How to find digs that are a home from home

Helping your offspring to select a safe and secure place to live can reduce those sleepless nights spent worrying over their welfare, writes Lucy Tobin
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The Independent Online

It’s a milestone moment when children become students, especially when they fly the nest to attend university in another part of the country, and most parents foster concerns about the transition. Accommodation choices are one of the most important decisions for a fresher to make, affecting issues as wide as security, food, finances and new friends.

Helping them to make the right decision might lessen the number of sleepless nights you spend wondering if your child has got home safely or worrying whether they are living in a secure environment. Sarah Wayman, student welfare officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), says that researching accommodation choices can reap huge benefits.

“It’s really important that new students feel happy with where they’re living in the first year at university. The roof over a fresher’s head can have a really big impact on studies and social life.”

The vast majority of freshers opt to live in university owned halls of residence. These often provide security and welfare services that might keep the parental mind at rest, too. Bedrooms are often organised according to shared interests or year (many, for example, are exclusively for first years). As a result, halls can provide an instant social life. Other, practical advantages include the usual option of inclusive utility bills and internet, contents insurance covering the whole building and on-site laundries, which can ease your teenager’s transition.

Brooke Morris, 19, from London, has just finished her first year studying international hospitality management at Oxford Brookes University. “I decided to live in halls during my first year at uni, and I loved it. I chose university-owned accommodation, mainly because of the price and the nearby facilities,” she says.

“My mum was keen for me to go to university, and preferred the idea of me living in halls because it would allow me to lead an independent lifestyle in Oxford. I think I made the right decision because I really enjoyed my first year.”

Prices at halls vary widely across the country: the NUS reports that average student rents are between £40 and £100 a week. Most halls are owned by universities, but there are an increasing range of private providers. “Regardless of who runs or owns your accommodation, they should be signed up to codes of practice,” says Wayman. “This means the accommodation should meet certain physical and management standards, and will give you an avenue to complain should it not meet those standards.”

Check out Universities UK ( www.universitiesuk.ac.uk) for accommodation managed by universities or Accreditation Network UKANUK for accommodation in colleges or private halls ( www.anuk.org).

Private housing might seem much cheaper than halls at first glance, but remember that a tenancy with a private landlord will tend to last 12 months, while in halls you will usually pay for term-time rent only. You will also have to add the cost of utility bills, which the NUS estimates to be around £10- £15 extra per week. There will also be added hassles of splitting household bills like water, gas, internet and electricity bills, which can be problematic when flatmates are busy trying to settle in and make friends at the same time. It is real life though.

If possible, try to get a property recommendation from another student, as they will be able to advise you on the landlord and management standard as well the house or flat itself.

The student union may also be able to help. Try to use an estate agent who is approved by one of the three accreditation bodies: ARLA, NALS or NAEA. If you’re worried about a private landlord, the first place to go is the local council, who may have a list of approved members. On move-in day, remember to take photos of the property, especially damaged areas, with the date digitally stamped on the photo, to avoid difficulties with getting the deposit back. The NUS recommend asking letting agents whether they belong to The Dispute Resolution Service, which offers extra guarantees for deposit security.

Important features to look at, whether you decide to lease halls or private accommodation, are monthly inclusions in the rent (watch out for internet surcharges, for example) and location. Look at the property’s situation, not just in relation to the main campus but also to department buildings, libraries, clubs and cafés.

A nearby supermarket is vital if you’re in self-catering accommodation, especially if you don’t have a car. If you opt for selfcatering, check how many students share each kitchen, and what cooking facilities are provided. Some halls will have disabled access and wheelchair accessibility, others may adapt facilities such as kitchens for certain religious requirements. You might want to check the contract for a clause that allows you to be released should you decide to leave the course.

There are niche accommodation options available around the UK’s campuses too. At collegiate universities like Oxford, Durham and Cambridge, many students live in college- owned accommodation for every year of their course. Meanwhile, at Lancaster University there are new “Eco-Residences”. The properties were built with sustainable materials and include energy-saving devices as well as on-site recycling and bike storage, dual-flush toilets and heat recovery systems. There is townhouse accommodation, costing £72.80 per week, and “cluster flats” with six en-suite bedrooms and a shared a kitchen/living space for £89.25 per week. More projects like this are planned at Leeds Metropolitan and Kent Universities.

Another popular option among students are new developments of “luxury” halls of residence and flats. Providers of private halls of residence around the UK include Cosmopolitan, Jarvis UPP, Unite and Liberty Living. These tend to be more expensive, but usually feature more modern designs and extra facilities. Prices again depend on location, but as an example, Victoria Hall offers ensuite rooms with amenities such as satellite TV in Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester with rates starting at £79 per week. Unite has properties in 23 locations around the country.

In London, their top range studios include a cleaner, a flat-screen TV, high-speed internet, and a concierge service to arrange things like taxis and dry cleaning, but you pay for the privileges: a whopping £292 a week. Alixandra Hayhurst, who is 19 and from Bournemouth, is starting a degree in fashion PR at the London College of Fashion. She’s moving into one of Unite’s studio properties in September.

“Going off to university is a huge deal and I want it to be a memorable and happy experience,” she says. “I chose the Unite property because I wanted to be in the heart of London’s social scene, and I think you get a lot for your money. Security is a key factor, especially the CCTV, concierge and swipe card entry to all buildings. I like to know that I am safe.”

Of course, the cheapest option for freshers is to live at home; if the campus is near enough, many students chose this option to save money. It does, however, mean missing out on a key component of student life, and may make it harder to make friends. And that’s why you can look forward to some extra considerate teenagers around the house in the coming weeks, offering free cleaning in the hope you’ll let them live away from home.

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