If you’ve left finding your accommodation until the last minute, there’s a temptation to leap into the first place you see without giving it more than a quick glance. But keep your eyes peeled. When you’re being shown around, whether in person or virtually, you’ll get an immediate feeling about how well it will work for you.
There are lots of regulations to make sure you’re well protected if you sign up to uni provided and private student accommodation, but with private landlords it’s well worth checking things properly. Whatever you go for, you need to work out if it’s right for you. Don’t just focus on the spec or the freebies.
If you get a bad feeling, walk away, however persuasive the person showing you round is. Ask if you can record with your phone — it’ll allow you to look more carefully later, give an idea of the floorplan, and could be helpful if some housemates can't attend.
Is electricity included in the price? What about water? Broadband? Gas? It’s often included in halls, but elsewhere, in most cases, you’ll be billed for everything – even limitless things like water (if it’s not metered). If it's included, do the maths and work out if you’re paying more than you should, especially if you’re a light user.
Also, if you’re sharing, you’ll want to make sure the things you pay for are shared fairly. If you know and trust your housemates, perhaps you can agree on an even split. But if one person uses a lot more gas, electricity or broadband than everyone else, you may be lumbered paying a much higher bill than you expected.
Either set rules about fair usage, or consider asking heavy users to chip in extra. This isn’t like splitting a restaurant bill – it could mean hundreds of pounds.
You can easily test the mobile signal by trying to make a call in the building. If you can’t get a signal, that could be a problem.
Many halls offer WiFi as part of the deal, but you can test broadband speed online by entering the postcode on a website. Don’t forget, that’s the maximum speed you can expect – it is usually slower, and if you have five housemates sharing a router, it can be a real crawl. If you have slow broadband but good 4G/5G, you might be able to use your mobile signal, but watch that data usage.
If you don’t know the area, ask friends and other students if they know what it's like. Is it safe for students? Are there good public transport connections? What are the shops and entertainment like nearby?
A good tip to snag somewhere desirable is to start looking at places to rent by November. Second and third years staying on the following year will know who they want to share a house with and jump in early. If you’re a first year, take your time to make sure you’re going to get on with your chosen housemates because a lot can change after a few months of living together.
However, don’t feel pressured to rent privately – some uni accommodation lets second and third years stay on too – you could meet new housemates or encourage the ones you have now to stay another year. This can work out better financially and keep you all close to campus.
You need to make 100% sure your home is safe if it has gas. Ask to see certificates stating that appliances have been professionally installed and maintained, and get proof that the boiler has had its annual service within the past 12 months. If not, walk away. Also, check there are carbon monoxide detectors as well as smoke alarms — and that they are working.
Obviously, you’re going to read the contract, aren’t you? Well, a surprising number of people who rent don’t – and it can land them in trouble. Every contract is different, and you need to make sure you have read and understood every paragraph. If anything isn’t clear, ask for it to be explained. It could save you a lot of money, especially when you’re claiming back your deposit at the end.
When you’ve agreed to sign, go around the house and take photos of furniture, walls, light fittings, banisters, and movable things that might be included, such as vacuum cleaners and microwaves. Make sure they are time-stamped. That way, if the landlord accuses you of damaging something and refuses to pay back your deposit, you’ll have proof that it was already damaged.
Don’t forget! You can ask as many questions as you like about the property, so come prepared to find out about anything that is or isn’t in the contract (cleaning services, for example).
Sometimes, accommodation that’s advertised as 'furnished' might only have a bedframe and old kettle inside. Other times it could be like a home from home.
There’s a good chance that when you’re viewing the property, the previous tenants won’t have moved out yet, so it might be full of lovely, tasteful furniture that’ll disappear with them. Make sure you know what’s included – or you may be left trying to install your fridge.
Properties are usually viewed during the daytime when everything’s bright and cheery. But some places take on a very different mood once the sun goes down. There could be poor street lighting, or the entrance could be gloomy and dangerous. And the area itself might not be so pleasant at night either. Some parts of the city that are buzzing during the day become ghost towns at night, others can be rowdy, making it hard to study, and you could feel wary of going out.
When you rent a property, as a tenant you have a list of rights that the landlord can’t legally overrule. You also have responsibilities that could lead you to breach the contract if you don’t follow them.
When the landlord wants to visit, make sure you know what they are and aren’t allowed to do – for example, did you know they need to give 24 hours’ notice before entering the building once you’ve moved in?
You also need to understand the differences between joint and single contracts. If you’re renting with a bunch of friends, what happens if one of them leaves? This does happen – people move in with girlfriends and boyfriends, quit uni, fall ill… any number of other things can happen.
It’s possible you’ll end up having to pay a proportion of that person’s rent until you find someone else to move in. Individual contracts would protect you from that, but if you’re renting a whole house, it’s unlikely the landlord would let several tenants have individual fixed rates.
Council tax can be a thorny issue too. Students are exempt from paying it, but if just one person in the house is in full-time employment, the property itself becomes subject to the tax (although, with deductions). It’s something you need to know so you can decide whether you'll split the tax payment evenly or the worker will foot the bill. In large city centre properties, council tax can cost several thousand pounds a year. Could you afford even a fraction of that?
To save a lot of arguments later, you should set out a contract with your housemates to agree on what happens if one of you leaves or enters employment.
If you think a property isn’t worth quite what the landlord or agent is asking, don’t be afraid to haggle a little. They’ll probably say they’ve got a list of willing tenants queueing up to move in, but if you think you could find a better property elsewhere for less, call their bluff. They might be just as eager to get things sorted and could strike a deal there and then. If you make a verbal agreement, make sure that’s the price you see in the contract.
Despite what you may hear or fear, there are lots of very good, helpful landlords out there who take pride in their properties – including, of course, uni and private student accommodation providers.
Taking the ten steps above will help you weed out the bad ones. So remember, do your research, pay attention to the property, and read the small print.