Here’s the thing about defeat: it doesn’t exist until you’re dead. (Or if you’re a video game character, not even then.) Defeat is just a trial leading to an error that informs you what not to do next time, for as many next times as you need until you strike upon a winning combination. So here’s a little story of a recent pothole in the road of life, and how that’s panning out for me now.
I never intended to commit myself to the rabbit hole of student housing again. Before I applied, I inquired with the department as to whether it would be suitable for an adult re-entry student with certain (apparently special) needs. They were not forthcoming with information, either on the accommodations themselves or the pursuit of alternatives. Through my own research I determined that renting privately would be impossible for a person of my means without being present in the target continent, given silly in-person restrictions like proving my corporeal existence. So I decided to take shelter at the university as a starting point, hoping not to begin my Scottish residency on a cobble-stoned curbside. This logic, it turned out, was perfectly reasonable and utterly impotent. The university department of housing is a for-profit operation designed to fill as many rooms as possible with as many foreign students as possible (tuition is free to Scottish residents) and then to point to the dreaded Terms of Service (TOS) as proof of their ownership should you be sideswiped by this data. That little note in the body of the email about a cancellation period, it turns out, refers to a 7 day window that begins as soon as you accept the offer from the safety of your home continent, several months prior to arrival. The fallout of this is that you are locked into a living arrangement – year long, in my case – sight unseen and situation unknown. I discovered all of this when I announced my departure within the hour of my arrival and became embroiled in a protracted battle to gain access to anyone with the authority to do better than throw their hands up and deny any authority. This was my happy introduction to the town, the country, and the university I’d sought after for years. It was a hostile welcome, particularly to a ragged wanderer who’d just jettisoned all manner of security, familiarity, and home comforts.
The appointed Rational Decision Maker of the housing department, as it happens, was heavily fortified behind a boss dungeon of detours and misdirections. Repeated assurances that I would be contacted went unfulfilled for weeks until finally I was retroactively informed that a representative had conversed with me without ever revealing his relation to the department. Needless to say, I did not avail the anonymous man as to my housing concerns. The well-oiled engine of the adult world is missing some pivotal screws! I worked meanwhile with a Student Advocate at the Student Union to assess my tenant rights and legal footing, and by the end of a month I at last managed to jam my foot in the door of the Wizard’s palace and communicate my appeal to the man behind the mask. I had to trot out some highly personal information to make any headway against the TOS, but in the end I emerged victorious. Score one for the little guy. Literally.
And all of this is merely a preamble to the main point, which is this: I have leveled up, and the rewards are sweeter for the struggle overcome in obtaining them. I have successfully navigated the Scottish housing market and secured shelter for myself in a foreign land. I have repelled the dragons, defied the odds, and put down roots – and I go forward with the knowledge that these intimidating obstacles are conquerable.
Once free of my TOS tethers, I began my search for a new home at the UK’s Craiglist equivalent: Gumtree. I soon had countless tabs open to various rental aggregate and agency’s sites. In retrospect, for a small town like St. Andrews it may have been easier to simply pop in at the agencies in person, but I was under the impression from prior experience that it was better to rent from landlords directly, where possible. This turned out to be a less accessible option, as the strict Scottish rental regulations encourage most private citizens to outsource that fuss and bother to the professionals.
In Scotland you don’t rent so much as “let,” although I have heard the terms used interchangeably. (Similarly, an apartment is more commonly called a “flat”, though it can be called both. I am not sure if there are nuanced differences to when the terms are appropriately employed.) So most homeowners employ a “letting agent” who markets the rental and manages the considerable bureaucracy. On a positive note, the regulations appear to be designed as much for the tenant’s protection as for the lettors and landlord. While this is ostensibly the case in the States, it is more in evidence here by certain quirks of the Scottish system, such that deposits are held by an unbiased third party organization established specifically for the purpose of protecting rights and mitigating disputes. This third party organization also oversees the walk-through assessment of the property before and after the tenancy.
One of the first things I discovered when I began my search was that many lettors state point-blank that they do not let to homewreckers, er, students. Of course, the single-occupancy properties I was looking at appeal exclusively to singles and young persons of which students make up a majority, so many lettors preempted these applicants by stipulating “professionals and grad students only.” This was particularly confounding to me because as a 30-something re-entry student I am neither a graduate nor a typical undergrad, and as a homebody I maintain my abode in fairly high standing. Furthermore, although not presently employed I have ample professional experience, both freelance and office-based. So I determined to emphasize my professional experience and minimize my student status when promoting myself to prospective lettors:
“Hello, I’m calling about the flat at 321 Northsouthwest Humperdink?”
“Are you a student or fully employed?”
After a brief phone interview I was greenlighted for a viewing, so I set out in my least outrageous sweater pulled over a collared shirt, trying my best to look tweedish and teacherly. All went smoothly until the agent responded to my inquiry about property tax. “Oh, undergraduates are exempt, actually. Are you an undergraduate?”
“Why, yes, I am!”
Woops. Gratefully it was not held against me, though the particular property I was looking at was not specifically sacrificed at the alter of “student lets.”
Proceeding with the application process, the agent took my email and sent me a list of documents they would require. These included landlord, employer and character references, along with proof of income and enrollment status. It turned out to be fortuitous that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, since a financial aid document was the only proof of income I currently had. I returned these things by email while reciting a silent mantra of thanks to whatever managerial spirit had seen to sparing the redundant requirement of a formal application. There was a brief period of uncertainty when they inquired if I could provide local references and I cringingly confirmed that I could not. To compensate for this deficit, I sent along some official letters of reference from former employers and waited on tinterhooks for a week or so, at which point an angelic choir of shoulder angels accompanied the happy announcement of my approval.
Contrary to the informality of the application process, the walkthrough itself was considerably more formal than those I’ve undergone in the States. When the woman from the third party organization met with me, she had already been through the property once with a fine tooth comb. She then gave me a tour while pointing out the issues she had already found and documented. I later received a copy of this comprehensive report, including photographs and notations on the condition of all aspects of the home, and was given a week from the time I moved in to submit corrections or additions.
One of the coolest discoveries I’ve made about renting in the UK is that it’s not at all uncommon to find a furnished rental. There’s an option in every search filter for furnished housing, and no shortage of listings that meet this handy distinction. Thanks to this, I was able to rent privately without having to worry about buying everything I would need for the home – a condition which would have either left me destitute or profoundly spartan. So it was that my new home came with a double bed, bedding, couch, chairs, a television, and a fully equipped kitchen. There was even some modest decor, which I was told I could put into storage if so desired. Most of it is still scattered about the place, though, since clutter makes a home. But I’ve also made my own contribution, of course, and at last have my revenge for the scrupulously decor-resistant dorm walls!
Prior to my departure from student housing, I had been warned that private letting in St. Andrews would be difficult and expensive. Perhaps because I was looking after most of my fellow students had already settled in, I was fortunate to find a fair number of choices. I also discovered that for a short bus ride out of town I could find housing for half the price of what it went for in St. Andrews. I ended up taking a place within a 15 minute walk to the school – half the distance of the student apartments – and less than a 5 minute walk to the beach, for less than the cost of university accommodation. Adding in private utilities, it came to about the same. Suffice to say I was reasonably satisfied with the switch.
From start to finish, my experience renting in St Andrews was dramatically different than my last experience in the States. Compared to St. Andrews, my home university has a student body of roughly 40,000 in a city with a population of over 100,000 in the excessively popular Bay Area of California, one of the most populous states in the nation. Listed rentals are inundated with applicants within minutes, and the extremity of demand has prices skyrocketing and landlords clamoring to convert ANY unused space into an income source. Most of what I looked at there was four white walls with a bed and a hotplate, some no bigger than a large closet. They made me claustrophobic, and I have a history of living in trailers. For all of that, the minimum monthly cost was still well over a thousand. Due to this, I ended up commuting to school from a friend’s place about two hours north for the first four months of my university career, until at last I landed a little apartment an hour closer. Even then, they said they had received hundreds of applicants within an hour of posting, and I was only fortunate enough to secure it by virtue of arriving at the open house early and with a binder of references. So I just have to laugh when I hear people say that St. Andrews is a hard place to rent in.
Welcome home, wanderer. I am living in Scotland!