Flat Broke in London

By Ron & Mary James

Most travelers follow a standard routine on vacation. They arrive, check into a hotel or B&B, visit local tourist attractions, eat and drink at recommended restaurants and watering holes, checkout and go home. However many travelers want a richer experience at their favorite destinations; they want to live like a native – even if it’s only for a week.

That was our goal when we decided to rent a flat for a 10-day stay in London, following a cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to England. We hoped to get to know our neighbors, shop at local farmers markets, cook some meals and become regulars at the local pub. By the end of the stay, we would feel like Londoners and have new British friends who would stay in touch for years to come. That was the plan.

A well-located flat was key to the plan. Finding one should be easy, I told my wife Mary, because there is a Craigslist in London. And indeed, my first foray into vacation rentals found a goldmine of wonderful sounding offerings at a fraction of the cost of London hotels. I was excited … until I noticed something troubling. Very few of the ads included agents or phone numbers. Could all of these be scams? Probably I quickly discovered.

As a test, I sent an email inquiry about a 1,600-square-foot place in central London listed for £60 daily on Craigslist. “Mark” replied within minutes (even though it was the middle of the night in London), letting me know a £430 deposit would reserve the flat and advising me to right away “before someone else does.”

Now, pretty much smelling a rat, I asked how to send the deposit. Wire the money to a bank was the quick response. I replied that a London friend would deliver a cashier’s check only after inspecting the property to be sure it was as represented. Sorry, Mark replied. The place is always rented and the tenants can’t be disturbed. A bank transfer was the only option. Nice try – but no way, Bozo.

Such scams are common around the world, I discovered. But I also learned there are numerous legitimate vacation rental brokers who could make my vision come true. I turned to One Fine Stay, a company with a good track record and high praise on Trip Advisor. In their listings, I spotted the perfect flat.

Here’s the description: “This is the art of small at its very best. There is something undeniably satisfying about the clever pithiness of this light filled studio apartment. Like a self-contained pod in the heart of Westminster, this is the perfect hideout from which to explore the city’s heritage, architecture and culture, both ancient and modern. Within minutes you can be loitering outside the ornate wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace, gazing up at the gothic stone spires of Westminster Abbey, or enjoying the grand formalities of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.”

Unlike the to-good-to-be-true rates offered by the scam artists, our legitimate flat rental wasn’t a bargain at $226 per day. There were lots of hotel deals in that price range. And the large damage deposits required on vacation rentals will take a good dent out of your cash flow.

The fine print on the One Fine Stay website did warn that the flat was small, but also said it was perfect for two people. After almost a month in a tiny cruise-ship cabin, we thought that small would be fine. Plus it didn’t look small in the website pictures. We applied and paid the deposit, certain our dreamed about live-like-a-Londoner vacation would be a reality.
Our cruise ended in Harwich, England, and we traveled by van to our London digs with three other couples. First stop was the rented flat of two fellow passengers, an apartment in a sea of drab row-houses miles away from central London. We waved goodbye to our fellow adventurers as they hauled their luggage down the cracked sidewalk. I was so glad I had done my homework on the location of our flat as the van headed toward its next stop – our home-away-from-home. As we got close, one fellow passenger who had been to London many times told us it was a terrific area – in the heart of everything, he said. I smugly agreed.

The van dropped us a nondescript, brick building, less than three blocks away Buckingham Palace. Gazing at the unimpressive entrance, I felt anxiety rising. A pint and a bite at the pub a half a block away filled the time while we waited for the One Fine Stay representative and somewhat restored my confidence. Though the pub was cold and the food disappointing, the welcome was warm and I could see myself here laughing and chatting with locals in the days ahead.

A young man was waiting for us when we returned and helped us lug suitcases into the nondescript lobby. Our flat was located on the third floor, said the fellow as he summoned the lift. When the door opened, I was stunned; I’d seen telephone booths larger than this elevator. Three trips later, we wheeled all the bags down the gloomy hallway, through the unlocked door and into our flat.
It was tiny. Our balcony cabin on the ship was a royal suite by comparison. Large mirrors on the walls, though, created the impression of several rooms and explained why the web photos made it look big enough. The all-white decor was stylish – and also helped created an illusion of space. But in reality there was only about 7 feet between the couch and the wall opposite; the kitchenette was less than 3-feet away from couch armrest. The room, including the kitchen, bed and built-in storage was about 120 square feet, considerably smaller than the ship’s cabin we had just abandoned that morning.

The agent ignored our remarks about the size as he cheerfully presented us with the One Fine Stay gift basket and went over guidelines for our stay. The company supplies guests with an iPhone with maps of the area, the flat owner’s restaurant recommendations and important contact numbers.

After he left we carefully explored the entire suite which took all of 30 seconds. A modern bathroom with a glassed-in shower made us feel better. Until Mary asked, “Where’s the sink?” We looked behind some louvered doors at the entrance, but they only concealed a small closet and a few empty drawers. (The remaining drawers were taped shut to protect the owner’s possessions.) Then it dawned on me – that impressive round soap dish in the shower wasn’t a soap dish, it was the bathroom sink! At least there was one, we sighed.

When the promised cleaning team arrived, we had no choice but to leave – there wasn’t room for four us. So we headed out to explore our new ‘hood – with mixed results. Yes we were close to Buckingham Palace and adjacent gardens and parks. But we were also in a maze of quiet government buildings and the shops, hotels, pubs and restaurants that served them. Maybe the area would come to life at the end of the work day, we hoped.

Broke and Down

When we returned to our flat, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Our tiny domain was even tinier. The white couch was now a white double bed. Around it was a narrow corridor, our passage to the bath and the kitchenette. “Where are we going to put the luggage?” asked Mary. I shrugged, still in a bit of shock, as she disappeared into the bathroom with the sink in the shower.

I sank onto the bed to assess our plight. I noticed it was a bit short for my 6-foot frame and that there was no headboard, as pillows tumbled to the floor. I slowly rolled across the five-inch foam mattress when suddenly our flat was filled with the sound of snapping metal. I was lodged in a crevice, afraid to move and cause the entire bed to collapse.
Mary rushed in to see what the racket was all about. She looked at me and the bed, and then shook her head. “The toilet doesn’t work,” she said.

We both started to laugh. No doubt – our flat was broke.

Gingerly I got out of bed and put the iPhone to work to contact One Fine Stay. Within an hour, an engineer (maintenance man) appeared at the door. Two hours later, he had the bed level and the toilet flushing. The owners, it seems, had turned the water off in the bathroom because of an irritating noise. We crowded into the loo, flushed and listened. Thankfully all was quiet. We left shortly after he did, in search of dinner. There was no way we would be cooking at home tonight

When we returned, it was lights out. We both nodded off quickly, but in about three hours I was awake. There was a noise, like a muted jack hammer. It would go for a while and then stop. It was just loud enough to be irritating. I’d dozed off for a while and then jerk awake as the rubber jackhammer rattled to life. By now, I was trying to solve the problem, knowing full well it was the noise the owners had heard. It was, of course, the toilet.

I began to count the seconds between jackhammer events. The interval was the same three times in a row. Then my experience with home repair came into play and I deduced the cause. The toilet was leaking a steady amount of water and when the level dropped to a certain point, the valve and water pump (jackhammer) would kick in to replenish the reservoir. Exhausted, but mentally satisfied, I slept like a baby for the rest of the night.

The engineer was back in the morning. He was skeptical about my theory, but when a test proved I was correct, he spent the rest of the morning replacing all the valves and seals. Life was good – the bed was still standing and the jackhammer was silenced.

Small is Kind of Beautiful

After a day or two, we adjusted to life in our tiny flat. It was a welcome cocoon, especially after damp cold days of touring and on evenings when the rain rattled against the windows.

Did we enjoy ourselves? Yes. London was as diverting as ever. The one outstanding plus about out little abode was location. We strolled several times through the John Nash designed green spaces of historic St. James’s Park. And we discovered the city’s exclusive high-end boutiques, and upscale cafes in Belgravia, and nearby Knightsbridge and Kensington.

There was art in abundance at dozens of galleries and museums within walking distance. And we experienced our share of traveler’s luck, by chance hearing a concert by the Royal Horse Guards, for example, the included a melancholy rendition of “Skyfall.” A friend took us on a gallery walk that ended with dinner at a fun wine bar; we enjoyed a matinee of “Matilda” and traveled outside of the city to visit Hampton Court Palace for the first time.

But our live-like-a-native dream faded away quickly. We never saw, much less met, anyone in our building. The nearby pubs catered mostly to office workers and generally were all but empty during the day and many evenings, except Thursdays and Fridays when they were too crowded to get a seat. All were busy talking to each other, much too involved with each other to adopt a stray couple of Yanks.
Instead of the money we planned to save making many of our own meals we ended up eating out or grabbing some take-out because there was no room to do anything in the kitchen except heat the kettle for coffee in the morning. And in the end, the isolation of the tiny flat located in an area with few permanent households did more to diminish the dream than to facilitate it.

Would we rent a flat again in London? Probably not. But given the right circumstance we would give it another shot… especially if were traveling with a larger group of friends or family– maybe in Tuscany or in the French wine country.
On our last day, we had dinner with our cruise buddies who had opted for a hotel. We could only envy their tales of their free upgrade to a spacious suite, the comforts of room service and free booze and the friends made in the complimentary club lounge. But I couldn’t help myself to ask, with a grin and just a bit of smugness: “That’s nice, but did you have an adventure?”