accommodation
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The Boar investigates Warwick students’ off-campus accommodation

In November 2018, The Boar conducted a survey to ask Warwick students why they are unhappy with their accommodation in student towns such as Leamington Spa, Coventry and Canley, and interviewed three of them about their experience.

There were 130 respondents, 58% of which were second-year students, with little to no prior experience finding housing.

Just under two-thirds of survey respondents live in Leamington Spa, which many deemed a good location to live in the comment sections of the survey.

Despite services available at the University such as the Warwick housing fair, only 25% of respondents found their housing through the University, while 50% used online search engines such as studenthomes.net.

According to the 2017 SaveTheStudent housing survey, the average student rent in the West Midlands stands at £111/week. Warwick students pay between £100-£150 a week on average, with 37% of respondents paying under £100 and 8% paying between £150-£200.

30% of respondents do not believe that they are getting their “money’s worth”, for reasons including: a lack of adequate space, instances of mould, rust, breakages, lack of insulation; as well as minimal facilities including no bath, small kitchen space, and not enough refrigerator or freezer space.

One student commented: “There is a shortage of properties available for rent in Leamington, meaning that often we are exploited into below-par homes for above average prices.”

Another student said: “Because of a lack of supply a huge premium is set on very small or very larger student houses. I’m in one of the former (a two bed) and it’s one of a very small selection in the student area; owners essentially can demand what they want as they have a market monopoly.”

Students also highlighted issues of inconvenient rent structures, such as 5 months rent due within one month of residing in their house. One respondent said that they had been asked to pay 11 months’ rent upfront at the beginning of their tenancy.

83% of respondents moved out of their second-year house in their third year, for reasons including: price, change of location, disputes between flatmates, and disputes with landlords or letting agencies.

Of 130 respondents, the most popular letting agency was Tara & Co., followed by Belvoir and Dhesi Estates. 42 respondents told The Boar that they had encountered issues and entered into disputes with their letting agency.

According to the Citizens Advice Bureau, the number of students seeking help for issues with letting agencies doubled between 2014 and 2016 at a national level.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “It is concerning that younger renters are among the most likely to report problems with a letting agent, when many will end up using letting agents to find somewhere to live at university.”

Reasons for dissatisfaction with the service by letting agencies in towns around the University of Warwick included: poor response time, lack of house maintenance, high agency costs, failure to live up to legal obligations such as informing gas and electric companies of student arrival, charging for damage that allegedly was not the fault of the students, and several allegations of charging European students higher rent and failing to address language barriers in order to communicate effectively.

Amongst these complaints, one student cited an example where their letting agency was unable to tell them where the concealed front door of their house was located, “never [having] been to the property [them]selves”.

Another student told The Boar that they had encountered legal issues, and described: “[We experienced a] scamming deposit, proven by previous tenants who had a lawsuit against the agency. No evidence on DPS for the deposit. Paying in advance like 4 months. No receipt or anything. The Agency is generally very unresponsive, unprofessional and irresponsible. They answer the phone whenever they want.”

“They did house inspection without warrant or any legal rights. We could only seek help through Warwick Accommodation Legal Advice,” they said. The Boar contacted the agency involved but received no response.

It is concerning that younger renters are among the most likely to report problems with a letting agent, when many will end up using letting agents to find somewhere to live at university

– Gillian Guy

From two separate accounts, students claimed that lack of maintenance had triggered health issues. Whilst one student told The Boar that the mould in their house had affected their asthma, another student had been hospitalised with pneumonia, allegedly a result of the lack of insulation and dampness of their converted loft room.

36 students had also encountered issues with their landlord specifically. Several accounts were shared concerning landlords breaking privacy restrictions, including weekly “house check-ups”, turning up without prior announcement, entering bedrooms without permission, and taking photos of the house to send to letting agencies.

Other accounts documented landlords refusing to help on issues such as fixing door locks after the occurrence of crime, lack of communication when the landlord left the country, failure to fix breakages, alleged threats to tenants, unreliability and slow responses with issues concerning both health and infrastructure.

42 respondents elaborated that they had encountered legal, health, and infrastructural issues with their accommodation, including: seven documented accounts of rats, carbon monoxide leaks, no fire escape, broken bannisters, walls crumbling, legally unsafe sole exit, no individual bedroom door locks, breaches of contracts, alleged deposit scams, missing contract clarifications, unfair accusations regarding inventory.

The Boar also heard several accounts of lack of a back fence, worms and slugs. One student also specified that: “[The letting agency] was also refusing to return our deposit due to ‘wear and tear’ and only gave it back when we told them we had a meeting arranged with The Citizens Advice Bureau before we would discuss it any further.”

In regards to legal issues, another student shared: “It’s more important to understand your rights as tenants and the scope of the contract – when I signed mine, I wasn’t aware that my contract had so many unfair clauses which were potentially illegal!”

The Boar contacted the following agencies regarding allegations made by students in the recent housing survey: Tara & Co., Dhesi Estates, Belvoir, Leaders, Henry’s and Accord.

The Boar reached out to Tara & Co. after the survey revealed complaints of inattentiveness to issues, “very unhelpful” long response times, breaching contractual duties/legal obligations by not informing the gas and electricity companies that the tenants had moved in, and cases of the agency not having seen the property to check it.

They replied: “At Tara & Co, we strive to handle all of our tenant queries efficiently and quickly even in our busiest times. During certain busy periods such as the Summer, we have a high volume of activity, which is why we communicate with all tenants via email and publish information on both our phone system and website, to try and help with some of the more basic queries.

“We genuinely value our student tenant, and view them as extremely important customers. With regards our duties to inform utility providers, we are not contractually bound to carry out this task, nor is it a legal obligation. This falls to the tenants as it does with most normal AST agreement.

“We do work to try and assist as many students as possible with their utility bills, and ensure this is carried out for properties managed by Tara & Co, to help the move in process for our tenants. We also provide a database to the council, to ensure that their council tax records are updated, so that students aren’t incorrectly billed.

“Our team check all managed properties a minimum of 3 times per annum, and all are inspected with photographic detailed reports, and more thorough Summer inspections. Properties that are managed by landlords, who opted for our Rent Collection or Let Only service levels aren’t inspected in the same way.

“It is possible that every member of staff won’t have visited every one of our properties. The team have over 40 years combined knowledge of the Leamington student market, and therefore we are well equipped to handle any student queries. If a member of team isn’t familiar with a property, there should be a member of staff who is.

“We have worked to enhanced our team this year, with everyone now involved with the student lettings process. This is purely so that we can ensure our customers (and particularly students) are given the best level of service when dealing with any member of staff.

“If any of the students commenting felt that we fell short of this in the past, we can only apologise. The senior management team would be keen to discuss this with any students directly, as we really value all students feedback, and their welfare.”

In response to concerns shared by Warwick students including being charged for cleaning at the end of tenancy despite housing being clean, taking long periods of time to reply to issues not checking property before the tenants moved in, Belvoir said: “We genuinely value and go out of our way to assist each and every one of our student tenants here at Belvoir Leamington Spa and take any problems or potential disputes extremely seriously.

“All of our financial dealings and work in support of students is totally transparent and we can say, emphatically, that all of our contractors/cleaners costs are as they are given to us. We do not take any commission or ‘cuts’ out of contractors’ costs as many agents do.

“We have recently sought to remedy a dispute that we believe this complaint relates to and implore the students concerned to contact us to arrange a meeting so we can come to a full and satisfactory conclusion.

It’s more important to understand your rights as tenants and the scope of the contract

– Anonymous

“We believe we do respond quickly to all issues but if we have failed on this occasion we must apologise and ensure this does not happen again.

“We are proud to be a local, family run business that enjoys meeting the accommodation needs of our 500+ student community and two thirds of our team are ex/current University students so we are very aware of the challenges students face. They bring energy, enthusiasm and expert knowledge to every situation presented to us – and there is no problem we cannot solve if we are given all the details as soon as possible.”

On accusations that Accord charge higher rent for European students and that communication with the agency has been difficult, the letting agency responded: “Countrywide do not discriminate. Our policy and charges remain the same irrespective of nationality and every applicant/tenant is required to complete the same referencing checks and right to rent process.”

The Boar is also yet to receive comments from Leaders and Henry’s letting agencies. On Warwick’s “Students’ Union (SU) Advice Centre Estate Agents and Landlords details” summary list, the SU states that they “do not recommend any particular private housing provider”. For Leamington Spa in particular, only Tara & Co. and Dhesi Estates are members of the 2018 list.

In Term 1 Week 2, SU President Liam Jackson asked on Facebook for students to contact him or the SU if they were having issues with accommodation in Leamington Spa.

Liam told The Boar that he “took the University” to Leamington with him, and described his visit as a success, touring three houses and Station House.

He elaborated: “What we saw was [that] Warwick Accommodation was usually a much better deal for students, they were secure contracts, there were no deposits to pay and they just seemed to be a bit cheaper as well.

“But for the private accommodation ones we saw some awful things, things that didn’t really feel or seem legal.

“Landlords were not really taking the responsibility to change things and that was quite worrying and I think that shocked the University as well.”

He concluded that it was the responsibility of the University and the council to amend the issues that students are facing in students towns like Leamington Spa and Coventry, showing concerns for landlords who “can abuse their power” and agreeing with one student’s comment that the letting agencies can abuse their “monopoly”.

“What we do need in that market place is more regulation, more rights for students and maybe also that the University expands Warwick Accommodation as from what see Warwick Accommodation is a good competitor to the private housing sector,” he stated.

Other students also praised Warwick Accommodation in response to the survey, including second-year Emma Wearing: “I have been living in off-campus accommodation managed by Warwick Accommodation since my second year, and would highly recommend renting your accommodation through them.

“The whole process is so easy…there are no deposits or any admin fees, plus insurance cover is included, which it may not be if you rent via a private landlord.”

Amongst the complaints mentioned above, 75% students said that they have been overall “satisfied” with their student housing thus far. For students who requested anonymity, they were concerned that their landlords would “make life difficult” for them.

The Boar interviewed three students – whose names have been changed – to hear their experience with off-campus, non-Warwick accommodation.

Murtaza’s story

Murtaza was in his first year when he found a Facebook group advertising student houses near the university. After scrolling through their options, he and his future housemates signed their contracts for a house in Canley, moving in during the summer of 2016.

Issues began when they found leakages in the house as well as a broken cooler. The cooker broke down and was left unfixed for three weeks despite ongoing arguments between the estate agents and tenants as to whose responsibility it was.

“It was not very well looked after, we had lots of issues, and he’d say it’s all on your own, it’s your fault,” Murtaza said.

Eventually the situation was settled, with the landlord paying for and replacing the cooker.
At the end of tenancy, the estate agents kept “85-90%” of their deposits, amounting to approximately £1,300 for cleaning services. Murtaza recalled how despite arguing for their deposits back, it was their lack of “confidence or maturity” that eventually led to their outcome.

He shared: “That was the annoying part for us, because we are students we can’t just get involved in this legal stuff to get our [money] back, we should have, but we didn’t challenge it legally.”

Murtaza advised that students should avoid renting privately if possible and that Warwick Accommodation can give you that “peace of mind”.

The Facebook group in which Murtaza found the house no longer exists, and as far as he’s aware, the company is no longer in business.

Jade’s story

Jade is an international student studying a three year course. At the end of her first year in 2016, she “rushed” into signing a contract for a 13 person house in Canley. The estate agents requested for 11 months of rent up-front.

Upon moving in, she was greeted with a two page document hung up in the kitchen, notifying her of the ‘house rules’. Rules included no smoking, no pets, no loud noises after 10pm, which were fairly typical.

However, the repercussions to breaking these rules were strict with threats of fines and evictions. There was a £500 fine for smoking in the house, and a £150 fine if the tenant did not keep their room “tidy and clean”.

Other rules were intrusive and potentially illegal, including a “no overnight guests” rule in which the tenants would be charged for each day they housed a guest, and a rule in which tenants would have to tell the landlord if they were going to be away from their room for more than 24 hours.

Jade continued: “On another occasion he checked someone’s room, he told them if you don’t clean this now, it’s going to charge you at the end.”

Later into her tenancy, Jade sent a message to the Citizens Advice Bureau, who confirmed that the rules were “unenforceable”.

For a few nights during Term 1, Jade had her boyfriend sleep over in her room. When the landlord found out, he threatened to look through the CCTV recordings and charge her for each night.

“He was really aggressive about it. He rang me when he found out and threatened that he would go through all the CCTV footage. I didn’t know about [the CCTV] until he mentioned it,” she shared.

Moreover, the landlord would often show up without sufficient warning and informed them that he was allowed to come in and inspect communal areas without alerting the students first.

I didn’t know about [the CCTV] until he mentioned it

– Anonymous

The stress from the constant threats of fines coupled with frequent intrusions eventually forced Jade to live with her boyfriend in Leamington Spa instead, which affected her mental health.

“Some people might think, it’s not a big deal just ignore him,” she said. “But for me it was really stressful and I was going through other problems as well so that [combination] hit me hard.”

However, Jade was forced to move back into her house due to the long commute which continued to impact her studies and her mental wellbeing.

As the tenancy drew to a close, Jade’s house agreed to pay for a cleaning service for their kitchen as a gesture of goodwill to the landlord. The cleaning company refused to clean the kitchen though until they had a confirmation of agreement from all 13 tenants, as a result of the landlord’s “bad reputation”.

The cleaners eventually came late, and “the landlord came in and saw the state of the kitchen and started screaming at us”.

After their tenancy, the students found that large portions of their deposits had been taken. For example, nearly £800 in total was used to to clean the kitchen (even after they paid for their own cleaners).

Jade and her housemate contested the deposit and also challenged the landlord for not protecting their deposits after receiving them. Only after threatening legal action did the landlord return the majority of their deposits at the start of October this year.

Jade stressed to students the importance of letting the Warwick Housing Team read the contract prior to signing. However, she added that she doesn’t feel the Housing Team is doing enough to help students in non-Warwick accommodation, as during her tenancy she had reached out to them for advice, but received no call-to-action or follow-up.

She was also keen to warn of landlords taking advantage of international students, and felt that the reason her landlord assumed he could get away with it was because the house was predominantly occupied by non-English speaking students.

The students who have taken over as tenants at Jade’s property have told The Boar that the landlord is still enforcing the “House Rules” and frequently visits without prior warning.

Annabelle’s story

Annabelle said at the start of 2016 she had viewed and signed a contract for a house in Leamington Spa.

Whilst viewing the house Annabelle had been assured that it would be professionally cleaned by the time they moved in, but she said: “It was filthy. It just stank. It was a nightmare.”

They were also missing furniture and two of their fridges were broken. The estate agents delivered replacements soon after.

For the first six months of their tenancy they relied on the estate agents to relay information and problems with the house to the landlord and even this was ineffective.

“A lot of the time we would email them, and they’d say yeah ok we’ll get back to you, we need to speak to the landlord,” she shared. “The first few months there was a lot of back and forth, nothing really getting done.”

Halfway through their tenancy, they noticed the living room ceiling was dripping. After weeks of poor communication with the estate agents, a contractor was eventually sent to evaluate the damage and they said it was no longer safe to go into that bathroom, as there was a chance the floor would collapse. This led to the students sharing one bathroom between them for several months.

It was only after seeking legal action that the landlord finally responded and repaired the entire bathroom.

The student also struggled with the constant cold in the house even with the radiators turned on, due to the combination of high concrete ceilings and poor insulation.

Eventually, all of them got sick during the snowstorm in December that year, particularly Annabelle’s boyfriend, Elliot. When the students inspected his room, they found a separation of about four inches between his wall and the floor, which was constantly letting in cold air.

An asthmatic, Elliot allegedly contracted a mild form of pneumonia as a result, and was prescribed steroids and antibiotics to treat his condition.

“You just can’t concentrate when you’re that unwell,” Annabelle said. “It still impacted him when he finished the medication for a few weeks.”

After threatening legal action again, [the students] received their deposits back in full

Later in the year, Anabelle sought help from the council. She praised how quickly they responded to her request and sorted things out with the landlord as they instructed the landlord to fix the problems immediately.

This caused the landlord to angrily text Annabelle, asking her why she went to the council instead of going to him.

In a meeting with the landlord, he refused the tenants any compensation saying that he felt that the house was “fine”, and that whoever told them to avoid entering the bathroom with wood rot was lying to them. In the end, only two of the students got compensation of about £50 each.

At the end of the tenancy, Annabelle and her housemates cleaned the house meticulously, but the landlord said it was still inadequate and charged them for cleaning, up to approximately £1,500. She was then sent an inventory for all the things the estate agent and the landlord felt the students were responsible for.

She said: “Literally the most ridiculous stuff was in it. It wasn’t dirty and they tried to blame us for loads of things.”

Annabelle then spent the first half of her term abroad in her third year going through the inventory and highlighting all the discrepancies, refuting a majority of the charges. After threatening legal action again, they received their deposits back in full.

Annabelle praised the Warwick Accommodation team in Leamington as they were the ones who suggested the students to seek help from the council, but said that the team on campus weren’t as good.

“There just wasn’t as much advice. When we went in they gave us information about the wrong thing,” she stated.

Speaking to her boyfriend, he felt that whilst the SU Housing and Advice Team were approachable, it didn’t appear that they have any preventative measures in place which protect students from abusive landlords.

The most Anabelle felt that she could do to warn other students was to post her story on the Warwick Freshers’ Facebook group, and talk to students who came to view her house.

To see our short documentary on student housing experiences in Leamington, please head to The Boar’s Facebook page.

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