Monday, February 18, 2013

From the Apartment-Hunting Trenches: Stirchley and Selly Park, Birmingham. 18.2.13.

5 comments
Our start to the first day of apartment-hunting in Birmingham was inauspicious, as we spent a second night in our downtown Travelodge room waking up coughing over and over. Heidelberg has this year apparently been a hellacious den of germs as we've each been sick three times in the past month - more than we usually get sick in a year! But good rentals wait for no man so off we went anyway with painkillers and tissues in tow.

Our first viewing was in Selly Park on Warwards Lane. Although it was outside the borders of a major student ghetto we'd been warned against, after checking street view we were a little worried this road, although mixed student/non-student, might still be too studenty for us. I can take tram noise, car noise, bus noise...but party noise? NO. As we got closer to the address, the studentiness seemed to drop off a bit.

Until we stepped into the house.

Well, it was spacious for sure. Five rooms - a great number that would allow us to have a bedroom, guest room, living room, and office all separate at least, plus an option of dining or TV room for the last one. A dream for me. I hate having a TV or computer in a room meant for relaxing (like living or bed room). But what. a. dump. It was clearly a student apartment - I can't believe the agent even bothered to waste time showing it to an adult couple. There was obvious mold in places, parts where ceilings or walls were flaking away, crap burned onto the stove, piles and piles of dog poop in the backyard, all of the fence collapsed (revealing the neighbor's yard full of trash). To add to the fun, the estate agent tried to tell us the mangy carpet was new when it was obviously from the 80s at best. Really, it was depressing because the property actually has great potential - a feeling I got all through this area and the student ghetto when we passed through it on the way - and to see it left to landlords and tenants who just don't give a shit was depressing.

Anyway...that place was obviously out. Our next hit was on the same street, but further away from the university so the studentiness continued to lessen as we got closer. I didn't have high hopes after the first place.  Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise just to walk in and be able to tell it was an apartment for grown-ups.  Some rooms had laminate flooring instead of carpet.  Others had really interesting embossed wallpapers.  The yard was clean and bright and birds were chirping nearby.  The kitchen included a fridge and washing machine, but the fridge was a tiny one and looked pretty old. I'm sure it'd be an improvement over our current one, though.  It also had a bathtub and a separate shower stall which I think is really cool.  We thought this was not bad, but the estate agent, who was also showing us the next place, thought we'd like the next one better.

Off we went in his car toward the Stirchley/Bournville border area - a place I was really keeping an eye on because it's extremely convenient to both the train (2 stops to the university, 4 stops to downtown) and a big grocery store.  The road the place was on was well-kept enough, but across the street were big warehousey stores that were kind of a downer.  We did like the apartment.  Two rooms had wood floors.  A few pieces of furniture, including a full-size (by English standards) fridge, were included.  I don't consider "neutral decoration" to be a feature so I was pretty happy with the bright red and blue kitchen and bathroom.  The bathroom was upstairs, not a given in British houses and a big plus if you have to pee at night.  The yard was really well-kept and included a shed, a covered area, a picnic table built around a tree, and lots of plants.  Definitely the front-runner of the morning.  On the down side - it only had four rooms, all rather small.  We have two rooms right now so that's still a massive improvement, but given the layout I don't have a clear answer yet on where the dining table and where the office are going to end up.

Break for lunch!  We stopped by the university to pick up an official letter stating D's position there and his salary - hopefully enough for most agents/landlords to accept our application.  (But it's not always.  Later that day when calling around we were told by one agent that it was not enough and 6 months' rent up front would be required since we're coming from abroad.  The agent was told that we were no longer interested.)  Then we had surprisingly good pasties at some crappy-looking chain shop, called some agents to try to get appointments for later in the week (sometimes it's like twisting arms to get any response, while others are super-easy to deal with), and then walked to our next place - again in the border area between Bournville and Stirchley. 

This street was the best we'd seen yet - nearly every house looked very well-kept.  People who looked well-settled were milling about.  We did wonder a little bit about proximity to a canal and creek (flooding?) and huge power lines overhead (driven slowly crazy by not-consciously-noticeable buzzing?) but otherwise it was a pretty charming street.  We got there early but soon the agent showed up and let us in.  He hadn't seen the place yet himself - in fact we were scheduled to see three apartments with him and he hadn't seen any of them yet!!  He was pretty quiet during this viewing.  He had to ask me what the rent was and then he was quiet so I wondered if he thought it was too high...it does seem a little high for the area but here's the reason: it's been completely refurbished.  Everything in the place - laminate flooring, bathroom, kitchen, windows - is completely new and has never been used.  Sketchy side - the owner did all this in less than 7 months (I saw the last sell date online) so it could have been shoddily accomplished.  Maybe not something we'd be in the place long enough to have trouble with, but still something to note.  There were five rooms - good! One extremely small one, but the office doesn't need to be big.  But no furnishings at all included - big startup costs to get a fridge, washer, wardrobes, etc.  And the bathroom has no window. It's usually easier to avoid mold if you can go all the way and open a window. There is, though, one of those weird silent vents that I don't understand.  Yard, a bit small but hey, a yard.  Overall - well, a really nice place.  Lacking in character due to the boring refurbishing, but hey - all new everything is pretty nice regardless.  One hundred pounds more per month than our morning contender.

On to the next one - only two streets down so right in the same charming corner.  Even more well-kept than the previous street - the house next door looked like something from a magazine.  Already you could see some awesome features - stained glass in the front bay windows, and a peacock carved over the front door!!  We walked in and you could smell that it was freshly painted.  Five rooms again - the second downstairs room had a fireplace with painted tiles on both sides.  A lot of furniture was also included, which would really help us in keeping startup costs down.  On the down side - it had a downstairs bathroom, made worse by the fact that it was (as they often are in these parts) beyond the narrow kitchen.  Kind of a pain.  Complicating the downstairs bathroom even further were the extremely steep and narrow carpeted stairs - although completely charming I wouldn't fancy stumbling down them at night to pee.  Bummer, because upstairs things were good again - real wood floors in all the bedrooms!!  Auuuughh...I think we are going to have to say no to that place because of its flaws, but it's going to be very hard for me.  I really like the interesting original features.  D has already ruled it out but I am having a hard time letting go of that stained glass.  Why couldn't one of the last two places have had something like that?  (And these are seriously dumb whines considering the cave we live in now.)

Our final apartment of the day was next with the same agent - we rode back into Selly Park to a smaller road near where we'd been that morning.  The first two rooms seemed fine - decent laminate floors.  Then you noticed the ceiling was a little shabby.  Then the kitchen...there was a ventilation which was essentially a huge hole straight to the outside.  Above the ancient boiler, ceiling was chipping away.  The fence and yard were completely trashed.  A better student apartment than the one we'd seen earlier that day, but still clearly student, or at best, owned by a landlord who does not care at all.  Easy to write off.

So....back on the streets tomorrow to see four more tomorrow.   Will any beat those nice middle three we saw?  Are we dumb to keep going on and not just take one of them?  You (and we) will find out soon....

Meanwhile, words of wisdom on what we've seen?

5 comments:

  1. A few thoughts:
    1. As we're in winter, you can tell more readily about the boiler/heating, but be sure and inquire as to the energy rating of the house/flat. All places get an A-F rating, which can make a huge difference if you're paying the energy bills (A is best, F worst).

    2. Check/ask if the windows/door are double glazed. I'd probably avoid if not.

    3. Check the heating type, make sure it's not 'electric night storage heaters'. It's a leftover from the energy crisis--you set it the night before and it heats bricks for the next day. While intended as cost savings, you're stuck with pre-planning your heating needs.

    (ok, obviously tired of British winters, moving on to other thoughts...)

    4. Check gumtree for private rentals. www.gumtree.com It's like the craig's list of the UK. Also, if you do decide to go the unfurnished route, you can often get furniture and such very cheaply through here, from others moving out. UK ebay is also quite good on the furnishing route.

    5. Also--not sure if the uni has any type of internal bulletin boards or a housing list you can tap into? Once again, you'd bypass the agent and often find places not generally available.

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  2. Thanks, Heather! Another UK friend recommended Gumtree and I found it to be hard to search and when I did manage to get results slightly resembling the borders I wanted, it was literally nothing but student apartments listed. Maybe this site works better in other cities? Is it also easy to get cheap used fridges/washing machines? Those two are the most annoying start-up purchases for us, I think.
    Thankfully we have been following the energy ratings and heating and pretty good so far. D seems to be most common for houses and then B-C for flats.
    Thanks!!

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  3. Ugh, that was me. Google didn't specify before I posted that it was my husband who was logged in.

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  4. That's really disappointing about the upcharge for being a furriner. Good on you for shutting that down immediately.

    I know you have experience with it, but I'd have to say the windowless bathroom is a dealbreaker. I've lived in a couple of places with the bathroom on a different floor than the bedroom and you get used to it. But being able to air the joint out is pretty crucial.

    Are you looking for a fully furnished place or are you just trying to get some basics, like appliances? How much of your furniture are you planning to take with you?

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  5. There are really good properties in UK and it would be great to have even just one and have cheap student properties in birmingham rent it out then earn a lot from it.

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