At last] A room of my own: With mortgage interest rates once again on the rise, renting might seem an attractive option. But as James Collard recalls, finding a decent home in the capital requires nous, cash and the patience of a saint

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It is a hot day in August. We are driving past rolling hills lined with neat rows of vines, and fields of stubble dotted with huge cylindrical bales of hay, catching fleeting glimpses of grand chateaux surrounded by high stone walls.

Yes, we are motoring around France. Quite a popular summer pastime, but a strange thing to be doing if you are looking for a flat in N5.

An Englishman's home, so the saying goes, is his castle. In London, however, it is more likely to be his hovel, where he lives weighed down with negative equity, or rents for astronomical terms from a grotesque landlord or a team of pushy, inefficient Sloaney letting agents.

The self-contained studio is, more often than not, a tiny pinched conversion, carved out of the majestic shell of a grand Victorian house by some cowboy contractor who cares not a jot for period details, or for classical proportions, which are abandoned in the need to squeeze 12 couples into the space once occupied by a family of four and their two live-in servants.

This produces strange shapes. Your bed-sitting room might be just 4ft x 6ft but the ceiling is a good 12ft from the floor. There are grand halls and pokey kitchens, bathrooms that are bigger than reception rooms, and windows cut in half down the middle.

Over the past few years, finding anywhere to live in London has become progressively more difficult.

Council flats might not be your idea of heaven - they're certainly not mine - but the fact remains that even the most ghastly graffiti-covered flat, with muggers roaming the halls and urine in the lift, is something most people have to wait years for. You almost have to put your childrens' names down for a place while the placenta is still warm.

Squatting faces extinction at the hands of the legislature, and changes in the balance of power between landlord and tenant, supposedly designed to free up more rental accommodation, hardly seems to have improved most people's lot. Although rates have been abolished in favour of poll tax and then council tax, there's precious little sign that landlords are cutting rents to reflect their windfall.

My first home in London was a small rented room in a flat on the top floor at the home of the mother of a friend from college. Enthusiastic as I felt about my garret, I soon realised that I would have to make more space for myself by putting the wardrobe out on to the landing, next to the cat-litter tray and dirty saucers. My room was miserably cold and odorous with damp, but the twin blessings of the house were my old college friend and his mother, a maternal, if slightly stingy landlady, who would cook occasional communal meals, lend a fiver when you needed it and invite you down to watch a video when she thought you (or she) needed a distraction from the bottle.

The next move was something of a step up, into a basement flat-share, just off the Fulham Road. The ceilings were incredibly low, but I could walk to work and, best of all, our landlady lived in South America. A fine thing if you're behind with the rent and your roomie is addicted to playing Kylie full blast in the front room.

The fierce divorcee upstairs was more of a force to be reckoned with - my first experience of a problem many tenants have to face when their landlords' legal hold on the property is none too secure. The woman upstairs owned the freehold and wanted to force our landlady to sell our bijou flat - probably to use as her walk-in wardrobe. We left tougher tenants to fight it out and decamped to a garden flat in Earls Court.

This would have been bliss, only the landlord took exception to our slightly messy housekeeping and shoved us out at the first opportunity.

Then I moved in with a friend in Brixton, and a beautiful friendship ended almost instantly.

Thus far I had kept a roof over my head by taking over flats vacated by friends, or moving in with them. Although this is still the easiest solution (and probably the only one available to anyone who can't raise a deposit or produce glowing bank references), it is often bad news for friendship. You row about cleaning, the telephone bill, noise, one-night-stands staying for lunch, hogging the bathroom, failing to buy loo roll, stealing from the fridge . . .

The next time I settled permanently, it was to be in a proper flat, with the love of my life. After all, true love sorts out two major accommodation problems - you can afford to live in a nice one-bedroomed flat, and you don't have to avoid someone you don't like. And of course, you're not about to get stroppy about the telephone bill. Or anything else. A blissful armistice on the domestic front is why God, or evolution, created Love.

The only problem remaining on my new horizon was that of finding the perfect love-nest. Week after week, we got up painfully early and rushed out to buy Loot, learning to hate its various pastel shades as passionately as an Iranian mullah loathes the stars and stripes. We'd pore over the columns looking for possible gems hidden among the coded ads.

The essence of these codes is to make that hovel sound like a rinky-dink studio flat; the dingy basement becomes the garden flat; the cupboard with the Baby Belling becomes a galley kitchen; the square yard of paving slab becomes a patio . . . This is how landlords make the most of very little, but it results in no end of fool's errands. That is, when the landlord actually shows up at the appointed time.

If the mornings are fraught, the evenings are hardly relaxing, because you've got to comb the Standard and, worst of all, visit brain-dead letting agents, who seem to feel that brusqueness and efficiency are the same thing.

They sent us off to visit somewhere 'just perfect' in Shepherd's Bush - a nasty little coat-shed of a place for which the agents required a dizzying set of references and a fat deposit.

Later we went to see a 'newly refurb one-bed apartment Notting Hill, pounds 150 pw'. The door was opened by a man who brought new resonance to the expression 'white trash'. Obese, red-nosed, slightly grubby looking, he walked us round this des res, looking every inch a sex criminal. He lived upstairs.

There were four different carpets in the 'lounge', an electricity meter and a bed in the kitchen. Is it not what you were looking for? No, thank you.

Then we went to see a flat in Chelsea (by Chelsea, incidentally, landlords usually mean Earls Court or Fulham), where there were pictures of Jesus papering the walls, fun-fur on the furniture and an evangelically-minded landlady up the stairs. Alongside the problem of the low-budget mini-Rachmans one encounters, there are also perfectly well-meaning creatures so totally lacking in taste as to render their properties uninhabitable.

After weeks of aimless wandering we decided on Highbury and Islington - smart-ish, nice and mixed and handy for our work.

So how did we come to be roaming the Medoc in pursuit of a flat in Highbury? Well, we finally found the flat of our dreams and made the mistake of falling in love with it. Fatal. The letting agent explained that the owner lived in France and would be over to vet would-be tenants in six weeks' time.

We agonised. In six weeks, dozens of couples would have been to see it, they'd all be after it, and she'd come back, take her pick, and we'd be back where we started.

We decided that the only way to clinch it was to go out to France and plan our holiday around the visit. We went to the house Ruth, the landlady, shares with her French boyfriend. She was nice, and she liked us. Thank goodness.

Now for the trauma of moving. As we left the letting agent's office, she smiled at us. You've got shark's eyes, I thought, and mascara by the bucket-full couldn't disguise that. 'Well,' she said triumphantly, with appalling nonchalance, 'we did it]'

(Photographs omitted)