Many universities and colleges make it compulsory for students to live on-campus in uni halls or residences for the first year. But after that, many students take flight and choose the relative freedom of off-campus living. It’s a big decision, filled with many potential problems. We look at some of these, as well as how to overcome them.
How to find off-campus accommodation
If you’ve decided that university residence is not for you and you want to find alternative accommodation, the university website is a good place to start. Many student housing landlords list their accommodation with universities and colleges in their city. This makes it easy for students to find a place to live off-campus, but there is a caveat. There are often no requirements for listing accommodation with a school, so don’t assume that every house or apartment listed is going to be great.
Your other options are to go through a letting agent or to use specialist student housing services. The advantage of some (not all) letting agents is that they maintain some quality control. In the interests of maintaining their good reputations, they will only list housing options that meet certain standards. The disadvantage is that they charge landlords a listing fee, which many landlords are anxious to avoid, so the options may be limited.
Companies that specialise in student housing are a good idea. Sites like urbanest.com.au are dedicated to finding the best student accommodation close to school campuses and public transport services. You can select your price range, your flat/room preference (e.g., single en suite, single sharing, double), and your city or suburb. Other specialist student housing sites in Australia include:
- Student Housing Australia
- Semester in Australia
Very important tip
Never sign a contract or lease sight-unseen. This can be tricky if you’re going to university in a city far away from home, but it’s far better to take a weekend to visit a shortlist of options than to try and get out of a lease once you arrive and find that you’ve committed yourself to a flea-infested, dust-encrusted dirt motel. Bear in mind that pictures lie, and the photos of the lovely sunny rooms on the website could have been taken 20 years ago. A lot of deterioration can take place in that time.
What to look for
When you do inspect the property, it’s a good idea to have a checklist of items to look for. You should also have an idea of what it is that you want, but be flexible. Remember that you’re a student with limited means, so a hot tub and tennis court is probably a bit much to ask for. Some key items to add to your checklist include:
Is it a safe neighbourhood? You may have to do some research online to find out, or you can talk to neighbours and existing tenants to hear how they feel about living there. Take a look at the other houses around. If they look like Fort Knox then maybe security is a concern.
You also need consider how close you are to your campus, and then take a look at things like proximity to public transport and shops. Many cities in Australia encourage cycling as an alternative form of transport, so ask yourself whether your major destinations are within cycling distance. If you have your own transport then you need to consider whether there is enough secure parking on the property for all the tenants. If not, are there other secure arrangements nearby?
The house (exterior)
You might not care all that much about fascias and gutters and paint, after all, it’s not your house and you’re not looking at it with a view to buy. But if a house is neglected on the outside, chances are good that the inside is not as smashing as it should be. Also, you don’t want the gutters to fall down or the roof to leak during the first big storm of the rainy season.
If there is a garden, The Student Room recommends that find out who is responsible for its maintenance. You’ll need to know the schedule if there is a gardening service, and you’ll need to know if the service is included in your rent.
The house (interior)
Is it furnished or semi-furnished? Is there an inventory of all items in the house? You need to know so that you can’t be held liable for missing items that weren’t there in the first place. You also need to know what furniture you’ll have to buy. Check the quality of the furniture that is there. Don’t expect it to be brand new, but you can expect the chairs to hold your weight without falling over.
Look in the cupboards. Opening and closing the doors will tell you if the hinges work properly. Check the shelves thoroughly. Sometimes they look stable and then you try putting a week’s supply of tinned food on them and they crumble. Also check the rods in the closet. You don’t want to hang up your nice thick winter coat only to have it end up in a clattering heap on the floor.
Run all of the taps to test the water pressure – and to test the drains. Flush the loo. Don’t be embarrassed about doing all of this. It’s standard procedure no matter who is buying or renting property.
Test the lights and the plugs and various appliances, especially the stove and oven, the air conditioner and the heating system. Find out how old the geyser is.
Ask about the security system and check all the locks on the doors and windows. Look for fire extinguishers and see how old they are.
The contract and other responsibilities
What is the length of the contract? You’re unlikely to live there for the full 12 months of the year, which is something that most student housing landlords take into account. As a result some contracts are for 10 months, which is more in line with the student year. Find out the terms of the tenancy agreement. Will you be responsible for your room only, or will you be ‘jointly and severally liable’, which, according to the Guardian, means that if one of the flatmates scarpers, you’ll have to cover his share of the rent.
Find out what your rent actually pays for. Utilities should be included in rent, but you’ll be responsible for things like the TV licence and telephone account. If utilities aren’t included, ensure that you know the meter reading schedule, and take the readings on the day that you move in. As Charmian Evans says in an article on the Telegraph, you don’t want to pay for someone else’s use. Are the property and the house’s contents (if it’s furnished) properly insured? You will have to insure your personal possessions like your laptop and Blu-ray player.
Check the details regarding the deposit, especially regarding refunds. You don’t want to come to the end of the contract and then be denied your refund based on some obscure technicalities in the small print.
Living off-campus is a big step toward the responsibilities of adulthood. Your folks might still be paying your rent, but you can assume a lot of the responsibility when it comes to making the final choice. Be prepared and your years in student housing could be among the best of your life.