Just like home: a students' guide to housing

Got the results, got the place on the course. Well done. But now you've got to find somewhere to live.By Gareth Lloyd
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The Independent Online
Are you one in a million? Or more precisely, are you one of the 1,000,000 undergraduates now looking for somewhere to live? Finding the right place at the right price is often a major headache. Inevitably you have a single choice - either take a place in the college halls of residence or go for private accommodation. Both have their pros and cons.

A total of 22 per cent of students use halls of residence during term times. They are excellent when you start university, as Rochelle Thackray, who studied at Durham, discovered. "The bonus is that you have a ready supply of new friends, all going through the same experience. We enjoyed the secure, cosy feeling of the campus. And having someone clean up after you is brilliant. A real help with budgeting is the fact that all bills are included in the price, which at Durham was quite reasonable."

The cost of halls can vary. For example, a room at St Andrews in Scotland costs pounds 26.74 a week, while one at City University in London will set you back pounds 69. The quality of the accommodation is of course something to consider. For example, until two years ago, unsuspecting students in Wrexham found themselves in crumbling prefabricated buildings built for the Army over 50 years ago. Another consideration is the toll of the inevitably hectic social scene.

Halls of residence can have many distractions, as Rob Hill from the University of Sussex told me. "I had this irrational fear of becoming a `no-mates' and as a result felt obliged to attend every social event going. My mates and I were on our first big stretch away from home and we went a bit wild." Despite almost failing the first semester because of hall life, Rob says: "I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

If you haven't already got a room in halls, it may not be too late. Even if halls are full at the start of term, students drop out of courses all the time. Speak to your university accommodation office and get your name on the waiting list.

Halls may not appeal to the more independently minded student, and in many places with limited accommodation, first year students take precedence. Renting a house, flat, or bedsit is the alternative. Places are advertised in local newspapers, shops, estate agents etc. Before diving in, it is important to get clued up about the duties of landlords and your rights as a tenant.

As a tenant, you will typically need to pay a month's rent in advance and a sizeable deposit (typically a month's rent). This is returnable when you leave, minus the costs of repairing any damage. Getting an inventory of the house contents is a good idea, as well as a written description of damage already present when you move in. The inventory is commonly part of the contract.

The contract is a legal document containing details on the cost of rent, the length of tenancy, and the rights and responsibilities of both the landlord and tenant. If in any doubt about signing, ask the college accommodation office to check it first. Without a contract, establishing and protecting your rights can become more difficult, as Phoebe Khan told me.

"Late in summer break my friends and I went house hunting. We were all second year students in Manchester, relishing the prospect of our own place - so much so, that we didn't worry too much about approved landlords, contracts, or the state of the house for that matter. What a mistake."

Says Phoebe: "Our problems began when we discovered that when the toilet was flushed, it came up in the bath. The landlord said it was our fault and we had to pay to get it fixed. The second major problem was when the electricity was cut off, leaving us without lights or heat for a week. This time the landlord was more sympathetic ... he offered us blankets. The final straw was when part of the house was condemned.

"It was an extension to the house that had no damp course and as a consequence, big gelatinous mushrooms grew on the walls and carpet. We took the case up with the Citizens Advice Bureau, who advised us to call the council's environmental health department. Anyway, it transpired that he had built his own extension on the house without planning permission, so the council made him pull it down. Now, when my friends and I get together we can laugh about it, but at the time it was all incredibly traumatic," she says.

Phoebe's advice is: "Don't be paranoid, be cautious. Mine is one of the worst cases but I know loads of other students who have rented digs and had a brilliant time. A few simple precautions at the start can save a lot of trouble and money later on."

WHAT TO REMEMBER

Rent book

Make sure you get a rent book from your landlord. If you pay anything in cash, get a receipt. It is essential to have proof of what you have paid, and when.

Standards

Standards of accommodation can vary within universities and colleges. Before you commit yourself, try to establish what you're getting and if you'll be with others in the same situation as you.

Insurance

A good policy is a worthwhile investment. Endsleigh are recommended by the National Union of Students. It has branches nationwide with rates dependent upon the area and the house contents.

Bills

The names on the gas, electric, and water bills etc will be the people liable, so make sure they are not solely in your name. Phone bills are one of the biggest causes of disagreements in shared houses. Mercury offers a service where, for pounds 1.50 per month, everyone can have their own Pin number which they use to make outgoing calls. For further details, call Mercury on 0500 500 194.

Hostels and hotels

If you haven't got anywhere to stay while you're looking, don't panic. The welfare advisors in your student union should have lists of reputable local hotels and hostels.

Further information

Other useful housing contacts include the Campaign for Bedsit Rights (tel: 0171-739 8877), SHAC, a new branch of Shelter which can give advice on homelessness and private tenancies (tel: 0171-404 6929) and Women's Link which can give advice on reasonably priced accommodation for women in London (tel: 0171-248 1200). For more details on contracts and renting in the private sector contact the National Union of Students (tel: 0171- 272 8900 or visit their web page on: http://www.nus.org.uk) for a free copy of its Guide to Housing.

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