With years of hands-on experience in Scotland’s private rental market, The Saint Business Team’s Chris Young discusses the controversies of renting in St Andrews and offers some tips to help you beat the crowd.
It’s nearly that time of year in St Andrews when our 7500 students forage around the pocket-sized coastal town, knocking on doors like hounds in pursuit, trying to secure a roof over their head for the following academic year. There is no scarcity of opinion among the student body on the supposed lack of housing supply, unaffordable rent prices and the looming “Accommodation Crisis”. It’s all been said before – so I won’t repeat it – but consider this. As much as we like to think our “bubble” exists inside an idyllic vacuum where influential control is within reach of our local councillors, student representatives and university leaders, it’s not. Put simply – for those who escaped the microeconomic ecstasy of module EC1002 – St Andrews is part of an economic market, where demand (you and I) meets supply (the decisively finite number of properties) at an equilibrium which has caused the aforementioned infuriation. As much as we’d all love to rest the blame at the foot of Eve Brown’s basement door, it is the market that ultimately sets prices and dictates the rental conditions of the town in which we live.
I’m not saying it’s perfect, I’m not saying it cannot be improved, and I’m certainly not saying it’s neither pleasant nor ideal. But I will ask you this; can we (the undergraduate student with immediate priorities on our plates), really twist the invisible hand of the market? Are we really stronger than Adam Smith’s natural market forces? Try stepping into an estate agency in Knightsbridge and complaining about the unfair and inequitable property prices and see how much sympathy you receive there. My point: we are part of a broader capitalist economic structure.
Instead, with the best will in the world, I suspect you have resentfully come to accept this quandary already, and are now more concerned about getting on with it and finding a bed to sleep in next year without exchanging KY16 for a DD postcode. This is a wise judgment – if you are unfamiliar with St Andrews’ private rental market you have a lot to learn. Rather than criticising the status quo I hope to offer you some useful insight to make the most of the situation and assist you in securing a private tenancy in a hostile market.
Step 1: Preparing
It’s all in the planning. Find out the time and date that each letting agent will release their student property lists and be there early. Know exactly what you’re looking for; how many bedrooms you want, how much you’re prepared to spend and locate your preferred area of town. Have all your references, applications and deposits ready well in advance.
Be willing to compromise – if you don’t you will almost certainly be disappointed. A recent cap on HMO properties means that supply of 3+ bedroom flats in the centre of town is severely restricted so be prepared to look beyond South Street and, if necessary, split up your dream 5-bed house into smaller numbers. The further from the “three streets” you go, the cheaper it’ll be.
Open your eyes to the realities of the market – during term time this tiny town hosts one of the world’s leading universities and in the holidays it’s a booming seaside resort – making it the second most expensive coastal town in Scotland. So yes, you’ll be paying more than your mates in Leeds! Look at the total length of the lease and remember that you’re not here during the three summer months. A beautiful flat which costs £575/month on a nine month lease is cheaper than a grubby one at £450/month on a twelve month lease. If there are different sizes of bedrooms, be prepared to adjust what you each pay in order to accommodate differing budgets – if it means you get somewhere to live it may be worth it.
Have a contingency plan in place – it’s not uncommon to be unsuccessful in your search for private housing. Apply for Halls as a fall-back (you’ve got a better chance if you apply to your 1st year halls), as if you are unlucky with your flat hunt you will be glad of a hall bed to sleep in. If you then manage to secure a flat, then simply cancel your hall application.
Step 2: Hunting
Traditionally I would advise taking time to view as many properties as possible before sitting down to weigh up the pros and cons of each to make a sound, well-informed decision. Don’t. Conventional wisdom does not apply to the St Andrews market. With solid planning in place, speed is everything in this game. Act quickly on the information given and if you find a property that ticks enough of the boxes that you could all live there – take it!
Speak to friends and academic family in older year groups – they may well be graduating and moving out of your dream flat – get in early before it’s put on the public list.
Check the notice board in the Union and the “Private property letting” section of the University’s website to find private landlord’s advertising their properties.
It can be fiercely competitive – sometimes it’s the first group to pay their deposit that secures the flat, sometimes it’s interview-based and sometimes it’s a random ballot. Each agency works differently.
Step 3: Securing
The pressurised nature of the chase leaves time as a precious commodity, but I would urge you to read your leases and don’t sign anything you’re uncomfortable with. The union offer a service to check leases and translate the legal jargon so you understand what you’re agreeing to. That said, the landlord/agency doesn’t owe you anything until you sign the dotted line, so remain cautious that you may still be in the red until you’re legally contracted into a tenancy agreement.
You cannot be charged more than 2 months’ rent as a deposit, and any deposit paid must be transferred by the landlord/agent to an independent Tenancy Deposit Scheme – a third-party who deal with deposit disputes and who will return you your cash. Ask which scheme is holding your money and check it’s there – if it’s not it may not only you cause you grief regaining your deposit at the end of the tenancy but they’re also breaking the law and could face hefty fines. The Inventory of Contents and Schedule of Condition (“inventory”) is now one of the most important documents you’ll receive owing to the new deposit regulations. Pick it apart – ensure that each room is accurate item-for-item and that even the slightest marks, damage or wear and tear is recorded. If you don’t, you may be liable to pay for it at the end of the tenancy.
You are a paying customer who sustains a premium industry in St Andrews – don’t let yourself be treated as a second class citizen because you’re “just a student”. Know your rights – e.g. landlords/agents are required to give 24 hours notice for access and emergency repairs should be carried out within the same time period. If you are treated poorly, you are well within your right to contact the Private Sector Housing Panel or threaten court action – sadly it’s sometimes the only way to get things done. Seek advice from the Union if required.
Finally, I have only just scratched the surface of the accommodation issues – read the Union’s 2012/13 “How To Rent Guide”. Having personally read a lot of these types of documents I can assure you this one’s a genuinely excellent resource which covers everything in accurate depth – it’s a trouble-shooter as well as an interesting read.
Photo credits: Chris Young