Property: University's real challenge

Student advisers can help you avoid some of the pitfalls of finding a place to rent, says Robert Liebman

Students versus landlords. Traditional enemies. Some students are human wrecking balls in disguise, and some landlords have true Rachmanite tendencies. In reality these extremes represent a tiny minority, but the red and blue corners should nevertheless be wary of one another.

When Nottingham native John Edwards attended Coventry University, he rented rooms in various properties over the years. Returning to his room one day, he found holes where his windows used to be. "The landlord received a regeneration grant for damp-proofing and double glazing. The entire frames had been removed."

Mr Edwards resolved the matter by amicably negotiating a rent-free period during the renovation: "Fortunately, the work was quickly done, and it helped me financially."

A student at University College London had a similar surprise. Damian Harrington, who works in the accommodation office and is also a graduate student at the Bartlett School of Planning and Architecture, says: "He arrived home to discover that his landlord had erected scaffolding. The local authority had deemed a wall unsafe. The landlord gave no written notice, only verbal, and his attitude was that his tenant could like it or lump it."

The student did not have to lump it: "We organised a solicitor's letter ordering the landlord to stop until he gave proper notice. He should have provided alternative housing," says Mr Harrington, who is writing a master's thesis on private sector accommodation.

Earlier this decade several students in separate incidents were felled by carbon monoxide poisoning from badly fitted gas heaters. Some died. The government tightened up the laws and university accommodation officers are exercising more vigilance.

David Whitlock, assistant director of student services at Coventry, says: "We have a large property management scheme in which we rent properties of various sizes from private landlords, totalling 1,000 beds." Size means clout: "We are a major player, so we can influence prices and quality. We can also guarantee gas, fire and furniture safety."

Students don't have to negotiate accommodation on their own, or live alone, says Mr Whitlock.

Furthermore, "every property has to have a gas safety certificate approved by a CORGI engineer, and we give a copy to the students. They can also renew for the next year, so they don't have a yearly upheaval.

"We also inspect houses which are not part of our property management scheme.

"We have end-of-year questionnaires and close links with the student union. We send advisory booklets to both sides. If a landlord harassed students, the landlord comes off our approved list."

Rents in Coventry average pounds 30-35 a week for 40 weeks. At the University of Edinburgh, full board is pounds 80 per week and approved self-catering lodging is pounds 50, according to the prospectus. The Bristol prospectus proclaims the University's attentiveness to students with special needs. In Glasgow, self-contained flats are among the properties available from the university.

Accommodation prospectuses contain information of value even to students who intend to rent independently. British Gas, the Department of the Environment and other institutions produce booklets and leaflets on topics such as gas safety and legal rights, and some universities distribute this literature to students.

Plenty of student landlords were around in the mid to late Eighties when, instead of shelling out rent money, many parents bought a house outright and installed their son or daughter who let extra rooms to other students.

Some parents made a profit in the end. Many others at least recouped the money they would have had to spend on rent.

In 1991, a year after John Edwards graduated from Coventry and moved back to Nottingham, he bought a three-bedroom mid-terraced house in Coventry which he let to students.

He says: "I paid pounds 34,000 and even now it is worth only pounds 2,000 more. The market has hardly moved."

The bad times yielded good results. One year his tenants were four girls. He often visited the house and started dating one of them. He and Mandy married last year.

Bristol University 0117-928 9000; Coventry University 01203 631 313; Edinburgh University 0131-650 1000; Glasgow University 0141-339 8855; University College London 0171-387 7050; Oxford University website; Damian Harrington 0171-862 8072; Department of the Environment 0181-691 9191.

Home Helpers

From the University of London accommodation information sheet:

l Never sign anything you do not agree or do not understand. Get it checked first. It is illegal for an agency to charge a fee to be on their list or to provide addresses of properties. They can only charge a fee once you have secured accommodation. Ask before you look.

l Who to Live With - Five is the recommended maximum. Over this size, you could find Department of Environment Regulations require the property to have more bathrooms and an automatic fire alarm.

l For your safety and security try not to visit properties alone.

l It is a legal requirement for all gas appliances to be tested annually by a CORGI registered contractor. Ask to see the gas appliances and installations certificate. If none are shown reconsider signing up.

l Are there working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in rooms and staircases? If the landlord will not provide them - get your own and take them away when you leave.

l Try and talk over the accommodation with the previous tenants.

l A group-assured short-hold tenancy is a joint tenancy, in other words with joint and several responsibility, thus all members of the group will be responsible for payment of the whole rent and other costs of the property and, you will be held responsible for non-payment of rent and other charges by co-sharers.

l Note on the schedule the general cleanliness and condition; marks on walls, carpets, mattresses and knife cuts on kitchen work tops.

Multiple Choice

1. "We can display details of rooms/flats/houses available for letting to a student or member of the university. Although we do not provide a management service and cannot negotiate the letting on your behalf." What is wrong with this quote?

a) The grammar ain't right

b) It needs a comma between "University" and "Although"

c) It needs a semi-colon between "University" and "Although"

d) It needs colonic irrigation between "University" and "Although"

e) all of the above

2. The quote in question one, which appears on the Oxford University web site, suggests that Oxford:

a) should try harder

b) is overrated

c) is resting on its laurels

d) should become a polytechnic

e) all of the above

3. University administrators are obsessed by carbon monoxide, and want students to be obsessed by it, because carbon monoxide is:

a) colourless

b) odourless

c) tasteless

d) a killer

e) all of the above

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