Bidding wars, cash up-front and ‘auditions’ – inside Britain’s broken renting market

Beth Holloway seems like the ideal tenant. The civil servant, 23, has a stable job, good references and earns a decent salary. And she doesn’t smoke or have pets – factors that are often a disadvantage in a fiercely competitive market.

But after three months of flat-hunting in London, involving hundreds of enquiries to agencies, two dozen viewings and 10 offers on properties, she says she cannot take it any more. Each time she and the friend she had planned to live with put in an offer on a property, they were outbid by someone else. “We’ve offered £200 over [the listed price] and not got it because someone else offered six months upfront. I’ve heard of people offering £500 or £600 over or offering to pay a year upfront in cash,” she said.

At other times, she has arrived at pre-arranged viewings to find 15 people in the queue before her. Or worse: she has called to try for a viewing and been told that the property is already gone, despite it being posted online only minutes earlier. “We just got to breaking point,” Holloway said. “Everyone went, ‘Renting in London is going to be hard’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ But I didn’t realise how bad it was. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Holloway is one of thousands caught up in what campaigners are calling the “cost of renting crisis”. High demand and lack of housing supply have led to landlords and agencies raising rents to record levels at a time when soaring energy prices and rising inflation mean millions are already struggling to keep up with bills.

Beth at her graduation, wearing gown and mortarboard
‘I didn’t realise how bad renting in London was’: civil servant Beth Holloway, 23, pictured at her graduation.

Data from Rightmove shows that rents in Britain have hit record highs, jumping by more than 20% year on year in some areas such as Manchester, and 15.8% in London. Tenants report landlords raising their rents by as much as £700 a month, effectively forcing them out. Others who moved out of their flats say they checked property sites days later to see their former homes relisted for double the original price.

A survey by PropertyMark, a membership organisation for estate agents, found that letting agents received an average of 127 new applications per branch in July but had only 11 properties available to rent. A record 82% reported month-on-month increases in rates.

For those trying to find somewhere to live, the competition is extreme. Holloway, who works in London so needs to live in, or near, the capital, found that flat-hunting became a “part-time job”, on top of her real full-time role. Each day, she would spend hours scouring property sites and arranging viewings in her lunch breaks and after work, on top of receiving a stream of alerts notifying her to new properties.

“It’s very mentally draining. You’re constantly on edge,” she said. “Even when you’re trying to concentrate on work, you’re getting email alerts about new properties or the cancellation of a viewing.”

Despite needing to be in London long term for work, she has put the flat hunt on pause for now. She is in a privileged position, she says, and can live with her parents in Hertfordshire. But she is worried for those who are not so fortunate. “I’ve been in a good situation to have this to fall back on. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Max Willson, 27, a research manager, describes a similar experience. He had lived in the same flat for three years but, “after years of mice and cockroaches and general disrepair”, decided to move on. He turned to SpareRoom, the UK’s most popular site for flat and house shares, but says it became “quickly apparent that it’s a crazy place of auditioning your personality”, with “hundreds of people” applying for the same room.

“Loads of people would enquire and turn up for viewings. I was encouraged to ‘make your best offer’ by letting agents, and places would be off the market within an hour,” Willson said. “To make it worse, you’d have to give a holding deposit before you even found out, so in theory you’d have multiple holding deposits held at one time. And you had to write cover letters begging for the place. Some places were so terrible but demanded four-figure rents.”

After looking for two months, he eventually found a flat in Oval, south London, which is “very nice but very overpriced”. The experience has left him scarred. “It was probably the most stressful time of my life,” he said.

In Manchester, rents are reported to be rising faster than in the capital. TikTok influencer Jess Geary, 25, went viral last week after filming an angry video saying she had spent three months searching for a flat in the city centre, to no avail. She managed to get only one viewing during that entire period, she told the Manchester Evening News, and said flat ads were taken down “within minutes”.

“This is a public service announcement from me to you – don’t move to Manchester,” Geary said on TikTok. “There’s no flats available. I’ve been on the phone every day, I’ve had no sleep, I’ve not ate.”

For those without a safety net, the spiralling prices can have devastating consequences. Homelessness rates are now higher than they were before the pandemic in two-fifths of local authorities, according to data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Shelter, the homelessness charity, says enquiries from people seeking advice on emergency support with their rent have risen 177% since the start of the year, from 8,195 between January and March to 22,677 in the three months to the end of July. People in receipt of housing benefit, who often experience difficulty finding places to rent in the first place, are at the greatest risk.

Vicky Hines, Shelter’s strategic lead for the West Midlands, said the October energy price cap rise to £3,549 a year meant things were set to get worse as people juggled rent with living costs. She said people would be forced into temporary accommodation, like a family she knows of who had to leave their property due to disrepair but could not afford anywhere else, so were placed in temporary accommodation two hours from their children’s schools. She added that she was “scared” about what would happen in the months to come.

Sophie Delamothe from campaign group Generation Rent called on the government to take urgent action, including introducing “a rent freeze right now” and a pause on no-fault evictions and evictions for rent arrears. “There was action during the pandemic, so why not now?” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet.”

The Guardian