Pick a zone, any zone

How do you go about choosing which dot on an A-Z will be home? Fiona Brandhorst gives some tips
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Just looking at London's travel-zone map can be daunting, so deciding which one of those little dots you'd like to call home isn't going to be easy. While much of London can be described as an urban sprawl taking as long as two hours to cross by road or rail, a closer look reveals a series of very individual identities. "Villages" are found in almost every one of the 33 boroughs; waterside living is possible in Bethnal Green and Brentford; two-up, two-down cottages are found in Walthamstow and Waterloo, and luxury apartments just about everywhere.

So can one generalise about the appearance and amenities of a city with a population of around eight million, with six travel zones and a confusing list of postcodes? The north, south, east, west divide does exist, but making sense of it is another matter.

Expensive neighbourhoods like Islington and Notting Hill can border notoriously dangerous estates. Areas with previously bad reputations, like Deptford, Acton and Shoreditch, are transforming, with new developments, refurbished industrial premises and achingly cool bars and restaurants.

For many years, south London has been seen as north London's poor relation in terms of transport links and residential streets, but this is changing dramatically. Traditionally cheaper areas south of the river, such as Lewisham, Peckham and Balham, are benefiting from fast rail services and links to the Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway.

Likewise, pockets of north London that were once "no-go" areas, like Harlesden and Hackney, are building on their proximity to more sought-after locations or accessibility to the City and West End. As young professionals move in, so do the cafés, bars and fitness clubs, giving residents a social life as well as a convenient location.

Most newcomers to the capital will choose to rent in Zone 2 with its fast tube, rail and bus links to the centre. Within this zone, go west and you will find the long-established, pricey locations of Holland Park, Chiswick, West Kensington, Putney and Fulham where the living is easy if you have plenty of cash. You will also find "Kangaroo Valley", Earl's Court and Shepherd's Bush, where backpackers feel at home.

Go south and it's the pavement café-land of Clapham with its famous common and Battersea, without tubes but with plenty of buses for the short hop over the river to Sloane Square. You'll never want for a decent deli or hand-tied bunch of flowers. It gets grittier towards Stockwell and Brixton, where the tube ends and the vibrancy of south London begins and continues through the very different communities of East Dulwich, Peckham, New Cross and Lewisham.

Zone 2 to the east takes in the vast riverside Docklands development, as well as London's more historical East End, fast catching up with Dockland's prices. The north is well served with tubes and buses and has its fair share of grimy streets. Kilburn and Kensal Green are benefiting from the cash-strapped over-spill of tenants from its more expensive neighbours.

Camden continues to be in a popularity league of its own. Paul Crook runs the Camden branch of Black-Katz lettings agency and says people are usually focused about where they want to live, with Zone 2 figuring highly. "They often have friends nearby or have visited an area, but we sometimes end up converting them to another place when they see that their budget isn't going to get them what they want."

Going to an agency with good local knowledge helps. "We ask where people work and what time they have to get there to make sure they have the best transport links. And if it's a single girl, we know which areas are safer than others," adds Crook.

Suzanne Clarkson gave herself two weeks to find a job and somewhere to live when she came to London from the north of England, renting a room in vacant student halls during August. "I didn't know London or anyone living here," says Clarkson. After trawling through Loot and going to a few lettings agencies she found herself a house-share in Homerton. "I got off the train and the first thing I saw was a police helicopter circling overhead with a searchlight. If the house and people hadn't been so nice, I may not have stayed."

Many people stay with friends while they look for somewhere to rent, and this can have an influence on where they finally put down roots. Megan Rogers headed for friends in Belsize Park when she arrived in London from Adelaide. "They were very snobby about south London so I discounted it," remembers Rogers. However, realising she couldn't afford Belsize Park, Rogers looked a little further out and found a house-share in Kilburn, still in the all-important Zone 2. "It was a dull winter's day, but the house was painted in bright colours and was cheap, although I later realised that this was because the area was a bit dodgy. Rogers eventually ended up in Brockley (Zone 2) in south London.

How do monthly rents for similar properties compare across the capital? A two-bedroom cottage overlooking a Kennington square (SE11, Zone 2) costs £1,600; in west London's Hanwell (W7, Zone 4), in a conservation area but with a longer walk to the station, the rent is £1,000. A two-bedroom waterside, apartment in Surrey Quays (SE16, Zone 2) is £1,108, while in Little Venice (W9, Zone 2) a canal-side apartment is £1,900. In suburban Bromley North (BR1, Zone 4), a two-bedroom, high-spec flat with parking, views of the Kent countryside and a short walk to the station, costs £950. In Wapping (E14, Zone 2) a similar flat with views of the river would cost £1,600. A two-bedroom ex-council flat in Raynes Park (SW20, Zone 4), five minutes from the tube, is £950; in Catford (SE6, Zone 3) a similar flat a short walk to the train station is £725.

As these rents show, postcodes and travel zones are all-important in London. A little research will ensure you choose the right ones.