Finding private accommodation in Edinburgh: All I wish I had known!

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Postgraduate Sofia from Greece shares her top tips for renting private accommodation in Edinburgh.

New beginnings

You have just got accepted onto your dream masters course and you’re due to start next semester. You’re buzzing with excitement about coming to Scotland and living in Edinburgh. Life is good! Or is it? Wait, where am I going to live? My beginning, as it goes for all new beginnings I suppose, was a bit challenging. I was in Athens scouting the internet for many weeks before I found the flat which was to become my base here in Edinburgh.

I tried to combine everything I have read in blogs, personal conversations and research into a piece that hopefully makes things a bit clearer when it comes to private renting. I should say... I’m no legal expert and all the following comes from my personal experience. It will hopefully save you some time and trouble!

Where to start?

I would genuinely begin with any contacts you might possibly have here. Is there someone that you know that studies or has studied in Edinburgh? Perhaps send a shout out on social media. You’d be surprised by people’s networks of connections and their will to help. You will also be surprised by your friend’s third cousin that fell in love in Scotland and is now renting out the extra room they have. But, don’t worry if you don’t have any contacts here. I started my research on Facebook by joining some different groups where people mostly advertise about vacant rooms in a shared flat. They consisted of groups such as EdinRoom, Edinburgh:Rooms and Flatmates offered/wanted.

What EXACTLY is a shared flat?

I know the question may seem obvious but at least for me, it wasn’t in the beginning. A shared flat is basically an apartment shared by more than 2 people. For an apartment to be rented out to multiple people, the owner needs to have an HMO licence (Home Multiple Occupancy). The tenants, who are the people renting the flat, can be students, working professionals and/or both. Each person has their own room and usually shares other common spaces such as the kitchen, bathroom or living room which can be a great excuse to annoy your flatmates while they are trying to concentrate. People in Edinburgh tend to share apartments either as a group of working professionals or as students. Why is that you ask? One side of it has to do with working people not wanting to be disturbed by the lifestyle of students (let’s face it, sometimes we come in very late, sometimes we need total silence to study and then there are those that don’t like to tidy up), but mostly this differentiation has to do with a thing which we all dread...council tax.

What even is council tax?

This is the local taxation system used throughout the UK. It can be difficult to make sense of, so in my mind it has to do with the value of the property; therefore depends on where you live. In Edinburgh there are 8 bands of council tax, so the yearly amount can vary from as little as just over one thousand pounds to close to four thousand!! But try not to panic, all full-time students are exempt from council tax, meaning you don’t have to pay any of it! However, even if one person in the flat is a working professional or a part-time student then the flat is charged with having to pay the full amount or they can get a 25% discounted rate. That’s why you’ll see posts advertising ''student flats'', as people are specifically looking for other full-time students so they can avoid council tax.

Does that mean I can’t live with professionals or part-time students?

"You can do anything you want to do so long as you don’t hurt other people"

Absolutely not. Just as my Grandma used to say, "You can do anything you want to do so long as you don’t hurt other people’". You can still live with the people that you want to, even if they are working or studying part-time, as long as you agree to split the cost of council tax. It can seem like a lot of money upfront, but most people decide to pay in instalments and if there’s four or five of you living in a flat, then the cost spreads out and can be very affordable. But why would you decide to do that you ask? Simply because you may find a beautiful, cosy and homely flat somewhere and the only thing that’s holding you back is the extra £30 per month. Of course, you need to suggest that to the current tenants so that everybody is on board with the plan.

How do I respond to an ad for accommodation?

You’ve spotted something you like. Act on it! Send that person a message. It’s nice when you start messages by saying a little bit about yourself before you start firing questions. Highlight your strengths such as tidiness, discretion and cooking skills. If you are not in Edinburgh and can’t attend a viewing yourself (viewing being the process of going to see a flat or a room that’s being advertised), perhaps suggest a Skype viewing or tell the person when you’ll be available to come in person.

Student working at home

Beware of scammers!

"Triple glazed windows, working fireplace, sauna, private bathroom and balcony, only £450pp each month including bills!" What a bargain this 5th floor penthouse with its own elevator is, right? No people, it’s a scam. If you’re not sure about the credibility of a landlord, you can check to see if they are registered using the Scottish Landlord Register. A general rule when it comes to private renting in Edinburgh is that when an ad seems too good to be true, it more than likely is. I had numerous "owners" suggest I pay them a deposit before I saw the room because they were "away on a business trip" and needed "responsible people" to take care of their property while they were away...this is not to be trusted. If you get lengthy emails asking you for lots of information and people pushing you to transfer them money, then stay away and call them out and you’ll be surprised by how quickly they disappear. If you’re not sure about the authenticity of a contract you've been given, I took mine to the University’s ENSA  Advice where they offer independent advice on campus, which I would definitely advise.

So, WHO am I renting from?

Well, that depends. Sometimes you’re renting from a private landlord directly which means they own the apartment but don't live in it. Other times, they live in it and you may just be renting out a single room. Alternatively, they may have an agency who will manage their property, so you’ll deal with them and probably never even meet the owner. This last option is most common and sometimes for the best. If you do meet your landlord, most are kind and helpful if you need them to be, but you can get others that are a bit more difficult. When it comes to student flats, "Every ending is a new beginning" as Marianne Williamson once said. Meaning that most of the time you’ll get a vacant room from another student that has finished their studies and so forth.

What am I paying for?

You’ll find some ads that give you a fixed, full, all-included monthly sum and others that break down the cost between rent and bills. The monthly cost usually includes the price of the room or the flat, gas and electricity which come together as one bill. This varies between the seasons - at winter you consume more gas to stay warm in Edinburgh's cold temperatures and the internet also comes as a separate bill. Extra costs? You have to have a TV license if you want to have a TV in your home and council tax, should you decide to live with non-students. I know you want numbers so I’ll give you a rough monthly estimate of, say, £400-£500 for a nice spacious room, £30-40 for the bills and around £7-8 for internet if you're sharing with around four people.

Calculator

That's a lot to digest! But is it worth it?

In one word, absolutely. Whether you decide to stay in private accommodation or not, drawing from my own personal experience I wouldn’t have it any other way. Having a place to call home in Edinburgh, wherever that is, is a beautiful thing. I was overwhelmed at first but, to quote Plato, "The beginning is the most important part of the work’’.

Any final advice?

Sure! Here are a few more things:

  • Buddy-up! Many people decide to search for flats as a group. Sometimes it’s easier to find an entire flat than it is to find a room and this way, you can choose your roommates from the start. It always helps if at least one person is in Edinburgh so they can attend viewings on behalf of everyone.
  • Search for your expats! I definitely didn’t come to Scotland to meet more Greeks, but there were a few rooms advertised in Scotland’s Greek society and blogs. Try to find these groups for your own country/countries of origin on Facebook.
  • Timing is everything! The Edinburgh festivals that take place during August each year can make searching for a flat at times a bit of a nightmare, due to the number of people it brings to the city. The key is to start searching as early as possible. Good news is that right after the festivals, a lot of vacancies come up. You might also find that a lot of vacancies come up after Christmas, when a lot of students studying in Edinburgh for one semester return to their home universities, so it's never too early to start looking.
  • Don’t be intimidated by some agencies. There are those that ask for 1-2 references from a previous landlord or require you to have a guarantor. Sometimes you can avoid all this by giving three months rent upfront if you can afford it at the time. But you can choose whichever way suits you best.
  • Know your rights! As of December 2017, a new Private Renting Legislation Act was introduced in Scotland to help protect tenants. Read up on it so you know what’s up.
  • If you find yourself in a flat you don’t like or with a roommate that decides to (unsuccessfully) start learning bagpipes - don’t panic! You can always give a month’s notice and search for another place, you are well within your rights.
Dinner together

Any more meaningful quotes?

But of course. First of all, best of luck and whatever you decide to do, stay safe and remember, “Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect.” – Alan Cohen.

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