I am significantly more satisfied with my living arrangements for third year than I was with second year. Whilst my abode for the third year does constitute a step backwards with regards to distance from the shops, it represents an improvement in nearly every other manner. I am now in a larger bedroom, have a functioning shower that doesn't make me feel like I am being spat on, am able to fit more than three different items of food in the fridge and live within five minutes walking distance from the University.
I am one of those people who finds the process of house hunting particularly stressful. I am not, by nature, comfortable in the presence of strangers. I am outright uncomfortable when in the bedrooms of strangers. My body may be nodding knowingly whilst I survey a living room, but my mind is wishing that it was anywhere else. I signed the contract and paid the deposit for the house in my second year without having seen it (It was visited by all my other house mates.)
So my advice is directed at people of my own kind. People who have no interest in whether the floor is carpet or tiled, whether a bedroom is south facing, and consider the whole accommodation issue a problem that needs to be solved as quickly as possible with minimal effort.
I have learned to my cost that there are some things that it really is worth taking the time to find out.
1. How much is this going to cost me?
It is tempting to dismiss the difference between £65 a week and £70 pound a week as insignificant. But when you are working on a a student budget, £250 pounds across the year is a lot of money, so it really is worth looking at more than one house, rather than assuming that one house to be value for money. In Portswood and Highfield, if you are getting a house for between 4 and 8 people, you should be able to get everything you really need(location, double bed, decent kitchen and more than one toilet) for £65. Add to this the fact that there are variations in deposit, agency and holding fees. You also need to find out which bills you are going to be responsible for, and which the landlord will be. There are some landlords that will cover water bills, for example.
Make sure you have a picture of what money is going to have to be paid when and calculate the total cost of the experience. These quick processes will help you decide which houses are good value for money
2. Do I really need to use an agency?
The main mistake I learned from my second year at University concerned agencies. We (naively) assumed that looking for a private landlord would be difficult, and there would be risks associated with it. We ended up going through an agency, which charged £117.50 per person in "agency fees." Private landlords, and even some agencies will not charge you this. If you can avoid doing this (and you can) then you should, it is a pointless and depressing way of spending good money. Websites such as accomodationforstudents.com can put you in direct contact with landlords. These landlords are always members of the National Landlords Association (this is something that is very easy to check, there is a feature for this on the NLA website)
Furthermore, if you do decide to go with an agency (and there are some decent ones) do not take what they say for granted. If in doubt, check contracts and any other queries with SUAIC at Southampton University; they offer this service for free and can be incredibly helpful. By way of example, I live with a nursing student who was unable to produce a guarantor. The agency told her unequivocally that she would have to provide three months rent up front, which she did. This later proved to be untrue, you are not required to provide a guarantor if you have an income and her bursary as provided by her course is a legitimate example of an income.
Incidentally, agencies are not a great way of guaranteeing that you get a decent landlord. The only way you can determine the quality of a landlord is to talk to him, and see if he is reasonable. I would also advise, if you can, plucking up the courage to ask the incumbent residents when looking round if the landlord does come and fix problems, without being intrusive. I did not do this when looking around in January of my first year, and my landlord in my second year proved uncooperative. For my third year, I had a much better picture of our new (and private) landlord, who has proved infinitely more efficient and cooperative.
3. Does this house fit my needs?
Sometimes that which makes a house attractive is that which ultimately makes it unsuitable. Living in Portswood has many conveniences: there are shops and clubs in very close proximity and one can live a very comfortable life without walking more than 5 minutes in any direction. However, if you are serious about achieving a good mark in your degree, it ought to be easier to get to the University Library rather than Jester's nightclub. It may seem trivial initially, but you can make life a lot easier for yourself. The aforementioned nursing student now wakes up 45 minutes later in the morning (6.15 as opposed to 5.30) in order to catch the bus that takes her to the hospital for early morning placements. I posit that the location of the house in which you live is one of the key factors that will determine the quality of your degree.