There are many things that make St Andrews a unique place to go to university, and the student ambassadors on my open day wasted no time in shoving them all down my throat: Pubs! Beaches! Traditions! Cathedral! Golf! You know, the typical spiel that most student tour guides are probably forced to regurgitate. They needn’t have gone through such pains to paint the university in such a rosy light, though; Cambridge wouldn’t have me, where else was I going to go?
However, what offended me most about the slick salesmanship of our student ambassadors (or my ones, at least) was that they neglected to mention what I have now realised the defining feature of student life in St Andrews is: the stress of finding accommodation. You know, that small, tiny matter of putting a roof over your head for a couple of years. Now, I wasn’t expecting a house to be delivered to me on a silver platter (lovely as that would be) but it almost beggars belief how monumentally complicated and frustrating the house hunt in this town is.
There seem to be some irrefutable yet nonsensical truths about the St Andrews housing market that can only make sense in The Bubble. The obscene cost of renting in the town really does bemuse me, especially as old schoolmates flaunt their cheaper (and somehow better?) standards of living in England’s university cities. I do understand why it’s so inflated – we live in a small and gorgeous town, after all – but the rent some of my fellow students cough up every month really does make me wince. I suppose there is some comfort to be had in that it is a recognised problem, but unfortunately any and all solutions, such as changing HMO restrictions and building cheaper halls of residence, can only bring about results in the long term. (One also has to actually undertake these tasks for them to work.) Like all those that came before them, the cost of living in St Andrews is going to give first-time renters a hard slap in the face.
However, this is nothing compared to the bizarre collective paranoia about being forced to live south of the Kinnessburn. St Andrews students view the twenty-minute walk from Albany Park to the town centre to be some sort of divine retribution, a punishment so awful that it must be avoided at all costs. Thus, many are perfectly willing sacrifice an extra few hundred pounds a month to save themselves from this dire fate. This is, of course, beyond stupid, and it undoubtedly contributes to the town’s equally stupid property prices. A fifteen, twenty-minute walk to lectures is almost too good to be true in many of the nation’s universities, and yet plenty of St Andreans can’t imagine anything worse.
The worst thing about this attitude, though, is how contagious it is. I must confess that the mystique of Market Street has absolutely captured my imagination, and now you couldn’t pay me to live more than thirty seconds from the shops. It is an entirely ridiculous view to have, and yet the standards of the student community have corrupted me such that I am an active participant in the housing farce. It’ll happen to you, too.
But, you’ll only get the privilege of worrying about this if you actually manage to find a house in the first place, which seems to be an almost herculean task in this town. Unfortunately for us, the St Andrews of old simply wasn’t built to accommodate thousands upon thousands of students, and the consequent paucity of private housing forces many students to remain in halls of residence. This is not a disaster by any means: at least it spares you the house hunt, which resembles a gladiatorial death match more than anything else. I’m blessed with reasonable (and forgiving) landlords, but I have memories of being knocked about by the town’s letting agent plutocracy, an experience shared by most of my friends. First timers will inevitably face this as well: it’s almost a rite of passage.
But the real coup de grâce is how all of these wonderfully irritating features of housing in St Andrews combine to make finding a house one of the most stressful experiences of your time at university. Students want something they can afford, but also somewhere close to the town centre, which produces levels of skulduggery, intrigue, and deception that would make the KGB blush. And, as if this isn’t bad enough, much of the good housing stock disappears through word of mouth before letting agencies even publish their lists of available properties. All’s fair in love and war, and evidently housing, too.
Ultimately, the rather depressing fact of the matter is that finding good private accommodation in St Andrews, much like everything else in life, is a deliciously unjust cocktail of luck, nepotism, and familial wealth. There are a tiny number of affordable properties managed by the university that are apportioned by lot, but more often than not your search will be decided by who you know and the size of the deposits in the Bank of Mum and Dad™. Far too many houses in this town are ruinously expensive, the student attitude towards housing is downright silly and, yes, the whole thing is entirely unfair. So, happy hunting. I suppose.