What to look for when viewing a property
Damp and Mould
A common problem in rental properties, and not just student ones, is damp. In fact, in 2014, 38% of renters who took part in a Shelter survey had suffered from damp related issues.
Damp and mould occur in a couple of ways, though thankfully it’s fairly easy to identify unwelcome damp during a property viewing, with common signs including:
- A musty smell
- Black mould or mildew on floors, walls or ceilings
- Walls, floors or ceilings that feel very cold and damp to the touch
- Peeling or discoloured patches of paint and wallpaper
- Excessive amounts of condensation on windows, puddling on the windowsill
Make sure to cast a glance over all walls, ceilings and windows during your viewings to check for signs of damp. Additionally, check behind large items of furniture like wardrobes, and inside built-in closets, cupboard and pantries.
Whilst a small black mark on the wall might not seem like a big issue, it can be a warning sign of bigger problems to come, and if not promptly treated can exacerbate health issues like asthma. There’s also the chance of the mould spreading to your clothes, furniture and other personal possessions, and once it’s established, can be very difficult to remove.
If you’ve been following along, you should have already done a quick check for crime rates in the area before going for a viewing. Unfortunately, these theft from property rates are usually a little higher in student areas as opportunistic criminals take advantage of young students accidentally leaving doors or windows unlocked.
There’s no requirement for properties to have a burglar alarm fitted (it’s a HUGE bonus if you find one that does) so instead make sure to check that external doors can be properly locked and secured with a chain.
Most properties you view will have a Yale-type lock (the ones mounted on the inside of the door, with a small lever) that allow properties to be well-secured from the inside. Less-often you may also find mortice locks, the ones that use thick, toothed-keys, which offer good security on external doors, but are less-favourable in shared accommodation due to the safety hazard posed if someone is locked in the property.
Students in shared accommodation are at high-risk of injury caused by fire – whether by leaving cooking unattended, having a crafty cigarette inside, or leaving an electric heater running to keep your room warm – so checking for proper fire safety equipment is essential.
Your landlord has a responsibility to provide adequate safety equipment including: working fire alarms on every floor of the property, carbon monoxide alarms if the property uses gas, and heat-alarms in rooms like kitchens.
Ideally, your property should also have a fire extinguisher or fire blanket installed in the kitchen. These should be in-date, and the person conducting the viewing should be able to tell you when they were last checked - if this was longer than when the current tenants moved in, be wary.
Finally, if you’re looking for a larger property, usually five students plus, your landlord is required to abide by HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) regulations, which include making sure emergency exits are clearly marked.
It should be fairly easy to work out by looking at the heating set-up, and what type of cooker is in the kitchen, but double-check what type of utilities supply each property. This will be electric, gas, or both.
There are pros and cons to each of these, but in a nutshell gas central heating will be a lot cheaper and warmer in winter than electric heaters, and a lot of people find cooking with gas preferable to electricity as it doesn’t take as long to heat up. Alternatively, having just electricity allows you to select utility suppliers who source power from sustainable and renewable resources
Either way, it’s also wise to check out what’s been set-up for monitoring utility usage to keep an eye on your spending! Most suppliers will fit smart meters for free these days, allowing you to track current energy usage, and look back at how much you’ve spent on bills over the past days, weeks and months. Alternatively, find your accommodation with UniHomes, and all utilities are included with your rent (plus TV license and internet!) – easy peasy.
Finally, you should also have a look if the property still has a pre-payment meter installed. These are the old meters which require a top-up card to be inserted to use electricity and gas. This sucks, especially when they run out in the middle of cooking tea, on a Sunday, when the local corner shop is shut so you can’t get a top-up. Thankfully they’re being phased out to make way for modern technology.
In order to stay warm and dry in your new student home and not blow a fortune on heating, you’ll want to be making sure the property is properly insulated.
Windows should be double-glazed to help retain heat, doors should be fitted and secure with no large gaps for the wind to howl through, and a decent heating system should be installed with at least one radiator or electric heater in each room.
You can also take a look at the EPC for each property (more on these further down) to get a feel for how good the insulation is overall.
Signs of pests
Thanks to their reputation for lacking cleanliness, pests are a prevalent problem in student properties. Including everything from mice and rats, to slugs and snails, to cockroaches and bedbugs, an infestation is something you really don’t want.
They’re a bit harder to spot without actually seeing the creatures scuttling around, but during your property viewings have a careful check for sign of pests, including:
- Small, pellet-shaped droppings around the edges and corners of floors, especially in the kitchen.
- Slime trails left by slugs or snails.
- Traps or poisons left out by current tenants to catch existing pests.
If you feel you need to, open cupboards and doors to check for critters hiding in the back and check behind both internal and external bins. It’s better to be proactive at this point, than finding yourself in need of pest control three weeks into your tenancy!
Most students won’t have much of their own furniture to bring with them to a student house, so the likelihood is you’ll be looking for a fully furnished property. Usually, this includes everything from beds, desks, chairs and wardrobes in each room, through to the sofas, dining tables, and kitchen appliances.
However, make sure that when you’re viewing a property that you get a copy of the inventory. Inventories detail everything that should be within the property at your time of move-in, so whilst the washer-dryer combi looks handy, if it’s not on the inventory it may not be there when you start unpacking. Good things to check are:
- Is there enough fridge/freezer space for all the tenants?
- Is the microwave / kettle / toaster included?
- Is there a reasonably good washing machine, or will you need to find a laundrette?
Similarly, check soft-furnishings like sofas and mattresses for any problems. Broken springs and support-struts are uncomfortable and can be dangerous. If you find anything, query it with your agent – they might not have been aware and can take it up with the landlord to arrange a replacement.
Faucets and shower
We recommend having a quick run-round to check the toilet flushes and all the taps and water outlets work properly, especially the shower. Make sure it’s got enough power, it warms up reasonably quickly, and the stream is enough to actually wash in, instead of feeling like you’re standing under a leaky gazebo.
Speaking of leaks – if you spot any dripping taps, make sure to check with the agent whether this will be repaired before you potentially take up tenancy. A leaky tap can waste tens or hundreds of litres of water in a year, that adds up to a pretty nasty water bill that could be easily prevented!
Power outlets, phone lines and aerials
It’s an inconvenience that we need constant access to power sockets, but such is modern life!
While you’re scanning around your future student bedroom, keep an eye out for how many power outlets there are spread out around the room, keeping in mind how many you need access to. Remember that extension cables are readily available too, so even if there’s only a couple of outlets spread around the room, £15 can get you a 10-socket 2-metre extension cable on Amazon.
At the same time, keep an eye out for where the phone line is located – you’ll need access to this in order to set-up a router to provide Wi-Fi access around your house. Ideally this should be in a fairly central location to ensure even distribution, but if it’s located in one corner of the property, you may end up getting a weak signal at the other side.
Finally, if you’re planning on using an aerial to watch TV channels, look for where this is located in the living room or bedrooms so you know where the TV might have to fit.
The last thing you want is to find an amazing property, move-in, unpack… and then realise it’s a black-hole for phone signal.
It’s an easily overlooked and oft-forgotten check when going around multiple house-viewings, but trust us (totally, 100% not based on experience… honest), if you slip up on this one it’s really going to suck.
Get everyone at the viewing to pull their phones out and check their signal bars, 4G connection quality, and possibly even try calling someone to check the call quality. If you’re on different networks then bonus, you’re prepared for all eventualities!
If they’re in, the absolute best thing you can do is talk to the existing tenants about what it’s been like to live in the property. Ask for their honest opinion on the best and worst bits – if your agent has left something out, the tenants are sure to fill in the missing details.
Good things to check are how warm or cold the property gets at different times of year, whether they’ve had to get any repairs done, and if so, how responsive is the agency or landlord.
Finally, we always like to ask, ‘Why aren’t you staying another year?’. If it’s their final year, you’re in the clear, if not dig deeper to make sure they’re not moving out for a worse reason.
Questions to Ask When Renting a Student House
Once you’ve completed all the essential checks, here are a few tips on the types of questions to ask the agent or landlord showing you around each property.
Ideally, they should be prepared to answer all of these during your viewing, however, don’t be deterred if they need to check back in with the office first on a few details – it can be difficult to remember the exact details when they’ve got hundreds of different properties to manage!
Can you see the Energy Performance Certificate?
Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) show energy efficiency and environmental impact ratings for properties, measured on a scale from A-G (similar to the coloured bars when you buy a TV or similar) with A being best, and G being, well, awful. As well as the scale, EPCs are accompanied by a short report containing recommendations on ways to improve the rating – pay attention to this as it’ll highlight any potential problems with the property, such as bad roof insulation, etc.
Most properties fall into the A-C category, showing that they have reasonably good energy efficiency and insulation. Your agent should ideally have the EPC details to hand, or if not, be willing to provide you with an online version to look at after the viewing.
Is there a Gas Certificate?
If the property is fitted with a gas supply, there is a requirement for a gas safety check to be conducted every 12 months, and a certificate produced to evidence the property passed the checks. Additionally, this can only be done by proper gas-safe certified engineers.
Your agent or landlord conducting the viewing should be able to provide you with a pink certificate evidencing the most recent gas safety certificate either then and there, or electronically after the viewing. They should also be able to directly show you the Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors installed at the property too – don’t just take their word for it.
If they cannot provide you with evidence of proper gas safety precautions, steer completely clear of the property and scratch if from your shortlist.
How are bills handled?
Ask the person showing you around what the deal is with the utilities.
Are they all-inclusive and you’ll pay for them within your rent? If so, is there a limit on usage, what internet speed is included with that package, and are extras like TV license and contents insurance included here? If you’re booking viewings through UniHomes, you can answer this question with a solid yes, as all of our student properties have all-inclusive bills included in the weekly rental figure!
If they’re not included, are you as a student tenant able to shop around for the best utility deals and switch suppliers to the one which best suits your usage, or are they fixed with suppliers agreed on by the landlord or letting agents?
Is there parking or bike storage?
If anyone planning on living at the property has either a bicycle or car/motorbike, check with the person conducting your viewing what the parking is like. If you’re lucky enough to find somewhere with a driveway, go you, if not, there’s only a couple of other options.
If on-street parking is available outside the property or nearby, check if a permit is also required. Don’t assume that because people are parked outside that you can too! Sometimes your permit may be included as part of your rent, other times you’ll need to contact the local council directly to arrange payment.
If this isn’t available, have a look to see if there’s a local communal car park that allows long-term permit deals for nearby residents. Obviously, this isn’t ideal though as you’ve got to leave your car elsewhere.
For those of us with bicycles, unless you want to squeeze it into your bedroom, proper bike storage is a must to avoid leaving your precious transport at the mercy of the elements.
Do they have an inventory list?
We mentioned the inventory already, but while you’ve got their attention, ask the agent to provide you with a copy of the inventory for the property. Being able to check things off while you take a look around is much easier than reviewing it later and trying to remember what was where!
What is the deposit and deposit scheme?
Most properties will require you to put down a deposit as part of the move-in process. Deposits are usually equal to around one month’s worth of rent and act as a security for the landlord in case you as tenants cause any damages, don’t pay rent, or leave outstanding bills against the property.
If you’re signing an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (the most common type of tenancy agreement for students) your agent or landlord is required to keep this cash locked away in one of three government-backed deposit schemes – the Deposit Protection Service, MyDeposits, or the Tenancy Deposit Scheme.
Ask your agent how much of a deposit you’ll be due to provide on the property, whether it’s a joint deposit or payable per tenant, and which deposit scheme it will be registered with.
How does summer rent work?
There’s no regular rule to how rent is handled with your property during the summer months before move-in. Sometimes, the previous tenants contracts will still be active, and as such they’ll stay there until move-out date, other times agents or landlords may ask for a ‘holding fee’ which is usually around half the rent to cover holding the empty property until you’re ready to move-in.
This can be a downfall for many students, who will suddenly be expected to finish paying off their halls rent at the same time as they start being charged a summer retainer for their September property. It’s always good to check this during your viewing – in our opinion (and we’re sure you’ll agree) it’s not great to be being charged rent when you’re not living in a property!
What are the tenants' responsibilities?
One of the biggest things that catches student tenants out is the small print that details their responsibilities at the property.
This can include things like mowing the lawn and keeping the garden tidy, through to allowing the landlord to perform an inspection monthly. Often these aren’t deal-breaking points, but worth being aware of – you don’t want to sign an agreement saying you’ll mow the lawn every fortnight, to find out there isn’t even a lawnmower!
You’ll find information like this within your tenancy agreement, which leads us onto the final question to ask during your viewings…
Do they have a sample tenancy agreement?
Once you’re happy with the questions you’ve asked and the answers you’ve been provided with, your final request should always be to have a sample tenancy agreement to review. These will always have standard clauses, however different agents and landlords might have slightly different stipulations relating to tenant responsibilities.
This also allows you to find out what type of tenancy you’re agreeing to. Some agreements will hold all tenants jointly responsible and liable for the property and collective rent payments – in other words, if your mates don’t pay up, you’ll be equally responsible to cover their rent and bills. The other, more ideal, contracts are individual agreements, where each tenant has their own direct contract with the agent or landlord, removing this collective responsibility, and ensuring that if someone decides to leave, your space in the property is still protected.
Make sure you get a physical copy then and there, or have one emailed over after the viewing, and take your time to have a good read through to understand what you’ll potentially be signing up to.