Over the last five years I moved houses six times, four times luckily within the same city. That’s quite a big number of moves over a short time! In July 2016 Nis and I moved into a semi-detached house a bit further away from the city centre, and in my German mind our current housing situation feels so British. In Germany we would have probably moved into a two or three bedroom flat and certainly not into a house. In most of the bigger cities in Germany you wouldn’t even find many actual houses to rent, but rather flats in big apartment complexes. So this was the first difference I noticed when we went house hunting in England, and I thought I’d write down our experience of finding a place to live here in Cambridge.
If you are a student at the University of Cambridge you do not have to worry too much about where you are going to live as your College will sort out accommodation for you. Most of the Colleges have flats available that are specifically reserved for couples and families. Nis and I lived in one of the Caius couples flats during our first year in Cambridge. On the one hand we were glad that we didn’t have to look for a flat while we were still in Germany and in the middle of planning a wedding. On the other hand we were not able to view our flat beforehand which led to a bit of a scary moment when we opened the door to our flat for the first time. I was expecting the worst, but after all, our flat was fine even though the furniture was randomly assembled, the bed was too small and the windows were single-glazed. I guess the most important thing is to keep expectations low when you try to find a place to rent in the UK, especially if you are used to precise German engineering.
Rental costs in Cambridge
When Nis first told me that the monthly rent for our 1-bedroom College flat would be £1000, my jaw dropped. The cost of living is just so much higher here compared to Germany and during our first few months this really worried me. I kept converting prices into Euro, and ended up bewildered by how young people and especially students could afford living in this city. At some point I decided to stop doing that and instead embrace this exciting opportunity of living in a foreign country with all its benefits and downsides.
So in spring we decided to upgrade our living situation. After having done some research we realised that we could afford a bigger place for the same amount of money if we just accepted to live a bit further outside the city centre. Unfortunately we had a three month notice period for our College flat, so we cancelled our lease in May to move out in August although we did not have a new place in prospect at that point. It was risky, but we relied on the fact that in summer many places would become vacant as the academic year is over and the new cohort hasn’t started to look for places yet. Since we had already lived in Cambridge for one year we also knew which areas we liked and from where we would be able to commute to our work places by bike. Cambridge is a very compact city and usually it is quicker to move around by bike as the roads are very often congested.
House hunting websites
First of all we registered with a few online property websites and set up email alerts:
- rightmove.co.uk – biggest online platform for properties in the UK
- openrent.co.uk – private landlords can advertise their properties here, no letting agencies
- findaflat.co.uk – similar to Open Rent
- accommodation.cam.ac.uk – property website managed by the University of Cambridge
When we started the whole house hunting process, I was a bit confused by the fact that we couldn’t find any information regarding the size of a property in square meters or square feet. Instead you are given the number of bedrooms, which does not really help in estimating how big the property actually is because some rooms can be really small. So it is very important that you view the house in order to estimate its size.
Letting agencies in England
Most of the properties in the UK are managed by letting agencies. It does not happen very often that you meet the landlord during a viewing. These agencies charge the future tenant with letting fees. Here is an example by an English letting agency:
Please note the charges listed below are the MAXIMUM fees that will be applied depending on your circumstances and the number of tenants.
- Administration Fee £50 per tenant
- Referencing Fee £75 per tenant
- Check-in fee – minimum of £72.00 (There may be instances where applicants pay for check-outs instead)
- Tenancy Agreement £300 (if supplied by us)
- If there are any guarantors to the tenancy: Guarantor Referencing Fee £100 per guarantor
- Agreement of Guarantee £75
- And if the tenant is a company: Company Referencing Fee £175
- Other Charges:
- Change of Sharer £300
- Extension Agreements £125
- Outgoing reference fee £24
- Optional extras if agreed: Saturday Move-In £60
We did not really fancy the idea of paying a letting agent £500 to £1000 before we had actually moved in, so we tried to focus on adverts by private landlords. It turned out that the accommodation website by the University was really helpful. However, you can only register if you have an email address by the University of Cambridge, so unfortunately this database is not open to anyone.
On a gloomy Sunday afternoon in June we called our current landlord after having spotted his property advert on the said Uni accommodation website. After a viewing we signed the tenancy agreement in early July and moved in by the end of July. Compared to other houses that we viewed, this one is very well maintained, spacious and light. It has a really good atmosphere and feels like a home to me. It is located in the area where we were planning on moving, we know our landlord personally, and we didn’t have to pay letting fees. Yay!
The tenancy agreement
Normally you sign a lease for six to twelve months and if the landlord is pleased with you as a tenant this turns into some sort of rolling contract. In Germany tenancy agreements are normally permanent with the usual notice period of three months. When we signed the lease we agreed on transferring a tenancy deposit of £1200, which is currently protected through the “Tenancy Deposit Scheme”. If you move out and are in a dispute with your landlord, then your deposit will be protected in this TDP scheme until the issue is sorted out. Apparently there have been some issues in the past with greedy landlords not returning deposits, which is why the TDP was established.
Kitchen and furniture
What I found quite surprising is the fact that many properties in England come furnished. Kitchen appliances including smaller items like a kettle or a toaster are normally provided. In Germany this is definitely not the case. Sometimes you even have to install a whole new kitchen or the previous tenants ask you to pay a certain amount of money for the kitchen if they brought it into the flat. Our house in Cambridge is partly furnished and I am glad we did not have to purchase larger pieces like a dining table or a desk. This saved us some money and if we move back to Germany we do not have to sell or take all the furniture with us.
The monthly rent that is being displayed on the property websites normally doesn’t include utility bills. As tenant you are responsible to arrange the following utility contracts:
- Gas and energy: uswitch.com is a helpful website to compare suppliers and their rates.
- Water: There is only one water supplier in Cambridge, Cambridge Water Company. They charge you by consumption through a water meter.
- Telephone/Internet: We currently share a broadband with our neighbour. We do not need a landline telephone as we mostly communicate with our mobile phones.
- TV licence: cost is £145.50 per year
- Council Tax: This is a tax the city council receives for example for waste collection, the fire brigade or the maintenance of public green spaces. How much tax you pay is dependent on the value of the property you live in. It is classified into eight tax bands from A (up to £40,000) to H (over £320,000). Our tax band is C, which is £1420,04 Council Tax per year for 2016/17. As Nis is a full-time student our property is being considered as single person occupancy, so we receive a discount of 25 %.
In Germany the tenant is responsible for soft refurbishments, especially painting the walls when moving out. In the UK the landlord ensures that the property is in a good condition before a new tenant moves in. Both in Germany and the UK it is always worth having a look into the tenancy agreement to check what kind of refurbishments the tenant or the landlord is supposed and also allowed to do. For example Nis and I do not have to maintain the garden, but because we want it to look nice, we also try to keep it tidied up, remove weeds, etc. But if we ever want to make bigger changes to the house we definitely have to ask our landlord first.
So this is how we found a place to rent in Cambridge! There were quite a few administrative issues to resolve, but in the end it was definitely worth moving out of College accommodation into our “own” little English semi-detached house.