Househunting horror stories

Collette Kerrigan on the good, the bad and the Sinclair Properties of York’s student housing market

The first year bubble is already on the brink of bursting. It took very little back in October to accustom ourselves to the cosy campus, with Costcutter, laundry rooms and cash machines within easy walking distance of our bedroom doors. Yet no sooner does it seem that we have unpacked our suitcases than we are told to start thinking about student housing for October 2007. Realising that life stretches beyond the No. 4 bus route is a big obstacle for any first year. From there on in, the rat race beings.

The major concern for any student is who they’ll live with. When I started looking for a house, I found myself wondering whether living with my closest friends would be too close for comfort. Would I even still be friends with them ten months down the line? It hasn’t, however, been finding my future housemates that’s been the problem. It’s been the compromises. My naivety in thinking that it would all be just plain sailing was quickly banished. There were decisions on whether to live closer to campus or town, and whether two bathrooms really are necessary (the answer is a definite ‘Yes’ if you’re living with boys). Already we are fighting over the bedrooms of a house that we haven’t actually found, while TVs and Playstations vie for a place amongst the tables and posters cluttering up our imaginary lounge.

Having anticipated Tang Hall’s alleged ghetto fabulous lifestyle, my housemates and I were a bit disappointed. It was just grotty.

Location is of high importance. Most students with a rough idea of York’s social geography will know to steer clear of Tang Hall, whether out of student snobbery or general concern for possessions. In anticipation of this ghetto-fabulous lifestyle, my housemates and I were slightly disappointed when we visited a house there last week. A grotty area, yes, but not unliveable, and considerably more attractive once we’d realised that a group of attractive guys lived just across the road. Of course, this may appear (and, okay, probably is) a feeble attempt to dissuade the masses who are looking for a house on Heslington Road, Badger Hill or Lawrence Street. Within close distance of the University and town, it’s no wonder that houses in these locations are snapped up within hours, unlike those in South Bank – a definite no-go for those who don’t delight in a 55 minute walk to campus in the morning.

The wonders of modern technology also mean that you can begin your house search online. The Sinclair Properties website is a good place to start, as it has photos and ground plans of all their properties. Sinclair also have the pick of the bunch as far as student houses go. With such a monopoly, it’s no wonder that for every student house there are about forty groups of students interested. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that they are not the only agency out there, and that they are not always the best either.. Sinclair have limited my housemates and I to three house viewings that are yet to take place, while a far more helpful freelance landlord spent over two hours yesterday taking us to see six different properties.

At the risk of sounding like your typical complaining student, there are some companies who have really cocked up over the past couple of years. One particular group were lucky enough to experience an infestation of rats and electricity problems within weeks of moving last term. Not exactly the second year lifestyle they were expecting.

Nonetheless, student housing horror stories have become the norm; from leaking ceilings to lost deposits, boiler breakages to break-ins, you’re sure to know at least one group of students who’ve dreamt about suing their landlord. Last year, a student house’s kitchen in Tang Hall was robbed of food, alcohol and a George Foreman grill by a gang of twelve year olds. On another occasion, a money hungry landlord converted an already cramped five bedroom house into six rooms, using a flimsy wall in the attic which accommodates only those who are sincerely vertically challenged.

And where is this infamous landlord when you’ve got a problem? For one group, he was over three thousand miles away, living in Ghana. A third year commented: “There are two types of landlords: those that care about their job, and those that couldn’t care less. If you’re lucky, your landlord will come to mow the lawn but won’t give you hassle. If you’re unlucky, he’ll constantly be on your back but won’t fix a heating problem four months down the line”.

Those that have gone through agencies seem to have bigger problems contacting individual landlords who often fail to give their details out to students at all. The York Accommodation Office is insistent that contracts are triple-checked for authenticity and they advise students to be wary of landlords who make claims that clearly can’t be kept. In the same vein, keep in mind that the offer of a garden Jacuzzi is probably taking it a bit far.

Those who have been let down by student housing companies have generally seen moving back on campus as the safest option, but it’s not always the easiest. Not only the excitement of ‘fresh meat’, but also the cheap and easy way of life entices a huge number of people to apply for limited third year campus accommodation. The problem is that these students will only know in June whether they have a place on campus, by which time, if their application has been unsuccessful, they might be stranded with no accommodation at all.

However, it seems a shame to be casting such a shadow over what should be the beginning of ‘real’ student living. Perhaps I am just finding it difficult to accept the impending change from the free lifestyle that I have now grown accustomed to here on campus. I am sure that when next year comes, Tang Hall’s suburbia shall be just as much part of life as my pyjama clad runs to Costcutter are now. Best not to speak too soon though.

The welfare angle: advice from YUSU’s Amy Foxton

>> Attend the University-run housing talk in Central Hall on Friday 2 February at 1pm. Also get yourself a copy of the University’s list of landlords who have signed the Voluntary Code of Practice for Student Accommodation; it’s available online from Week 4.

>> Deciding who to live with can be stressful. If you’re having trouble finding housemates, there are always lots of people looking for an extra housemate or two advertising on flyers across campus.

>> Choose who you live with carefully. Living in a house can be a lot more intense than halls and you may be arguing about the phone bill, who hasn’t cleaned the bathroom and who forgot to lock the back door.

>> Try not to live with anyone you’re romantically involved with. There’s always a chance that, in a year, you won’t still be together, and you won’t want to be reminded of his or her new partner on a daily basis.

>> Decide what you’re looking for as a group: is someone happy to pay less and live in a smaller room? Do you need to live near town so your archaeologist friend can get to King’s Manor?

>> Speak to the students who live in the house you’re interested in for an unbiased view. Unlike the landlord, they’ll know what it’s like to actually live there.

>> Get your contract checked by a University welfare adviser – based in Sally Baldwin Block B – before you sign up.

>> You’ll be paying around £3,000 for a room for a year, so don’t rush into anything.

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