Student finance: A few home-truths about student digs

Finding decent accommodation can be hellish - but it pays to be prudent.
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The Independent Online
Paying for the roof over your head is the biggest expense facing every student. It can also become your biggest nightmare, especially if you don't get your contract checked out or rent somewhere you can't afford.

So when choosing your university or college, remember that the location, cost and availability of accommodation is a major consideration.

If you choose London, you need to budget for spending more on your student digs and transport costs to get around the capital. However, if you select a less glamorous or quieter location which has a lot of accommodation on campus, you'll make a huge saving.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, says: "Accommodation is the single most expensive item in a student's budget. Don't stint too much on cash laid out on accommodation - you need to be fairly comfortably housed to be able to perform well in your studies."

A recent survey showed rents near King's College, London, were pounds 55 a week, while students at the University of Teesside could get digs for pounds 26.50 a week.

If you do manage to live somewhere warm and comfortable for a fairly low rent, you'll be able to spend more of your year studying rather than avoiding the landlord.

And if you move into a shared house, it's worth asking yourself what sort of people you want to live with.

If you're a fun-loving type who likes to stay up late and doesn't mind noise, you should bear this in mind when sizing up your future housemates. Alternatively, if you value peace and quiet, moving in with four students armed with electric guitars and huge sound systems probably won't be your cup of tea.

There are a number of ways to ensure you get the sort of digs you can be happy in. First of all, check the accommodation details when you get the university prospectuses and have a good look around if you visit the campus for an interview.

If there are different blocks of accommodation on campus, ask other students for advice on which are considered best. Some might be in better condition or in a better location than others.

Most students suggest trying to live on campus in the first year as it means you can't help but make friends with your neighbours. It also saves you the hassle of finding a home as soon as you reach university.

But bear in mind that many universities or colleges cannot offer rooms on campus for every first-year student - so it is important to apply in good time if you have your heart set on halls.

A study by the National Union of Students in 1997 found that the average cost of university or college accommodation was pounds 48.37 per week, with private accommodation being slightly cheaper at pounds 40.12.

For the coming academic year, the NUS estimates the average cost of accommodation in London is pounds 2,340 - more than half the maximum possible loan for a student living in the capital. Outside London, the union found the average student will spend pounds 1,679 on rent, nearly pounds 700 more than they will spend on food and household goods.

If you don't get a room on campus and need to rent digs in town, the Law Society says it is important to enter into a proper legal tenancy. The agreement is there to protect the tenant and the landlord, laying down the rules that both parties must observe during the tenancy.

Make sure the agreement is in writing, because without it it will be much harder to prove your basic rights as a tenant if things turn nasty. Also, ensure that the agreement covers all the basics, such as whether bills are included in the price you pay for rent. (Some landlords charge rent inclusive of the cost of gas and electricity, but - for obvious reasons - never the phone bill.)

Check what is covered by the landlord and what is not - for example, water rates - and agree how and when the rent should be paid.

You should also find out whether your landlord wants a deposit and, if so, whether it is refundable. It's important to know where the deposit is going to be kept while you are a tenant - and remember, the majority of landlords ask for rent a month in advance and a month's rent as a deposit. This means you have to find two months' rent - which can often be more than pounds 500 - before you even step over the doorstep.

You should also get a receipt for any money paid to the landlord (a rent book from the local stationery shop might prove a good investment).

If you are sharing a house or flat, make sure all the bills are in joint names and are a shared responsibility. You don't want to end up with a phone bill in your name for all your flatmates' calls.

Your rent will be the largest chunk of money coming out of your account, so never sign up for a property if you don't trust the landlord or can't afford it.