In search of a room of one's own

Finding digs at the last minute is not as tricky as you might imagine, says AmyMcLellan

Clearing is a stressful time, particularly when you’re several time zones away. This was the situation facing Chloe Patterson last September.

“I went online in Hong Kong to check the vacancies and then chased them up by phone when I got home from travelling,” recalls Patterson, now 20 and about to start her second year of education studies at the University of Greenwich.

“It was early September by then, so I was worried about finding a place, but when I spoke to the people at Greenwich they took all my details, added up my points and offered me a place there and then.”

Even at that late stage, the accommodation proved easy to arrange. “They emailed over a form and within days it was all confirmed,” she says. “It was a massive relief.” What’s more, Patterson secured her first choice of accommodation, bagging an ensuite room in a hall of residence on the campus where she would be studying.

“People said I wouldn’t get my first choice because I was so late. But I did,” says Patterson. “It seems like there are always last minute places available because people drop out or don’t turn up.” This, it seems, is the message that those universities which rely on Clearing for a significant proportion of their student body are keen to impart.

“Some of the more elite universities will have made offers much earlier and may have limited or no accommodation left, but we’re very Clearing-friendly,” says Jonathan Chandler, head of accommodation services at Greenwich.

“We are geared up to do the majority of our business through Clearing, so we can take applications and make accommodation allocations speedily. It may seem late to you, but this is what we do every year.”

When going through Clearing it’s important to focus on the course options open to you rather than worrying about accommodation. It’s far more important to come out with a good degree in a subject that matches your longer term career aspirations than to opt for a second rate course that just happens to offer you a place in halls.

Check out university websites, speak to admissions tutors and get an offer sorted before worrying about where to live: it’s pointless ending up in shiny ensuite digs only to be miserable in your studies.

“The opportunity to study is what higher education is all about,” says Stephen Robinson, head of student services at De Montfort University in Leicester. “Students need to make sure they pick the right course for them first and foremost.”

The worry about accommodation may be purely academic in any case, with many universities offering halls of residence guarantees to all their first year students. These institutions are ready and waiting for the influx of calls from worried students in the weeks following results day, and have their accommodation offices primed to respond quickly and calmly to student enquiries.

“The accommodation can all be sorted out in days, if not hours in some cases,” says Robinson. “You can phone up in the morning, and by the afternoon the contract is in the post. The main message is, don’t panic: we have ample accommodation to meet everyone’s needs.”

It’s a similar story at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), where all students who apply before 31 August are guaranteed a place in halls. “Most first years do want a place in halls as it’s a good place to meet other people in similar situations and establish friendships early on,” says Pat Cunningham, accommodation officer at MMU. “We can get it all arranged via email in a couple of days so people really don’t have to worry.”

Prices in halls vary from about £70 to £100 a week, depending on facilities and location (expect to pay slightly more in London). The accommodation is often fairly basic but clean, comfortable and secure. “Students are paying customers in the housing marketplace so they have the right to expect certain standards,” adds Chandler. Greenwich now offers en suite rooms and internet access as standard, with plans to introduce multi-channel TV later this year.

Most universities will charge a booking fee and ask for a deposit, which gets returned when the room is safely vacated. Facilities can vary from hall to hall so check what’s included before you arrive. Do you need to bring bedding? Is the internet access free and if not, how much does it cost? Are the halls catered or self-catering?

If on arrival your accommodation doesn’t come up to scratch, or you find yourself sharing with mature students rather than freshers, it may still be possible to change. “There’s always some flexibility for swaps and room changes,” says Chandler. This flexibility means that even those institutions that can’t guarantee accommodation for Clearing students sometimes have unexpected unavailability.

“If your hall of residence is full, make sure you add your name to the waiting list because there will always be a proportion of students who don’t turn up or drop out in the first month,” recommends Bob Williamson, founder of All-Unied.com, which provides starter kits of bedding and kitchen essentials for students.

Some first year students will find themselves turning to the private sector for accommodation, perhaps because their institution doesn’t offer guarantees for Clearing students or they have special requirements, such as family commitments.

There are plenty of private landlords offering affordable and well-maintained housing in university towns, but it’s worth sounding out local networks for recommendations of where to rent, what to pay and, most importantly, who to avoid.

“Check out noticeboards and online forums for flat-sharing opportunities as current students will know where there are vacancies,” says Williamson, drawing on his six years of experience of working with students and accommodation offices. “And the student union is usually an incredible source of local information.”

Many cities with big student populations have non-profit making agencies that specialise in finding accommodation. Students in Leeds, Bradford and Nottingham, for example, can use Unipol ( www.unipol.org.uk), while those heading for Manchester and Salford can use www.manchesterstudent homes.com, which is supported by the two cities’ many universities and colleges and ensures that all private landlords advertising on the site are part of a compulsory accreditation scheme.

“All the landlords with the agency are signed up to a code of practice,” says Meg Vickers of the MMU Student Union. “But we’d still advise students to come into the advice centre to get the contract checked out.”

It’s sensible to check what late payment charges are applied and to ensure the deposit goes into a tenancy deposit protection scheme. And seasoned student tenants recommend taking some photos of the accommodation. That way, you can prove that the wine stain on the carpet was there before you moved in and avoid quibbles about damage when you vacate the property.

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