Letting agents: an increasingly fundamental part of the student experience. Everyone needs somewhere to live, and the ubiquity of letting agents means that you are all but certain to have to do business with them at some point. Yet almost no-one I know has a good word to say about them. Incompetence, unresponsiveness, unreliability: letting agents seem to have a peculiar ability to make the process of renting and managing a house awkward and unpleasant.

I find this all the more remarkable – ironic, even – given that these agencies purport to make our lives easier. Please do get in touch if you find one that says it exists to “frustrate you from start to finish, and charge you for services you didn’t even know you needed”…
Concrete has put together this special feature on student housing – timed to coincide with the union’s housing advice week – to highlight the key things to keep in mind when house hunting.

One of the most important things to remember is that there is an over-supply of student housing in Norwich at the moment. Don’t let anybody rush you. Don’t feel pressured into moving too quickly. There are plenty of houses available, so take your time and don’t be afraid to be picky. Prolet, an agency that deals with lots of student housing, is so desperate for business that it’s offering financial inducements to current tenants who stay for the 2015-16 academic year, even though the union doesn’t release it’s housing list until January.

Concrete contacted Prolet to ask whether these offers reflected badly on the quality of their houses and service, and whether “the only way to get students to continue renting from [Prolet] is to ‘bribe’ them”. They didn’t reply. But if agents are getting desperate, it proves that students can afford to be picky.

For my part, I was unimpressed with the service that my housemates and I received from JSM when I rented one of their properties in the last academic year. For starters, they charged us a “guarantor fee” – £75 plus VAT – which we later learned was against Home Run’s rules. (Home Run is the union’s agency accreditation scheme.) We complained to the union’s housing advice centre, who secured us a full refund. JSM said that they were aware of the Home Run’s ban on administration fees, but the message had not successfully reached their sales branch in the city from their office in Cringleford. (Cringleford, by the way, is some four miles from the city centre. You could walk it in an hour or so. Or you could just send an email.)

They also put pressure on us to buy “specialist contents insurance cover” from Hepburns Insurance. Now, I had never heard of Hepburns, and I am somewhat suspicious of anyone who tells me I need to spend a minimum of £8.50 a month – that’s £93.50 over an 11-month tenancy – on something I’ve never heard of. And surely you could get this more cheaply elsewhere?

Again, we queried it with the union. JSM decided that, in this instance, we didn’t have to buy the insurance. Life lesson: taking the time to make a fuss and ask questions can save you a great deal of money.

When preparing this piece, I got a copy of the accounts of Hepburns Insurance for the 2012-13 financial year. They are available from the website of Companies House and cost £1. Every company registered in the UK has to provide this information. It turns out that Hepburns committed to pay the managing director of Leaders, JSM’s parent company, a “commission” of £445,348 for that year. Now, principally in the interest of avoiding legal action, Concrete does not wish to insinuate that this is against the law. But it is nevertheless interesting to find out where students’ money ends up.

Concrete also contacted JSM, but they did not reply in time for their comments to be included in print. If they provide us with a response, we will be pleased to add it to the online version of this piece.

We hope that the articles in this feature are helpful. House hunting can be stressful, particularly if you’ve never done it before. But remember that the union’s advice service will help you with any query or dispute, including problems that you may already have. And make good use of the housing events taking place this week.