The hidden costs of student housing – a checklist for students and parents

With sultry summer temperatures and an endless stream of sporting distractions, now might not be the choicest time to set out on a house-hunting foray. But, for an army of new and returning University students – beleaguered parents in-tow, time is running out to find digs for the year to come.

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2014 has seen a well-publicised hike in house prices, and the rental market has not gone unaffected. For a fortunate few, often bankrolled by their parents, buying a house to rent with friends has seemed the smartest investment. Everyone’s circumstances are different though, and the commitment to a mortgage won’t suit all.

There are many anomalies in the world of student accommodation. Prime location, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean prime real estate, but rental costs are still likely to be at a premium. Weighing up the variables will pay off in the long run, so we’ve listed some of the most important and overlooked factors, for the reference of students and sponsors alike.

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Many landlords hand over the management of their properties to agencies who, from their perspective, take the hassle out of rent-collection, administration, and maintenance. Tenants can benefit too, in terms of greater clarity over minimum levels of service, but beware the costs involved. Find out how much the agency fees are and how often they need to be paid. Don’t expect, as I did (perhaps naively!), that renewing your tenancy won’t incur an admin charge; it’s £100 I’ll never get back!

Read the small print on your tenancy agreement, ask questions, and be sure to get the answers in writing. A good starting point is to find out exactly what is included in the price. An all-inclusive charge, covering utilities, energy costs and even internet provision, is an attractive prospect for students, freeing them of the burdens of arranging suppliers, connection, and splitting bills. Although such contracts are becoming more commonplace, many landlords still see these costs as renters’ responsibility, so take time to seek out the best deal.

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Equally, look at the state of the property and its fittings. An efficient boiler, double glazing, and quality window coverings could knock around £400 off an annual energy bill. Find out if the landlord is prepared to update outmoded appliances and tatty decor – it could indicate how reasonable they’ll be throughout the period of tenure. Use house viewings to thoroughly inspect the property – try the taps, test drawers and cupboard doors, lift up rugs and check the state of the flooring, look for signs of damp on the walls; behind wardrobes, for example, and make sure windows open, close, and lock!

Some students think of rented accommodation as being like a hotel; simply keeping a roof over their heads while they complete their studies. Others make it a home-from-home, personalising with pictures, posters, and painting the walls. If you’re planning changes remember to agree them with the landlord or agency beforehand as, no matter how much of an improvement you might have made, you could still be charged to reverse it. This could include filling holes left by picture hooks or even removing stubborn bits of Blu-Tack.

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Similarly, you should complete an inventory with the landlord or agent, listing the items included in the rental (furniture, lamp shades, cleaning equipment, appliances, etc.), and their condition at the start of the tenancy. Photograph any existing damage and provide all parties with a copy, safeguarding your deposit for when you move out. It’s not unknown for tenants to be charged top-dollar for blown light bulbs, so attention to detail is paramount!

If you’re lucky enough to have internet provided, find out the connection speed. A house of four or five will struggle to research essays, stream films, and keep up-to-date with Twitter, unless high speed broadband is installed. Will there be a charge for connection, too?

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Finally, consider the duration of the tenancy. Students often retreat to the comfort of the family home outside of term time and, recognising this, some landlords offer a retainer scheme, whereby a reduced level of rent is paid over the summer months. The retainer effectively reserves the house for the tenants, but this doesn’t necessarily give them free reign to move belongings in or even stay for the odd night unless explicitly agreed. Crucial dates should be defined in the housing contract which, importantly, also outlines the type of tenancy being entered into. Know your rights and, if you’re unsure, consult the University advice centre or Students’ Union.

Oliver Smith works for Wooden Blinds Direct, based in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The company is both a manufacturer and retailer of wooden and aluminium venetian blinds.

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