As we enter into February we see the return of every St Andrews student’s favourite past time; flat hunting. This process often takes up several weeks, if not months, of a student’s time. Email after email, form after form, viewing after viewing and unless you’re lucky it usually results in several disappointments before any victory. If you’re a first year, I really wish you luck.
We are already in one of Scotland’s most expensive property bubbles and these high rents don’t often represent high quality housing or even location within St Andrews. There is also the additional problem of the council HMO ban in the town centre which has led to fewer properties available to larger groups of students with many landlords offering student properties with spare bedrooms.
This issue is not exclusive to students though, as this has led to a vast shortage in flats available for non-students living in St Andrews. Unfortunately for us there is little that can be done about this and little we can blame other than the market forces.
The process of getting a flat in this town is a terribly time-consuming and unrewarding experience which is dramatically harder than in other university towns or cities. The numerous letting agents in St Andrews all release long lists of their various available properties and then wait for the flood of applications that follows.
What the students have to do depends on the agent but usually they have to view a property either by phoning up the current tenants or even by just turning up at the house at any time. This is hardly ideal for anybody including the current tenants who have to disrupt their day in order to let people into their flat. Only one or two of the agents take you round the property themselves at a pre-arranged time that suits everybody whilst Thorntons allow all applicants to view the properties at the same time which is busy but at least doesn’t disturb current tenants too much.
Applications are also a problematic aspect. Rollos amongst others have dealt with applications on a first come first serve basis, avoiding the problem faced by other agents who receive several dozen applications for some properties. Unfortunately this system isn’t at all ideal for students who have to rush around to view a property, fill out an application and also get that full application to the office before anyone else. This causes a great deal of stress and can come at the expense of classes or work. I know this because I’ve been through it.
Alba arranges viewings based on who phones the office at the time of their list release. Last year I phoned over forty times from the exact time given and didn’t get through for over an hour (missing a class in the process) when I was told that all the three-person houses had all their viewing slots filled. Once more the process seems to suit the agents but is frustrating and to a degree unfair to the students.
Furthermore, Eve Brown and others conduct interviews with selected applicants before offering a lease. I have been both unsuccessful and successful as a result of these interviews and I for one can’t understand how those decisions were made either way. The interviews are short and include some strange questions regarding what sort of societies I was involved in and where I come from originally, hardly relevant information when leasing out a student flat. I appreciate agents don’t want to rent out to irresponsible people but I think that could be more easily achieved by talking to students when leasing a property than by making a judgement based on answers from nervous students to an irrelevant question in a five-minute interview. It feels just a tad patronising when dealing with the agents sometimes, who expect us to go through all these different processes no questions asked.
I don’t want this to just be a rant against the letting agents, dealing with the amount of students that want accommodation must be a huge job especially for some of the smaller agencies. However, the system in place for St Andrews student lets is geared far more in their favour than to the students, especially when compared to other places. The obvious reason for this is that the letting agents don’t have to compete with one another too fiercely over student lets, if they have properties available they know full well that some students are going to fill it, even with the high rents in this town. Seeing as the process is so difficult and time consuming students aren’t going to ask too many questions and we are going to do everything the agents want us to do because quite simply we want to get a flat as soon as possible.
I feel at times some agents have taken advantage of the students. I have seen countless examples of agents taking money from student deposits with little real justification (cleaning charges and charges for general wear and tear), it’s difficult to challenge this so students tend to just take the hit. Thorntons, one of the largest agents, have also been charging students £25 each for an accommodation reference. It’s hard to justify a large business asking for in some cases over £100 for a few exact copies of a templated paragraph especially when it is a service provided by most agents free of charge. But once more the students have to pay up because they above all else need a reference in order to secure a new tenancy. As I’ve said before there is little that can be done about the high rents in St Andrews, but as we are paying a premium price the least we should expect is for a good service and to be treated like adults.
Is there one solution to this? Probably not, but there is definitely room for change in order to make the process far less stressful, time-consuming and not at the expense of studies or jobs. The system used by the University with its managed properties is far easier and its ballot system feels a lot fairer than a five minute interview or by choosing between several applications which have all the same information on it. Thornton’s system of viewings and having a set deadline for applications is also far more effective and would probably be more useful if imitated by the other agents.
I have never seen nor heard of any students not getting accommodation in St Andrews and all the available properties from letting agents get filled, so the process of leasing student flats is a frustrating experience that can surely be made a lot easier.