Finding the accommodation you want – an international student’s guide

Rose Ren

With the cost of living crisis and pressure on student accommodation across the UK, it may become more difficult for students to find a desired house in Durham, at a fair price and of good quality.

As an international student, I have spent the last 2 years living out of college in Durham and experienced fierce house hunting twice; once through online searching in my home country and the other in person in Durham. Luckily, the houses I have lived in were as good as I expected. So, this blog is going to share the lessons I learned from house hunting and outline some useful information for international students to prepare for living out in Durham.

The first thing about finding a desired ‘home away from home’

Get to know the different kinds of accommodation and compare them according to your criteria. You could list out things that are most important to you, in order, and things that could be red flags. Take my list as an example – I would love a small kitchen so that I could cook whenever I wanted, so I would prefer accommodation with a well-facilitated kitchen. With the list prepared, you can start looking into the different kinds of accommodation.

Two basic categories of accommodation for students living out of college:

1) ‘Studio’ or ‘en-suite’ rooms in purpose-built student accommodation

‘Studio’ means that you do not need to share the space with others.

Comparatively, you may need to share the kitchen and dining/living room with other students with an ‘en-suite’ room but it’s typical to have your own bedroom, study area and bathroom in this type of accommodation.

2) Renting a house or flat through a letting agent or directly from a landlord

This is another choice. Normally, houses have 2 or more bedrooms and shared spaces like a living room, bathroom, and kitchen.

Cooking delicious food for my friends in my kitchen

Durham is a ‘hilly’ city

Apart from the basic classification, there are two details I would like to share in particular. Firstly, Durham is a ‘hilly’ city – quoted from one of my friends. The hills may not be extremely huge but it is worth considering when you imagine the distance from your accommodation to your department or college, for example, I lived around Claypath/Gilesgate area in my first year, and it always took me more time and energy than expected from the city centre back home because of the long hill. It won’t be frustrating, thanks to the bus services and beautiful hilly views, but it is good to picture your future life in Durham before being shocked by ‘hilly’ reality, isn’t it?

The numbering of each floor in UK buildings

The second fun fact about the accommodation is that the numbering of each floor/level is different for some international students. Before arriving in Durham, I thought the counting of each floor/level started from 1, just like in my home country. But the ground floor in the UK is counted as floor 0. So two years ago, when I first arrived, I was surprisingly delighted by the fact that my studio on the 1st floor was not on the ground floor as I had imagined. It is a small detail but could play an important role when you weigh up your needs during house hunting. It’s also handy to know for when you arrive at your accommodation – if you’re tired after a long journey and have heavy bags with you, you want to get to the right room, on the right floor!

Next: compare and consider facility, location, and price

After the basic information about accommodation, you can start your second step to choose from different options by comparing and considering the facility, location, and price of the accommodation.

Need to find housemates?

You may need to find housemates in some cases. For students who are doing this online, there are the websites of the student accommodation and letting agents, Facebook accounts and groups like ‘Durham Uni Find a Housemate’, student group chats on social media and local apps in your home country for international students. The latter may be more convenient for your guardians, giving them the ability to understand the information in their familiar languages.

Looking for accommodation online…

Importantly, for students who are looking for accommodation online, Facetime and other means of video chat are more valuable than photos and descriptions. It was crucial for me when I was house hunting. I asked a friend in Durham to take a video of the studio to see the layout and the lighting of the room. And that’s how I found out how little sunshine could come into the room I was considering.

…or in person…

If you are comparing the options of accommodation in person, you can visit different letting agents or contact landlords. I also visited the property and asked the current residents about their living conditions, with their permission. If possible, communication with the residents can be surprisingly useful to know the actual benefits and problems of the property from fellow students’ perspectives.

Detail really matters

In the process of comparing the options, I found that detail really matters. According to my experience, important details can be: the utilities (is there gas or electric or both?), any visible mould or dampness (in the corners of the room, for example), the noise of the neighbourhood and streets, and the insulation function of the window (single or double glazed) to keep the heat in and the noise out.

The contract

Once you know the accommodation you are going for, the contract will be the next step. Read carefully and fully understand your obligations and rights.

There are some things that I paid a lot of attention to. These included:

  • the start and end dates of the contract
  • the list of facilities in the property
  • the deposit
  • the guarantor scheme

Getting help with the language used

I was so confused by the language barriers and legal terms in the contract. So, I emailed the landlords for a detailed and understandable explanation of the terms to avoid misunderstanding. I would suggest doing this whenever you feel clarity would be helpful.

You can also seek help from English native speakers or your friends who have similar experiences of house hunting for advice. Also, you can email or message the Student Community Warden service for a signpost to local, regional and national information sources. We are a group of students who can help you with questions about living out in Durham, with a range of experiences in shared houses and purpose-built student accommodation blocks.

House hunting really is a process, with the end goal being to match your imagination and expectations with reality. For me as an international student travelling far away from home, it was a precious experience to look for accommodation and plan for my future life, from bigger issues to small details. I learned to protect myself from danger and care for my mental and physical health by truly asking and searching for what I value most.

I hope this blog can inspire you in your own house hunting journey and I wish you a safe and satisfying experience finding your future accommodation here in Durham.

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Rose Ren

Hi, I’m Rose, a second-year Combined Honours of Social Sciences student. I’m an international student from China and a big fan of cooking Chinese food. I’m one of the Student Community Wardens (SCWs) this year to work on the matters like recycling, living out, and sustainability here in Durham. I love to take a walk along the river and have a cup of tea in Botanic Garden.

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