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Complete guide to student accommodation

While most first-year students go straight into university halls, there are a variety of housing options available to students.

In this article
University halls Private halls Catered vs self-catered accommodation Privately-rented house or flat When should I start looking for housing?
Where to find housemates? Landlords vs letting agents Moving into a private rental: to-do checklist Living at home

University halls

Most first year students are allocated a place in university-managed accommodation or ‘halls’, which certainly has its advantages.

In terms of making friends, living with other students is a great way to get to know people you may end up becoming good friends with (and even living with later on).

Note, some university-managed halls might be located in the local city or town, instead of on campus.

If your halls are on campus, you’ll be conveniently located; you don't have to worry about commuting in daily for lectures, group work or to use the library (as well as for the more fun stuff like societies, clubs and activities put on by your student union).

If you’re going to be living away from home for the first time, halls can be a good stepping stone to living in the private-rented sector. You have many of the benefits of independence, but without needing to think about the complications of utility bills or landlords.

Plus, there will be staff on hand (usually on site) should you need them.

 

Uni halls pros:

 
  • Social scene: a good chance to meet lots of students in one place.
  • It's the 'halfway' house option: easing you gently in to living away from home while not feeling completely on your own.
  • You're not alone: extra support will be available from your university if you need it.

 

Uni halls cons:

 
  • Being thrown in at the deep end: you don't get to choose who you live with (although some universities try to pair up flatmates eg through personality questionnaires).
  • No guarantees: you might not get a place in your preferred halls.
  • Living among lots of students: get used to putting up with noise and mess! This can be an adjustment for introverted students or those from small households/without siblings.

Private halls

A second option in some areas is to go for a room in a purpose-built student living complex.

The set-up is similar to university-managed halls: you have your own room and you share communal areas like a kitchen or TV room, but it's owned by a private company – not your university. 

Private hall providers are quite common in big cities like London or Manchester which have several large universities.

Compared to university-managed halls, you might find a wider variety of room types eg studio apartments, though these are usually a lot pricier. 

If you’re considering the private halls option, make sure you do some research into what you'll be getting for your money ie bills that are included (including any upfront costs you'll need to account for) and facilities on site – ask yourself how regularly you’ll use these though, as they’re bound to push up the price.

Private halls can be a great way to expand your social circles, as you may find students from other universities in the same building. They tend to be popular among international students, which is great if you like meeting people from very different cultures and backgrounds. 

When browsing private housing providers, check what communal spaces are available, plus any regular activities or events for residents to meet and socialise.

Your university will have an approved list of private accommodation providers, and may even have a more formal partnership in place with one already (especially if they don't have enough places in their own halls to meet demand).

 

Private halls pros:

 
  • Built for students: so the same advantages as students in university halls apply.
  • Mod cons: handy perks such as on-site gym or laundry services.
  • Location, location: private halls are usually located in the local area, so you may feel more at home in your student city (and end up spending less on taxis home after nights out).

 

Private halls cons:

 
  • The cost: usually more expensive than university-managed halls.
  • Unnecessary perks: those plush extras may look cool, but you may never actually use them (and still be paying for them).
  • Same student pitfalls apply: noise, not choosing who you live with, mess and so on.

Catered vs self-catered accommodation

While catered accommodation is slightly less popular than it once was, you may be presented with the option when touring different halls.

Going down the catered route means one less thing to think about when making the leap to student life – especially if you’re a little clueless in the kitchen. Of course, you’ll pay extra in your rent for this privilege; although not having to cook, nor wash up, after a long day of lectures might be rather nice.

If you’re a picky eater, you might be stuck when it comes to what’s being served that day. If you want more control over your diet and spending, the self-catered option might be a better fit.

The thought of having to sit down to a meal at fixed times each day can be quite restricting for some who prefer the flexibility of eating when and where they want.

Privately-rented house or flat

After their first year, most students move into a house or flat with friends, which they rent from a private landlord or letting agent. However, you may want to jump straight into this option from the get-go, rather than go down the university or private halls route.

Sometimes it'll be out of choice. For instance, if you're a mature student who wants your own living space outside the realms of university or you want to just live with other mature students/non-students.

If you’re in your early twenties or above, living with a bunch of 18-year-olds away from home for the first time, might sound like an utter nightmare.

Other times, you might have no other choice than to move straight into a private rental.

Not all universities are able to guarantee a place in halls of residence for all first-year students (it's a good question to ask at an open day) – so you could be among those who miss out, especially if you've come through Clearing or are late with your application.

Living in a privately rented property can be appealing as it enables you to decide exactly where you live and who with.

While it can be tricky to find those in a similar position and organise viewings if you haven't arrived university yet, your housing office can assist you with this eg matching you up with others, recommending approved lists of landlords or student-focused letting agents etc. 

 

Private rental pros:

 
  • Independence: you're in charge of where and with whom you're living.
  • Local area: whereas your university's halls might all be on campus, private housing options actually in town can make you feel part of the local community more. This can be excellent if you’re keen to get involved in local activities such as a local religious community.
  • Flexibility: the private rental market is packed with different living options to suit you. Some landlords may include utilities in your rent, while you’ll have a far wider range of property types to choose from – for the most part, student halls look and feel the same.

 

Private rental cons:

 
  • Further out: you may find yourself outside the main campus and needing to travel in frequently (which might push up you travel costs slightly).
  • Managing bills: while some landlords may include some utilities in your rent, you’ll have to budget more effectively for these separately.
  • Dealing with admin: you'll be dealing direct with a landlord or letting agent. Over one in ten students we surveyed * said they had issues with their landlord, while 13% had issues with their letting agent.

When should I start looking for housing?

Our student survey** found large regional differences as to when first and second years started looking for accommodation for the next academic year. 

This is because the student rental market varies so much from city to city across the UK, in terms of average price, quantity vs demand, property types etc. For instance, 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.

We did find some regional trends in when students started looking:

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. 

Know your rights as a tenant, check out our advice for tenants.

Where to find housemates?

If you have people in mind that you’d like to live with, great! It may feel like an awkward conversation to have; but even just broadly asking if they have housing plans for the following year can get the ball rolling – the sooner you know one way or another, the better.

If you’re still on the hunt for housemates, here are a few places to look:

  • friends in current halls: you’ll already have a fair idea of what they’re like to live with
  • clubs and societies: you can indulge in your mutual passion
  • your course: a good option if you do an intense subject, like medicine or law – at least you can guarantee some peace and quiet when you all need to study.
  • university social media channels: your housing office may share details of housing events for potential housemates to meet, as well as vacancies

Landlords vs letting agents

With 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 are effectively, middlemen).

Taking the agency route gives you more security though. You can check to see if they’re members of a government-approved redress scheme to deal with complaints, or a self-regulating body which means they’ve 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.

Check out our full guides to complaining about your letting agent or landlord.

Moving into a private rental: to-do checklist

While not an exhaustive list, here are a few key things to remember when moving into a house or flatshare rental:

 

Do an inventory

 

Go through the entire property, making a note of furnishings and furniture that are damaged, worn or broken (take photos too, for your own record). That way, your landlord or letting agent can’t hold you responsible, and you can get your full deposit back when you move out. 

 

Safety check

 

Make sure all locks on doors and windows work properly. It’s the landlord’s responsibility to make sure there’s at least one smoke alarm is installed on every storey, and a carbon monoxide one in any room with a solid fuel burning appliance – check this. 

Also, landlords are legally required to have a Gas Safety Certificate (CP12) for all the gas appliances in a property, and it should be renewed every 12 months. 

 

Sort out utilities

 

This includes reading gas and electricity meters, shopping around for the best deals (for energy, broadband, TV and possibly landline), and sorting out whose name is going on the bill/how payments will work.

Compare energy suppliers to find the best deal for you – try Which? Switch.

 

Register to vote

 

Another slightly dry admin task but, again, it really doesn’t take long. If you aren’t registered to vote, you don’t get a say on who represents you – so make sure you take yourself to the Register to Vote GOV.UK page.

 

Council tax

 

If everyone in the property is a full-time student, you’ll be exempt from paying council tax. If one or more tenants isn’t a student, then a bill will be issued and they will have to pay this. Read more about council tax for students on the Citizens Advice website.

Living at home

Living at home while studying works well for many students as it can significantly cut your costs (and is the one option that doesn’t involve packing up all your worldly goods and relocating).

This could make all the difference depending on how much you receive in student finance and your overall budget.

You might be concerned that this will have an impact on your ability to meet other students. While it might require a little more effort and planning, you’re sure to meet plenty of people, both in and out of your lectures.

Clubs, societies and students’ union events are a great place to start too.

 

Living at home pros:

 
  1. Hassle-free: no moving, no upheaval.
  2. The old cliché: someone else taking care of cooking, cleaning, laundry (leaving more time to focus on your studies).
  3. Cheap: should save you money overall (unless your parents insist on charging you an exorbitant amount of rent).

 

Living at home cons

 
  • Limits your study options: if you’re keen to live at home to study, you’ll be restricting your choice of universities to those you can easily travel to.
  • Away from studentville: you'll need alternative ways to meet people, as it doesn’t happen as naturally as it might when living in halls on campus.
  • Someone else's roof: that means someone else's rules. You might not feel the same sense of independence that university brings, if you’re still living with your family.
  • Travel: depending on the distance between home and university, you might spend a fair bit in transport costs (if you drive, this might include parking permits and maintenance of your car). Also, consider the time involved in travelling back and forth

Get ready for uni

Get a rough idea of how much students spend on accommodation and other living costs, at your chosen university with our student budget calculator.

If the price of uni housing is worrying you, pick up tips to save money to stretch your loan, or see what extra funding might be available to help with living costs.

Run into a problem during your tenancy? Consult our Consumer Rights advice hub for an answer.

About our research

* Which? University Student Survey, conducted by YouthSight on behalf of Which?, surveying 3,874 undergraduate students at UK universities between 20 March and 12 April 2019.

** Which? University Student Survey, conducted by YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, surveying 5,000 undergraduate students at UK universities between 22 March and 6 April 2018.

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