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How to find private off-campus student housing

Moving out of halls after your first year of uni? This is how to find the best student house or flat for you and your housemates

While moving into a house with your best mates in your second year is exciting, it can also feel daunting. It may be the first time that any of you have had to go through the often-arduous renting process, plus you have to make sure that everyone's happy.

All of this requires organisation, diplomacy and sometimes compromise - a mixture that can be tricky to achieve when time is a factor and stress levels are high.

As stressful as it can be, remind yourself and your friends that you will find somewhere to live - it’s often just a case of perseverance. And if your initial plans fall through, something better might be around the corner. 

To help you through the process, we’ve pulled together the key things you need to know. Depending on where you’re at with it all, jump to the relevant section.

Before the house hunting begins Arranging and viewing properties Once you’ve found a place you like

Before the house hunting begins

When should I start looking?

This depends on where you are in the country, as it varies by region. The reasons for this can be anything from the types of properties available, to the ratio of properties to students.


Our student survey* found large regional differences as to when first and second years started looking for accommodation for the next academic year (including what prompted them to start looking and what they encountered once they did)...

Last year we left it till February and all the nice houses were gone. Second Year Student, University Of Northampton
We started looking as soon as we had decided who to live with, which we hadn't confirmed until after Christmas. We then found a house within a couple weeks through an agency who showed us a few. We had planned to see other agencies, but found a house we liked so went for it.  First Year Student, University Of Leeds
We received a talk from the student accommodation team around November, prompting us to start thinking about the next year.  Second Year Student, University Of St Andrews
We started looking in October because this is when the University holds its housing fair and the estate agents release all their student accommodation. We booked numerous bookings but often didn't get to even see the houses because they were being sold to other students so quickly. Once we found a house, the whole process was quick and a lot easier. Second Year Student, University Of Exeter
I started looking because my friends at other universities spoke about securing a house. Cambridge was late in regards to accommodation being advertised, which was stressful. First Year Student, Anglia Ruskin University

As you can see, students' experiences really vary with each city's housing market working differently.

Although there are more affordable housing options outside the capital, the relatively larger student population in these areas means stiff competition from other students wanting the same as you. And, in London, the rental market’s short and snappy turnaround means there’s often no point in looking properly until much closer to your moving date.

Plus, your preferences will also impact your options:
We were looking for a house for nine people which meant that our options were limited. We started looking online at houses in November but didn't actually start going to viewings until January. We viewed five houses in total. I think we all felt a lot of pressure during that time and we made decisions quite quickly which added to the stress. The process of securing the house was very lengthy as we had a lot of issues and confusion with the letting agency. The house situation has caused some tension within the group as it is hard to satisfy such a large number of tenants. First Year Student, University Of Brighton

TIP Don’t make a rash decision that you might later regret. Our student survey found that 39% of students felt pressured to start looking for their accommodation - but make sure you and your housemates are happy with everything before making it legally binding. Many student unions offer a contract-checking service to ensure you’re not being ripped off or taken advantage of.

Use our guide above, plus the student comments on our university profiles, to get an idea of when you should start looking (plus more tips).

And if your initial plans do fall through, don't panic! It very well could lead to better things:
I started searching in December, but my group changed in January which led to finding a new group of friends to live with. This worked better off in the end as we managed to dodge what could've been a horrible living space! Now with a better group, we started looking in February, and after maybe five viewings, we found a flat. Second Year Student, University Of Edinburgh
  • City guides: learn more about the rental market in different cities.

 

How do I find housemates?

If you have people in mind that you’d like to live with, great! It may feel like an awkward conversation, but start the conversation by asking them if they have anything sorted and then follow up after a few days to see if they’re interested.



If it’s easier, ask them via Whatsapp rather than in person. This can give them time to consider your offer - asking someone face-to-face and there-and-then could make them feel put-on-the-spot.

If you’re still looking for housemates, here are a few potential ideas to help your search:
  • friends from halls
  • friends from clubs and societies
  • friends from your course
  • university’s social media channels

Our handy full article on choosing the right housemates for second year of university covers everything you need to consider (and it also includes advice for first-year students without a place in halls).

 

Arranging and viewing properties

Deciding on preferences

Once you’ve settled on your group of future housemates, narrow down your property search by finding out what everyone is looking for. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for, consider the following five questions to get you started:

1. Does anyone have a preferred area or neighbourhood to live in? This could be about being close to the library, there being lots of bars and clubs, or wanting to feel safe. Think about how often you’ll be on campus: do you want to be able to walk or cycle in, or are you happy to be further out and hop on the bus?
2. Does anyone have a car? If so, you might need to think about parking.
3. Does anyone need to travel often? If you or one of your housemates regularly goes home or is on a placement as part of their course, think about nearby transport options.
4. What’s everyone’s idea of fun? If your uni city has one main street of bars, clubs, restaurants and shops, that may be fine. But if one person prefers the quiet life of cafes and greenery, you may have different priorities.
5. Which supermarkets and other amenities are around? If you’re on it when it comes to planning your meals for the week and cooking from scratch, being near a big supermarket will be preferable. If you rely on takeaways and microwave meals, an express supermarket and selection of fast food restaurants may do.

I live in Acton. It is a very nice area and you can get into central London [quickly]. Unfortunately my uni is very far away and it takes me over an hour to commute. There is not much to do (not many pubs or clubs) but I prefer going into central London and meeting my friends there. 

  Second Year Student, University Of Westminster
I live in the town centre. It is great for convenience as it is close to food shops (such as Sainsburys, Tesco Express, Aldi), clothes shops (such as Top Shop and New Look), cafes, restaurants, bars etc. It is close to the bus station so transport is easy if you want to travel further afield to one of the larger Tescos or Asdas. There is not a lot of free parking around town so I would not recommend this locaton if you are bringing a car to university. This is a perfect position if you want to get involved with the Preston night life as the clubs are very close. The house is about a 15 minute walk from university and is very easy to get to. Personally, I would not live here again due to the noise during the day and at night. During the day the street can be quite loud and at night the music from clubs can be heard. Ellen Baston (Student, University of Glasgow ),

 

Landlords vs letting agents

By choosing a landlord, you’ll have direct contact with the property owner. Agencies, on the other hand, often manage property on the landlord’s behalf, so act as middlemen.



Taking the agency route gives you more security. You can check on an agency’s website that they are members of a government-approved redress scheme to deal with complaints - it’s mandatory that they belong to either The Property Ombudsman, the Property Redress Scheme, or Ombudsman Services: Property.

The agency may also belong to a self-regulating body, such as the National Approved Letting Scheme (NALS) or Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA). This means it has agreed to adhere to certain codes and practices. That said, slightly more students reporting having issues with their letting agent (13%) compared to their landlord (11%), while 8% said they had issues with both***.

However, you’ll probably save some money by directly using a landlord. Agencies often add extra fees, including charges for credit checks and setting up the inventory.

As well as agency websites, you can look for properties on sites like Zoopla, Spareroom and Unihomes that pull in lettings, in one place.

Note The Tenant Fees Bill was introduced into Parliament in May 2018, to end costly letting fees, and is currently going through the legislative process.



 

How do I arrange a property viewing?

As we’ve mentioned above, your university’s housing office (or equivalent) can recommend letting agents and landlords whom previous students have had a good experience with verified. There may be an online portal where you can browse a list of these, and even properties themselves.

If you decide to go down the agency route, ask friends which ones they’re using. If you have any friends in their second or third year, get their take as they’ll have already been through the process.

You can also browse letting agents’ windows or go online to view the properties on their website. If you see somewhere you like the look of with a ‘To Let’ sign outside, ring up the agent whose name is on the sign to ask about availability. 

Once you’ve settled with an agent, phone them or go into their office to introduce yourself and let them know what you’re looking for. They can then suggest properties on their books which match what you’re looking for - or get in touch when something suitable becomes available. If everyone likes the look of the property on paper, arrange a viewing.

If you’re in a larger group, it might be difficult to find a time to view a property that suits everyone’s schedules. Because time is a factor, it might be that only some of your group can attend a viewing and they’ll have to report back. If this is the case, pick someone who’ll ask the right questions.

Remember to take photos to show those who can’t make a viewing. Plus, this can remind you of different places if you view lots in one go.

What to look for when viewing a property

You won’t necessarily have a lot of time to view a property. If the current tenants are there, it can be a bit awkward and even difficult to imagine how the place might look without their stuff there or if they haven’t had time to tidy up. 

Plus, keep in mind that if the agent is present, they’ll have their own motivations to talk it up and gloss over any cons.  

Here are a few things to look for or ask about when viewing a student rental property:
  • Damp or mould Use your nose - your first warning of potential damp is that musty dank smell. Also look carefully at the walls for any signs. Ask current tenants if they’ve experienced any problems, if possible. Exposure to mould isn’t only unpleasant - it’s also bad for your respiratory health.
  • Neighbours Bad neighbours are the last thing you want. Take a look at what the neighbour’s property looks like from the outside - if it looks like a ‘party house’ from the number of beer bottles outside, think about how the prospect of all-night noise will affect you during exams.
  • What does the rent cover? Find out how much the deposit is, any other fees, and whether bills are included in the rent. If bills are separate, you’ll probably be able to shop around for the cheapest supplier.


  • Why are the current tenants moving out? The current occupants are likely to be the most honest about the property. If possible, ask whether everything is in good working order, whether there are any pest problems, how quick the landlord is at sorting out issues, and why they’re moving out.
  • What comes with the flat? If you see a washing machine and bed on your viewing, it doesn’t automatically mean it will be there when you move in. Find out what furniture and appliances are included in the house and factor in any costs and inconveniences if you’ll be moving into an unfurnished property.
  • Length of contract The most standard contract length for students is 12 months, but nine months is sometimes possible - useful if you don’t plan to be around for the summer.
  • Type of contract It will either be a joint tenancy agreement for the whole property, or an individual contract for each housemate. If joint, be aware that you could be chased if someone else doesn’t pay the rent in your household.

Find out your rights if your housemate stops paying rent.

 

Once you’ve found a place you like

What happens next?

First of all, congratulations on finding somewhere you’re happy with! As happy as you might be, there are some more tasks you need to get ticked off your list.



Consider negotiating your rent

The rental price isn’t set in stone, so don’t be afraid to negotiate. Do some research and base your reasoning on similar property prices in the area, but don’t haggle yourself out of a new home if you really love it.

Take a look at our student city guides for an idea of the current standard monthly rent.

Communicate clearly and quickly with housemates

Get all your housemates to sign the paperwork and pay deposits before anyone else nabs the property.

If you haven’t done so already, set up a Whatsapp group or something similar.

Sign tenancy agreement

As tedious as they can be to read, it’s very important to double check that you’re happy with everything. Try to make sure that all of your housemates have read everything, too.

When reading your contract, there are some key things to check. For a checklist, take a look at the tenancy agreements guide on Which? Money.

Also, your parent or guardian might need to be listed as a guarantor; this is a third party – normally a parent or close relative – who legally agrees to pay their rent if they fail to meet their financial commitments. Exactly half of parents we spoke to** (Which? University Parents Survey 2019) said they were listed as a guarantor for their child's accommodation – this is quite common in the case of international students.
 

What fees will you pay?

Be prepared for a hit to your bank balance once you’ve found your housing. On top of rent, don’t forget to budget for:
  • deposit
  • holding fee (find out: do I have to pay a holding deposit?)
  • agency fees
  • removal van hire (if necessary)
  • any extra furniture or appliances you might need (if necessary)

 

Moving in - the exciting bit!

Agree on a suitable moving-in date that works for everyone before signing the contract. You want time to unpack and get settled before starting your studies, but not too early that you end up paying for a house during summer if you’re not going to be there.

We have a whole separate article devoted to what to do when moving in: 12 things to remember to do when moving into a new student house.


About our data
* YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, interviewed 5,000 undergraduate students at UK universities between 22 March and 6 April 2018.
** YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, interviewed 846 parents of current and prospective students between 28 February and 7 March 2019.
*** YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, interviewed 3,874 undergraduate students at UK universities between 20 March and 12 April 2019.

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