable. Particularly prized are those with their original features intact, such as the windows which in many cases have been replaced. Some of these terraces have been listed. More information about listings is at the end of this chapter.
Larger houses date back as far as the 15th century and are still inhabited today. In many British towns and villages, older houses are highly sought after as family homes. In years past, it was possible for smaller country houses to stay in the family for generations, but Britain's punitive inheritance taxes make it impossible today for all but the very wealthy. Consequently there is no shortage of old family homes, both in towns and in the country. Just browse through the pages of Country Life magazine in any given week to see a vast selection of highly desirable British property.
However, the country house remains a far off dream for most British people. As the population has expended in the Britain, particularly in the South East, millions of new homes have been constructed since the 1970’s. Today, new private housing estates ring most towns in the South East, with good access to shops and services and easy access to transport links. Although smaller than their older country neighbours, new English vernacular architecture harks back to traditional design. It is hard to find mass built homes in modernist styles. Most new developments ape the classic Georgian symmetry and provide adequate space, and a high standard of finish. Gone are the days where new homes were sparsely finished with the most basic of kitchens and bathrooms. Today, you are as likely to find a double door fridge in the kitchen and separate power showers in the bathrooms as you would in Florida. However, in older house and those dating from the 70’s and 80’s, where these luxuries do exist, they are modern additions.
The truly large house in Britain is less common than in other European countries and far less abundant than in the US. The average square footage of a new house in the US is nearly 3,000. In the UK it is 1,500, exactly half. Large family homes are currently at a premium and tend to whether the vagaries of the house prices more successfully than their smaller neighbours. In London, large family homes such as the three or four story Victorian terraced or semi detached variety are well over £1 million in areas such as Hampstead, Battersea, Clapham or Holland Park. Multiply this by five for the same house in Marble Arch or Chelsea and by ten in Mayfair. The same money goes much further out of London, but the area known as the Home Counties will still be an expensive place for a family to live. When comparing like for like, particularly with relocatees coming in from the US, the cost will be a minimum of three times higher for say an equivalent house in Hartford, Connecticut as it would be in Esher in Surrey. There are no shortage of very well equipped houses for rent in this sector, but again, they are very expensive.
Britons are keen gardeners and most houses, even modest terraced homes, will have a patch of garden behind it. The people of Britain are guarded about their privacy and when it comes to gardens, most are usually enclosed by a six foot high, wooden fence. Where communal living is concerned however, it is usual to have shared garden areas, indeed this tradition dates back to Georgian times. In London and Edinburgh, it is common to have access to a communal garden square in the centre of the housing. These gardens are maintained as part of the ground rent of the property and can often be very beautiful oases of calm. There is usually a Garden Committee made up of the residents of the housing, who steer the planting and define the acceptable uses of the gardens. In many cases, especially in wealthy parts of London, these gardens prohibit ball games and dogs.
In most tenancies, an arrangement for garden care will form part of the agreement. Where a tenant does not wish to take on the upkeep of the garden, it is important to note this with the letting agent so that alternative arrangements can be made.
Corporate Housing & Serviced Apartments
There is now a large industry sector devoted to the needs of the short-term assignee. Temporary, or Corporate Housing is designed with needs of the business traveller in mind. These developments work like a hotel, with daily cleaning, concierge and maintenance services provided on site. The advantage over a hotel is a significant cost saving for lets over a week in duration and usually reducing as the tenancy continues. Corporate housing also provides a level comfort that would be akin to a suite in most hotels.
A fully equipped kitchen is provided along with laundry facilities, either in the suite or in a communal area. Suites range in size and luxury from one to three bedrooms and are equipped with everything necessary for day to day living, including cable TV and music systems. On the whole the quality of corporate housing is very high and in general these apart-hotels are situated in the larger cities close to the commercial and financial districts.
What not to expect
Britain has seen a large improvement in living standards since the 1970’s and as we shall see in later chapters, this has affected most aspects of British life from quality of food available in restaurants and supermarkets, to the levels of comfort in the average home. Britain is a country in the grip of a makeover; turn on the TV on any given day and between the network and cable channels there is a plethora of programming devoted to home improvement, moving home and more general lifestyle issues. Since the 1970’s design in Britain has moved out of the doldrums to take centre stage as among the best in the world.
The design conscious Briton was born in the 1960’s when London was swinging and Mary Quant and Terrance Conran opened their first shops in Chelsea. Conran (the company and the man) became a leading proponent of design change in the UK and through his lifestyle shop “Habitat” and his restaurant chain, has been a powerful force in the emergence of a new design and lifestyle sensibility among the British.
Where in the past American’s in particular were challenged by the lack of home comforts they took for granted at home, they are now less disappointed with life in Britain. Although homes are definitely smaller, they are now equipped with a higher level of amenities than before, but it is still a luxury, not a standard, to find powerful showers, large fridges and stoves, swimming pools and triple garages. It is also highly unusual to find houses with lots of land close to major cities without paying very high prices. Normally for houses to come with either land, or equestrian facilities it will involve a fairly lengthy commute to a city. However, where smaller provincial cities and towns are concerned, it is possible to live in a more rural setting within a thirty minute drive of the town or city centre.
Britain has a complex system for protecting domestic, industrial and commercial architecture.
Many buildings in Britain carry a “listing” and it is important to establish this before signing any tenancy agreement. In general, only buildings of some special significance gain listed status, but this is a guideline only. In recent years, there has been much controversy over the types of building that are now qualifying for protected status. This controversy has become known as the “Heritage Britain” debate. Obviously certain buildings are protected. Buckingham Palace for example cannot be altered and this is the same for any building of historic significance, including the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, St James’ Palace, The Bank of England, Edinburgh Castle etc. Other important buildings that have significance for British history or architecture are also listed, such as Harrods, Manchester Town Hall and Stonehenge.
However, the listing system also applies to less grand buildings. Many of Britain's towns and villages contain humble cottages that are protected. More controversially, some very modern buildings have also been listed, such as Trellick Tower, a council high rise of 1968, designed by Erno Goldfinger in the style of Le Corbusier. It’s “corridors in the sky” were meant to open high rise living up to a new generation of social housing tenant. Instead the tabloid newspapers pilloried the building for its insecurity and rampant crime. Today, Trellick Tower is protected, in response to the widespread destruction of most of the tower blocks of the 1950’s and 60’s as a result of their poor construction quality and unpopularity with residents.
Listing is now also being extended to parts of Britain’s industrial heritage also. Two notable examples in the capital are the Bankside and Battersea Power Stations, both of which have been listed and must not be pulled down. Bankside has been transformed into Tate Modern, one of London’s most impressive art galleries. Battersea is being redeveloped as a commercial centre, to include theatres, accommodation, shops and offices, but has been dogged by planning issues since it finally stopped generating electricity in 1983.
Although the purpose of the listing system is to ensure the preservation of the architectural character and history of Britain, “Heritage Culture” is by no means universally embraced. Although Prince Charles is a vociferous opponent of modern architecture, publicly speaking out against certain types of development, the subject of preservation is a contentious one. In a country with as much living history in its buildings as Britain, is it really necessary to have two powerful, publicly funded bodies overseeing their future? The National Trust and English Heritage own vast swathes of Britain and are responsible for the preservation of much of its history. They are however, almost totally unaccountable, and are able to circumvent the planning process, an ability that has created much public debate in recent years.
There are many, many books devoted to the process of property purchase in the UK and the legal aspects of such a transaction. In considering the purchase of a property as a non UK resident, consult a Private Acquisition Specialist. Unlike other countries, the real estate industry in Britain is devoted to the interests of the seller and not the buyer. It is vital to have a professional acting on your behalf if you are not fully confident about the process. Every aspect of the process works to the advantage of the seller, and it is not uncommon for people to spend thousands of pounds on surveys in order to secure a property, just for the seller to decide to accept a higher offer.
Estate agents fees are based on a percentage of the purchase price of the property and range from 1.5% to 2.0% and this is paid by the seller to the estate agent. Very few properties are sold privately, although it does happen. Legislation is on the way to make the process safer and more predictable, but ask any Briton about their last property purchase and they will have a series of stories to tell about the difficulties they encountered. The entire process must be overseen by a lawyer, and having a Private Acquisition Specialist to coordinate the process is by far the best way to avoid falling into the crevices of the British property market.
Lease and tenancy agreements in the UK are also highly complex and again, in this case as a non-UK citizen it is important to use professional relocation services to oversee, structure and act on your best interests before the tenancy agreement is signed. They will also take care of a full inventory on the property and guide you through the complex rules regarding dilapidation at the end of the tenancy. The real estate agents fees for a lease are met by the landlord, so again, the realtor will be acting in their best interests and not yours.
Whether you intend to rent or buy, use a professional to act on your behalf.
Council Tax is a local tax, raised on a combination of home value and how many people occupy the dwelling. Each home receives a single bill, calculated on a rating system based on the size of the house. Often these “Bands” are out of date and it is not unusual to find that a house has to be reassessed. There are eight valuation bands, from A (the highest) to H (the lowest).
Where a property is rented, the tenant is responsible for paying the council tax, not the landlord. It is also the responsibility of the tenant to inform the council tax office of the start of their occupation of the property, but where a relocation company is involved with the check-in, this will be done by the consultant. Council tax charges are reviewed every April.