Finding A Place To Rent In The UK

Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. I’m your host, Carlie, covering all aspects of life abroad, and a key one, of course, is finding a place to live in your new country.

We’ve explored this topic with a number of guests in past episodes, looking at the rental and property-buying process in the USA, Poland, Australia, France, Estonia, Vietnam … You can scroll back to have a listen to those interviews, but today, we’re focusing on finding a place to rent in the UK.

Expat entrepreneurs Mayank Marthur and Octavian Pop are the founders of Avasa AI. They met when Mayank was searching for a property to rent in London, and they realised there was a gap in the market for a complete home search solution that really works for the tenant – so, they created it.

I hope you enjoy this chat, and of course, if you want to join the conversation, ask questions or share your own property search story, get in touch with Expat Focus on social media.

So, we know that the greatest ideas tend to come from lived experiences to start with. I’d love to know a little bit about yourselves and what led you to try to change the way that people rent in the UK.

Mayank: Sure, I’m happy to do so. I used to work in investment banking, once upon a time, here in London. I rented about three times, went to India, created a start-up, rented in two different cities, and then came back to London in December 2015 and rented a property here again. And every single time it was – to put it lightly – a very painful experience.

So, that kind of triggered the idea for us to try and figure out how to make the rental search super easy for not just ourselves, but for everybody else out there as well. And actually, during the rental search in December 2015, that’s when I met Octavian for the first time. And then we jointly decided to create this platform of ours where we focus on helping tenants to find their properties super easily.

Octavian: Yes, hi. I am an estate agent. Actually, Mayank was my client back in the day. That’s how we met. And I used to work at some top estate agencies in London, and mainly in London prime centre locations. From my side, I saw the pain that the applicants, the tenants, were going through and how fragmented the renter process was.

And from an estate agent’s point of view, I have also seen that it’s almost impossible to build a relation with them, and even if you’ve done a good job, you may not have had the right property for them. In which case, they still have to go and start over again with the next stage.

Carlie: So you guys really are bringing both sides of the coin, both perspectives, to what you’ve built here in this app, aren’t you?

Mayank: That is right. And that’s one challenge we had seen in the industry very, very early on, that a lot of the platforms that were being developed – I’m talking about in 2016/17, but probably even now – a lot of the platforms were being built by people who have been in the industry for a long time. They see a specific issue from the industry perspective, and they want to create that solution.

But as a renter or as somebody who is looking for a property, a lot of those platforms fall dramatically short of my expectations. So, we thought that in the modern world, where people are so used to ordering things super easily, whether it’s food or shopping or any number of other things, home searches cannot be that much more difficult.

And we stitch together this experience, which allows them to go through the whole experience within the same environment, rather than jumping from one fragment to the other, as Octavian was pointing out earlier.

Carlie: So, Mayank, tell me a little bit about those pain points that you had searching for rentals multiple times in London.

Mayank: I think the first critical one we always faced was there was just not enough time in the day to call estate agents and run after them, or to keep answering their phone calls and emails, or to run around for the viewings, etc. That is a crucial point. We keep running into that from all kinds of tenants – not just those who are within the UK, but also from those who are coming from outside the UK.

The second major issue that we kept running into is that, as a tenant, there is no one who is your friend in the transaction. Landlords have their estate agents to look after the landlord’s interests. Estate agents pay a listing fee to the platforms that look after estate agents. But as a tenant, there’s absolutely no one who is looking after my interests, right?

That in turn leads to all kinds of problems, in terms of a lot of time wasted looking at all kinds of properties that don’t match my requirements, or spending countless hours online, doing research day in, day out, answering phone calls and whatnot. So, what these things lead to is that, on average, it takes over 23 days to find a property.

When people are busy with their life, with their work, with their families, etc., they have to carve out all of this time, in addition to all those responsibilities, to find a property. And that’s very painful.

Carlie: Yeah. And I guess if you’re moving from another country to the UK, then spending close to a month in premium accommodation or a hotel, while you’re trying to find your feet and get settled, can add up.

Octavian: And that’s exactly how it is. If you imagine as an expat, you’re arriving in the UK, you don’t know the areas, you don’t know the prices, you don’t understand the rental process … And the only people you are going to meet are the estate agents. And from the very beginning, you know that they are not working on your side; they are representing the landlord. So, that’s a huge trust barrier from the very beginning of the search process.

Carlie: So, I know, from being in Expat Focus groups on Facebook for many years, that as soon as someone new to a country pops up and says, ‘Where should I search for a property?’ those websites that are top-of-mind – Rightmove and Zoopla, for example, for the UK … How does your app of Avasa AI feed in with those, and what does it do differently?

Mayank: So, what we are focused on is the end-to-end journey – so, not just showing them the top end listings, and then making people run to each estate agent individually. We help them identify which areas and which properties work for their specific life-style criteria.

So, a very simple example is: if it’s a couple or a family that’s moving in, and both the partners, they work at two different locations and the kids go to school at a third location, then they may want a place which is easily commutable to each one of those three locations, right?

So, how can you identify areas and properties that work for all three commutes very easily, and then layer on things like, ‘I want to be close to’ – let’s say – ‘the high sweet’ or ‘I want to be very close to restaurants and stuff like that.’

So, we start from that perspective to help them identify these properties very quickly. Within a few tabs, you can actually identify multiple areas in your chosen city that match these requirements. And then our herpa, which is a concierge that is dedicated for research, they take you through the whole journey.

So, they are with you helping you identify the right properties, set up viewings for you … We can actually send someone inside the property to show you a live telecast of the property. So, you may be in the US or in Singapore; it doesn’t matter. We can still show you the property. And this is somebody who is working for you. So, they are instructed to identify what’s wrong with the property in equal measure as what is good with the property.

We are with the tenant all the way until they have signed the lease. So, we review the lease. We make sure that all the commercial terms have gone in properly, and we ensure that they are getting the keys on time, on the day of the arrival or whenever they have chosen to.

Carlie: So, Octavian, with your real estate agent hat on, I’m curious about how using Avasa AI might differ from, say, if you’re sitting in another country asking an estate agent in the UK to help you with this.

Octavian: So, the main difference between us and estate agents is that we are exclusively working for tenants. So, we are not incentivised by the landlords or estate agents. And we also work across the country. So, no matter where you want to live, the difference is that estate agents do tend to have their own patch. And sometimes, it’s literally just in a specific neighbourhood.

However, working with us, we can start the search in Bath, for example, and then move the search to London, realising that those may be your needs or your new requirements. So, that’s how we really differentiate ourselves from estate agents.

And then also, because, like I said, we are not incentivised by the landlords or estate agents, the viewings really work extremely well, because we are actually asking the hard questions, and we point at whatever can affect the tenant wellbeing.

So, we are the ones who point out if there are small cracks or leaks in the walls. We are the ones who check the water pressure, the street noise level, and so on. Compared with what else is happening in the industry, we are already far ahead.

Carlie: You touched on a few things that really surprised me, as a very ignorant Australian. When I moved myself from Australia to the UK, I really had it in my head that I just needed to be close to downtown. And people were like, ‘No, you don’t understand how London works. There isn’t a central downtown; it’s a very big place.’

And when you said about traffic noise … There was so much traffic noise! And I found out that it’s a requirement for emergency vehicles to sound their sirens going through certain intersections, for example. All these little details that, if I had known these things, I probably would have chosen differently when it came to searching for a place to live.

Octavian: Yeah. The reality is that most people don’t even consider these things. So, it’s just after, or it’s while we’re doing the viewings, that they see the amount of questions we are asking. Then they realise how much they don’t know.

But then, going forward, when the time comes and they’re about to make a decision, we see that they are much more comfortable to act quickly and decisively, because they’ve done their homework, and they have already been educated, prior to the time of taking the decision, about how the property market works and how the prices are in the area.

We have already identified what they can get for their money. And we are touching all these pain points in the actual property, and even outside the property – we are checking [things like] any scaffoldings around, roadworks, anything that could affect the tenancy.

Carlie: You mentioned mould, and that’s actually something that some friends of mine in London have experienced in their past three rentals now. And it seems like the mould problem just follows them from property to property. And, again, it’s one of those things that, unless you know what to look for, you’d have no idea that that could even be a problem.

Mayank: It is indeed a huge problem. In fact, I have mould allergies as well, so this was one of the key things that, when we were setting up the business, we were very keen to identify. [We] make sure that people can know in advance where the problem issues are. And there are a lot of tell-tale signs, right?

So, there would be a little bit of a mould patch or wet patch on the ceiling or on the window sill, or a dark corner in the cupboard somewhere, which, when you’re looking at a property by yourself, people tend to miss, because there’s always an estate agent who’s shepherding you. And they’re trying to limit your time inside the property.

That’s the benefit our Sherpas have, because they’re all trained people who know the property industry, and we give them a questionnaire to basically make sure they have hit all the right points when they are showing the property or when they’re inside the property. Actually, even before that, when they’re going inside a building or a flat, they can look at this sheet and identify all the issues that they’re having.

Carlie: So, it really is a customised and bespoke service that you offer with the Sherpa aspect of Avasa AI. And, obviously, you guys don’t work for free. So, what sort of costs are we looking at here for someone who wants to engage you guys to help them find their place in the UK?

Octavian: So, I’m happy to share the costs involved, but just before, just because you touched on how customised we are, I would really like to point out the fact that … We’ve been discussing and on the course with so many parents of students, for example. They consider it even more important, and they appreciate what we do even more, and how we can help, because we were the ones that …

If we’ve been dealing with a single lady, for example, we’ve been as thorough as telling them the distance to the train station, for example, or if it’s in a back alley.

Carlie: Absolutely. Yeah. Is the entrance well-lit? What are the neighbours like?

Octavian: Yes. So, that’s why they appreciate our services so much. Sometimes the parents appreciate our services even more than the students themselves, taking the students example. Our services, they range from between £250 to £750 per search. This is not linked to the rent of the property. Our incentives are fully aligned with the tenants.

If you’re wondering how much money our tenants tend to save, it’s on average £4,000. And, because we manage to find properties that sometimes have lower costs, or we guide them on the right terms and conditions, or we find properties meaning they don’t have to spend money on temporary accommodations – so, they’re just arriving in the UK and picking up the keys and moving to their own flat…

Carlie: The costs really level out, when you’re looking at the efficiency side of things, and possibly making a mistake in signing your first contract and having to lose a bond, or something like that.

Octavian: Yes, indeed. And also, that’s by search, so it can be more clients, more tenants. It can be, for example, sharers looking for a property – the price will still be the same. So, again, even if you split that price in two, then it’s really – and I’m going to use an analogy that a client of ours told us – it’s almost a no brainer to use us; it’s better than doing everything by yourself.

Carlie: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re multiple people, then that’s really not much at all. So, I’m curious about the AI element of your app’s name, because it’s a buzz word that’s used in so many different ways these days: artificial intelligence. How does it apply in the context of your app and your service?

Mayank: So, I would like to start by taking a step back and just reiterating that property, at the core, is a human business. People live there, people own those things, and there’s another human being who’s helping you get the property. So, what we have done is we have put that Sherpa or that concierge at the front and centre of our offering.

Behind the scenes, we have digitised and automated the process almost end-to-end. There are a couple of blocks that we’re building right now. But, on top of that automation, we have added multiple layers of AI or artificial intelligence. Our current toolkit includes things like a recommendation engine that really understands which kinds of properties you’re interacting with and which ones you like. So, it will, on a daily basis, give you better quality recommendations.

So, you’re not spending time every day searching through hundreds of ads. You actually see those 10, 15, 20 ads that really, really match your requirements. We have recently launched, in beta version, our NLP driven chat bot, which is used to answer very simple questions that people have throughout the process.

So, what we have discovered over time is that probably 60%, 70%, 80% of the questions are more or less the same. So, we aim for the process to make it even easier for the tenants to get answers to those questions. And then one key thing that’s on our roadmap is a machine learning algorithm, which we’ll build later this year, that will analyse the lease very quickly.

And that is a very strong product in our view, because we have interviewed hundreds of tenants – probably, including Octavian’s prior experience, thousands of tenants – and very few actually pay attention to their lease and what’s written there.

It’s because it tends to be complex, and nobody likes to read legal documents. So, we have now figured out a design to actually analyse those leases very quickly. And we’ll build a machine learning algorithm around that. The crucial thing here is that AI is a means for us to deliver that efficient and incredible service to our clients.

It’s not AI just for AI’s sake; it’s actually AI that makes a huge amount of sense to fast-track or get better quality results for our clients.

Carlie: You’re not just trying to be cool.

Mayank: If we come across as cool, that’s an added bonus for sure.

Carlie: Guys, obviously the past year has been quite unprecedented on so many levels. I’m really curious to know, from your perspective, what are you seeing in the UK property market, from both tenants’ and landlords’ perspectives, when it comes to supply and demand?

I remember, when I moved to London, it felt like panic stations from day two – that I had to go and inspect these properties and decide whether I wanted one on the spot, because there was so much competition. Is that still the case, or has the market eased up a little?

Octavian: So, in 2020, yes. However, in 2021, we do believe it’s going to be a different market altogether. So, for example, as soon as the restrictions on international travel are lifted, there will be a lot of movement – in the rental market, especially. In the sales market, as we know, it was still very consistent, and in some areas the prices grew.

However, in 2021, as soon as the international travel bans are lifted, then the relocations from overseas and the international students will start arriving in the UK. Also, what happened in 2020 is that people were leaving the big cities, because they were working from home. It wasn’t necessary to pay the prime prices. In those big cities, the prices declined – in some cases, even by 10%. So, now, the same people are looking to come back and get better deals and lock a lower rent for the following year or years.

Also, another movement will be from those people that are looking to upsize. So, families will be looking out for bigger places. Or sharers – they will be looking for better quality work-from-home properties from now on. And couples may be looking to part ways.

So, all of this movement will create a spike in the market, possibly leading to a potential rise in rental prices again in areas with high demand. Those will be mostly areas that have work-from-home suitable properties. For example, areas where there are lots of open spaces, or properties with gardens. In high density areas, like London, there are predominantly flats available, and there’s a lot of supply. Over there, we may see prices still declining, because there’s not so much outside space.

Carlie: That’s such a good point. And it’s important to point out that you guys don’t just serve London. You serve across the UK, in terms of property searches.

Octavian: Yes, indeed. Yes. That’s how we managed to help people rushing out of the big cities. But now we are receiving daily inquiries asking about how the prices are now in those big cities, and how they can find a better property without a space in those big cities, and what the price would be this time around, compared to in the previous semester.

Carlie: Yeah, it sounds like it’s a perfect time to negotiate. And if you are renting a tiny Zone Two flat without a living room, then maybe you can upgrade and have one less flatmate and a space to do yoga in the evening.

Mayank: Exactly. And just adding to what Octavian said around working from home, I think increasingly what we are seeing – it is still in small numbers, but I suspect it will become a big trend – is that working from home will shift and become working from anywhere.

So, we are currently helping some people find a property in rural England. They are moving over from the US, and they have the flexibility to work from anywhere. Last year, we probably would have called them digital nomads, but now it’s a reality for a lot of people who are in jobs or freelancing. So, families with kids, professionals, couples, sharers … They can work from anywhere, increasingly. And that effectively means that the life requirements become crucial.

So, they may not need to be in Zones One and Two in London, for example. They want to be easily outside. So long as there’s a good space available to work in and a little bit of open space, as we just discussed, and an internet connection, they can actually sit in a nice location and work, instead of being in a cramped little Central London apartment.

Carlie: It’s amazing how much choice is suddenly out there for people that may have felt like their rental choices were a lot more rigid and attuned to where they were working every day, before.

Mayank: Absolutely.

Carlie: So, my final question is: how soon before you make a move to the UK should you get started? I know the world’s not really opening up again just yet, but we’re hopeful that perhaps, maybe this summer, things will start to happen. If you do have a UK move planned in 2021, how far in advance, taking into consideration the market, should people get in touch and start thinking about their short list?

Octavian: The very best advice we can give to people is – regardless of whether they do decide to work with us or not – the very best advice is to start their search early. So, at least two months in advance, because tenancy agreements generally have a clause at the end of the tenancy, where current tenants are required to give two months’ notice if they are planning to renew the tenancy or vacate the property.

Therefore, most of these properties can be advertised on the property portals around one and a half or two months in advance. So, if you start your search early, you get the chance to see all the properties available for your moving date, any in that area.

Plus, you’ll have enough time to learn the rental market, and we identify where we can find the most value for your money. And maybe you even have some time to change some of your requirements, if necessary. So, by doing this, you will also be much more comfortable to make a quick decision, to act fast, when the right property comes along.

But you don’t get the same experience if you start to search late. Then, even if the right property is available, you won’t be able to act decisively, because you haven’t studied the market enough. So, you won’t be able to differentiate the good from the bad.

Mayank: I think I would like to add here that when clients are working with us, on average, they view about 4.3 properties before they find what they really love. And oftentimes we see that they end up making two offers, and it’s primarily because we encourage them to start one and a half to two months in advance of their target moving date.

I can’t emphasise enough how much stress people can go through when they’re looking for a property to move into next week or in two weeks’ time, just because they started late or they couldn’t find things on time. So, it’s really, really crucial to start that search around two months in advance of the target moving date.

Carlie: Yeah, definitely. And then you have a lot more choice for yourself, too, don’t you.

Mayank: Exactly.

Carlie: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time to explain Avasa AI to me, and where should people go if they want to check it out and try it for themselves?

Mayank: So, start with our website: avasa.ai. We also have a very strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, so you can reach out to us through those channels as well. But if you go on our website, you will see a lot of content as well, about finding a property.

And if you want to do everything by yourself, you will get all the tips, all the templates, etc. on our website. You can just copy all those things and find the property by yourself. Or simply fill out a ‘contact us’ form, and we will reach out to you and set up a call with you.

Carlie: That’s it for today. Remember to subscribe to Expat Focus or follow us on your podcast app of choice, so you never miss an episode. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.