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
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
- Deciding on preferences
- Landlords vs letting agents
- How do I arrange a property viewing?
- What to look for when viewing a property
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)...
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:
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:
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 preferencesOnce 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.
Landlords vs letting agentsBy 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 propertyYou 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.
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.
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.
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:
- holding fee
- 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? University, interviewed 5,000 undergraduate students at UK universities between 22 March and 6 April 2018.
** YouthSight, on behalf of Which? University, interviewed 846 parents of current and prospective students between 28 February and 7 March 2019.
*** YouthSight, on behalf of Which? University, interviewed 3,874 undergraduate students at UK universities between 20 March and 12 April 2019.