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Rough guide to the capital

London-bound and need a place to live? Frances Farrer offers some basic advice on dos and don'ts

Your first job, the stride into the real world, perhaps your biggest challenge to date - and best, of all, it's in London. You have a job in The Smoke, where you have never lived and don't know anyone. Exciting? Scary? Now the question is, where will you live? How will you find a place? Who will help you?

The London boroughs vary widely in the amount of help they can give. Since the teacher shortages of the Eighties and early Nineties the market has determined that less is being done in terms of advice and help by LEAs and local councils. This could change as new shortages develop but for the present such service has generally fallen victim to local authority cost-cutting. All the same, some boroughs do still help new teachers. Tower Hamlets, for instance, will recommend local estate agents and knows of some moderately priced housing association accommodation shared by teachers. Unusually, Barking and Dagenham has its own accommodation for teachers at Butler Court, with 52 single and two double rooms.

All the boroughs suggest that you ask for information at the school which has appointed you, which should know the situation on the ground better than anyone else. The school secretary can probably tell you which of the local media have the most useful advertisements, certainly point you to the school noticeboard, where there may be some accommodation notices, and put one up for you.

Individual schools occasionally have their own accommodation lists. At Alperton Community (GM) School, for example, the head speaks of an "informal circle" of parents and members of staff who can help short-term. Their weekly staff bulletin can include a request for accommodation.

The London borough of Waltham Forest gives new teachers a great deal of support in their house-hunting and the LEA is particularly protective of young women teachers, on whose behalf it has vetted the local letting agencies. The LEA's list of agencies makes certain guarantees of conditions.

The agencies must not charge prospective tenants, and they must ensure that properties offered to teachers are in a reasonable state, well-decorated and secure, with window locks and "proper front doors". A member of the LEA staff will take new teachers by car to look at properties.

Bexley's accommodation list is thought to be adequate to the needs of new teachers: it contains houses and rooms let by local residents. The borough say they still offer a disturbance allowance and may for a fixed period help to support people who have to finance two homes while they get rid of the one they are leaving.

Havering has a register of houses and a list of estate agents; at the discretion of individual heads they may pay a housing agency fee, the cost of removal and in some cases an interest-free loan of up to Pounds 600. Hillingdon grants up to Pounds 1,200 to NQTs to help them to buy a home - but not to rent one. Greenwich can give no more concrete help than their expert knowledge of the local estate agents, but even this may be better than starting from scratch.

In more central or expensive areas such as Camden, Islington and Hackney, no such help is given. Some LEAs regret this and speak of the positive effort they used to make, but the end result is the same. They suggest local papers, housing advice centres, school notice boards.

Most teaching unions offer a welcome pack to new teachers containing details of their services, but advice on specific questions such as housing is delegated to local representatives. The NUT does not give housing advice but can sometimes put you in touch with housing associations. The NASUWT says its branches will advise, but believes the school is the best source of information. The ATL doesn't help on housing.

If after all it comes down to doing your own search, there are some guidelines. First, you must determine what you want. Would you like to share a house or flat with other teachers? Must they be newly qualified teachers like you? Must they teach your subject? (This may be narrowing the field too much.) It is a good idea to live near the school, not least because you must get there before the pupils, though in less desirable or more expensive parts of town you may need or wish to live a little further away. In that case, make sure your journey will be practicable.

Most people who have been through teacher training already know that shared accommodation can be wonderful or dreadful. Before answering advertisements, consider carefully your own lifestyle. Which is most important, partying or having a quiet space where you can do your marking? Do you want to have a system of shared housekeeping, or total independence? Then you can deconstruct the ads. "Quiet shared house with garden" sounds pleasant but might be boring. "Blonde for three high-octane guys" tells you all you need to know.

For central London the main sources of rented accommodation advertisements are the Evening Standard and LOOT, both of which are daily, with a few more specialised ones in the weekly Time Out. Buy them when they come out, read them, and start phoning as soon as possible since at times of great renting activity even a couple of hours can be enough for a room to be taken. If your post is in outer London or a suburb you will need to consult the local press.

With a houseflatshare you should always meet the people already in the house. First, do you like them? This may seem obvious but it is the principle consideration: it is always a mistake to talk yourself into trying to like a domestic situation when your first instinct has warned you that the thing has no chance of working.

Next, have they got the household well enough organised to be able to resolve questions of shared or split bills, household responsibilities and territorial imperatives, without tension? If a month's rent is required as deposit, will they give you a proper receipt and outline the circumstances in which it would be returnable or retained when you leave?

A recent Modern Times (BBC2) documentary painted a bleak picture of three households that had placed advertisements for sharers with only disastrous responses. This only goes to show that advertisers are just as keen as you are to find a harmonious solution.

Perhaps it comes down to a simple track, starting with asking at the school that has appointed you and checking its noticeboard, continuing by asking the LEA and your union rep, and moving on to newspapers, estate agents and letting agencies. Try not to take on an agreement that commits you to six months' rent which you will still owe if the place turns out not to be right.

And the best of luck!

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