Renting: a beginner’s guide

New to renting? Follow our hassle-free, step-by-step guide to finding the right home

Renting: Tenants entering a rented flat
(Image credit: Getty)

Looking to rent a flat, apartment or house? You're not alone. More of us than ever are renting, thanks to high property prices, and that number is only set to increase further. Although we’ve all heard horror stories about rogue landlords and filthy rental properties, the reality is that the vast majority of renters are happy with their homes. Follow our guide to renting to join their ranks – we cover everything from choosing the best location to knowing what to ask a prospective landlord.

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1. Choose your location

You may already have a pretty good idea of where you want to live, but if you’re flexible on location, consider what your priorities are. Is it important to be near family and friends, have a speedy commute to work or a short walk to the station or bus stop? Do you want shops and cafes on the doorstep, or would you prefer somewhere quiet to come back to at the end of the day? Don’t feel forced to stay in your current neighbourhood just for the sake of it, as by broadening your horizons you may well discover that another suits your needs and lifestyle much better. Try Rightmove’s Where Can I Live? tool to narrow down your options.

Once you’ve pinpointed the location, worked out your budget and decided how many bedrooms you want, you’re ready to kick off your property search. Between them, the main portals, Zoopla and Rightmove list available rental properties from the vast majority of estate agents, and you can set up alerts to let you know as soon as a home that fits your criteria is added. 

Having said that, conducting a more local search can often pay off. Scour local newspapers, Loot and hyperlocal websites for ads, and check out noticeboards in nearby shops and supermarkets. Especially if you're looking for a room to rent, but also in the case of some flats, there are still landlords out there who will advertise their properties in shop windows. Also, we recommend registering with a few estate agents in the area you want to move to: it saves you time, and if the agent knows you're serious, they'll ring you as soon as a suitable property becomes available.

3. Is the rental price fair?

Check whether the rent for a home you’re interested in seems reasonable on Zoopla and Rightmove. Multiply monthly rent by 12 then divide by 52 to calculate the weekly figure. Pricing isn’t just about the number of bedrooms, as other factors including size, extra bathrooms and overall condition will come into play and a flat with outside space will cost more than one without it. Ex-local authority housing tends to be the cheapest of the bunch, whereas you’ll pay a premium for a new-build or a classy conversion. There may be some wiggle room on price – so ask!

You can either rent directly from a private landlord, or via a lettings agency, which may – but won’t necessarily - manage the property. 

4. How to spot a good lettings agent

  • Word of mouth is the best recommendation. Ask if the agency is a member of a trade body such as National Approved Letting Scheme or ARLA, then check the relevant website to make sure that membership hasn’t lapsed.
  • A reputable agent should inform you straight away of any costs other than rent, which from the 1st June 2019 can only include a refundable holding deposit of one week's rent, and future fees for early contract termination, late rent payment, or loss of keys. Any agent that is still asking for other fees is breaking the law. 
  • Avoid agents like the plague who want to charge you for property details, are poorly organised and ask for money upfront.
  • Find out what to ask a letting agent about a property you are interested in before you proceed.

5. How to spot a good private landlord

  • Find out if the landlord is a member of an accreditation scheme that sets minimum standards for people renting out properties. Further info at Accreditation Network UK
  • Ask if he/she can provide references from previous tenants.
  • Someone who’s disorganised, unwilling to answer questions and can’t provide a copy of a gas safety certificate (required by law) should set warning bells ringing.
  • Find out what to ask a potential landlord before signing a rental agreement in our guide.

6. Furnished v unfurnished lets

Whether you go for a furnished or unfurnished property is a matter of personal preference and convenience. A furnished home will suit you if you don’t have furniture of your own, and will save you the time, hassle and expense of sourcing and buying it. On the minus side, it might be slightly pricier as the landlord will have to pay to kit it out, and your deposit may be higher. Unfurnished is ideal if you already have your own stuff, and you won’t be liable for wear, tear and damage for items belonging to the landlord. It will also leave you free to personalise your new pad to your own taste. 

moving home hazardous to health

(Image credit: furniture village)

7. Viewing a property to let

Arrange to view properties for the first time during daylight hours, when any flaws are more apparent, and always tell someone where you’re going. Check that the décor’s in decent condition, ask exactly what’s included if the property is furnished, and make sure that the heating, lights and taps work and windows open. Assess room sizes, layout and amount of light coming in, and whether there’s much noise from neighbours or traffic. If the current tenants are in, find out what they like about their home, and whether any issues or repairs have been dealt with promptly. 

Use our guide to viewing a rental property to ensure you check all the essentials.

8. Understanding the contract

The vast majority of private homes are let under an assured shorthold tenancy (AST) – a legally binding contract, which lists your and your landlord’s rights and responsibilities, details of the deposit, the rent and when it’s due, and notice periods. A tenancy can be fixed for any period longer than six months, though in practice the term is usually a year. You should also be given an inventory of everything that’s in the property and its condition, and don’t forget to take photos as soon as you move in, in case of any disputes later. Read the contract and inventory carefully, and ask the landlord or lettings agent to clarity any points you don’t understand.  

9. Deposit know-how

You’ll be asked to pay a deposit of one to two months’ rent as insurance in case you default on rent or damage the property. This must be held in one of three government-backed tenancy deposit schemes – Deposit Protection, My Deposits or Tenancy Deposit Scheme – which will ensure you get the full amount back when you move out, and protect your money if there’s a dispute. Your landlord is obligated to let you know where the deposit’s lodged within 30 days of paying it.

Note the new deposit amount cap: five weeks' went on properties that cost less than £50,000 in rent, and six weeks' rent on those that fetch above £50,000.

10. Check notice periods

In England the landlord has to give any tenant two months' notice, in writing . In Scotland, it's 28 days for tenancies of up to six months, and 84 days for tenancies of over six months. 

The AST may contain a break clause – for example six months into a year’s contract - giving you or the landlord the opportunity to end the tenancy earlier, subject to the prescribed notice periods. Once the fixed term ends, you can sign up for a new tenancy or carry on as before on what’s known as a rolling periodic tenancy. A month-by-month rolling contract is often possible, especially after you've rented from the same landlord for a while. 

Read our guide to rental paperwork and documents to ensure you have everything in place and your rights are protected.

11. Problem solving

Communication is key to resolving any issues as quickly as possible. Report problems with the property to the landlord or letting agent as soon as you’re aware of them, and don’t refuse access for inspection or repairs – your tenancy agreement will give details of the notice your landlord needs to give you, usually 24 or 48 hours. If there is a dispute you can’t resolve, seeks advice from a solicitor, your local authority’s housing department or from Citizens' Advice.

Find out how to be a good tenant in our guide to ensure you're holding up your end of the bargain.

12. Renting a shared house

When moving into a shared house, meet the other tenants first, decide how bills will be apportioned and set down some ground rules, including establishing a cleaning rota and whether overnight guests are allowed. A home shared by three or more unrelated people is classified as a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO), and the landlord will need to comply with certain standards and apply for a licence from the local council before renting it out. In some areas, licenses are also required for HMOs consisting of three or four tenants, so always check whether a property is correctly licensed. 

Tip: If you’re planning to rent a room from a live-in landlord, you’ll be classified as a lodger rather than a tenant, and won’t have as many rights as under an AST.

13. Could you buy instead of rent?

Could finding a mortgage deal prove better for your finances than paying out rent every month? If you're unsure, it's worth checking to see what you could afford. We've teamed up with online mortgage advisor Habito. Use the form (below) to get an idea of what you can borrow, then speak to an advisor for free, unbiased advice about taking out a mortgage, help seeking out the best deals, and answers to queries you may have. They will use their insider knowledge to negotiate the best deal based on your financial history and current status, too. 

Bear in mind that there are other options, particularly for low earners, such as Help To Buy, Shared Ownership and Joint Borrower, Sole Proprietor mortgages to help you get a foot on the ladder; check out our guides for more.

More advice for first-timers: