It’s the third week of term and I am scrolling through Zoopla looking at houses. I am unlikely to be the only one, as it is the start of Durham’s annual housing panic season. It is a time of year marked by anxiety, friendship drama and countless stories of students queuing at estate agents through the early hours, all in an attempt to secure somewhere to live for next academic year.
Unlike many others who are looking for a house right now, I find myself looking at houses, not based on an excess of preparedness, but due to last year’s lack of foresight. I signed for my house too early, and now find myself in a costly conundrum, without a suitable place to live. Take this opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
I remember the first time housing was brought up, just after freshers week. Sat in a big group with an unearned sense of confidence and closeness built up through a week of heavy drinking and late nights, we began to joke about what fun it would be to share a house the following year. Someone pulled up an estate agent website, and suddenly we were looking at an array of houses spread across the city, all ready and waiting to be taken. We made a document full of options and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Obviously, this was not something that worked out. While freshers’ can feel like a learning curve, it is ultimately only a week. Friendships form and fade, people change, and friendship groups are always in flux, especially at the start of university, when you are only just finding your feet.
I am glad that that initial conversation did not result in the signing of a house. That would have only made us all unhappy – but that conversation did set the tone for what would be a panicked few months. Rushing to get contracts signed can take its toll, no matter how much we are told to ignore it. Eventually, in a flurry of panic from rapidly disappearing houses, broken friendships, and ever-ticking time, I signed for a house after a five minute viewing for far more money than I had ever intended on spending. It felt like I was too late, and I was out of options. It was only November.
The house I signed only two months after moving away from home for the first time has many problems. If I had given it more thought, and been less scared, I would never have signed the lease, and I certainly wouldn’t find myself in the situation I am today. Covid-19 has shaken everything up, including the housing market. Above all else, I feel worried for freshers. It will be too easy to stick to their college households, and too difficult to meet new people when some friendships inevitably go awry.
The biggest mistake I made last year was not taking the time to properly assess the house I signed. If lockdown returns, I worry that freshers might not even have the luxury of a five-minute viewing. The underlying sense of panic driven by the times we live in could exacerbate the housing rush, forcing people to make tough decisions they haven’t really thought through. Something strikes me as I finish compiling my new list of houses, this time with a much nearer move-in date, and a greater sense of perspective. Even now, three weeks into term, there are so many houses on the market, many of which are far better and far cheaper than the house I signed on almost a year ago. There is no cut-off date after which you suddenly become homeless, especially not in November.
It is said every year, but it bears repeating: do not rush into signing for a house. There are enough houses available for everyone, and even if you find yourself, like me, looking for a house at the start of next year, everything will work out fine. Estate agents and landlords like to feed the panic because it ultimately benefits them. It doesn’t matter if they fix problems with the house, it doesn’t matter if they behave illegally, and it doesn’t matter if their tenants are unhappy – they can always just find more.
Now more than ever, it is time to hold them to account, and that takes all of us working together. Always take your time when deciding: view a property carefully, look for the issues that they do not want you to see. Read your contract carefully and make use of the SU’s contract checking service to make sure you are happy with the terms you are legally bound to fulfil. If a few weeks or months down the line we find ourselves back in lockdown, do not sign for a house you cannot view. Waiting will ensure you can examine a property carefully and avoid a difficult situation like mine.
This year is going to be a difficult one, but we really are all in the same boat. The housing panic is something we need to exclude from the new normal.
Photograph: Maddie Flisher