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Many first year students are offered accommodation in halls of residence that are managed by their university. By your second year – and possibly also in your first year if there's not enough student accommodation available – the chances are you'll need to rent a property in the private sector. At this point, it's vital to be clued up on your rights in private digs, to make sure unscrupulous landlords don't end up taking advantage.

Going into a rented property, you'll need to pay a deposit, which is usually about one month's rent. You'll also need to take into account that you might be asked to pay rent over the summer to secure the property, even if you're not planning on staying in it.

Five things you need to know

  1. Tenancy deposit protection scheme
    You need to make sure your deposit is protected. Landlords have 30 days from receiving your deposit to put it into a tenancy deposit protection scheme (where it stays in case of a dispute when you leave). If they fail to do this, you could be entitled to up to four times the amount back, but you'd have to go through the small claims court.
  2. Letting agent fees and signing the contract
    To find a property to rent, you may need to use a letting agent, who rent out properties on landlords' behalf. Letting agents have notoriously charged extortionate fees for their services. As such, the Government has published proposals banning letting agents from charging fees to tenants. In the meantime, always check for any extra fees or charges first, and factor them in.

    Letting agents can't charge you just for registering, or to show you their list of properties available for rent. Otherwise, they're free to charge any fees they like – for example, for credit checks, admin, and even releasing your deposit. Always ask before you commit.

    Once you get the contract, read it carefully before signing. Check it includes how much the deposit and rent is, when it's due, and what it covers (e.g. council tax, utility bills, and other dos and don'ts, such as whether you're allowed pets to smoke or sublet).

    Discuss points you disagree on, or don't understand, with the landlord or letting agent. If they agree to change it, don't just take their word. Ensure the contract's changed too, so you've got proof.
  3. Tenants' rights
    The type of tenancy agreement you have, and when your contract started, will affect your rights, so check which you have. In a nutshell, 'assured shorthold tenancy agreements' are generally the most common type, if you’re renting with a private landlord.

    As an assured tenant, you have the right to stay in your accommodation unless your landlord can convince the court there are good reasons for eviction, for example, rent arrears or damage to the property, or that another of the terms of the agreement has been broken.
  4. Bills, bills, bills
    When you find a property, how much rent you pay will usually be reflected in whether it includes bills or not, so this is definitely something to think about. If it doesn't include bills, you're going to need to sort out the utilities yourself, including gas and electricity, council tax, water, and broadband.

    You'll need to locate meters when you move in and take readings. Whoever is in charge of that utility will then need to submit meter readings throughout the year, to make sure you don't get overcharged. No-one wants to be in charge of all the bills – if you live with a few other people, it's a good idea to divide the bills between you, and work out any extra each individual is owed once all bills have been paid.

    Be careful how you work this out. Having a joint bills account with a flatmate will mean your credit records become financially linked, which means firms can access and look at that person's credit report as part of assessing whether to accept you for a financial product in future.

    So, if your flatmate has a poor credit history or lots of debts, keep your finances rigidly separate. If you want to know more about how credit scoring works, see MoneySavingExpert’s credit scores guide.
  5. Paying your rent on time can boost your credit score
    Private tenants can opt into the free Rental Exchange scheme, which records your rental payments and sends the results to credit reference agency, Experian. This can boost your credit rating, which will help in future, if and when you apply for certain financial products such as credit cards, loans, and mortgages. Sign up to MoneySavingExpert’s free Credit Club to keep track of your credit score.
For more tips on renting, see 50+ tips for renters.