Finding student flats: How not to get stung by dodgy estate agents

 

For many students, February marks the end of exam season and beginning of a house-hunting stint. But with the cost of rent maxing out some students' annual loans, it is not the time to be complacent - and panic is not a good substitute.

Hastily signing a contact because it may be snapped up by somebody else is the first cause for panic. Estate agents or landlords are likely to overstate interest in a property to make you sign for it. Take their advice with a pinch of salt. 

But not all house-hunters can flick through brochures at a leisurely pace. In London and Bristol, where there isn't a housing surplus, students are right to look early for a new flat. But don't dart out too rashly.

"There is a falsehood that all the best houses disappear straight away, but not all the best houses are even released first," says Tom Phipps, student living officer at the University of Bristol.

But if your feelings for a pile of bricks are too strong to be put on hold, be wary of the power of the pen.

"Search the internet before signing to see if your landlord has any history of improper conduct. If more than five live in a house and it's more than three storeys high - a 'large house of multiple occupancy' - make sure it is registered with the council," advises the president of Glasgow University student representative council.

One Leeds-based estate agent says: "We make sure all tenants sit and read their contracts." But clauses of contracts can be worded complicatedly, and missed or disguised.

"We've known students to pay their deposits, only to find that their rent has gone up from the initially agreed price," says a representative from Guild Lettings in Birmingham. Ask yourself: how much does it cost to thoroughly check my contract? The answer will probably be less than the cost of any hidden fees. There are fewer bullets to dodge in Scotland, where it is illegal for landlords to charge admin fees. 

Unpredicted events may also throw a spanner in the works: "The earlier you rent, the more likely it is that your circumstances might change. Renting with five friends opens the possibility that one may drop out or fail, putting your contract in jeopardy," says Unipol Student Homes, a Leeds-based organisation that vets a quarter of a million rooms.

If a property isn't up to scratch and the landlord agrees to make needed changes, use the power of the pen and put their word into the contract. Abdul Boudiaf, a University of Leeds student, gives an example of how to not to do this: "Our kitchen and bathroom are pretty shabby. We were annoyed to find that our next-door neighbours, who rent from the same landlord and pay less rent, received a new kitchen and bathroom because they put their foot down."

Some of the same exam-season principles still need apply when house-hunting: be calm, do your homework (on landlords), read the question (or contract), and make forceful arguments (over bathrooms).

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