How to Choose Your Student Accommodation
Choosing student accommodation almost always happens in a rush.
There’s a lot to figure out, from the location to the prospective flatmates. When you’re going into first year, you may not have all that much information to go on, and the distance from offer to moving in date can feel frighteningly short. In later years, estate agent windows will have similarly alarming signs – “student lets for next year going fast!” – already displayed in October. Sometimes that’s because it’s true; more often it’s to get you through the door a little sooner, the deposit money paid in time for Christmas. Your intentions to take your time over finding the right student accommodation for the year ahead can be swept away by urgency, until you end up renting the first option with a functional roof lest you end up with nowhere to live at all.
If you’re panicked that you’re going to end up sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs next year (and not the kind that’s the first step before being taught magic), here’s our guide to how you can choose the student accommodation that’s right for you.
1. Don’t panic – there’s enough accommodation to go round
It’s very easy to panic and think that if you don’t get your student accommodation sorted out months in advance, you’ll be stuck with nowhere to live. Estate agents will encourage that belief and often, student unions will do nothing to oppose it, in case the person that they tell not to worry ends up leaving it until two days before the start of term to find a house, and gets stuck with nowhere to live. Britain has a housing crisis, after all – and that affects student lettings as well.
In reality, there are enough student rooms to go around. The consequence of the housing shortage for students is that university subsidised housing might go quickly, be allocated by ballot or according to need. It means that the housing you see might not be of the quality that you’d prefer, with lots of flats crammed into a small space. It means that flats in high-demand areas will be expensive. Above all, it means that private lettings go very quickly – some people will put down a deposit to rent a flat within ten minutes of viewing it. Some people will put down a deposit without viewing the flat at all.
None of these things are good news, but with the exception of accommodation provided by your own university, none of them are aided by sorting out your accommodation in October of the year before. And it’s also worth remembering that the extremes of the UK property market are confined mostly to London and the South East – elsewhere, you should be able to find somewhere nice to live at a more reasonable price.
2. Check out the area
Whether you’ve decided to rent privately or choose student accommodation (and more on that in a moment), you might well have a choice of flats, houses or halls, and they might be spread out across the town or city that your university is based in. Thankfully, there are lots of tools out there (mostly targeted at prospective house-buyers) that assess a local area. Check My Street is one good example, which lets you know about public transport connections, crime rate and broadband speed. Similar services are offered by StreetCheck, Find a Hood and UK Local Area – between them, you should be able to find out just about everything you might wish to know.
Do be careful, though, of being misled by irrelevant stats. You probably do care about things like the crime rate, the age profile of people living nearby, and the access to public transport. If your prospective area has a relatively low ranking on something like primary school admissions, that’s probably not going to be relevant to you while living there.
It’s also worth looking at the crime statistics with a critical eye. For example, Oxford and Cambridge have a relatively high rate of bicycle theft, which doesn’t mean that they are hotbeds of crime; it means they have more bicycles per head of population than almost anywhere else in the UK, so there are more bicycles to steal. Similarly, be careful about comparing statistics between different areas of a city without looking at how that city compares overall. The ‘dodgy end’ of somewhere like Durham is likely to still be very safe overall.
3. Decide if you want student or private accommodation – or whether you want to live at home
One of the key questions you’ll have to decide on is what kind of accommodation you want. There are usually up to four options: student accommodation provided by your university, student accommodation provided by the private sector, general private accommodation, and living with your parents or other family members.
The first step in figuring out which one is right for you is to look at the norms at your university. Some universities will house all their first-year students as standard, and in some places it’s normal to stay in university accommodation for all three years (such as some Oxford and Cambridge colleges). In others, there might be some university accommodation, but not enough for all students. There are obvious advantages to fitting in with what most other people are doing. Universities with more mature students usually have a greater variety in accommodation options.
Broadly the spectrum is one of cost versus independence. Living with family members is usually the cheapest option (on the assumption that even if they’re charging you rent, it won’t be at the market rate), but for most people, will significantly restrict your freedom to have friends over, come home late at night, and so on. Next, most universities subsidise their accommodation a little, so that is often the next cheapest option (not always – do double-check against market rates), but similarly, you will have to live by their rules about having guests and maybe move out during some holidays. Finally, private accommodation gives you all the freedom of any adult renting their own flat, but is usually more expensive, and you won’t have someone available as you might do in university halls to let you in if you’re locked out, or fix a broken cooker at short notice.
Private student accommodation marries the two options; it’s often pricier and can be restrictive, but there’s often more done for you – sometimes including meals and laundry – than in other accommodation options.
4. Think about how much you can spruce things up
It sounds like a cliché from a home improvement programme on daytime TV, but all the same: when you’re looking at choosing somewhere to live, do try to think in terms of what you could realistically do to make it nice, not what it’s like at the moment.
This can also be a case of remembering that there are some improvements you won’t be able to make – for instance, very few places will let you paint the walls (even to paint over marks) and blu-tack or other ways of putting decorations up are often also banned. But you can provide your own lights, duvet covers and potentially things like curtains to make a room feel cosier.
What you definitely can’t do is add an en suite or replace the current windows with double-glazing – so it can make sense to choose a room or flat that’s solidly built but in need of some TLC over a place that’s had a fresh coat of paint recently but where there’s no proper oven. Photos on rental sites can vary considerably, so do beware that the ones that are well-lit and taken with a decent camera may be concealing issues that are evident in the photos that have been taken on someone’s phone in the gloom.
5. Consider your own lifestyle
Accommodation that is specifically marketed at students is usually marketed at a particular view of the student experience – so you might hear more about a place’s proximity to clubs and pubs than the quality of its cooking facilities, for instance. That’s probably not going to be relevant if you’re usually in bed by 10pm and your main hobby is going to your knitting group. Similarly, if you’re thinking of living somewhere that has a bad reputation for what it’s like after dark, that won’t be as important if you’re not normally out at that time of night.
This isn’t just about going out versus staying at home. It seems like an obvious point, but plenty of people don’t consider how their hobbies will fit in with their choice of accommodation and find themselves lugging a double bass up four flights of stairs on a regular basis. If you’re not currently a regular driver, any choice of accommodation that rests on the idea that you’ll buy a car to get around is probably not a good idea; in general, avoid moving in anywhere that assumes a significant lifestyle change on your part, whether that’s needing to be quiet in the evenings for the sake of your neighbours, or switching to cooking from scratch on a regular basis.
7. Choose your flatmates carefully
Your choice of flatmates will probably affect your quality of life more than any other accommodation decision. It’s not just about which of your friends you choose to live with – you might instead pick friends of friends, strangers, or (if you can afford it) no one. Some people absolutely love living with friends, but it isn’t for everyone; being surrounded with friends all the time can make it hard to find time to study, or even just to relax on your own, especially if your friends are more extroverted than you are. Make sure to choose the friends who you know to have similar standards of cleanliness and attitudes to midweek parties as you do.
Instead, friends of friends can be a good option – hopefully, having a friend to vouch for them means you won’t end up with unpleasant surprises about their attitudes to housework or personal space, but you won’t feel obliged to socialise with them in the same way. Living with strangers is also not necessarily a bad choice. In some cases, it’s like living alone but with lower costs – a house full of postgraduates who don’t know each other is usually very quiet, for instance – or it can be a way to make lots of new friends by the end of the year. And living alone is desperately lonely for some, and perfect for others.
8. Don’t neglect the practical questions
When you’ve decided on the broad-brush questions – student or private, friends or strangers, which part of town – it’s important not to forget the small practical questions that make all the difference. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed to walk around a flat and test the shower temperature and pressure, for instance. It can be a good idea to bring a friend with you and get them to stand in a different room and shout, to test how soundproof the walls are.
There are lots of other quick checks you’ll want to do, from looking for signs of damp, to checking there are a decent number of plug sockets in each room, to making sure that the windows close and open properly. You might then decide that any downsides you spot are ones that you can live with, but it’s worth making the decision consciously, rather than moving in and spending a lot of time cursing the fact that the living room window lets in a draught.
Beyond the physical checks, ask questions about bills and expenses – if you’re renting privately with non-students, what’s the situation with council tax? All-student houses don’t have to pay council tax, but houses with non-students do, so are you exempt or will you have to chip in? ‘Bills included’ can be great, but if your landlord controls the heating, that can mean that the radiators never get turned on. A few careful questions can save you a lot of trouble later on; while finding student accommodation can feel like a challenge, wherever you end up living is likely to become somewhere that you’ll love.