Top tips for student tenants: spot the red flags before you move in

Moving into your first student house or flat is a rite of passage for a lot of young people. It’ll be your home from home for many months, so you need to find the right property. Whether you’re after a warm place to study or a pre-drinks venue, here’s what to consider before signing up.

Make sure it’s legal

A shared student house is usually a house in multiple occupation (HMO) governed by strict criteria under the Housing Act 2004, which stipulates that rooms must be a minimum of 6.51 sq metres. The local authority will set amenity standards, such as the number of bathrooms, toilets, handbasins and sinks, and the size of worktops and fridge space.

Most shared student homes require a licence, so you should make sure you see one before signing the tenancy. Landlords and agents are legally required to provide certain documents to tenants, including the gas safety certificate, energy performance certificate (EPC) and deposit protection certificate.

Squeezing in with your mates may sound like fun, but space is hugely important for students, says Les Back, a sociology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. Landlords may use shared space as extra bedrooms to maximise profit, so be aware of how this can affect your studies and wellbeing. “The lack of study space to work at home can’t be healthy at all,” says Back. “Students need support. Degrees can be incredibly demanding socially, intellectually and emotionally and it doesn’t help when accommodation is pressurised.”

Ask questions

Students today are more discerning about the type of property they are prepared to rent than they were a generation ago. This means landlords are no longer able to buy rundown properties, throw in some secondhand beds and desks and sit back while the rent comes in. Nowadays, students can expect high-speed, reliable internet connection, a communal living area and some well-kept outside space.

Always ask to see the EPC. According to an NUS spokesperson, in their accommodation, and many properties are draughty or poorly insulated: “The most commonly encountered complaint in rented accommodation is damp, condensation or mould. Alarmingly, almost a quarter of respondents reported having slugs, mice or another infestation in their home – so make sure to ask plenty of questions about the state of the property.”

Talk to the current tenants if possible. Finding out why they are leaving and the worst thing about the house could help raise red flags.

Get a break clause

For most students, this will be the first time they have had to look for a house and take out a private tenancy. So, with less experience of how the market operates, they are at higher risk of being exploited by landlords or agents. Getting a fair break clause is one way to ensure you can leave the property if you have to. Six months is the legal minimum of a tenancy. Agents are increasingly offering longer-term tenancies, but David Cox, chief executive of the Association of Residential Letting Agents, says they should rarely be taken up without a six-month break clause.

Consider purpose-built accommodation

One way to avoid some of these problems is to opt for purpose-built student accommodation. “This sector is growing at an unprecedented pace with 17% growth expected in the current academic year,” says James Davis, founder and chief executive of online lettings agency Upad.

This also means private landlords need to up their game to remain competitive. “Purpose-built accommodation is likely to be a lot swankier and possibly offer on-site facilities unlike traditional houses converted for student living. That said, the latter may offer a greater opportunity to meet and get to know your landlord and build a direct connection with them, which can be invaluable in resolving any issues that crop up,” says Davis.

Work out your budget

Decide what you can afford before you start house-hunting. Remember you will have to budget for gas, electricity, water, phone, internet and a TV licence, as well as food and general household items. Find out which, if any, bills are included.

According to the NUS, many students report struggling with bills, and 42% struggle to pay their energy bills. “You also need to ask about upfront costs – a majority of properties in the private rented sector will have either a holding deposit, admin fees or both,” says an NUS spokesperson.

Beware of agency scams. “One thing I remember is just before you sign the lease they always ring you up and pretend someone has just put a last-minute offer in and ask if you want to go higher to beat it, to squeeze more money out of you,” says former law student John Cole, 28, from Yorkshire.

Think about the location

Ask yourself how convenient the area is. That means looking at local amenities, but also considering costs such as transport. Although it can be cheaper to live further away from your university, it may be important to be close to the library and be around other students who can provide support.

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