What you need to know about student accommodation

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
October, 2023

Many first-year students find that halls of residence provide the perfect base for meeting friends and living close to campus - but there are other options to consider, especially as you get immersed in university life

Student accommodation at a glance

  • You can choose to live in halls, private accommodation or at home.
  • When deciding on where to live, get advice from family and friends and try to attend accommodation open days.
  • Carefully research the costs and benefits of each option before making a decision.
  • Start your accommodation application once you've accepted a place on a course.
  • Make good use of your student accommodation office.

Discover your options

As Heidi Cooper-Hind, director of student experience and employability at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB), says, 'Choosing where you are going to live is one of the most exciting and important decisions you'll make at university.'

In general, there are four main options. You can live:

  • in university-managed accommodation (typically halls of residence)
  • in privately owned halls of residence
  • with other students in a privately rented house or flat
  • at home.

If you decide to make use of your university's provision, you'll find that you can usually start your accommodation application once you've accepted an offer on a course - but check with your university for details of the process.

'It's always wise to do a little research,' advises Claire Henshaw, accommodation services team leader at the University of Northampton. You should start this as early as possible as many universities work on a first come, first served basis and popular room types can go quickly.

'We advertise the dates that applications open and offer 'how to' guides as well. The university website is a great way to gather information and make sure you're well informed,' adds Claire.

Alternatively, get in touch with your university's accommodation office, and never be afraid to ask questions if there's something you're not sure about.

University accommodation open days provide an opportunity to speak to staff and discover what's on offer. Claire suggests that even if you can't make it in person, always check out the university's website as they will likely have photos, descriptions, floor layouts and even interactive tour videos.

Consider the 10 things to do before starting university.

Student halls of residence

'Living in halls of residence at university allows you to become fully immersed in the student community from day one,' explains Rebecca O'Hare, assistant director of residence life and accommodation office, at the University of Leeds.

'Moving away from home is a huge transition, but it's important to remember that most of your fellow students will be in a similar position and living in university accommodation grants you easier access to support from campus and residence teams.'

To clarify, halls of residence are large blocks of flats housing hundreds of students, with individual furnished bedrooms organised around corridors or apartments with a shared kitchen. In some cases, bathrooms are also shared, although en-suite rooms are increasingly commonplace.

They are usually managed by the university or in partnership with a private company, and the quality is generally good, as they have to comply with national codes. Privately owned halls of residence offer all the benefits of halls but are not linked to the university - you book a room directly with the specific halls you're interested in - most have easy online booking systems.

Many universities guarantee a place in halls for full-time first-year students and international postgraduates, as long as you meet application deadlines. However, this will vary between institutions - for example, you may be ineligible if you've come through Clearing.

Halls are especially popular among new students who are living away from home for the first time, says Heidi. 'Bills are usually included, so you know exactly what you are budgeting for, and it's easy to arrange your accommodation by applying directly to the university - normally online.'

As they're typically located on or near campus or within travelling distance, living in halls puts you at the centre of student life. It's a great way to make friends and to get involved in social activities. While your bedroom may be small, all the facilities you need (for example a laundrette) are usually on-site, and the university accommodation team is on hand when it comes to maintenance.

A number of universities also provide catered accommodation. This is worth considering if you don't feel ready or able to cook for yourself, though it will increase the cost of your rent.

However, in return for the convenience of halls, you may find yourself paying more than you would in a private house or flat. You don't get to choose who you live with - which can make things tricky if you don't get on with others in your flat - and with so much going on, halls aren't the place to be if you value peace and quiet.

Bear in mind that you'll need to buy your own TV licence. Heidi adds, 'Remember that you'll be responsible for any damage in your halls, which means you may have to contribute to repairs.'

To find out how much you'll pay in rent, see your university's website, as costs vary significantly depending on location and facilities.

To make the most of your time in student accommodation, Rebecca advises students to get to know your flatmates through residence Facebook pages before welcome week, attend events both on campus and in halls, and engage with residence life programmes at your university.

Private rented accommodation

You may prefer to live in a privately rented house, which usually accommodates around four or five people. This is the path followed by most students from the second year onwards, but also by some first years.

One advantage is getting to choose who you live with (for second-year students this usually means moving in with friends), which can make for a better experience.

Another benefit is that you'll have more choice over where to live. You'll be further from campus, but good transport links, as well as lots of shops, bars and food outlets serve the popular student areas of most university cities.

Your university accommodation office can help you find available houses. 'It's a good idea to view the properties you are considering before signing up', cautions Heidi, to ensure everything's in order. The accommodation team will likely have lots of useful advice on what to look for and what questions to ask during viewings, for example.

There are a few other key points to remember. 'Usually, the rent is cheaper than halls, but you'll pay bills on top,' says Heidi. It'll be up to you to sort your payments for things like utilities, Wi-Fi access, contents insurance and a TV licence. But remember, as long as everyone in your house is a full-time student, you don't have to pay council tax.

As well as managing your budget carefully, you'll need to be comfortable getting in touch with your landlord or letting agent to sort any issues or arrange repairs. Be sure to read and understand your contract and be aware of your rights as a tenant.

For instance, Heidi explains that landlords must use a tenancy deposit protection scheme, and the local council can insist on repairs if your landlord doesn't maintain reasonable standards.

Living at home

For many people, leaving home - and the feeling of freedom that brings - is one of the key attractions of going to university.

But if you've chosen to study locally, staying at home can be a great alternative. It saves money on rent and bills, is convenient, and you'll avoid the stress of moving out to live with new people.

However, you'll be further removed from student life, and it may be more difficult to make friends away from the social hub of halls or a student house. To make it work, take part in activities such as sports clubs and societies.

Making your decision

This isn't an easy choice to make, so get advice from as many sources as possible. Family and friends who've been to university before are a good starting point.

'Many universities, including AUB, invite you to attend applicant days ahead of the start of term, where you can meet other students and take a look at some of the local rental properties available,' Heidi says.

Claire adds that you shouldn't be afraid to contact university staff if you have any questions on halls or private accommodation. You can also read more at University of Northampton - Our accommodation.

Meanwhile, it's never too early to start preparing financially. 'If you intend to live in halls or in private accommodation while studying, then you will need to save up some money,' says Claire. Most universities will ask you to pay an upfront rent payment or deposit when you apply for accommodation.

Plus, saving now in preparation for university is a great way to ensure you're covered during the first few months, especially if you're relocating away from home. Get some more tips on saving money as a student.

Returning to uni

Before your first year of university is over it's advisable to explore independent accommodation in preparation for the start of your second year. This is because the closer to the start of term, the more pressure you'll be under to find something suitable.

Many students choose to start house-hunting from as early as late September or October, even though this is just a few weeks into their course. While this sounds early, once you've started to make friends on your course and in halls, conversations naturally turn to who you'll be living with in your second year.

Try and focus your discussions around the following factors:

  • Where are you going to live? - consider how close the place is to campus and what the transport links are like in the area. Is it close enough to cycle in to university?
  • How big is the property you're looking for? - are you going to choose a large house with multiple bedrooms and share the cost of rent or consider individual flats instead?
  • What is everyone's budget? - it can be more costly to choose somewhere with more facilities such as washing machines and driers as well as mod-cons like high-speed broadband and security cameras. Make sure your friends are all in agreement on this.

The majority of first-year students will have their accommodation plans for the following year in place before the start of January. As the best accommodation options may have gone by this point, it's worth starting house viewings as soon as possible.

If you have any questions, it's important to speak with your university's accommodation team as they'll have helped many other students in a similar position.

Find out more

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