Bidding Wars Get Weird in One of World’s Hottest Rental Markets
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Bidding Wars Get Weird in One of World’s Hottest Rental Markets

London applicants try flirting, flowers and boasts about 5K-race times—it’s ‘a dance’

By JOSH MITCHELL and Yusuf Khan
Wed, Jul 19, 2023 8:03amGrey Clock 4 min

LONDON—Lola Agabalogun recently responded to an ad for an apartment only to find 100 other renters had called about the same flat in Hackney, one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.

So the 27-year-old ex-New Yorker did what a growing number of other desperate tenants are doing in London these days, and what some landlords are even requiring. She pulled out her laptop and wrote what she described as a love letter to the anonymous landlord, describing how wonderful the flat and neighborhood were. She even mentioned personal details like her love for tennis.

No matter. She was outbid to the tune of £400, or about $520, a month.

In New York, “You show up and if you have the right documentation you get the place,” she said. “Here, there is more of a dance.”

London rentals have been tight since a pandemic surge in home sales took thousands of rental flats out of the city’s already tight supply. Then, hordes of workers and students returned to the city. Average rent has soared 49% from the April 2021 pandemic low, according to real estate agency Knight Frank, the second-sharpest growth of any major global city after New York.

“When the phone started blowing up I actually considered pulling the plug out of the line,” real-estate agent James Dainton said of one particularly hectic period last summer. “I said to the team, ‘How do we actually deal with 70 to 80 applicants?’ We try to be as fair as we can, but at the same time when you’ve got that many inquiries, you’ve got to be a little bit cutthroat.”

That means raising tenant requirements—including paying multiple months of rent in advance, having family members or friends cosign the lease and even requiring that tenants tell the landlord a bit about themselves.

Personal statements, long used by real estate buyers to pull on sellers’ heartstrings to win a coveted property, are now part of London’s rental world, used by landlords to discern whether tenants are a good fit, agents said.

Potential tenants discuss their hobbies, weekend activities, alma maters and other interests, Dainton said. One recent client, an American expat, boasted about his athletic prowess. “He told me he can run a 5K in 15 minutes,” Dainton said. “I was gobsmacked—I can’t get lower than 24 minutes.”

The runner didn’t get the flat.

Carman Leung, a 26-year-old recruiter from Sydney, distributed a PDF file to agents that included career highlights, hobbies such as aerial hoop—in which she strikes acrobatic movements from a metal ring suspended in the air—and her ability to speak Spanish and Cantonese. After multiple attempts she found a place, for a rent that was 25% over her budget. She said she wasn’t sure if it was her willingness to pay the price or her note that finally persuaded the landlord.

Bidding wars are still common, with the person willing to pay the most or take a long-term lease often winning the flat. But some landlords are willing to accept lower rent in exchange for intangible qualities, agents said.

“It’s like an audition,” said Oliver Cruikshank, director at Keatons, a lettings agency based in East London. “Personality can come into it. If the landlord feels they connect with the tenant they may decide on that, as these two parties are potentially stuck with each other for a long time.”

He said sometimes “people who usually don’t get no for an answer” are rejected. “People come to us who are earning a quarter of a million a year, and we’re saying we cannot accept their offer,” he said.

Greg Tsuman, director of the real estate agency Martyn Gerrard, said one client recently showed up to an open house with chocolates and flowers for the landlord. “So, a bribe,” he said half-jokingly.

Tsuman said landlords themselves are being squeezed. A tax-law change and rising interest rates on mortgages have pushed up landlords’ bills in recent years. Many are raising prices out of necessity, he said.

Tenants and advocacy groups said requiring personal details violates their privacy and increases the risk of discrimination.

“It was when my friends and I began composing a simpering personal statement just to rent a flat that it finally clicked for me: Britain’s rental market is broken,” a Sunday Times columnist wrote this spring.

Tom Darling, campaign manager of the advocacy group Renters’ Reform Coalition, said the housing crunch has turned London’s property market into the “Wild West.”

Darling recently toured a dozen rental flats. Landlord agents asked for everything from a biographical essay to a photo. “The estate agent said it was to form a connection with prospective tenants—which is just a recipe for discrimination,” Darling said.

He liked a place, and he debated whether to include in his essay that he had attended Oxford, worrying he might come off as elitist. He included the detail, and mentioned he was in a stable relationship, clean, tidy and career-oriented.

“It’s slightly degrading, that process of having to sell yourself to find somewhere to live, and you’re trying to think about the ways in which to write your own history,” he said. “The more you put into each application the more liable you are to feel personally about it.”

In the end, he was outbid on the place.

Letting agents are also being schmoozed. Freelance writer and Miami native Grazie Sophia Christie moved to London from Boston five years ago and recently searched for a new apartment. She sought old-world charm, but one flat she saw looked more like a frat house.

“The bedrooms were old and musty,” she said. “Things needed to be repainted. There were stains and broken tiles in the kitchen.”

When she asked the landlord if he would make the repairs, he scoffed. “He said that he already had an offer,” she said.

For subsequent flats, she tried a different tactic: implying she was wealthy and flirting with agents.

“You have to incentivize them to send you a flat before it comes online” and get the letting agent to tell the landlord you are a great future tenant, she said. “You just have to be really friendly and chatter.”


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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