Before I moved to London at the beginning of last summer, I had always avoided the nightmare that is house hunting. At 18 I went from my childhood home to nice cosy student accommodation where everything’s all inclusive. Even in my second year when we moved into a housing estate outside the university, I managed to avoid a lot of the responsibility of seeking out suitable accommodation (calling landlords and all that) because my friends were much better at it.
But when it came to moving to London for the summer, me and Hannah (my fellow London-bound friend) were left to our own devices. And no matter how much of a nightmare hunting for houses is, it doesn’t compare to how difficult it is when you aren’t in the same country as those houses. Hannah and I were dead set on having somewhere to stay before we flew over, and considered anything otherwise a disaster. But finding something in our student budget was incredibly difficult, especially when my income was very uncertain. We did come very close to getting conned by one such woman renting out her beautiful studio in Central London.
After nearly getting scammed there are a few things I no longer trust. GumTree. People who rent out houses in London but actually live in Eastern European countries. And the phrase “Western Union transfer”. The main rule to remember that I would advise to anyone who’s ever in a similar situation is that “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. Google reverse image search is also your friend.
It was about a couple of days before we were due to fly out that we made the penultimate decision to book ourselves into an Airbnb for a couple of nights and do some frantic house hunting in that time. I remember absolutely bricking it in the days leading up to my departure about moving to another country for the first time and not having anywhere to live. But it really worked out for the best.
We didn’t know it at the time of booking the AirBnb that we had essentially booked 3 nights with our London Irish grandparents. We landed in Tom and Theresa’s house at 11pm on Saturday the 6th of June after catching a late flight over. Myself and Hannah had never stayed at an Airbnb before and we were really confused about the house:
“Should there be like a sign outside going ‘Yes, this is the Airbnb’ or something?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t look very big, this mighn’t be it.”
“Oh my God what if we knock on the door with our 4 massive suitcases and it’s not the right place or it’s like a family of serial killers?”
As you can tell, myself and Hannah were absolutely set for living on our own in the real world.
After meeting Tom and hesitantly letting him carry our suitcases up the stairs (he was definitely pushing 70) we found out that he hailed from Tarbert. We went downstairs and met his lovely wife Theresa who was originally from Roscommon. Even though their accents were as strong as any Irish person, they had actually been living in London for the past 40 years.
Tom and Theresa were the aul’ grenneh and grendeh we needed just in that particular moment of our lives. We were in our fragile baby bird state, just hours after flying the nest. They still managed to source Irish food that was laid out for us beautifully every morning and were surprisingly up to date with current events back home for a couple that had been abroad for over 4 decades. (‘Dyee hear about them robbers who tried to rob the house in Limerick last month and they found two dead bodies? Some shock for them lads I’d tell ya”). At times it felt that they were so taken with us and our innocent minds still untarnished by foreign cultures, that they went out of our way to make us feel more at home. We’d hear Theresa humming trad music every now and again and Tom (very unnecessarily) read the death notices on Sunday morning, asking if we knew anyone. The familiarity of everything made our transition from comfortable home life to potentially homeless life in London so much easier.
I genuinely think that if it weren’t for the nannying from Tom and Theresa and how at home they made us feel, that we would have fully freaked about the very real situation of not having anywhere to live. We only booked the AirBnB for 3 days. If we didn’t find a place by Tuesday, we would be well and truly screwed.
Well… we probably would have booked ourselves into another AirBnb. But the hassle of that like.
On Sunday we booked 3 house viewings but only went to one. I had contacted two Italian girls (albeit, via Gumtree) renting out a twin room in Finsbury Park before we had flown out and they got back to me Saturday night. The room looked great and the location was perfect. Hannah and I agreed on getting a twin room to save on costs a while ago which seemed like the best option (at the time).
We loved the house almost immediately. It was probably the most narrow flat I’ve ever been in and the majority of it was underground but myself and Hannah were in agreement that it was totally cool. As if this grungy underground flat was the arsty home to really embody our “broke students who’ve come to London to find themselves” vibes. They painted the walls of the flat with watercolours and John Lennon quotes because the house was going to be knocked down by the end of the year. If that’s not Instagram material I don’t know what is.
Our potential housemates were two Sicilians called Laura and Camilla. Aside from being uberly friendly, they simply oozed coolness. They kept exclaiming how much they loved Irish people and how the Irish were “always the most fun”. This boded well for us we reckoned. At one point Laura said “one thing you must know about us is that we smoke. We smoke tobacco. We smoke pot. And we smoke inside the house.” For a non-smoker, I think I came across overly eager at this concept. The desperation of wanting these people to like us enough to let them live with them just completely over-rode all my values. I didn’t for a second want them to think for that I was anything less than always up for the craic. And that’s how we ended up smoking hash on a Sunday morning in the house of two girls we’d known for half an hour.
As we were leaving Laura told us they had another viewing later that night and it was between us and these two lads also interested in the room. They admitted that they preferred living with boys so we were very nervous about being trumped for this perfect room over our X chromosomes. Over the next two days Hannah kept pestering me to keep messaging Laura expressing our interest in the room. In our immediate infatuation with the house and general foolishness we didn’t go to any more house viewings. One fell through and another was far less ideal so we held out desperately for this one. Two days later myself and Hannah were strolling around the Human Biology section of the Natural History Museum in that dark room with the giant floating foetus when we got the text from Laura asking us to move in.
SUCCESS. I hadn’t worried about older girls thinking I’m cool enough to hang out with them since I was 13.
So there you had it. Not homeless within two days of entering the country. The house hunt felt hopeless from Ireland after contacting over 100 landlords through emails and phone calls, but as soon as we landed in the country, we more or less got sorted straight away. Myself and Hannah were properly chuffed with ourselves, we couldn’t believe how lucky we got. We had to say goodbye to our beloveds Tom and Theresa a day earlier than we had planned. Not before Tom insisted on driving us to the new house because he’s SOUND. (“Sure ye can’t be lugging those things on the tube, ye’d be wrecked”). Theresa was left to worry for the fate of the 22 year old lad from Navan with a Broadcasting degree from Trinity who’d been occupying her other spare room for the last 8 weeks now. (“He’s never going to find a place, he’s too fussy God love him.”)
(Where are you now Sean, where are you now?)
Everything was going great for the first couple of weeks. Myself and Hannah ran off the buzz of moving into a new room and buying lots of cute things to put into it. The room was actually quite massive, at least three times the size of the kitchen. There was a single bed and a double bed and the coin toss worked in my favour. The house didn’t have a drier so we ran twine across opposite corners of the room to create a makeshift washing line. This seemed quite funny at first and summed up our authentic, broke student vibes…but it wasn’t so entertaining when we woke up in the middle of the night and the streetlights on our clothes created the silhouettes of strangers lurking in our room. There wasn’t enough storage but we didn’t fret because Hannah really fancied the idea of buying lots of woven baskets and keeping all her clothes in those.
The woven baskets were a problem.
After making the purchase, it was clear the baskets had a very distinct natural smell. Hannah searched for reviews to see if any other basket-owners came across the issue.
So that was grand. The smell would be gone in no time provided we kept the room well ventilated. Turns out that was not the case. The room was incredibly damp and the smell not only lingered but also worsened with time. The smell filled the rest of the house and drove the others bonkers. We found out Laura would go into our room while we were at work to open the windows as wide as she could. This sparked tensions between herself and Hannah (not me as I run from confrontation and conflict every time it presents itself) because she was putting our room and belongings at risk in an area we considered to be ‘fairly dodgy’. A dehumidifier and having the windows open in the evening did little to prevent the damp and only then did we notice how mouldy the room was. I lay down to sleep one night only to realise I couldn’t breathe properly. It was getting to a point that spores created from the room’s dampness was putting us at a health risk.
So that was major issue number one. Major issue number 2 was the house’s inhabitants or rather, the unexpected growth of its inhabitants. During the house viewing I remember Laura mentioning something about her ‘little cousin’ staying with them but I just nodded along blindly, assuming this cousin was staying here while she was on holidays. Oh no. Manuela was not on holidays in London. Manuela, a 25 year old woman with a full-time job in McDonalds, slept on the floor of Laura’s bedroom 7 days a week, every week that we lived there. When Andrea – Laura’s boyfriend – stayed the night, Manuela slept in Camilla’s room instead. I never made a fuss about this however as one, Manu and Andrea were very nice people and two, I somehow felt that they were more entitled to the house than we were seeing as they had lived there longer. For some BIZARRE reason. I didn’t even question if they paid rent or not. A couple of weeks in Laura announced that Andrea was going to be moving in with her. Probably the worst thing about this was that I had already intricately planned my morning routine so that I wouldn’t clash with anyone for the bathroom and had to adapt once more. One morning in the last week of July I sat down in the usually empty kitchen to eat my breakfast, only to be joined by a new Italian face. I didn’t introduce myself as in my early state of mind I hadn’t recognised that this was an entirely new person in the house. I asked Hannah later that evening when we were both home from work who the girl was.
“Oh that’s Federica. I think she’s staying here for the week before her interview on Friday”.
There’s really no other response to that other than “OH FOR FUCKSAKE.” Because on top of that, Frederica’s week with us also happened to coincide with the weekend that Hannah’s boyfriend Alan and my sister Eimear were visiting. So there was one point that 9 people were staying in our teeny tiny flat. The fridge situation was absolutely dire I can tell you that much.
Myself and Hannah spent 4 months in this absolutely ridiculous living situation. Although to be fair my overall relationship with the Italians was good. I miss the poppin’ soundtrack they had to their Sunday afternoon clean-ups and our karaoke garden parties. But a time did have to come for us to move out. We could have stayed there longer, I originally had said we’d stay up until September because at the time I thought I’d only be in London for the length of my summer internship. But it came to a point where myself and Hannah had our own issues with sharing a room and couldn’t physically live without our own personal space any longer. Looking back on it now I still think it was a good decision to get a twin room as we wouldn’t have gotten a location and room that good on a single budget, but after having the experience we are definitely both of the ‘never again’ mindset.
So we separated. Onto London house number 2.
There are few things in this life more stressful than house-hunting in one of the world’s most expensive cities on a zero-income budget. But by some bizarre stroke of luck, I came across a site advertising the cheapest London rent I’ve ever seen. The closest tube station was on the Piccadilly line which would take me into work in Leicester Square in half an hour. Any places I looked at before with similarly priced rent would have been at least an hour and a half outside the city. £300 a month for a place in Zone 3 did this house even exist?
For a brief moment I thought it didn’t when I couldn’t find it on the evening of the house viewing. Turns out its front door was the garden door so that was misleading. Now to be clear, the place was pretty shabby. I mean, at £300 a month I was expecting a slightly up-scale shed. I was shown around by Dan, a pretty standard English guy working for the NHS. The flat was on the first floor of the house and little over 50m2 in total. The fridge had to be kept out on in the hall as there was no room in the kitchen and the free space in both the hall and kitchen was about the width of one person.
Dan showed me the room for rent and it was fairly decent sized. It was a living room turned bedroom so there was a covered up fireplace at the head of the bed. The carpet was fairly manky looking and the blinds were falling apart but besides that it was a nice, spacious room. Honestly even just the thought of having my bedroom to myself was enough for me.
After the (very very brief) tour, Dan and I ended up sitting down in the living room and talking for at least an hour. Nothing about the house but just random things like our jobs and the fact he’s taking night classes in German and Spanish. It wasn’t exactly like he was easy to talk to but just like he had this quality where I think he found it impossible not to be talking. I could tell this was an extended conversation to get a feel for me as a housemate so I did my best to charm.
Eventually he did say, “So about the room only being £300 a month…”. I immediately shift forward in my chair. This is what I had been waiting for. Why is it so cheap? What’s the catch? Was it a fully-operational crack house by night? Was it also home to thousands upon thousands of bees? Did a little girl die under mysterious circumstances here 30 years ago?
“…the house is owned by a group of retired tradesmen . And they run a gentlemen’s club downstairs.”
When he said this I did immediately picture something like the burlesque house from that episode of the Simpsons. But Dan reassured me that there was nothing of that sort going on downstairs. That when he first moved in 4 years ago the whole concept seemed odd to him as well but in those 4 years he hasn’t had a single issue with the house. The only thing was that a bunch of “auld lads” would get together every Thursday night for a couple of hours to play pool and drink from their mini-bar in the downstairs flat.
THAT WAS IT. All I’d have to deal with is the distant chatter of old men banter for a couple of hours once a week. I could do that. And really, could I afford for my standards to be any lower? So I told Dan that I was still 1oo% interested in the room and looked forward to him getting back to me. If anything else, it would make a great story.
Anyone I told about this fantastically priced room was very sceptical, and probably as wary as I should have been. “Gentlemen’s club? That’s a fancy name for crack den”. I suppose the way I described the set-up seemed very very dodgy. But talking to Dan put me at ease that the way it worked was completely fine. So when I got the text back from the end of the week asking when could I move in, I was over the moon.
Moving in was hassle free. I did it over 2 days and officially moved in on a Sunday afternoon. I collected my key from Dan and briefly popped my head into the kitchen to say hello to Alea, the only other housemate.
And I never saw her again.
Legit. I mean, she didn’t die. I was very aware of her presence in the house. But literally for the next 4 months that I lived there, I didn’t see her ONCE. Once I had been living there for 2 months, I made the decision that it would be way too awkward to ever meet her again so I actively avoided her in the house. For example if I heard her cooking in the kitchen I would wait until she left so I could go in. Once she and her boyfriend spent ages in the kitchen and I didn’t get around to making my dinner until 10 o’clock that night. It was crazy, the way I let myself live for so long, just because a situation got so needlessly awkward.
I forgot what she looked like very very quickly, I easily could have passed her in the street and not have known. I met her boyfriend a few times in the kitchen (he insisted on cooking fry-ups at 7am so I couldn’t avoid him during my morning routine). My only ever vague encounter with her was unexpectedly seeing her silhouette in the bathroom door late one night (subsequently giving me heart failure) and eavesdropping on an entire conversation between herself and Dan in the hall while I was trapped naked in the bathroom. That was it. For 4 months. The idea of sharing a house with another person for that length of time and never meeting them will never NOT seem bizarre to me.
As for Dan, I rarely saw him as well. As if this entire house just ran on this incredibly anti-social dynamic that somehow worked. I mean it was impressive how little we managed to see of each other. In the evenings after work I’d be in the kitchen for half an hour making my supper then take it to my room and never emerge for the rest of the evening. I made an odds game of timing my cups of tea correctly between hearing movements in the house to work out when was the optimal time for making uninterrupted tea.
Once every few weeks I would get my timing wrong and bump into Dan in the kitchen. Dan being Dan, I’d ask him how work is going and then 2 hours later he’s telling me about the troubles of selling his Dad’s house in Scotland. And my tea would have long gone cold waiting for the milk but I couldn’t put in the milk because Dan was blocking the way between me and the fridge for 2 hours.
This odd dynamic bothered me far more than the old man club ever did. On the contrary I found that whole set-up really boring and rather anti-climatic. I only ever heard a little chatter and it’d all be wrapped up and gone home by 11. I was nearly hoping that it would be fucking wild and I’d be telling people for years to come about all the crazy shit that happened while I lived above a gentlemen’s club in London. I do love a good story. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
So I flew back to Ireland for good on the 22nd of January on an early flight. I slipped out of the house at 5am armed with 2 massive suitcases and no looking back. And that was that. Whenever I think back on living in that house the memories I have of it are of being lonely and cold. But it was perfect really. It was accommodation in London for £300 a month for fucksake. So that was my experience of London accommodation on my very very very low budget. I tip my hat to anyone in a similar situation looking to do the same. Based on the many house viewings I went to I was lucky not be paying too much money to share a house with a Middle Eastern family who made me take my shoes off every time I entered the house.
God it’s good to be home.