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The student’s guide to living in privately rented accommodation

Written by
Anna McEntee
Insurance comparison expert
Posted
6 NOVEMBER 2023
9 min read
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Moving away from home to go to university is a big milestone in life. For many students, it’s the first time they’ve lived away from their parents, and whilst it’s easy to be blasé about that when you’re in your familial home, it can come as a shock when you’re alone in your student bedroom. Luckily, for the majority of first-year students, university halls are there to soften the transition.

But for those students who don’t get a space in halls, or for second years who have to move on, privately rented accommodation is there as a home away from home during your time at university. According to data from Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students in privately rented accommodation is on the rise, with 598,390 students living in this type of property in the 2021/2022 academic year, in comparison to 520,500 in 2014/2015. The majority of these students are in their second year or above.

Even though it’s a common rite of passage, organising private accommodation can feel overwhelming, especially if you have no prior experience of renting. In this guide, we explain how to find the right property for you, as well as your rights and responsibilities during your tenancy.

What to know before you move in

Unfortunately, sorting private accommodation isn’t quite as easy as finding a property that you like online and clicking to reserve it. There’s work to be done to ensure that the rental is right for your circumstances, and paperwork to protect both you and the landlord. Let’s explore the steps you need to take before moving into your new digs.

Different types of privately rented accommodation for students

Many students opt for a traditional house share when it comes time to move out of halls. This is where you and a group of your friends find a property, usually via a letting agent, and arrange to take it on for a rental period. You’ll be the only ones living there and will be responsible for sorting everything from bills to keeping the property in a good condition. However, that isn’t the only option. You can also look at:

  • Private sector halls of residence. If you’re reluctant to leave the security and social life of halls behind, there are privately rented halls in some cities which take students from all years. They’re not exclusive to one university, so if you’re in a city like London, you can mix with students from a variety of different institutions, which can boost your social life. They usually offer in-house laundry facilities, on-site security and bills are often included, which can make budgeting easier.
  • Private room rental. This is where you simply rent a room, either in a house share with other people who aren’t necessarily students, or in a family home. Some homeowners are offering room rental to supplement their income, and this means you get to live in a family environment as a lodger, rather than a messy student house. This can be particularly appealing to those who are looking for a quiet property, as well as part-time or mature students who don’t want to get caught up in the chaos of stereotypical student living.
  • Private one-bed or studio flat. If you have the funds, renting your own studio or one-bed flat can give you privacy and avoid any disputes with tricky housemates. However, this is often out of reach financially, unless you have a secondary source of income, or a partner or friend who works full time.
  • Parent-owned accommodation. If your parents are looking to invest in the property market, they might be tempted to take on a student property which they can then rent out to you and your friends. The rent will then cover the mortgage payments for them, but bear in mind this will mean that they are then your landlords. It could cause lasting friction if someone is late with the rent, or the property gets damaged, so consider your choice of housemates carefully.

How to find housemates

It can be hard to choose your housemates. Whilst you may have a great group of friends, living together can be intense, especially if you know that one of them isn’t good with money, or likes to party when you prefer to keep the nights out to the weekend.

Many students also make the mistake of rushing into finding a second-year house before the end of Christmas term in the first year – whilst it’s important to secure your accommodation, it’s easy to get caught up in the perceived closeness of your hallmates. Take your time, consider what sort of housemates you’re looking for and decide on your budget. When you have this information, you can start to think about who you’d want to live with.

If there’s no one at university you’d currently want to live with, or if there’s just a few of you looking for others to join you, you can advertise for extra housemates. If you’re part of a student society, this can be a good place to start, as you already know you have similar interests. Alternatively, your uni may have a student forum or social media where you can find extra people. It can be a good idea to get to know these people a little bit before you commit – even going out for a coffee can help everyone understand if you’re well suited.

What to look for when viewing a student house

Location and facilities

With so many different properties on the rental market, it can be tough to know what to look for. Student housing is competitive, so you may feel you have to take the first thing you see, but that shouldn’t be true unless it meets most of your non-negotiable criteria. Before you start registering with rental agencies or looking online, consider:

  • What location are you looking for? How easy will it be for you to get to university? How close is the property to shops and nightlife?
  • How many bedrooms do you need?
  • How many bathrooms do you need?
  • How much can you afford to pay for rent?
  • How much can you afford to pay for bills?
  • Do you need bike storage or parking?

What to look for when viewing a property

When you’re viewing a property, you’ll need to be alert to ensure you understand what you’re getting for your money. Make sure to look out for signs of damp, pest control issues as well as signs of poor insulation such as condensation on the windows. Whilst most student houses won’t be perfect, due to the high turnover of tenants, it’s important to avoid any properties that may cause you health issues.

You should also ask the landlord or estate agent for information about the energy performance of the property, gas certificates, what furniture is included and the average cost of the electricity and gas bills. Doing so will help you understand how much 

Types of contract for student accommodation

There are typically two types of contracts for private student accommodation: an assured shorthold tenancy or a licence to occupy agreement. The type of contract will depend on who else will be living in the property, and the type of housing. Let’s look at the options.

Assured shorthold tenancy

An assured shorthold tenancy agreement covers private solo accommodation, such as a one person or a studio flat, as well as property where you live with housemates. The landlord does not live with you. The contract will be for a specific amount of time, such as a year, or an academic term. It’s important to understand the length of the agreement when you sign – whilst you might return to your family home for holidays, the chances are that you’ll still need to pay rent unless your agreement says otherwise.

An assured shorthold tenancy can either be a joint tenancy or an individual tenancy. The former means that you and your housemates are all collectively responsible for the rent and damages. If someone doesn’t pay the rent for the month, the rest of you will be responsible for coming up with the money for the landlord.

Additionally, if someone trashes their room, you’ll all be responsible for paying for damages, even if you had nothing to do with it. Because of this, it’s usually advisable to avoid this type of tenancy as a student if you can, or at least be very careful about who you choose as your housemates.

It can also be difficult to leave this type of tenancy early, unless you have a break clause. In some cases, you will be allowed to leave, but only if you find someone to replace you – and the landlord can charge you for the administration of having to change the details on the contract and swapping deposits.

The easier option is to have an individual tenancy agreement, where you have a contract between you and the landlord for your room and use of the communal areas. This means that you only have to pay for damages to your room and split the cost for the shared areas like the kitchen – you’re not responsible for your housemates’ rooms, or their rent.

However, this does mean that the landlord can decide who replaces any tenants that leave – so if you have a housemate who has a year abroad or a year in industry, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to choose another friend to replace them. Whilst many landlords will be happy to accept a recommendation for a replacement tenant as it makes their lives easier, they’re not obliged to let you make the final decision.

Licence to occupy agreements

If you decide to rent a room in a family home, or if the landlord of the property is also one of the tenants, you’ll need a licence to occupy agreement, rather than an assured shorthold tenancy. It means that you have slightly different rights – for example, your landlord can ask you to leave after giving reasonable notice, rather than at the end of the tenancy term. It also means your landlord can access your room without notice for cleaning or decoration. If the landlord decides to sell the property, the new owner is not obliged to let you stay.

These arrangements are designed to protect the landlord in their own home, but you should also make sure that you’re comfortable with the agreed arrangements before you commit.

If you’re not sure about the agreement you’ve been offered, you can use Shelter’s tenancy checker, or take free rental advice from Citizens Advice.

Considerations to set up your student tenancy

References

Your landlord may want a reference for you before you move in, to get some reassurance that you’re likely to be a well-behaved, responsible tenant. If you’ve rented before, you could ask your previous landlord for a reference. If you haven’t, the university may be able to provide one for you, or the agent may accept a character or employer reference.

Guarantors

Many landlords will ask for a guarantor to support your application. This is someone who signs to say that they’ll cover any rent or damage charges you fail to pay, which reduces the risk for the property owner. This will usually need to be a UK-based homeowner, although in some cases, landlords will accept someone else with sufficient funds, or the university may be able to act as a guarantor for you. In some cases, a landlord will accept you without a guarantor if you pay the entire rent bill up front, but this is a lot of money to have available.

Deposits

You’ll need to pay a security deposit when you take on a rental property. This is a big sum of money that is paid to the landlord, which they hold for the duration of your tenancy. If you damage the property, they can reduce the amount of money they return to you.

To make getting your deposit back as easy as possible, take photos when you move in, and ask for an inventory. This ensures that you and the landlord can check everything is in a fair condition, and that nothing is missing. Whilst some wear and tear is reasonable (for example, the tread wears down on the carpets), stains, damaged furniture or dirt that could have been avoided by cleaning are not. You should also make sure that you complete a full house clean before you leave.

Essential insurance

Before you move in, you’ll need to ensure that you have adequate insurance. Your landlord should cover the buildings insurance, so you won’t need to worry about that, but it can be a good idea to take out contents insurance to cover your personal possessions.

Whilst you might trust everyone in your house, they may have friends over that you don’t know, or someone might leave a window open which leads to a burglary. Making sure you have adequate cover can mean you can be assured your university laptop and other important possessions are secure. If you want to cover your items whilst you’re out and about, you may need personal possessions insurance as well.

During your time in private accommodation

Once you’re settled into your private accommodation, hopefully things will run smoothly. But what rights do you have if something goes wrong, and how can you reduce the risk of any major issues?

What are your rights as a student tenant?

It’s important to understand that students have the same rights as other renters in an assured shorthold tenancy – there’s no change just because you’re students. The property should be in a good, safe condition, and your landlord should sort out any issues for you, just like they would for other tenants. There are some other fundamental rights to be aware of too:

  • There needs to be a smoke alarm on every floor where people are living
  • If there’s a working fireplace or stove, the room needs a carbon monoxide detector
  • If the house is classed as a house in multiple occupation (HMO), then there needs to be a fire extinguisher on each floor
  • For an assured shorthold tenancy, the landlord, estate agent and any contractors must give you 24 hours notice before turning up at the property, unless it’s an emergency like a flood
  • All gas appliances must be checked annually by a Gas Safe registered engineer
  • Electrical appliances must be in good working order
  • The landlord is responsible for faults with the structure of the property, sinks, baths, toilets, pipes, wiring, heating and the boiler
  • Your landlord cannot evict you from a fixed-term tenancy without a break clause
  • In an assured shorthold tenancy, the landlord must place your deposit in a tenancy deposit protection scheme

Make sure that you’ve signed a proper contract and use a reputable letting agent. Whilst it can be tempting to cut corners to reduce costs, you’ll be glad of a legitimate landlord if something goes wrong.

How to handle disputes

Unfortunately, things can go wrong, especially when there are multiple people living in one house. It's important to keep calm and try to tackle the situation in a reasonable manner, otherwise you can find yourself in a difficult living situation, which is less than ideal, especially when you’re away from home.

Between you and the landlord

Whilst hopefully your tenancy will go smoothly, there can sometimes be times where you have a conflicting opinion to your landlord about who is responsible for maintenance, or when you ask them to fix something, but they take a long time to do so. So, what should you do?

Firstly, check your tenancy agreement. It should explain who is responsible for what tasks, and it’s good to make sure you’re clear on what falls to you. If the issue should be dealt with by the landlord, report it via email, so you have a written record of you raising the problem. You can follow this up with a call if necessary.

Make sure you allow the landlord a reasonable amount of time to read your email and sort the issue. It can be tricky to organise tradespeople – unless it’s an emergency, the chances are that the fault won’t get fixed in the next day or two. Being reasonable and maintaining polite communication with the landlord will give you the best chance of getting the issue resolved.

If the issue is not resolved after a reasonable time, then you can contact the local environmental health department for help. But ideally, any issues would be resolved between the landlord, tenant and letting agent.

Between tenants

Even if you’re the best of friends, it can be challenging to live in close proximity with other people. You may have different attitudes towards pitching in for shared expenses like cleaning products, or different thoughts on whether it’s acceptable for someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend to stay over several nights per week without chipping in for bills.

As a first step, it can be helpful to sit down and talk about how you’re going to split household chores and expenses before you move in. It’s easy to say that you’ll work it out, but having some basic agreements in place can help avoid frustration in the future. Discuss overnight guests as well – whilst having people crash on your floor after a night out is all part of the student experience, you might run into issues if your housemates have friends over regularly.

You should also try and make sure that everyone is named on any bills. If you’re the only person on the account, the company can ask you for the full amount, even if you had an agreement with your housemates to split the cost.

Frequently asked questions

How much will I need to pay for a deposit on a student house?

The deposit should be no more than five week’s rent. If you’re in an assured shorthold tenancy agreement, the landlord is required to put this money in a deposit protection scheme to ensure that you can get it back at the end of your tenancy.

Do students pay council tax?

If everyone in the house is a full-time student, you don’t need to pay council tax. If there’s a tenant who isn’t in full time education, you’ll need to pay council tax, but you might be eligible for a discount.

Do I need to pay for a TV licence as a student?

Whilst you might think that your parents’ TV licence will cover you whilst you’re away from home, that’s not true. You need one even if you don’t have a TV as it also covers some streaming and on-demand services too.

If you have a joint tenancy, you just need one licence for the whole property, but if you have individual tenancy agreements, you’ll each need your own licence, as you’re counted as individual tenants. If you’re in the accommodation for less than 12 months (for example, if you go home for several months over the summer break), you can apply for a part-refund for this period.

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