Student accommodation - the answers

You asked us your housing questions; Nathan Goddard, sales and marketing director from UK student accommodation provider UNITE has answered them. Get the lowdown on all sorts of housing dilemmas, including the ins and outs of renting and finding new housemates.

I’m in halls at the minute but will be going into rented housing in September. Is it true that I won’t have to pay council tax? How do I sort it out? Simon, 19, Sheffield

The vast majority of students are entitled to some form of exemption or discount on council tax, but it depends on your individual circumstances. To find out if you are eligible for exemption, you can contact the Citizens Advice Bureau or visit their website, where they provide detailed information.

Your university should also be able to provide you advice on this. You will need to register with your local authority and if you are entitled to a discount they may ask you to provide proof of your student status. Again, your university should be able to help by providing the necessary documentation.

I need accommodation all year round – I won't have anywhere else to go in the holidays like most students and I think this is going to limit my accommodation choices. I can't share a flat with other students as they will be going home for the holidays and won't be willing to pay when they’re not there. What do I do? Aileen, 21, Glasgow

Private landlords often provide 12-month fixed tenancies, meaning that you are able to stay over the holidays and during the summer. However, for those who do go home for the summer, it means they are paying for their accommodation when they are not actually using it. Meanwhile, some accommodation providers don’t actually give you the option to extend your tenancy over the summer.

UNITE offer customers a cost-effective summer solution. If you take a 43-week tenancy you can then extend your stay at most of its properties over the summer for the price of just two weeks’ rent. Alternatively, UNITE offer summer lets, meaning you can stay over the summer and just pay the weekly rent for the number of weeks you choose to stay for. You wouldn’t be charged for the rest of the rooms in the flat even if they were empty.

My first six months in a student-share house have gone well – I am living with mates I knew before we moved in. However, one of my friends is leaving the house and I am afraid that getting someone else in will change the dynamic. What qualities should we look for in a potential new housemate? Owain, 20, Bristol

Sharing a house with someone you have never met before can be a great experience and an opportunity to make a new friend for life. On the flip side, if you don’t get on it can be unpleasant for everyone living in the house. Living with new housemates is always a gamble, even when you know them.

Think about the qualities that currently make up your house dynamic and look for someone who fits in. It also helps to pick someone with similar interests, or someone from your course: that way you always have some common ground. It’s always advisable to interview any potential housemates, and get references from former landlords if you can.

When you’re living in halls do you have to pay rent even when you’re not there, like over the Christmas and Easter holidays? And what date do you start paying rent from when you first move in? Claire, 19, London

Most tenancy agreements are for a fixed number of weeks so you will usually have to pay for your room even when you are not using it. Tenancy lengths and start dates can vary, so before signing a tenancy agreement you should get clarification from your accommodation provider on what the start date is for the tenancy and how many weeks it’s for.

Most universities have dedicated accommodation offices and if you are living in halls of residence they should be able to help with this information. Make sure you have a good look around though; some accommodation providers will offer you shorter tenancies so you don’t pay for your accommodation during the summer.

Any advice on whether it’s better to go into catered or self-catered halls? Nick, 18, Newcastle

Go for what you think would work best for you and your lifestyle. Catered halls can be very convenient, especially for those with little experience of preparing a meal. However they usually have set service times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so if you have a late lecture or a very early start, you may have to provide for yourself. The quality of catered meals can also vary.

Self-catered accommodation means you’ll be able to cook at any time of the day and choose exactly what you’d like to eat. If you haven’t done much cooking before, it’s also a great opportunity to learn a new skill and teach yourself to cook! If you are living in shared accommodation, you might be able to share the cooking between the people you live with – it’s a really sociable activity.

What expenses should be included in the rental price in halls? If bills aren't included, what should I expect and what questions should I ask before I move in? Penny, 17, London

What accommodation providers include in the price of their rent varies massively so before signing a tenancy agreement you should establish what will be included. When considering where to live, you should ask the accommodation provider whether utilities are included in the rent price. However, it sometimes happens that even when utilities are included they are capped at a certain amount – you have to pay for anything over that. You should also ask whether the rent includes things like internet access, contents insurance and a TV licence.

If utility bills aren’t included in the rent price of the accommodation you choose you will need to budget for paying these bills on a monthly basis. Usually the bills are divided between the people sharing the flat or house so you should discuss this with the people you are living with.

If you want to find out more there are lots of organisations – such as Ucas – that offer students advice on managing their money.

I share a flat with someone who, despite repeated requests, leaves the heating on all the time. Is there anything I can do to save money on heating the flat? George, 19, Manchester

Poorly insulated houses can cost students a small fortune in energy bills. Simple, cost-effective measures include fitting draft excluders, putting backing on radiators (this involves covering the back of the radiator with foil to prevent heat escaping though walls), keeping interior doors closed, ensuring curtains are closed in the evening, preventing furniture from blocking radiators and turning the thermostat down by a degree or two.

With these measures in place, you could suggest to your flatmate that the heating be put on a timer: that way it is off when you’re not at home and on when you are. If the house loses heat quickly, speak to your landlord to see if there’s anything they can do. Often just topping up loft insulation can make the house much warmer, as well as saving around £80 a year according to the Energy Saving Trust.

I’m planning to go to university this year but I'm really worried about having to live with boys! Is there any way I can find accommodation off campus that will be single sex? Kate, 17, Cardiff

Some accommodation providers will allow you to list preferences in terms of the people who will be living in your accommodation with you. When booking accommodation with UNITE, for example, you can specify preferences about the people you live with including whether you want to live in a same-sex flat.

At the end of the day, don’t be pressurised into signing anything before you are happy with your choices – there are options available to you so have a good look around. If you are unsure, speak to your university accommodation officers.

Do you have to get home contents insurance in halls? And do you need a TV licence or is the whole place covered? Brendan, 18, London

You need to ensure that you get contents insurance to cover your personal possessions, as it is not usually included in the price of your accommodation. However, there are a number accommodation providers, such as UNITE, who do include contents insurance as part of the room price, but you should check the level of cover as sometimes you may need to top it up to cover expensive items such as laptops. Every accommodation provider should be able to tell you exactly what is covered within the cost of their rent.

Students are required by law to buy a TV licence whether living in halls, a rented house or with a corporate provider of student accommodation. It cost £139.50 per year and you usually have the option to pay this monthly. Some accommodation providers do include TV licences in their rent price. However, this is not the norm so it’s something you should check before signing a tenancy agreement.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Nathan's advice? Have you got any useful tips of your own to add, or questions that you'd like to ask fellow students? It's an open house, so feel free to leave your comments below.

In the meantime, to find out more about UNITE, including their new flagship luxury apartments in Bloomsbury, London, visit www.unite-students.com

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