Brits in America: How to Set Up Home From Scratch

Whether your style is vintage (like above) or more modern, shopping for furnishings is the fun part of setting up your home. It's all of the other palaver that causes the headaches. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Whether your style is vintage (like above) or more modern, shopping for furnishings is the fun part of setting up your home. It’s all of the other palaver that causes the headaches. (Photo: Creative Commons)

When I moved a third of the way round the planet, I wished I could bring the cosy London flat I’d just spent the last two years lovingly refurbishing with me. Setting up a comfortable, functioning home—again—is draining. Yes, buying new stuff is fun. But making yourself known to U.S. service providers and the creeping realization that you’re burning though cash like Kim Kardashian on day release at Century 21, not so much. The few square feet of that shipping container you hired will eventually crop up, reuniting you with those few items you couldn’t bare to part with. But the nuts and bolts of your new home will need reacquiring. But first you need to find somewhere to put it all.

Some lucky expats will start their new life in a corporate apartment giving them a few weeks or months to gather their faculties and search for somewhere more permanent. Others will have to start their property search moments after landing. Unlike the U.K., American rentals tend not to come furnished so you’ll need to tackle that side of things separately. And once you’re in and have items to eat off, sleep in and sit on, there’s a list of infuriating but necessary tasks you’ll need to tick off.

But getting back to the (comparatively) easy, fun stuff: shopping. Set a budget and get on with it. Try not to get distracted by cost comparison searches and the targeted pop ups for discounted furniture that will plague your Facebook from now until you die. Even if you’re a high-end kind of Brit, consider buying cheap basics to tide you over, then add nicer stuff once you’re settled and are confident that you’ll stay for a while. The good news is that America has Ikea, so you can buy a home starter kit for a few hundred dollars. If your pot of cash is tiny to non-existent, investigate, and your local Salvation Army and other thrift stores.

Now for the real headache. Namely, signing on with service providers. Ideally, earmark a couple of days to do this and nothing else. American bureaucracy is brutal, and you’ll probably need a holiday to recover. Failing this, scream into a pillow for an hour after every call. When you speak to the people trying to sell you everything from electricity to the internet, be sure to drill down on the hidden costs that will, I guarantee, appear on you bill. They’ll have innocent enough sounding names like “set up payment” or “initiation fee”. Don’t bother fighting these—it won’t work. But knowing about these bolt-ons in advance will help you budget. If you have problems with any service provider in the U.S., I’ve found that tweeting at them can be the most effective way to get a response.

You should also get to know your American neighbors immediately. First off, they might bring you house warming gifts or food. Also, they may have furniture and appliances they’re no longer using and are happy to donate to their exotic new British friends.

Finally, don’t assume just because you’re renting that you can’t make cosmetic changes to the property. American landlords seem much more open to this kind of thing than their British counterparts. As long as you’re willing to pay, most will gladly let you paint walls and add a cat-flap. They might even take advantage of your willingness to make heavyweight home improvements, like updating the kitchen or adding French doors.

See more:
Flying the Flag: American Style
Waxing Nostalgic About a British Childhood
10 British Issues That Concern Me From Afar

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • gn

    Good luck adding a cat-flap. In my experience, it is incredibly difficult to find a place to rent that allows cats, and doesn’t have something else wrong with it.

    And, while IKEA is in the US, you could be a thousand miles from the nearest store.

    • JamaGenie

      Every American city, large or small, has yard sales almost every weekend and sometimes during the week during warm months. What Brits know as jumble or boot sales. “Yard” sales (or garage sales) because they’re in someone’s yard or garage. These can be gold mines for good but inexpensive furniture, appliances, bedding, cookware, etc. We also like to simply put still-good cast-off items like sofas and lawn furniture on the curb with a “Free” sign.

      If you happen to move to a college or university town, prowl the streets around those institutions at end-of-term (mid-May, end of August, mid-December). That’s when departing out-of-state students get rid of everything too expensive to ship home or too big to take on a plane. Sofas, beds, entertainment centers, big screen TVs, etc. Also bedding, towels, cookware, dishes.

      Most of the items will be less than nine months old, having been purchased brand-new on arrival to furnish a dorm room or shared rental flat. There are locals in such towns who have NEVER purchased ANYTHING in their homes except for food and toiletries. They got everything else (including designer clothing) for free from end-of-term curb “shopping” or (clean) dumpster-diving.

      • Jessica Allan Schmidt

        I agree about buying second-hand, particularly durable items like electronics. Yes, much of the furniture will be MDF, but so what? You would have bought MDF from IKEA, no?

        Welcome to the States. I hope you enjoy your time here, and I apologise for the bureaucracy of our utility companies.