Living away from home for the first time can be a daunting prospect. But if you go into it prepared, you'll get a lot more out of the experience

It will soon be time to leave the bedroom you may have lived in since you started sleeping in a cot. As you look wistfully around at your Buffy posters and other creature comforts, what sort of accommodation can you look forward to at university or college?

SPOILT FOR CHOICE

Most universities and colleges offer accommodation to first-year students, so once you have firmly accepted your place, you'll receive an accommodation form to complete, listing the various halls and self-catering flats on offer. Sometimes you'll be asked to make three choices from this list. It can be a tough decision but things to consider are:

Do you want to live in a catered hall of residence? (Tempting, unless spotted dick is the dessert du jour). Would you prefer a self-catering hall, where you can compare the merits of economy pasta?

Can you roll out of bed and into the lecture theatre in five minutes or do you have further to travel? Do you want to share a room? This is great if you're nervous about being away from home for the first time. (Just hope they share your taste in décor!)

Mixed or single-sex accommodation? For girls, memories of your brother's smelly rugby kit in the bath might make single-sex floors an attractive option!

If your university cannot give you your first choice they will try to allocate you something similar.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

What will your student pad be like? Whether in a hall or a flat, it's unlikely to be a sumptuously decorated palace. Most student rooms are functional - with a bed, desk, sink, lamp, book shelves, one or two chairs and ethernet and phone connections. Bedding may be provided but it's wise to check beforehand so your first night isn't spent curled up under all your jumpers for warmth. That's where the similarities between halls and flats end. So how are they different from each other?

HALLS OF RESIDENCE

These are full of (mainly) new students, from different degree subjects, who may not have been away from home before and who are as eager to make friends as you are! Everyone will be feeling excited, apprehensive, even a little homesick. But this soon passes with all the social events on offer. When you move in, you may even have a group of friendly volunteers to help you lug your stuff from the car to your room. Make sure you pack your kettle, a couple of mugs, some tea or coffee and chocolate biscuits at the top of a box so you can dig them out quickly to thank your new mates for their help.

You will share communal facilities (often with quite a few other people!) such as bathrooms, showers, kitchens (if the hall is self-catering) and social areas such as common rooms. Some newer halls of residence will have en-suite facilities.

SELF-CATERING FLATS

If you're a more independent soul, university or college-owned self-catering flats might appeal to you. You'll live in smaller groups than in halls (eg, seven people to a flat) and you cook your own meals - great if you're living with someone on a catering course! You'll share areas such as kitchens and bathrooms but there should be smaller queues for the shower in the morning!

Microwaves, cookers and fridges will probably be provided but you may have to bring crockery and cutlery. A plate, mug, bowl and a knife, spoon and fork will tide you over, but you can always pop down to Woolies for some cheap bargains.

...AND NOW FOR THE FINANCIAL BIT

Whether you're in a hall of residence or in a self-catering flat, at the start of each term you will be billed in advance for your rent. Costs normally are worked out on a "contract" for a certain number of weeks. Some halls are cheaper than others and you'll pay less if you share a room or don't have en-suite facilities.

You may have to pay a deposit to cover any damage inflicted (accidental or otherwise). This will be refunded at the end of the year as long as you haven't dislodged huge chunks of plaster from the walls with your sticky tape-covered posters. Student rooms are often the target for thieves on the look-out for stereos, TVs and laptops so it's worth being insured. One last big payment you may have to make is for a TV licence. Each student room with a TV needs one and students are sitting ducks for inspectors.

LASTMINUTE.ACCOM

Clearing can be a stressful time for students. Having rushed to find a place at an alternative university/college, they then have to secure accommodation in a very short time. Don't panic. Since most universities give priority to first-years, they could have a few spare rooms available. If not, they might put you on a waiting list. It's still worth looking for private accommodation in case nothing comes up. The university's accommodation office and the student union often know about university/college-approved, privately rented accommodation and can point you in the right direction.

GOING PRIVATE

Do be careful if you decide or need to look for accommodation in the private sector. Take someone with you to view a room or, if this isn't possible, to let them know where you're going and when you aim to be back.

When you view a property, be armed with a checklist of questions to ask the landlord.

For example: How many people share the house/flat? What is the minimum/ maximum rental period? Will my rent cover bills? What about council tax and water rates? What period of notice is required on both sides?

When you visit a property, pay attention to the general state of the place. Look out for damp patches on the walls, cleanliness, security and ask to see the gas safety certificate.

APPLYING PRESSURE

Some landlords will try to get you to sign a contract immediately but take your time to peruse the contract. Show it to your accommodation officer if there is anything you don't understand.

You'll have to pay a deposit to guarantee the room and to cover any damage or unpaid bills. Your landlord can legally demand a maximum of two months' rent, which will be kept until the end of the tenancy, at which point your room might be scrutinised with a magnifying glass for possible fault. A good tip, if you suspect your landlord is a bit dodgy, is to take pictures of the existing damage when you move in, so it can't be blamed on you at the end of the year.

RENT

London is more expensive than the rest of the UK for private accommodation and the South-east generally is pricey especially when compared with the North.

Confirm how your landlord likes to be paid rent. Some ask for a monthly amount, others charge weekly. Either write a cheque or set up a standing order to their bank account, but don't give post-dated cheques as these can be hard to cancel if you leave the property.

'I'M VERY POPULAR IN THE KITCHEN'

DANNY SAFFAR, 18. First year. Psychology and health studies. De Montfort University

Danny Saffar, 18, has just finished his first year of a psychology and health studies degree at De Montfort University. He attended Hadley RC Sixth Form College in Birmingham and did A-levels in psychology, biology and chemistry

When I accepted my place at De Montfort, I requested a room in a hall of residence. Since I didn't know anyone going there, I thought it would be the best way of meeting new friends quickly.

I luckily got my first-choice room in a hall beside the river. It was small but modern, with a bed, washbasin, desk and cupboards. I also had room for my stereo and telly (very important!).

I had to bring bed linen, but they provided plates and cooking equipment. Home was only an hour away so if I needed anything I didn't have far to go!

When I first arrived I was scared. But as soon as I walked in, the hall manager showed me around and took me to my room. The others on my floor were great - they helped move my stuff in and made me feel at home.

The halls were self-catering, so there were more opportunities for socialising. We took it in turns cooking but, since I have a food technology GCSE, I ended up being very popular in the kitchen!

I'm still good friends with all of the people I met on my first day - in fact, six of us are renting a flat together this year! We found it through the university's accommodation office and hope this year will be as fun as the last.

'A GREAT WAY TO MEET FRIENDS'

NINA SAHABO, 20. First year. Chemistry. University of Bradford

Nina Sahabo, 20, has just finished her first year of a chemistry degree at University of Bradford. She went to school in Kenya before coming to the UK

I got a place at Bradford through Clearing. Amazingly, even at that late stage, I got a room in my first-choice hall of residence.

Even though the hall was mixed, I preferred to live on an all-female floor. It was self-catering, which was great as I like buying and cooking my own food. The kitchen was where we would catch up on each other's days and cook together - very sociable.

My room wasn't huge but it was comfortable and had all the essentials: a bed, desk, book shelves, sink and a wardrobe. I had to bring my own bedding and, although the communal areas were cleaned, we were responsible for keeping our own rooms tidy. The phone in my room was great (except for the bills!).

Although I went to a boarding school in Kenya I still felt homesick when I arrived in the UK. However, within a couple of days the feeling passed since everyone was in the same situation.

I'm staying in halls in my second year as I enjoyed them so much. I'd recommend halls as they're sociable places but they also foster independence - from cooking your own meals to keeping your room tidy. They're a great way to make friends and they teach you how to mix in life generally.

COUNTING THE COST

Rental costs vary widely around the UK but, as a university student, these are typical costs you'll likely pay:

Hall of residence (approximate cost of a single room per week)
Catered £80
Self-catered £60

Private renting (approximate cost of a single room in a house per week, excluding bills)
London £65
Elsewhere in the UK £40-50

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