Sky-rocketing prices, homes snapped up within hours at well above the asking price and rampant gazumping - it all sounds eerily like the prerecession property market.
© Martin Pitchley
But no, this is the London rental market in 2012. Demand is now so overwhelming that rents are forecast to rise 20 per cent by 2016. With an average monthly rent in the capital of £2,416, renting is now a third more expensive than buying.
"It is a hugely competitive market for tenants," says Ian Potter, operations director at the Association of Residential Landlords (Arla). "There is some bad practice going on, and that is generally down to the shortage of housing."
We lost to rivals with more cash
When Robbie Tomkins (pictured above right) started flat hunting, he naively assumed that three solvent thirtysomething professionals would be in a strong position. He and two of his friends wanted to rent a three-bedroom flat in Clapham or Brixton.
But despite starting to look well in advance, and subsequently widening their search area to include most of south London, the trio struggled to find a property. Three-bedroom homes, they discovered, are particularly thin on the ground. When they found a flat in Tooting Bec they paid a £400 deposit on the spot and planned to move in that day.
Robbie, who works in public relations, said: "Our bags were packed, we were ready to go, but we had not signed anything." The move was scheduled for 7pm. At 5pm they got a call from a tearful estate agent to tell them they had been gazumped.
The friends had agreed to pay £1,800 a month for the property, but rival tenants had made an offer of £2,300, plus a £4,000 down payment.
"We were basically homeless," says Robbie. With their options limited he hurriedly found a bedsit in Brixton and his friends moved into a two-bedroom flat in Balham. "I blame the landlady," said Robbie. "I can't understand how she could make three people homeless. It was a nightmare."
How to find a suitable rental property at the right price
1. Don't be too picky: "If a property meets 70 to 80 per cent of your requirements, make an offer — there is no such thing as the 'perfect' rental property," says Max Slaight of west London estate agent Domus Nova.
2. Be committed: "Keep in contact with your agents, be available to speak to them if they call, or phone them on a regular basis," says Gary Hall, a partner at Knight Frank in Wapping.
3. Be a team player: if you are renting with others, go to viewings together. "Everyone needs to be present on the first viewing so that an immediate decision can be made," says Kate Eales, regional lettings director at Hamptons International.
4. Don't dawdle: "There is less chance of your property falling through if you can move quickly," says Eales.
"Properties are often let to the first tenant who views them — this is definitely true for the best ones," says Virginia Skilbeck, lettings director at Douglas & Gordon.
5. Don't haggle: landlords are in the driving seat. If you bid too low, someone else will be two steps behind you. If you can afford to go the extra mile, do so. Rosalind Florence, head of rentals at estate agent Glentree says you should offer slightly above the asking rent to secure a property. You could also offer to pay three months' rent in advance. If you don't like the décor offer to redecorate at your expense.
6. Don't be flaky: even when you have had an offer agreed, you are not safe until both you and the landlord have signed a tenancy agreement. Matt Hutchinson, director of SpareRoom.co.uk says you should have contact details for previous landlords (for references) and three months of utility bills, plus a deposit (usually one or two months' rent) and your first month's rent, ready. Your boss may also need to give a reference, so prime them, and prepare to submit to a credit check.
7. Sell yourself: landlords may be receptive to offers to sign a long lease, giving them greater security and less hassle. Turn up on time for viewings, and be smart and polite.
"Desperate tenants are even resorting to the job-hunting tactic of handing in their CVs," says Kerry Knox, lettings manager at Fine & Country, Mayfair.
8. Read the small print: agents' fees vary tremendously — a recent report by the Resolution Foundation discovered some charging up to £375 for "administration".
Some will charge you again if you renew your tenancy. Michael Banks, commercial director of Upad, also recommends scoping out any "hidden" costs, for example service charge.
9. Check your agent's credentials: they should be Arla-qualified, signed up to the Property Ombudsman (to handle future disputes) and crucially a member of a tenancy deposit scheme so you can be sure to get your deposit back when you leave.
10. Meet the landlord: " It might help you determine the best strategy in the event of breakages or repairs, or negotiating extending your lease," says Anthony Sharp, managing director of Anthony Sharp Estate Agents, Holland Park. Pay rent promptly, look after the property and don't phone out of hours unless it's an emergency.
11. Know your rights: some tenancy agreements are for a fixed term, with a "break clause" which kicks in after six months, allowing either you or your landlord to end the arrangement early. When your contract expires your landlord can ask you to leave, or put up the rent as much as they like.
12. Think long term: if you are ready to settle down ask for an "option to renew", giving you a legal right to stay on for a set period after the contract expires — the rent will usually go up by between three and eight per cent annually.
"With rental prices on the up most of our tenants are requesting options to renew and longer leases so that the rent is fixed and the flat is secured," says Nicola Merry at Kay & Co.