Where should you live at university?

By Abby Young-Powell
Students in a flat run by Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op. 34 Wright’s Houses is like a hall of residence but run by students.
Students in a flat run by Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op. 34 Wright’s Houses is like a hall of residence but run by students. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Where you’ll live has always been an important question when choosing a university. But rising housing costs, along with the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic, could make it even more of a deciding factor for students in 2022.

Living through multiple lockdowns has changed the way we think about our homes and has made a comfortable living space more desirable than ever. For students, this might mean you feel more keen to have a garden or study area, or you might have stronger views on who you share a space with.

Whatever you want, finding a comfortable place to live at university is a priority. “If the accommodation isn’t right, it’s going to impact your course,” says Reina Lewis, accommodation manager at Birmingham City University (BCU).

So how do you choose the housing option that’s right for you?

What can you afford?

First, you’ll need to decide whether you plan to move away for university or commute from home, as this can save you a lot of money and be a gentler transition into independent life. Commuting is an increasingly popular choice, especially at some universities, and most offer support for students who live at home, such as lockers on campus and libraries which are open 24/7.

But it will also mean you have a very different experience of campus life, and at a university where most students live in halls you might feel like you’re missing out.

A good starting point will be working out a budget: what will you receive from student finance, your parents and part-time work, and what percentage of that can you depend on to cover housing every month? Remember to check university websites for any bursaries and discounts.

“The majority of student maintenance loans tend to be allocated to housing costs, although that may vary depending on how much a student receives. A good guide would be between 70-80% for accommodation fees,” says Lewis.

The price of student housing varies widely; it’s also risen by almost 20% in the past year, according to research by the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Next, decide whether you want to be in halls or a flatshare. Many first-year students opt for a place in halls as a way to meet people. Most universities guarantee a place for most, if not all, first years, so check their websites.

You can choose between blocks that are managed by the university, or widen your options to include those run by private providers, some of which have partnerships with local universities.

Although lots of students worry about not having a guaranteed place in halls, this doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Conor Naughton, student union president at Nottingham Trent University, says: “It’s down to the individual, but as long as you knock on doors, you’ll make friends either way.”

When choosing, look for somewhere that fits your lifestyle. Perhaps your friends want a party atmosphere, but you’d prefer somewhere quieter. Specialist halls, such as Quieter Halls, alcohol-free halls, or LGBT accommodation, are increasingly available in many places. “Universities are offering greater variety, so you’re able to live alongside people of the same identity and community,” says Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president of higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS).

Empty halls of residence at the University of Sussex in Falmer, Brighton, where students pledged to withhold on accommodation they couldn’t use during the pandemic.
Empty halls of residence at the University of Sussex in Falmer, Brighton, where students pledged to withhold on accommodation they couldn’t use during the pandemic. Photograph: Jon Santa Cruz/Rex/Shutterstock

Another key factor is location: do you want to be within walking distance of lectures? In a city centre, or a bit further out? Either way, you should do your research. For example, a city-centre location won’t automatically make halls there the liveliest.

Catered or self-catered?

You might also need to decide between catered or self-catered halls. Catered offers the chance to get some or all of your meals cooked for you, so you can concentrate on the other aspects of becoming independent for the first time, including managing your studies and making friends.

However, self-catered gives you a chance to develop your cooking skills and could work out cheaper. “It’s a cliche, but you often start with ready meals, then learn to cook for yourself,” says Naughton. “Plus it can be nice to cook with the people you live with, making a roast dinner, or having Come Dine With Me nights.”

If you have a specialist requirement or a disability, contact universities to see what adapted accommodation they have. Nina White, 21, a final-year English student at Cardiff University who has OCD, says her request to have her own bathroom was readily granted. “I wanted to make my living space as comfortable as possible to ensure my OCD wouldn’t get out of hand,” she says.

Once you’ve got a general idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to do a bit of detective work to find out about different halls’ reputations among students, as like-minded students will be drawn to the same places.

“Go to the Student Room and Uni Compare, or look at Google reviews,” says Naughton. “The university will provide a glossy overview of their accommodation, but I looked at student reviews and video reviews on YouTube.”

Talk to students directly, on Facebook groups, online forums or at an open day. “Have a list of questions, like where’s the loudest block, do I need to get a wifi booster, what’s the quality of the kitchen,” says Naughton. “Look at different halls on open day, as you might not get the one you want.”

Last year, thousands of students protested at being trapped in accommodation during the pandemic. Naughton recommends you look at how accommodation providers treated students back then to get a steer for how they might behave in the event of any future restrictions. “Look at whether they offered extra support to those impacted by Covid, such as food parcels,” he says

Find a trusted landlord

In your second and third years, you’ll probably move into private accommodation, so investigate the options for those and whether you like them. Find out which neighbourhoods attract students from your university, and how much they pay.

Whenever you move into private accommodation, make sure you choose a responsible provider or landlord. You can also consult sites such as Rate Your Landlord to rule out anyone dodgy. Check whether any larger housing providers are accredited with the national code, as this means the security and safety of the property is better than the legal standard.

Many students move into private accommodation in the second or third year.
Many students move into private accommodation in the second or third year. Photograph: georgeclerk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Your students union is a great point of contact for tricky legal questions. Most offer contract checking services and have their own letting agents who will vet and visit the property.

Read any contract carefully, so you know what you’re signing. A good starting point is to check whether your contract has a break clause, which enables you to get out of it.

“One of the main things to look out for is if there are any fees that shouldn’t be charged,” adds Amy Lawson from Unipol, a student housing charity. The Tenant Fees Act 2019 made it illegal to sneak in extra costs, such as admin fees, so watch out for them. And make sure you’re signing an individual contract, as with a joint contract you’re liable for the rent of everyone in the property.

It’s also always a good idea to take photographs when you move in, check your deposit is in a third-party protection scheme, and whether bills are included. “If bills need to be added, then you’re probably looking at about £15 extra a week per person,” Lawson says.

This all might seem like a lot to consider, but feeling safe and comfortable in your accommodation will give you the headspace to enjoy the rest of your life at university.

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