When it comes to student accommodation, you have more choice and the quality is better than ever before. So how to apply for studying housing? Start with this guide explaining three broad types of accommodation: university halls, private halls and private rentals. I hope this will help you decide on the best option for you.
University Halls of Residence
University halls of residence are what you may know as student ‘dorms’. In the UK, the terms ‘halls of residence’, ‘student halls’ or ‘accommodation halls’ or simply ‘halls’ all mean the same thing. They’re basically buildings that you live in during your time at university.
However, halls can really vary in size. Smaller halls might only have 20 or 30 student rooms, but these days most halls are very large, with hundreds of rooms. The location can also depend on your university. If you’re lucky, the hall will be on the university campus or very close to the university. But sometimes your hall may be in a different area to where your classes take place, meaning you can’t simply walk from and to university.
Some Things that Are Useful to Know about Student Halls
What Does ‘Purpose-Built’ Mean
Most universities have a mix of newer and older halls. The new student halls are often described as ‘purpose-built’. This means they were built specifically as student accommodation and offer the best facilities for students. This includes single bedrooms with private en-suite bathrooms and a shared kitchen.
Although it varies a lot, some older student halls may not have been built as student halls at all. They might have been offices, teaching rooms or family houses that have since been converted into student accommodation. Often, but again not always, you might have to share the bathroom or even the bedroom (the university might call shared rooms ‘twin rooms’). There may or may not be a fully equipped kitchen.
What Are Student ‘Flats’ in Halls
In the UK, a ‘flat’ is an apartment. But when it comes to student halls, a flat is a section that is shared by a group of students. There are usually 6 – 10 student rooms in each flat and every student has a key to his or her own room only. The shared kitchen and bathrooms, if your room is not en-suite, will also be inside the flat. These are the ‘communal areas’, shared by everyone who lives in the flat.
What’s Inside Your Student Room
In your room, in the least you’ll have a bed, wardrobe, desk and chair, and probably also a desk lamp and a pillow and duvet. If your room doesn’t have an en-suite bathroom, there may be a washbasin or sink inside your room. Things like towels and bed sheets you may be able to buy directly from the university or order online before you arrive.
Difference Between Catered and Self-Catered Halls
Always check whether your hall is ‘catered’ or ‘self-catered’ before booking your room.
Basically, ‘self-catered’ means there’s a kitchen with everything you need to cook your meals (although you may have to buy small things like plates and forks / spoons). In a catered hall, there is either no kitchen or only a basic one with maybe a microwave oven and a fridge – it means you can’t do proper cooking. You would have your meals in the university canteen and might get a discount, or a number of meals per day may already be included in the cost of your room.
What’s Included in Your Room Rate
Staying in a student hall, your rent includes your bills so you pay nothing on top for things like electricity, gas, heating or wifi. Your room might also be automatically covered by ‘contents insurance’ meaning you’re insured in case something is lost, damaged or stolen from your room (though always check the terms). Cleaning of the communal areas is usually also included, but not of your room – that you’d have to do yourself.
Private Halls of Residence
Private halls are very similar to modern university student halls but they’re not owned by the university and aren’t usually located on campus – though they can be very close by. Most private halls offer really high quality, often luxury, student accommodation. If you can afford it, you could even opt for a studio flat, which is basically a ‘one-room apartment’ with an area to study, an area to sleep and an area to cook, and of course an en-suite bathroom.
Some Things to Consider when Deciding Between University and Private Halls
How Much Does It Cost
Depending on the quality, facilities and location, privately owned halls of residence can be more expensive. Some can cost twice as much as university halls if they offer lots of extras. Having said that, university halls that offer the same quality and facilities will cost the same. So when comparing cost, do look at the facilities, quality and location – and decide if you’re prepared to pay more for top quality.
Who Else Lives There
In university halls, you would share with other students from your university. Also, some halls may be either only for undergraduate or only for postgraduate students. In private halls, students may be mixed, and there may be students from different universities depending on the location of the hall.
I know that some private halls allow you to choose a room in the same flat as your friends, whereas this isn’t usually possible if you’re staying in university accommodation – especially if your friends are studying at a different university.
How You Apply
To apply for university accommodation, you have to have an offer (conditional or unconditional) and you have to have accepted that offer. Private halls, on the other hand, may allow you to book a room even if you don’t have a university offer yet. See the section below on cancellations.
When it comes to undergraduate students, universities can have different rules on whether you can apply for accommodation only if have accepted a ‘firm’ offer or whether ‘insurance’ offer holders can apply also.
You apply for your room online and with private halls, you usually get a decision on your application within one or two days. Universities, on the other hand, can take a long time as they usually wait for the accommodation application deadline to pass before they start allocating the rooms.
Deposits and Guarantors
When you apply to either a private or university hall, you pay a booking fee. This fee is later counted towards your rent after you move in, or it’s converted into a security deposit. Everyone has to pay a security deposit to coverpossible damage – if you look after your room, you should get your deposit back at the end.
Some private halls may also ask that you either have a ‘guarantor’ who takes responsibility for your payments (usually one of your parents), or that you pay your year’s rent in advance. Universities don’t usually ask for a guarantor.
If you accept a room with your university but cancel after their ‘cooling off’ period has passed, you usually lose your booking / application fee. It’s the same for private halls.
But, with private halls if you cancel your room at the last minute, they will usually ask you to pay the rent anyway – unless you or they can find a student to take your room. Having said that, some will make an exception if you’re only cancelling because you had a conditional offer and it didn’t get confirmed.
Universities, on the other hand, don’t usually have a problem with re-allocating rooms as they tend to have a long list of students waiting to get a room.
But remember to always read your contract’s terms and conditions before you sign.
Support and Security
University halls normally have a team of ‘wardens’. Wardens are members of staff or postgraduate students who live in the hall and are there to support students in case there are any problems. I’m not sure what the arrangements are in private halls, but I expect they will have someone with a similar role.
Both university and private halls have 24-hour security – sometimes with a security desk in the hall itself.
Universities organise many social events and student activities. Some of these are specifically for students who live in halls so they can meet and socialise with each other and make new friends. I expect that similar events are organised in private halls also.
But of course one of the advantages of staying in a university hall, especially if it’s on campus, is that you’d be right in the middle of where other campus activities take place.
Off-campus and Private Rentals
In my experience, most international students prefer to stay in student halls, especially if they’ve never lived in the UK before. And many UK universities either give priority when allocating rooms, or they might even guarantee accommodation to all first year international students.
But in case you can’t get a room in a student hall, either because the university doesn’t have any or you’ve applied too late, don’t let the idea of renting privately worry you. Just like university accommodation, renting off-campus can have some advantages.
For example, you’re more flexible in where to live, which can be great if accommodation near your university is very expensive. Or, if you’re bringing your family with you and the university can’t offer you family accommodation (or not the right type), then renting privately may be your only option.
Here Are Your Options when Renting Off-Campus
Renting On Your Own
Renting a ‘self-contained’ place is something many students may dream of but few can afford. Rent in many parts of the UK can be high or very high. Plus, when renting on your own you also have to pay the bills, like electricity and gas, all by yourself. And if you use an estate agent to help you find the flat, you’ll be paying their fees on top.
Sharing a Flat or House
Most students living off-campus would share a flat or a house with friends or with other students. This is the cheapest option as you share the rent, bills and any agent fees – but of course it also means you’d share the kitchen and bathroom(s).
In terms of how to look for a house to share, your university might have an online message board for that. Or, if you’re on Facebook, look up your university’s ‘Freshers Group’ where hundreds of new students post messages.
You could either join a flat or a house that a group of students already rent. Or, you can look for a property and then look for house- or flatmates to share with you. You can also do it the other way round: You can look for students to share with and then you look for a place to rent together.
University-Managed Houses & Flats
Some universities might own or rent flats and houses in the local area – which they then let to their students. If you’re going to live off campus, find out from your university if they have any university-managed properties. This is the best compromise between living in a student hall and renting privately.
There are many advantages to renting a flat or house through your university. For one, your bills will probably already be included in your rent. Secondly, you save on having to pay a letting agent to find you a property. Thirdly, the security deposit the university will ask for will be much smaller, and you won’t need a guarantor. And finally, if it’s a shared property, the university will have other students to share with you and you won’t have to worry about finding housemates.
Lodging with a Landlord
Another option is to rent a room with a live-in landlord. As a ‘lodger’, you get a room and, if you’re lucky, a private bathroom, and the landlord would tell you how you can use the kitchen, living room or garden (if there is one).
Some students prefer to lodge because it’s ‘quieter’ and usually also more tidy than living with other students. It’s also convenient as the landlord pays the bills – all you have to do is pay your rent and respect the house rules they set.
Do consider though how you’d feel about living with someone in their own home. You may be totally ok with it, which is great. I’ve lodged before and I have to admit I always felt like a guest (not in a good way), but on the plus side the accommodation was cheaper and much nicer than elsewhere.
Homestay with a Host Family
Homestay is similar to lodging but with one important difference: you socialise and have your meals with your host family. The idea of homestays is that they give you an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and language by living with a local family.
Personally, I think homestays are great if you have a host family that really cares about ‘cultural exchange’ and isn’t doing this just for the money. You could really learn a lot about the UK and British people by mixing in this way. This website here will you a good idea of the homestays that are offered – and you can ask your university if they have a list of homestay hosts or programmes.
Living in a university or private hall of residence can be a very convenient option, especially if this is the first time you’ll be living by yourself or in another country. It saves you the hassle of having to look for a place to stay, dealing with letting agents, and paying your monthly rent and bills. You also get to mix with other students and to take part in university events and activities.
Private student halls, if available, are a great option if you can’t get university accommodation. But do consider the location, as well as the cost, as this can be higher, depending on the quality of accommodation.
But sometimes you have no choice but to rent privately – or you may prefer it. If like most students you want the most affordable option, go for shared accommodation. Either share with other students, or consider if lodging or homestays are right for you.