One thing we all have to deal with in St Andrews is finding somewhere to live. In first year, of course, we’re dumped into a random university hall of residence along with a cooker, a few saucepans, and a set of ready-made friends. It’s a friendly way to take a big step in your life, leaving your parents’ home at last and going into the big scary world, but without actually having to worry about where you’re going to live or whom you’re going to be with.
Well, as about 2000 first-years have discovered in the last few days, finding somewhere to live in second-year isn’t nearly so easy. If going into halls was like stepping slowly into a warm bath, finding a flat for second year is more like sprinting naked across an icesheet and jumping into shark-infested water at 0°C, except the pool’s too small and there are 1999 other people trying to trip you over so they can get there first. Also let’s say the water is blood and the sharks are HMO inspectors, and we’re halfway towards describing the St Andrews property market.
Now, there are plenty of things wrong with capitalism which I’ll save to shoehorn into a different article, but suffice to say that at some point, a few people were lucky enough to have grandparents who owned more houses than they needed to live in, and those people now earn money from us simply by having them. But that’s an injustice for another time. My beef this week lies with the in-between men, those soul-less business hounds, those bloodsucking enforcers of the bourgeoisie, the estate agents of St Andrews.
It all starts on one miserable, rainy day in February, when the estate agents collectively declare that “the list” is open. After eleven months of drinking coffee and playing solitaire, they open their doors once more and announce that they are actually willing to let out properties to people, on very much a first-come-first-served basis – after all, they don’t want to do too much boring administrative work. So we have a few days in which everyone runs around like a headless chicken trying to view as many houses as they can before everyone else beats them to it. Being a wizened, cranky old fourth-year in rented accommodation, I’ve been having to deal with people for the last few days turning up completely uninvited on my doorstep asking to look around my house.
“Ooh, isn’t it lovely!” they all coo, “Ooh, can we see inside ALL the bedrooms?”
No you bloody can’t. One of the bedrooms is my bedroom which I’m paying for, and an email from the estate agent two weeks in advance saying “Hi there, loads of people are coming to your house for a week or two and we’re not telling you when but you have to let them in,” doesn’t exactly make it reasonable.
It would be almost acceptable if there was some indication that they were already too busy maintaining the properties. However, after three years of living in two houses that are both falling apart, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence. Since October, when a leak in the pipes caused water to pour through the ceiling downstairs, there has been a piece of wood the size of a door propped up by the window in our tiny bathroom, and electrical wiring and rubble exposed underneath the bath. We’ve told our estate agents on at least two occasions that if they don’t take the thing away we’re taking it round to their office. We were joking, but if it’s not gone when we move out in May, I won’t be held responsible for what we end up doing.
Of course, it’s unfair of me to say that estate agents don’t work hard. They do a pretty thorough job of fabricating reasons to take money out of your deposit at the end of each year. Scratches on the chopping boards? Fifty pounds. Picture frames askew? A hundred. Armchairs are provided, but please don’t sit on them.
Last year, our estate agents, who will remain nameless but will be referred to hereafter as “those bastards”, attempted to charge us fifty pounds for damage to the hall ceiling, due to a water leak in a pipe between the floorboards which was eventually fixed by an emergency plumber they sent out. When we pointed this out to them, they suggested that we might not have been using the shower curtain properly. The shower curtain which wasn’t there because it fell down and they didn’t fix it for four months.
The worst thing is that our story isn’t even unusual. There are students all over town whose estate agents have done them out of far more money. These people realise how vulnerable students are, and how weak a voice we have, especially in a town with far too few houses, a council-enforced cap on HMO licences, and without any kind of serious Union to back us up. They realise it, they do the sums, and they take us for every penny we have and give us nothing back.
Now, I don’t want to scare anyone into staying in halls for four years, and I certainly don’t want to scare anyone into commuting, but if you’ve never taken out a lease in St Andrews before, be on your guard. Don’t let up for a second in making sure you get a decent standard of living for your considerable rent payments, and don’t give them a penny that isn’t theirs. Don’t take any of their shit.
Oh, and stay away from “those bastards”. You know the ones I’m talking about.