Choosing a place to live is one of the most important decisions you'll have to make. Your home life has a huge effect on both your mood and on how you cope with the other trials of life. As a result, it's important to choose not only the right area but also the right property within that area. The London rental market moves at high speed and good properties don't often last long. This, coupled with the fact that many people house-hunting are working to a deadline, can make finding the right place extremely stressful.
With this in mind, taking a little time before you start your search to determine exactly what you're looking for can help save time and stress and mean you're not rushing round looking at places which aren't suitable (meaning you don't feel as much pressure to take somewhere you're not sure about because you're running out of time).
Thinking about what you're looking for in advance of actually starting your search can help focus your ideas, so you only end up looking for places you'd actually consider living in. Everybody's checklist will be slightly different, but there are certain starting points which will apply to most people. In no particular order these are:
How much can you really afford to spend per month? There's no point looking at places you can't afford - chances are you'll see one you really like. Set yourself a concrete upper limit and stick to it.
Type of property
What kind of property are you looking for and what features do you need? For example, a washing machine will save time, money and hassle and make life much easier than going to the launderette. It's worth thinking about these things before you look at places. Does it have central heating (some don't, you'd be surprised how many), does it have a bath/shower/both? Make a list of the things you definitely need a property to have then add another list of things you'd like in an ideal world but aren't essential.
This applies both to the area you'd like to live in and to the location of the property within that area.
How easy is it for you to get to where you need to be every day and which forms of transport are available to you? If you have a car, is there somewhere you can park it at or near the property.
Again, this applies both to the area (would you feel safe walking home alone late at night for example) and to the property itself. Other factors, such as the cost of insuring the contents of your property, are worth considering.
Is there a supermarket near enough to get to regularly and are there local convenience stores you can pop out to (if so, how late are they open)?
If the property is on a busy road, could you have your windows open in summer without having your television/stereo/witty conversation drowned out? Is your sleep likely to be disturbed by the noise from the pub/club/kebab shop/taxi rank next door?
You won't always want to go into town for a pint or to see a film (especially if you live further out) so it's worth knowing if there are pubs and restaurants or a cinema or video shop in the area.
Think whether you need a garden or yard (or even a balcony). Having somewhere to hang washing out when you're in a small flat can be a godsend. Also, it's nice to be able to sit outside without having to take stuff with you. Some converted houses and flats have communal gardens but often the garden comes with the ground floor flat so it's worth checking who has access to the garden if there is one. Failing that, is there a park nearby?
Amenities and services
Check who pays for the water and council tax as they can have a marked affect on your budget. If you're renting a room in a shared house are heating and electricity bills included or are you expected to pay for them yourself? Also, is there a phone line installed? If the gas and electricity are on key meters, make sure there's somewhere local to get them topped up as the last thing you need is your power supply cutting out in the middle of the night with no way of getting more until the next day.
Some of these points you can consider before you start looking. This will save you both time and aggro as you'll be able to immediately ignore all the ads for properties that are unsuitable. Some of these, however, you won't know until you see the property, but it's handy to have thought about them beforehand so you don't get out after a viewing and think "wait, I forgot to ask ..". If you're looking with other friends or colleagues then talk about what you're looking for as a group. Sometimes one member of a group might be prepared to pay a little more for a bigger bedroom while another's happy in a smaller room to save money. Have a chat about these things and make a note of what you all want, it'll save time and hassle in the long term.
Finally, make sure you (and anybody else you're relying on) have your finances sorted before you look at places. There's no point looking if you haven't got the money available. Properties tend to go quickly and landlords won't want to wait around for you to get your act together.