The Advice Place answer all of your housing questions

Flat hunting can be a stressful time for any student. Luckily, The Advice Place is on hand to help. We asked Charlotte Macdonald, a manager from The Advice Place, a few housing-related questions to solve your flat finding dilemmas.

What’s the best way to look for a flat in Edinburgh?

Decide whether you’re looking to live solo, with friends, or move into an existing tenancy with new people. Have a look through our Searching for Accommodation guide (available on The Advice Place website) and get searching. We’ve got a Flat Hunting Checklist that comes in handy for when you view properties. Whatever you find, make absolutely sure you go see it in person and check the landlord is legitimate (you can also find a link on The Advice Place website with advice on how to avoid scams).

Flat-hunting in Edinburgh can be hard because of the high numbers of tenants looking for flats, but expanding your search area can help. Watch our #MoreThanMarchmont videos to find out about other areas of the city.

What questions should I ask a landlord or estate agent before I choose to rent with them?

Most students are on a budget, and questions related to these are usually valuable: what’s the energy efficiency rating of the flat, what do the current monthly bills amount to, and so on. If you’re an international student, or are otherwise unable to provide a UK-based guarantor, you’ll want to know what the alternatives are (perhaps a few months’ rent in advance or the University’s Rent Guarantor Scheme might help). Although it’s less of a problem these days, it’s still worth asking where your deposit is going to go – most legally have to go into a tenancy deposit scheme (details of this can also be found on The Advice Place website). More recently we are seeing issues with holding fees, which must be refundable or form part of your first month’s rent, but some letting agencies and landlords are saying are non-refundable if you change your mind before signing the lease.

What are the scams that students should be aware of when looking for properties?

You can save yourself from most scams by following these steps:

Firstly, be wary if the flat offer seems too good to be true.

Secondly, check if the landlord is registered.

Also check who the person you are dealing with is in relation to the flat.

Never pay money for a flat you have not viewed in person and never give a receipt for a money transfer to prove you have the funds to rent a flat.

Remember if in doubt, ask The Advice Place.

We’ve seen one scam using pictures of a beautiful flat but the address of a public toilet! Fake pictures are quite a common scam. Another is getting students to transfer money to a friend to show they have rent money and then using the receipt of this transfer to steal the money. Some scammers get people to hand over money as a show of good faith before seeing the property (which either doesn’t exist or isn’t theirs to rent out).

Then there are dodgy landlord practices such as not placing deposits into government-approved tenancy deposit schemes when they should; using the lease to bind students into contracts with utility companies that charge high rates; putting unfair charges (way in excess of what might be considered a reasonable charge) in the lease etc.

Can you explain what a lease is and what the main points a student should be looking out for in them?

A lease is a document describing the legal relationship between yourself and the landlord. It should convey rights and responsibilities of both parties, though it doesn’t have to be comprehensive as some of these will b-e implied and a legal minimum. You cannot sign away your statutory (guaranteed to you by law) rights. There’s plenty to look out for in a lease, and if you’re unfamiliar with the terms and your rights it’s really important to go over it with someone who does (we offer a lease-checking service here at The Advice Place).

At a minimum, a lease should describe the names of the landlord and tenant, the address of the property in question, how much the rent is, and how long the agreement is for. If you haven’t signed anything but are still paying money for accommodation, you still might have a tenancy agreement (and therefore the rights and responsibilities associated with it). It’s worth noting that when you are signing a joint lease, you are all jointly responsible for paying the rent and in most tenancies you are liable for the rent for the full term of the contract and you may not be able to end your tenancy earlier. Tenancy law is changing later this year and the types of lease available will change from what you’ve had in the past.

What is a tenancy agreement?

A tenancy agreement can refer to a lease or to a verbal agreement of similar content.

When would you suggest students start looking for accommodation for the following academic year?

This is a tricky one in Edinburgh due to the specific rental market here.

Some flats are advertised very early as landlords and agents push tenants to give notice early. There is no need to panic yet though! A lot of flats won’t come onto the market until two months before they are available as that is the usual notice period. Having accommodation organised months in advance can take the pressure off, but students often end up paying more than market rental (or driving the rents up) and agreeing to sometimes outlandish clauses in the lease as there are fewer properties available at that time (because nobody yet knows if they’re going to be staying in their flat or leaving it) and, in general, letting agents benefit from this panic. You should definitely not have to start looking in Semester One for the following September even if your friends in other cities are having to look then.

It can also feel like a desperate race, with up to 30 people at a time turning up to viewings, followed by a mad dash to the agency to lock in a deal. Some letting agencies are now operating a lottery for accommodation, and some are doing it on an application basis.

So, we recommend getting a feel for the market, the areas, what’s acceptable, around February or March if you’re looking for September. But you should bear in mind that more flats will be advertised later, and as late as July and that you can sometimes get a better deal later on.

The University’s Student Homes flats are usually advertised in February/March and the Student Housing Cooperative spaces too.

If you’re an international student turning up in September, it can be particularly tough. Arriving early is difficult as during August most accommodation is booked for the Festival. By all means look whenever you can to arrange accommodation viewings, but absolutely do not hand over any money until you’ve seen the property for yourself (which can mean you’ll end up looking only a couple weeks or days before the beginning of your course).

Do you have any advice for students that may be panicking that they haven’t yet found a property?

We’re not aware of anyone who hasn’t found anywhere to stay ever, although some students have had to stay in temporary accommodation. Sometimes there’s a delay, which can be tough. Often times this can be resolved by widening the search net. Some people find cheaper and better places to stay by moving in with non-students and agreeing to pay something towards council tax; sometimes it’s worth looking beyond the traditional areas and neighbourhoods super close to central campus. You’re still way better off experiencing a little bit of hardship at the beginning and finding somewhere suitable, than you are hastily signing a contract for too much to someone who has no interest in repairing that broken boiler and finding yourself locked into a 12 month contract that you regret every minute of.

If there’s a problem during my tenancy, who should I go to?

You should report any issue straight away to your letting agency or landlord. You have a right to have your landlord’s contact details so you can ask the letting agent for this if you’d like to contact them directly. If you are having problems you can come to The Advice Place; we also sometimes refer students to Shelter Scotland and they have a lot of excellent easily digestible information about tenancy rights on their website. You can also speak to the Council; they are particularly interested in when a landlord is not registered, not complying with HMO regulations or not complying with their duties as a registered landlord.

What should I do if my landlord will not give me my deposit back?

The expected time for returning a deposit can depend on finalisation of bills, payments, cleanliness checks, repairs and more.

You should contact the tenancy deposit scheme to request your deposit back and deal with any dispute from the landlord.

The deposit schemes have thousands of pounds of unclaimed deposits so make sure you get yours back!

If the landlord has not put your deposit into a scheme then you may be able to claim the value of the deposit back via the court using the Simple Procedure or, if it’s within a three month window at the end of the lease and the deposit should have been paid into a tenancy deposit scheme and hasn’t, you could use a solicitor to take them to the Sheriff’s Court to claim up to three times the amount back. We’ve got a guide dedicated to reclaiming deposits over at ‘Getting Your Deposit Back’ section of The Advice Place website.

In what ways can The Advice Place help students that are renting a property in Edinburgh?

We provide information on your rights and on common issues such as repairs, damp, mould, pests, flatmates, leaving a tenancy, rent issues, council tax, energy bills, lease checking, housing benefit, etc.

We also have checklists for flat-hunting, and moving in and moving out of a property. We can offer advice on how to resolve a wide range of tenancy issues yourself or how we can help you.

The Advice Place deals with a huge range of enquiries (over 15,000 a year). We deal with students and recent graduates who need help with: tenancy and accommodation, lease checking, funding, employment and tax, finance, debt and budgeting, orientation and accessing health services, academic enquiries, the peer proofreading scheme, complaints, harassment, dignity and respect, crime, well-being, and safety. We are a good first point of contact if you’re not sure where to go and a good place to go if you’ve tried elsewhere and not got the help you needed.

[Image: EUSA website]

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