A recent report by global property services group Savills suggests that the lack of dedicated student halls is the main influence on student housing in the UK today, but doesn't take into account what it is that students want from their living spaces. We asked a selection of students their thoughts on the 'halls versus houses' debate and whether a greater availability would have changed the choices they made.
As you’d expect from a global real estate company who produce hugely influential analysis on all sectors of the housing market, Savills’ report focuses on nationwide trends, treating student housing as an asset class for investors and examining its development potential. Undersupply of student houses is huge, which is why it has been such an attractive area for investors over the last decade.
The report argues that the construction of halls-like accommodation would allow HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupancy), which students typically reside in after their first year of study, to be converted back to more traditional family homes - benefiting local councils by providing tax-paying tenants. But this argument implies that students live in houses simply because there are no halls-style residences available, and that students would want to stay in halls throughout their time at university if they could.
There are nearly 45,000 full-time students living in Cardiff, attending Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and the University of South Wales, but fewer than 20% of them live in student accommodation. We asked a selection of current and former Cardiff students about their experiences living in houses, how it compared with living in halls, and what they preferred.
James Cochrane, who’s going into his final year of English Literature at Cardiff Uni, commented that "Halls acts as a sort of welcome umbrella. There are no utility bills, a cleaner and a maintenance staff onsite, and no security deposit. It’s convenient and essential in terms of meeting people and helps prepare you for the scary task of moving away from home."
However, the cavalier “borrowing” of other people’s food and utensils ranked high on the list of why people would not move back into halls after a first time. When we asked what students look for in their second-year houses, the ability to live with people of their choosing proved to be just as important as any physical feature of a living space.
“Halls mixes very different combinations of people,” James explained, “loud with quiet, messy with clean... these mixes didn’t always work, and many flats varied in terms of individual experience.”
Melissa Green, whose time at Cardiff covers three courses and who spent more time in halls after her first year, had a lot to say about their advantages and disadvantages. For her, an important benefit of living in a house was “the fact that you’ve chosen your housemates and are already familiar with them, and the extended privacy and trust that offers.”
It seems that students don’t really like to call their halls “home” in the same way that they do their houses, especially since the anonymity of halls pales in comparison to the quality of student housing, which has seen rapid improvement both aesthetically and in terms of health and safety in recent years. Changes in legislation, such as the introduction of additional HMO licensing to Cathays, has also raised the quality. On the whole, landlords have reacted positively to these new demands, and many have taken the opportunity to not only meet the minimum standard required by the new legislation, but further invest in their property and take it to standard over and above anything else on the market.
Some students, however, pointed out that the convenience of halls was important for students who wanted to focus on work, or who didn’t want to worry about the legal obligations of contracts, especially if they’re studying in another country. Between the three Cardiff universities there are over 13,000 international students, representing 30% of the full-time students. Some are studying for entire degrees, whereas others stay just for one Erasmus year.
Olly Canning is going the other way. He’s a second-year languages student who’s heading off for his year abroad in Italy and Germany, and he said that accommodation was his major concern. “I like to think my Italian’s pretty good, but there’s always the worry that the finer details of tenancy law and the unfamiliar legal language mean I’ll be signing something I don’t completely understand. I’m sure a lot of international students arriving in Cardiff think the same.”
So even though it seems many students value the independence of living in their own homes, there is still demand for halls of residences even after the expected first year. As the Savills report notes,"with university halls of residence just about able to cope with the increasing numbers of first year students (...) private sector student accommodation operators [are] racing to scale up".
When we asked John Pinn from Quin & Co, the investment arm of CPS Homes, he was slightly cautious of the long-term demand for ‘hall-style’ living. “We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of student hall-type developments, and whilst we know that there is a shortage of University halls, it doesn’t necessarily transpire that all students will choose to live in them,” John explained.
“Typically these blocks appear to be aimed at first-year or international students, with many on-site facilities, bills included and the rental contract being for a room, rather than an apartment. Recent conversations with the Cardiff universities indicate that they agree, and some are in the process of building extra accommodation to avoid having to outsource their accommodation for their first-year students. However, beyond this, the universities in Cardiff just don’t believe the demand for student halls for second years onwards.”
The future of Student accommodation in Cathays: hall-like students housing with a difference
John is currently heading a project that is designed to offer high quality student accommodation contained within a single block, located on the corners of Crwys and Woodville Road in Cathays. Whilst initially appearing like another student hall-style development, “Crwys House will provide apartments of between two and seven bedrooms of exceptional quality and in a prime location, aimed at second-years onwards,” he revealed. “They’ll be let to students who have formed their own groups, and they’ll have the independence of paying their own bills with no restrictions, such as having guests over to stay.”
Although it seems there will always be some demand for halls-style residences, it appears that the market remains firmly geared toward students as private renters. It seems that the HMO is here to stay, especially since the distinction between students and young professionals is now blurred. Many young professionals these days are forsaking the traditional step of getting their own place, in favour of being more economical and staying in HMOs well into their twenties. While this does mean that there are still lucrative development prospects in top student cities, they do not appear to be on the scale that the Savills report suggests.