An illustration of keys and 'to let' signs
Image: Time Out / Noah Boon

How to navigate the London student housing market

It’s not easy out there

Chiara Wilkinson
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You don’t need us to tell you that London’s private rental market is well and truly fucked. It’s hard to make sense of it at the best of times, but it can be especially tricky if you’re a student. Queuing up for viewings of mould-infested houses isn’t what you need when you’re trying to get ahead on your studies, or, more importantly, enjoying the last dregs of summer with your mates.

According to a survey of more than 20,000 students by Knight Frank and UCAS, less than 70 percent of students applying for university for the first time this year thought that there were enough accommodation options in their chosen city. And if you’re a student or soon-to-be student looking for private rentals in London, you’re going to be up against the thick of it: bidding wars, dodgy landlords, snakey drop-out flatmates. I’ve been through it, my mates have been through it, and you’ll be going through it soon, too. The process itself is stressful AF, but once you settle into your new London life and are living like the main character every day, I promise it will be worth it.

So if you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to manage, look no further: we’ve asked housing experts as well as past and present students for their very best tips on securing a private rental. And don’t worry: you’ve got this. 

1. Start your search early 

But not too early. We recommend starting your housing search about two months prior to your move-in date: that way you can get an idea of how the market is looking and avoid as much stress as possible. ‘In the worst case scenario, you can be left with nowhere to live,’ says India-Rose, a recent graduate from City, University of London. ‘I had friends living in Airbnbs or hostels just so they could go to their courses.’ 

2. Think carefully about who you want to live with

This can be a touchy one. You might really want to move in with your new boyfriend/girlfriend who you met at the end of first year, but let’s be real: that might not be the smartest idea. ‘Make sure you have an idea early on about who you’re going to move in with,’ says Lucas Dastros-Pitei, University College London’s student union accommodation and housing officer. ‘I would say avoid living alone. The more flatmates you have, the cheaper your housing costs are usually going to be.’ If you’re struggling to find a buddy-up, try posting a call-out on social media, joining Facebook groups like ‘gals who rent’, ‘Hackney Wick Spaces’, or ‘MatesPlace’, or using your university’s matching service if they have one. 

3. Don’t overlook the help available to you

It’s expensive to be a student. But your uni is (usually) there to help you. ‘There is a lot of support available for low income students, for those who have care responsibilities or those from estranged families,’ says Lucas. Both universities and their independent student unions usually have a whole list of bursaries available with different criteria. And if you’re facing genuine difficulties paying for rent, food and other necessities, don’t hesitate about contacting the uni. Many (if not most) will have a pot of money dedicated to helping students out, which can be a literal godsend.

4. Watch out for scammers

If a property seems too good to true, we’re afraid it probably is. ‘Scammers target students online when they’re looking for accommodation,’ says Lucas. ‘The biggest red flag is asking for a holding deposit before viewing a property. If you’re a first time renter, you might not know that.’ But most unis will have an advice service: use it. ‘They can help you look over adverts and contracts and check for scammers,’ says Lucas. If the property ad is poorly written, the photos seem doubtful given the price, or the ‘agency’ ring you to say ‘sorry this one is gone, but we have another similar property around the corner’, get out of there pronto.

5. Use your uni housing service

If you’re part of the University of London, we’d recommend you start your search using the UoL property portal. All of the landlords and properties on there are approved by the uni and it’s only available to accredited students, so you’ll know what you’re getting is legit. Many London unis will have similar platforms. 

6. Be a good communicator – and a fast replier

Decent digs are frequently snapped up on the day they’re listed: you have to be quick or they’ll slip through your fingers. Setting up alerts on your phone and calling people back straight away always helps. ‘Just be a really good communicator with whoever you’re dealing with: the landlord or the agent,’ says Tiger Wang, from estate agents Knight Frank. ‘Be polite and speedy with replies, because it really matters. If you take two or three days to get back to someone, you’re not going to get a property – they can go within a day. Being someone who talks and gets on the phone always helps. And be honest about what you want and can afford.’

7. Make sure you have all the paperwork (and deposit) ready to go 

As you know, competition for private rentals can be fierce. ‘If you don’t pay the holding deposit or response within one day, the property will probably go,’ says Wang. ‘Have it ready along with your proof of address. It’s also really important to get a good reference.’ If you’re coming from overseas, you’ll also need to make sure your visa is sorted and you have the cash ready to pay rent upfront if necessary.

8. Get yourself a guarantor

Most overseas students will need to pay a hefty six months of rent (at least) upfront to secure a property – unless they have a UK guarantor, in which case they can usually pay monthly. (A guarantor is someone who agrees they will pay your rent on your behalf if you fall into financial difficulty, like a family member or family friend.) ‘Guarantors need to prove that they earn five times the annual rent, which can be a lot for anyone,’ says Wang. ‘If this is a struggle, we’d recommend to not be too picky about where they’re living or get university-managed accommodation instead.’ Reach out to your university if you’re really struggling: they might be able to help you find a property which doesn’t require one or provide other support. Some councils and charities also have guarantee schemes that can act as a guarantor service or help you out with cash for advance rent payments. 

9. Check, check, check again

You’ve put in the work, secured your new digs and you’re probably buzzing. But stop right there. You’re going to want to future-proof your tenancy. By this we mean: photograph every last defect and every last chip, log the electricity/water/gas meter readings and get the inventory done and dusted. Your future self will thank you for it.

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