The flat pack: Meet the London families embracing apartment living

When our daughter goes to bed, we have to pack up the flat,” says Anna Austin, founder of Anon Agency.

“We roll away her rug and roll out our one. It’s become an evening ritual: one of us does bath, story and bed, while the other one is doing the other ritual of tidying up her stuff, rearranging the furniture, vacuuming and putting our adult stuff out.”

Austin, 44, lives with her husband Pete, 38, a marketing director of a national museum, and their 18-month-old daughter, Allegra, in a two-bedroom flat in Chelsea. “My husband and I joke that we live in the smallest flat in Chelsea,” says Austin. “We’d rather live in a tiny flat in central London than a house anywhere else.”

The couple bought the flat in 2020 for £600,000 and promptly renovated it. “For some people who live in the countryside, they like to go outside and breathe in the fields and fresh air but for me it’s the opposite. I love breathing in the smell of central London — even the fumes,” says Austin.

Anna and Pete Austin are raising Allegra in their Chelsea flat (Juliet Murphy)Anna and Pete Austin are raising Allegra in their Chelsea flat (Juliet Murphy)

Anna and Pete Austin are raising Allegra in their Chelsea flat (Juliet Murphy)

The couple also love the culture on their doorstep. “For us, it’s amazing to be near so many cultural places and we want that for Allegra. We visit friends in rural Kent and, on a rainy day, they go to the pub for a pint. We want the opportunity to go to Soho or the Royal Court on a rainy day. It’s a cultural playground,” says Pete.

The Austins’s flat is about 500 square feet with a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. One of the bedrooms opens out into a small garden.

“Before we had kids, people came to our flat and said it was like a gallery and we’d have to change it,” says Austin.

To make it suitable for a family while still being aesthetically pleasing, the couple have adopted a unique approach. “We have to make everything look as beautiful as possible because it has to be out all the time,” says Pete. “Allegra’s changing station is the most beautiful one we could find because it’s on top of a mirrored armoire in the hallway.”

All of Allegra’s kit matches the house’s aesthetic (Juliet Murphy)All of Allegra’s kit matches the house’s aesthetic (Juliet Murphy)

All of Allegra’s kit matches the house’s aesthetic (Juliet Murphy)

Her highchair is a child’s version of an egg chair. “It’s tucked away in other homes but, because we’re in a flat, it has to be on display in ours. It’s using things we love but extending that into a child’s design.”

Many of the items in the couple’s home are multi-functional so Allegra’s play fridge stores her toys; many of the latter are mint or pink in colour to match the playroom/living-room’s colour scheme. “Every inch of the flat is used — either hidden or on display,” admits Austin. “We could never afford to replicate this type of aesthetic in a bigger house, but we can do it on a smaller scale.”

While they love their flat life in central London and plan to have another baby there, the couple admit there are disadvantages. “It takes 15 minutes to get out of the house in the morning because we’re bumping into each other. That weighs on you,” says Austin. “We also have to collapse the pram each time we bring it inside the flat.”

They also have to rent out a storage unit in Croydon for £110 a month for the possessions they can’t fit in the flat. “It was supposed to be a temporary solution, but we’ve now had it over a year and every single square foot is packed to the brim.”

Alberto and Silvia are raising their baby in the Grand Union development in Alperton (Juliet Murphy)Alberto and Silvia are raising their baby in the Grand Union development in Alperton (Juliet Murphy)

Alberto and Silvia are raising their baby in the Grand Union development in Alperton (Juliet Murphy)

Raising a family in a flat is on the rise in the capital.

Data from the census and Hamptons Research has found that 823,538 households with children were living in flats in London in 2021, some 132,000 more than in 2011. Overall, 42 per cent of households in London with a child live in a flat, up from 37 per cent in 2011. Across all boroughs, there was an increase; Brent, Harrow and Sutton showed the biggest rises, with flat-owning families up nine per cent.

“A lot of the areas that have seen the biggest increase in the share of households living in flats are regeneration areas such as Brent, Croydon and Newham. Here, developers have built big developments of flats to make the sums stack up,” says Aneisha Beveridge, head of research at Hamptons.

Clio Wood and Bryn Snelson want to swap their family house for a flat (Juliet Murphy)Clio Wood and Bryn Snelson want to swap their family house for a flat (Juliet Murphy)

Clio Wood and Bryn Snelson want to swap their family house for a flat (Juliet Murphy)

The price of a house when compared with a flat in London is also a factor, with flats offering better value for money per square foot.

With a cost-of-living crisis, increased mortgage rates and higher childcare costs, value is something that’s becoming even more of a priority for families.

“The average house in London costs £228,000 or 56 per cent more than a flat, a considerable sum to find to trade up. Houses have seen three times more price growth than flats since 2019, and five times as much since 2016,” adds Beveridge.

The property price gap

⬤ Price gap between a London flat and house in 2011: £89,780

⬤ Percentage difference between a London flat and house in 2011: 37 per cent

⬤ Price gap between a London flat and house in 2023: £228,360

⬤ Percentage difference between a London flat and house in 2023: 56 per cent

⬤ Price increase in a flat since 2016: three per cent

⬤ Price increase in a house since 2016: 16 per cent

Clio Wood, 41, author of Get Your Mojo Back, is thinking of moving her family from a four-bedroom house with a natural swimming pond and annex in Forest Gate to a flat that’s more central. Her husband, Bryn Snelson, is a chief marketing officer and her daughters are aged two and nine.

“I’m increasingly thinking about our outgoings and, to afford to live here, we need to both earn a substantial income,” she says. “I’m thinking about why we do this. It’s a big house which needs a lot of maintenance and has large bills.”

Wood finds the 30-metre garden particularly difficult to keep on top of, especially with young children, and there’s always work to be done inside, too.

“On top of the planned renovation of the whole house, which we did, we’ve had to re-do the flat roof. We still haven’t managed to re-paint the hallway, and we’re currently struggling to get on top of wet and dry rot in the front room,” she adds.

The couple are considering the benefits of a smaller home without a big garden to maintain (Juliet Murphy)The couple are considering the benefits of a smaller home without a big garden to maintain (Juliet Murphy)

The couple are considering the benefits of a smaller home without a big garden to maintain (Juliet Murphy)

The couple bought their house in October 2020 for £850,000 and Wood estimates it’s now worth over a million, especially now a similar house on their street has sold for £1.2 million. “I do look around and think, ‘Do we need all this space?’ There’s only four of us and we have a huge kitchen and living room,” she says.

“I appreciate we are very lucky because, in relative terms, we are very comfortable, but the bills aren’t getting any cheaper and fuel costs are going up. There’s a pressure on us mentally… These issues don’t disappear with a flat, but it would be better than it is now.”

Wood admits she’s already browsing Rightmove. “I was doing it recently and thought, ‘Wow, flats are cheap.’”

Her ideal areas would be Clerkenwell, Canonbury and Shoreditch, where she’d look at spending between £600,000 to £700,000 to reduce their outgoings. “We’re into new, trendy places and art galleries so west London isn’t our vibe… I’d love being able to walk to museums and be in the buzz of things more quickly.”

Alberto and Silvia love the amenities of their apartment complex (Juliet Murphy)Alberto and Silvia love the amenities of their apartment complex (Juliet Murphy)

Alberto and Silvia love the amenities of their apartment complex (Juliet Murphy)

She’s also unfazed by the idea of less storage space, having previously lived on a canal boat. “Having a family in a flat, we’d have less stuff. Living on a canal boat, I found it really cathartic getting rid of stuff… Increasingly, people are changing their attitudes towards consumption and are more open about not spending money.”

That said, Wood admitted wanting a flat with some sort of outside space, a balcony, terrace or a garden playground on site.

While some might see switching to a flat as downsizing, many blocks in London come with amenities you don’t normally find in the average family home. “[Our flat] offers a lot of things that a house doesn’t,” says Alberto, 39, of the three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment he shares with his wife, Silvia.

The couple bought the fourth-floor property at the Grand Union development in Alperton, near Stonebridge Park and Wembley, in August 2023 and have since welcomed a five-month-old baby.

Their development has gardens, a co-working space and a bowling alley (Juliet Murphy)Their development has gardens, a co-working space and a bowling alley (Juliet Murphy)

Their development has gardens, a co-working space and a bowling alley (Juliet Murphy)

“There’s a co-working space, cinema room and two-lane bowling alley, and these were attractive selling points for us as it means we aren’t forced to go somewhere else to go out.” Another big draw for Alberto, who works in financial services, is the communal outside space.

“We have a terrace that connects to a 50-square metre private garden that only tenants can access. There are benches, trees and grass, and it’s always very well maintained. It’s a lovely place and the kids can play in a secure environment. It also has a nice view of the canal.”

As well as residents-only facilities, the family also appreciate the amenities open to everyone. “It’s one minute to the grocery store and one minute to the gym. There’s a nursery opening next door soon, too. If you lived in a house, these would all be further away.”

The couple enjoy the security, community and convenience of a flat (Juliet Murphy)The couple enjoy the security, community and convenience of a flat (Juliet Murphy)

The couple enjoy the security, community and convenience of a flat (Juliet Murphy)

The couple’s flat also boasts a 24-hour concierge service. “They help with deliveries and contractors coming to do maintenance. They also offer security at night — these types of things add value and security is important to us as we have a young baby.”

There are several families in their block and the concierge organises events for parents to meet up and introduce themselves to each other. The flat also comes with a dedicated parking space. “Parking is underground, so you don’t get wet and then you can take the lift with the pram. It’s safe and secure, which was another selling point.”

Flats like Alberto’s cost between £760,000 and £830,000 but with many new amenities — such as an amphitheatre, lake and waterfall — planned for the future, he also hopes to get a good return on what they paid for it.

“It’s a good investment as the area is being renovated quite well. It’s where we want to stay in the medium term and raise our children.”

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