Home is Where the Heart is

Written by Ruairidh Colquhoun

As we draw steadily on to the end of the first term, many of us will be reflecting on our student housing choices. Whilst the first-year freshers are relaxing in the cosy bosom of the university campus, spare a thought for the second and third years who have embarked on the wonderful adventure of private student living. To carry on the spooks from Halloween, I’d like to share with you some of the horrors of dealing with landlords, estate agents and student houses.

We are all familiar with the horror stories when it comes to private student housing; absent landlords, chasing estate agents, mould as far as the eye can see, overflowing bins, pungent smells… the list goes on. If I had a pound for every cautionary story I’ve heard, I wouldn’t have to worry about my rent! In a lot of students’ experiences, cleanliness isn’t number one on the list of priorities for a landlord.

Whilst the horror stories give rise to some humorous realisations like ‘every student house has a random mattress in it belonging to the landlord’, there is also a more concerning side to student living. According to an article by the House of Commons Library, the average student maintenance this academic year is £7,556, with the average annual rent cost being £7,590. This equates to a total of £36 to live on for the whole year: that’s £3 a month and 50p a week. I’m not doing a maths degree, but I know that’s not sustainable for anyone, let alone a student.

The problem begins with a general scarcity of student housing: there is a serious lack in Egham and its neighbouring areas, forcing students to have to look for extortionately priced, lavish, all-inclusive, student accommodation. The production of private accommodation has halved in the last three years according to popular real estate blog ‘Benoit Properties’. This leads to the limited availability that continuing students must circumvent. With no choice other than to pay a hefty monthly rent, students are backed into a corner where the only way out is to live under their landlord’s unfair terms. Prior to finding my current student digs, I viewed more than thirty properties in and around Egham. When I say view, I mean that in the loosest possible way since most of the properties, we went to see had already been snatched up by the early birds.

I remember the first property a potential flatmate of mine and I went to see; it wasn’t far from where I was living for my second year at the time. When we were shown the first room, it was like I was back in Harry Potter World on my 15th birthday, as the room was no bigger than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs (those unfamiliar with the reference, the room was so small you couldn’t swing a cat in there). A year on from this and it’s starting to make sense not just to me, but to a lot of students that some landlords are charging unaffordable prices for barely breathable rooms because they know they have students in their pockets.

In order to have to make rent day every month, it is essential that students get enough work to support themselves for the month, and then going forward. This, on top of an extremely busy week with university studies and various deadlines, becomes nigh on an impossibility. Unfortunately, students aren’t lucky enough to be taken by a giant man to a castle to learn wizardry free of charge- balancing work life, social life and academic life is advanced wizardry in itself.

When you’re paying over £600 a month for a room, the very least you would expect would be to move into a property that’s ready and clean, and not have to battle with the estate agents and landlord about multiple issues, but unfortunately, this has not been the case for many students, and whilst there are many landlords out there who would be devastated to hear the horror stories we students have to tell, there are many facets of private student living that are out of our and their control, such as the cost-of-living crisis, rising house prices and limited employment opportunities. What is seemingly in our control, like the standards of the houses we are living in is handed back to the landlord and estate agents when we sign on the dotted line of our tenancy agreements due to the fact that the current housing market has created an environment that gives students little negotiating power and large bills to pay. What I pay every month for a small dimly lit damp room, my mum pays for a three-bedroom house… I’ll let that sink in.

The NUS (National Union of Students) surveyed last year that 90% of students reported that their mental health was negatively impacted by concerns about bills and rent due to the cost-of-living crisis. Subsequently, 52% of students dropping out of university cited money worries as their main reason for not continuing their studies.

So, when are things going to change? What rights do we have as students and what support is available? This upcoming term, make sure you give yourself suitable time to look for a nice enough house and choose wisely, communicate well with your landlords or estate agents, as well as your university if any problems should arise. But most importantly, know your rights as a tenant and the responsibilities of the landlord.

Written by Ruairidh Colquhoun, Edited by Eleanor Partington and Mia Ince, Photography by Gordon H. Burrows, Published by Mia Ince.