Tim was trying to showcase the soundproofing effect of an extra sliding panel on the bedroom window but as he yanked and pushed from every angle he could think of, it remained resolutely stuck halfway across.
“There’s a few bits and pieces that need fixing,” he said.
He had used the same words a few minutes earlier as he pointed to a missing knob on a kitchen drawer, ignoring the cracked, discoloured sink next to it and the broken fan above. I was fairly sure I didn’t want to live in this dark, poky and rather grubby flat but it did have one thing going for it: it was available.
When I heard a few weeks ago that I had two months to leave my current place, my first response was to ignore it, hoping for the date to be deferred until something turned up unbidden. I sidled up to the porter, asking him if he knew of anyone moving out of the building so that I could minimise the disruption and avoid the trouble of changing address.
He had a hot lead on a flat one floor below me with a slightly better view but when I called the agent, he told me it had gone within a couple of days of going up on the website. I looked at a place across the square, led through his bedroom by the current tenant as he picked up clothes strewn across the floor but it soon became clear that I would have to look further afield.
The scale of the challenge took shape right away when Angelika took me on a lightning tour of a large flat in a gated community, available immediately for a king’s ransom. She told me that if I was interested, I had better get an offer in right away because it was likely to go quickly, possibly at above the listed price.
“This month last year I had 100 properties to let around here. Now I have 16,” she said.
Whenever I saw something promising, a friend would warn me that the innocent-looking building I was considering was a thriving hub for sex work or had some other unwelcome distinction. One handsome old building overlooking the river had three flats available but its charm dimmed when I heard about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease there two years ago and grim reports about its ancient infrastructure.
I thought I had struck gold when Mario showed me a lovely, bright flat in an old-fashioned mansion block known locally as the Elephant’s Graveyard where I would have been among the younger residents. But before the viewing was over, he offered to show me another place “just in case”, which turned out to have all the character of a brightly lit lavatory in a half-empty shopping mall.
During the pandemic, London estate agents reported a “doughnut” effect as people left the city centre for the outer suburbs, looking for bigger homes to work from. Executives renting a pied à terre in central London found they no longer needed it during lockdown and at the other end of the scale, students went home to their parents as lectures went on Zoom.
This time last year, rents in inner London were falling by an average of 10 per cent per annum as landlords found themselves with empty flats they were desperate to rent. Now they are up by 16 per cent and in some boroughs rents have increased by 30 per cent.
The supply problem that Angelika identified is driven by a number of factors, including the reluctance to move out of tenants paying rents agreed during lockdown. But supply is squeezed further by a surge in landlords deciding to sell up, as mine has done after more than 20 years.
A rising property market is one reason for landlords to sell and one estate agent suggested that some sales were driven by a need for cash as businesses found themselves in trouble during the pandemic. Angelika had a more interesting theory.
“Everyone’s getting divorced after the lockdown,” she said.
In fact, there were fewer divorces in England and Wales in 2020 than in the previous year although the suspension of family court sittings may conceal the true extent of marital unhappiness. Touring an attic flat a few days later, the estate agent told me that although the tenants had left, they had yet to remove all their belongings.
“They broke up,” he said.
"But they were very happy here."