Traps behind the door

Penny Jackson on hazards facing students
Mention the word "student" to some landlords and they throw up their hands in horror. Ask a student what they think of landlords and Rachman begins to look reasonable. If ever there was an area awash with prejudice, this is it.

Of course, there are students who default on rent and leave properties in an appalling condition. Equally, there are unscrupulous landlords who provide sub-standard accommodation. Students are not the only ones to suffer. They are, though, less likely than many others to know the ropes. Few find their first encounter with the rental market anything but bruising. Sorrel Moseley-Williams is taking a year out from her Spanish studies to be communications officer for University College London union, and is looking for somewhere to rent on the open market for the first time.

"I went to see one house that looked perfect. It would have cost the four of us sharing pounds 80 a week. It had just been done up and was very secure and close to the college. I rang the landlord 10 minutes after seeing it to say we wanted it. He agreed. But when I called a second time to confirm that we could provide all the references, he said it had gone. I was gutted."

Ed Anderson, a third year psychology student and one of the four who will be sharing, is a fairly old hand. This last academic year he was one of seven renting a house in Clerkenwell, each person paying pounds 78 a week, slightly above the average London rent of pounds 60 to pounds 65. "The position was wonderful, but the house was sparcely furnished. We used our blankets to cover the chairs which were falling apart."

The litany continues: damp carpets, collapsing beds and mice. "The house was pretty cheap," Mr Anderson continues, "so we didn't expect a lot of the landlords. I was ill and got behind with the rent and it was all very amicable. They only charged us pounds 25 each for cleaning the house at the end of the year and our electricity and gas was included in the rent. We kept the heating on all the time so I can't imagine they made a penny out of us."

While Ed Anderson's landlord was more relaxed than most, he did, as is common, require each student to become a party to the lease. The usual one month rent in advance and one month deposit were also required. The most common complaint among studentsis non-returned deposits. Unbonded landlords are reckoned to be holding pounds 1bn in tenants' deposits. Students, as landlords well know, are less likely to pursue the issue since most eventually leave their university towns. Pip Backstrom of the University of London Accommodation Office says that all students should bring contracts to be checked before signing. "They can be ripped off mercilessly. Landlords may argue that the damages deposit was in fact a holding deposit and that's the last the student will see of it."

Elsewhere, university cities such as Manchester and Leeds have student areas, unlike London with its spread of colleges. This makes the focus of their search easier, but puts enormous pressure on those areas. Yet as they step into the turbulent property market students should note that some would give anything for a few landlord troubles. As Pip Backstrom says: "Three years on campus somewhere like Keele is enough to drive you mad."