Where have all the houses gone?

On the property prowl

Christmas is over, uni kicks in and you finally get round to that one thing on your ‘to-do’ list that you’ve been avoiding for weeks: housing for next year. Durham’s a student town, thousands of people move there every year, and it’s only January; so that’ll be simple, right? Maybe not.

Search around a little and you’ll soon get the feeling that you’re at least a month too late. Why? Durham seems to go through a pre-holiday housing frenzy, with newly formed fresher-cliques signing for houses after only knowing their ‘best friends’ for four weeks. They are not the only ones who jump into contracts just to make sure they’re in a group either. Surely, more people would realise it’s better to wait a little.

So why the rush? I had barely moved into my second-year house when people started talking about housing arrangements again. The sad truth is, however this started, it now has such a cascade effect that, if you don’t get somewhere early, the options drastically narrow. The result? One stressful housing cycle with everyone trying to pre-empt everyone else. When searching for a house in the first week back after Christmas last year, my future housemates and I called four local estate agencies just to be told that none of them had a single property for six people left in Durham. Forget not getting your ideal location in the Viaduct, try being told you might have to look in another town! Suddenly, the error of your ways is revealed; you should have asked for a house for Christmas! Maybe save that for next year’s ‘never-going-to-happen’ wish list.

With a closer look (thankfully) there are still houses left at this point. The rents are similar and they can be in great locations. It’s just a question of agreeing on something that fits. From my experience, nothing beats talking to the current tenants. Only this way do you discover that your dream house comes with hundreds of problems and no help. It’s not exactly encouraging to be told that the mysterious owner, who promised to help out if anything goes wrong, actually lives in Exeter and that, though he “wants” to help, he’s just not (and never will be) in the area. So much for that mattress he’s been saying he’ll give the tenant for the last five months.

Armed with a lot of common sense, and hopefully some luck, however, you can find good places after everyone else. Impossible as it is to believe before it happens, housing seems to be one of those things that works itself out. And waiting past the initial rush does have benefits. As nice as it is to have a massive kitchen/lounge for throwing parties, I firmly believe that finding great housemates is better than finding a great house. Master this and you might just discover that both the search and the all-too-soon-overlooked ‘living’ stage become a lot easier. Eventually you just find a place and sign. Job done.

With the panic of house-hunting over and with the comforting knowledge that next year won’t be spent shacked up in the woods adjacent to the science site, students across Durham begin to relax. The JCR’s invitation emails to ‘Find a housemate!’ events can be filed as junk, and the over-used question ‘Have you found a house yet?’ met with a self-assurance that only domestic security can bring.

Arriving at your house for the first time may seem like a real liberation. ‘Never mind that the bills either come out of my dad’s account or will leave me in debt for years to come, this is it, this is independence, this is adulthood,’ you might think. It is only gradually that the flaws of your new living arrangements become apparent and a feeling of disillusionment settles upon the scene, as you find that you have no water, no heating, a hyper-sensitive fire alarm that goes off when you sneeze, mice, a very weird neighbour obsessed with recycling, no broadband, a joint bank account that will take five weeks to activate, no bathroom locks, court summons addressed to ‘the tenant’ over not having a TV licence, no bloody cheese grater and a landlord who is unavailable for comment.

On top of that, you realise that what seemed a reasonable price tag doesn’t include the electricity/gas/water bills, the badly-needed refurbishment, or the health insurance you’ll want after living there. Funny as it is on someone else’s Facebook status, do you really want to be the one sincerely saying “there are mushrooms growing in my living room”? Following a serious case of mould in our house, the landlords repainted and brought in equipment to get rid of excess moisture; thankfully, they fixed the problem. Shame they can’t erase the mould-covered walls from my memory.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that students are thrown in at the domestic deep end, but for many the logistical nightmare of living in a student house can be a real wake-up call. And trust me, it’s never fun realising that you might have to walk to college just so you can take a shower. If you’re lucky, you get a house with the landlord that throws in a brand new flat-screen TV and digibox as a ‘welcome present’. If you’re like everyone else, you learn to significantly lower your housing expectations.

You’re there with your other house-mates, though, and things seem like they’re on the up. You loved living in college with these people last year, why shouldn’t this year be even better? Of course, it’s said that you never really know someone until you’ve lived with them and the result of this is that you may be confronted with rather more than you ever wanted to know as you start to wonder just exactly whose hair it is clogging up the shower. The formal politeness of first year has now completely worn off, and it may well have reached the stage where your housemate is no longer afraid to express his long-lost passion for Drum & Bass with a new DJ sound-system in the next room, and where arguments develop over whose turn it is to buy Tesco Value toilet roll.

All the drama may make you seriously reconsider moving back into halls for final year. After a year in a messy house with a tiny, constantly dirty kitchen, it is certainly appealing. And halls can be amazing. That said, living with friends, when it works, can make rather than break your friendship. While you’d be happier not knowing some things, others bring you closer and create hilarious situations. It’s always entertaining to hear your housemate naively try to sneak someone out, for example, while you and another housemate are eating breakfast in the very next room. You may lose your privacy and, at times, your mind, but after sharing a house you’ll definitely have many more ridiculous stories to add to your uni collection. The trials of living out will either have you running for college-shaped cover or swearing you’ll never go back (most likely both, depending on the day). Whichever it is, the experience is unforgettable.

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