Clearing 2015: The challenges of communal living as a student

A wise advise would be to make the house rules early

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The Independent Online

I grew up in rural North Yorkshire and was used to my own space, so when I applied for accommodation I requested a quiet, single room. I arrived and was duly ushered into the first room by the entrance doors, next to the common room. It was a single room, but thanks to a clerical error I would be sharing it temporarily with a long-haired, rangy fellow with a collection of Screaming Trees (who?) albums. We eyed the two beds in the cramped space, and each other, uncertainly.

If you’re moving into student accommodation this autumn you’re unlikely to face an identical situation, but there may well be some challenges as you readjust from home life to living with a group of strangers. The first thing to remember is to give it time. “Keep an open mind within the first few weeks,” says Kirsty Reynolds, currently studying professional writing with marketing at the University of Derby. “Don’t set any expectations as friendships don’t develop overnight.”

Planning ahead will help you focus on the important things, according to Ruki Heritage, head of student support at the University of Bedfordshire. “Knowing how to make a couple of basic recipes, how to do a weekly shop, how to live on a budget and how to do their laundry allows students more time to get to know other people, rather than learning these skills on arrival,” she says.

Even with a mean macaroni cheese recipe up your sleeve it’s natural to be nervous about the getting-to-know-you part of the process, though.

“It’s easy to assume that everyone else has known each other forever and is way cooler than you. It’s not true,” says Gavin Taylor, student centre manager at St George’s, University of London. “Get out there and say hello. People will be secretly relieved you broke the ice.”

Having conversations early on about the details of living together – everything from storing food to having parties – can help things run smoothly. “We encourage new students in our halls to sit down together and really talk through their expectations of how they’d like things to be,” says Taylor.

The same is true if you’re moving into a house after living in halls, which throws up new challenges – such as working out how to pay for utilities. Rupert Lewis, who graduated in philosophy from Oxford Brookes University, ended up as house dad with responsibility for chasing everyone up for money. “It was such a pain and my housemates and I often fell out over it,” he says.

Bill paying services are one way to soothe housing headaches, but it’s mainly about clear communication and knowing who is responsible for what.

There will always be niggles, that’s part of living together – one unfortunately loud former housemate of mine never took responsibility for closing the bedroom door before ‘retiring for the night’ with their partner, for example.

Again, planning ahead can save hassle later. Check for any damage to fixtures and fittings when you move in and complete a full inventory, taking pics if possible. Ideally go for property on your university’s approved list, so that they can help you with any problems, and check contracts and costs carefully – your Students’ Union may be able to offer advice here.

Don’t be pressured into paying for more than you need, adds Angie Dunkley, customer services manager, Derby Student Residences Ltd for the University of Derby.

“Increasingly landlords try to persuade students that they need to reserve a house earlier in the year.” Student cities like Derby have plenty of accommodation, she says. “Students don’t have to rush.”

If you’re having significant problems, whether it’s with first-term homesickness or second year landlord hell, remember that your university can help you.

“Speak to the live-in staff member at halls – or give the student counselling and support line a call,” says  Matthew Usher, UK student recruitment manager at Bournemouth University. “There are lots of people to talk to at the university – they’ll want to help and can tell you who to speak to if you’re not sure.”

As for the smaller kinks – in my case they included puzzling over washing machines, enduring vomit-spattered communal bathrooms, a basement boiler that glowed an eerie green and the Great Washing Up Standoff of 1998 – they tend to work themselves out.

They can even be unexpected blessings. The rangy fellow and I got talking, found much in common and went on to live together throughout our time as students; I’m now godfather to his daughter. I never did get into the Screaming Trees, but I loved living in the centre of the noisiest part of the hall, where I met many of my best friends. Keep your mind open, keep talking to people and you’ll reap the rewards in the long run. And label your stuff in the fridge in the meantime.

 

Packing essentials

Check what your accommodation already provides to save overpacking, and don’t forget that local shops often have cheap, useful kitchen and bedroom starter packs for students. According to Reina Lewis, accommodation allocation and communication manager at Birmingham City University, you’ll generally need: coat hangers, duvet, bedding, towels, crockery and pans.

“Students should remember to take their room offer letter with them,” says Lewis. “They also often forget their course acceptance letter, student loan documents and bank cards.” You can create a community spirit early on by sharing costs for items in the communal areas, she adds. “For example baking trays, an iron, sandwich toaster, cleaning items and tea and coffee.”

You’ll probably have a phone, tablet and so on (don’t forget chargers and multiplugs), but a few choice items can help make communal living more bearable.

“Small speakers or headphones are a good idea and maybe earplugs in case of noisy housemates,” says Claire Slater-Mamlouk, head of student support at Keele University. “And flip-flops are great for  communal bathrooms!”

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