How to find the best digs in town

Accommodation for students is more costly than ever, so it pays to shop around
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The Independent Online

As a prospective student, after you have decided what you want to study and where, the biggest decision you face is where to live. The days of opting between run-down university halls or mice-ridden flats are long gone. In the past decade, student property has become big business, and an increasingly complex and costly market.

This week, a report by the global property consultancy Knight Frank found that student accommodation is now more profitable than residential, industrial and retail property. Since 2003, students' average weekly rents have jumped from £67 to £82 last year and the report predicted similar hikes until at least 2011.

A good place to start looking for deals is online. The website Accommodation for Students ( www.accommodationforstudents.com) is the UK's largest student rental site, with access to 15,000 private landlords and 1,200 letting agents, and more than half a million students using the site each month. Rooms start at £40 a week for a bedsit in Hull, rising to £150 a week for a room in central London. Over a three-year course, some parents will be shelling out £25,000.

"Shop around," says Simon Thompson, Accommodation for Students' director. Fortunately, the site does the leg work for you, with a handy guide to student accommodation and reviews written by students.

Students flummoxed by the choice online and who are looking for something easy, central and sociable should check out private halls. One in ten student tenants are now living in these purpose-built buildings.

"It's a stepping stone," says Nick Lake at MCR Property, which runs student halls and apartment blocks for students in Manchester and Liverpool. "They have all the autonomy of living on their own but with back-up." Most private halls offer all-inclusive rent packages, with contents insurance, utilities bills and even broadband thrown in. MCR rooms have all-inclusive rents from £65 to £115. "En suite is a must these days," says Lake.

"Students want friends on their doorstep and modern facilities," says Senga Hill at Mezzino, which runs apartment blocks in Lincoln, Loughborough and Stockton on Tees, with rooms from £87.50 to £110. "That they're fully managed gives them extra comfort."

Some students prefer to go it alone, and life has been made easier by the tenancy-deposit scheme brought in last year as part of the Housing Act. Many students have been burned by landlords holding back deposits on scanty pretexts. Now tenants paying less than £25,000 a year can demand that their deposit is handed over to a third party, who will mediate in any disputes at the end of the year. If a landlord fails to repay the deposit when asked, he has to pay it back three times over.

Pitfalls remain, though. Parents who sign as guarantors for their children are also taking responsibility for any damage or rent unpaid by their child's flatmates. In one case, parents were landed with a bill of nearly £30,000 after their child's flatmates decided to redecorate a house without the landlady's permission.

Use a properly qualified letting agent, advises Robin Sanassy at movingspace.com, an estate and letting agent in south London. Ensure they're members of the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the tenancy-deposit scheme, and the National Approved Letting Scheme, she says.

Another route is buying. "Investing in property is still a very good option," says Stuart Eustace at Argent Estates, which has 160 flats for sale in Manchester's Piccadilly, from £124,500 studios to £291,000 three-bedroom flats. He expects Manchester's property market to make a full recovery in the next three years, with the Piccadilly area reaping the benefits of a £1.2bn regeneration project. Knight Frank expects student property to continue to be more profitable than other sectors for the next three years.

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