Choosing Accommodation – Self-Catered vs. Catered Accommodation

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After waiting anxiously, you finally got the offer from your dream university and it is time to register for classes and most importantly, decide where to live next year. It can be very overwhelming, moving into a new place on your own. But let’s calm down and consider the accommodation options you have.

Most universities in United Kingdom offer two options: self-catered or catered living. Catered accommodations are also known as residence halls or dorms. It is relatively more expensive than self-catered ones, as the rent includes everything from costs of meals, electricity, heating to internet. On the other side, self-catered accommodations usually come in the form of an apartment or flat, fully equipped with kitchen. Meals are not provided and you need to manage everything from cleaning, cooking to managing bills.

Currently, I am a first-year student living in a catered accommodation managed by the University of Edinburgh. As much as I complain about the canteen food options, I do not regret my choice of staying here. Well, mainly because catered accommodation is really convenient. All utility bills, furniture, catering, internet and cleaning service are included. You don’t have to worry about shopping, cooking or cleaning up your utensils after meals. Another plus point is that catered accommodations offer buffet style catering. Feel free to eat anything as much as you want, because you pay for it! Moreover, catered accommodation is actually a great place to meet new friends.

There are tons of social events happening in my place, from beekeeping course, whisky tasting, movie nights, pub-crawl, yoga, to pumpkin carving on Halloween. If you are a bit too shy to start a conversation like me, joining social events in your accommodation is a great way to get to know more people who share similar interest as you. Take my story for example. I remember the time when everything just hit me; that I was completely alone in this country, 7338 miles away from home. I had no one, literally no one. Fortunately the next day, I received a notification about a barbecue event invitation organized by the Christian Union near my accommodation hall. I was reluctant to go at first, because I was too shy to randomly approach people and talk to them. Nevertheless, I decided to attend and I’m glad I made that choice. Once I was there, we were divided into groups, based on our accommodation hall. We sat on the grass while eating burgers and getting to know each other. That day, me and three other girls decided to try Ceilidh too. Ceilidh is a traditional Scottish event consisting of dancing to live Scottish music. Looking back, I never expected that simple questions of “What’s your name? Where are you from? What course are you studying” during the barbecue event would turn into really good friendships until now. This kind of event was held in my accommodation, which made my university life way more enjoyable and bearable. I, myself, am surprise that I have not felt homesick at all. But it is mainly because I live very near to my friends and we always see each other every meal. If I did not live in a catered accommodation, I would not have the opportunity to meet my group of friends; friends who you can relate to and share similar values.

As nice as it sounds, catered accommodations have its own downsides too. The drawback of living in a catered accommodation is of course the price and sometimes the noise level too. If your room happens to be near the pantry, the noise level can be so high when people are having pantry party. In United Kingdom, the minimum legal drinking age is 18 so don’t be surprise if there are boxes of ciders and beers sitting on the pantry tables. Another thing to consider is the food option. Everyday, breakfast menu is usually the same while dinner has more variety of food. By the end of the year, you will likely be bored with the food option. There is nothing you can do because kitchen is not available in catered housing, so the other option would be to eat the canteen food. In choosing accommodation, it is also important to consider the house rules beforehand. Here is a list of policies in my accommodation for your reference (note: most universities will likely have the same rules):

  • Not to cause any noise
  • Not to host parties unless with a prior written permission of the warden/accommodation manager
  • No smoking in the property
  • No animal within the property
  • Tenant will be held accountable for the damage happening in their room. Damaged in shared areas such as in the corridors and stairwells, will be charged to all tenants who use such facilities

Though there are rules set, keep in mind that sometimes things don’t turn out as you want them to be. Be prepared to experience numerous false fire alarms and noise, usually on Friday nights.

Self-catered accommodations definitely offer high degree of flexibility in terms of location, price and privacy. If you decide to live in the university’s catered accommodations, your only option is Pollock Halls, which can be accessed by walking for about 20 minutes from the central university campus. Self-catered accommodation, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to choose which location you prefer, whether it’s near the university, gym or any other facilities. Most of the times, self-catered accommodation is cheaper too. The market rental price of self-catered flat in UK is usually around £320- £550 per month, excluding utility bills such as electricity and heating. In comparison, the catered ones usually range from £480 – £800 per month, all included. I visited my friends who live in self-catered flats, having the same room size as mine, but they pay £400 while I pay about £750 per month. Sometimes the price difference between accommodations can be huge. Another benefit of self-catered is the privacy. There are no set meal times like in residence halls. You have more freedom to decide what to cook and when to eat. This may be more applicable for those who are vegetarian or pescetarian, like myself, as you can cook whatever you feel like eating.

In spite of all the benefits, self-catered accommodation also has its own limitations.  There are a lot to organize too from setting up the internet, buying groceries or maybe splitting bills among your flat mates. Also, bear in mind that you may need to fix some of the broken equipment on your own. For me personally, my main concern is the lengthy documentation and process of setting a contract with the landlord. Searching for the right flat and completing the paper work can take up a lot of time. Sometimes, you need to compete to get flats with good location and good price. Another drawback of self-catered accommodation is the payment option. In United Kingdom, there are two options for international students to pay self-catered rent: either you get a UK guarantor and pay the rent monthly, or if you have no guarantor, at least payment of rent 3 months in advance is required. Some landlord may even ask you to pay more than 3 months in advance. A guarantor is basically someone who would guarantee that you pay your rent and that person must have a UK bank account. Next year, I will move to a self-catered flat and I don’t have any UK guarantor, which leaves me to no choice other than paying the rent few months in advance.

Overall, there are always pros and cons in both options that need to be considered before making any decision. So the question remains: self-catered or catered accommodation?

The answer depends on your situation. Are you a postgraduate, masters or undergraduate student? Families, couples, or single? If you are a first-year undergraduate student, I recommend staying in catered accommodation just because it is more convenient and it offers experiences of meeting new people and making new friends. But most importantly, think about your priorities. There is no way you can get everything that you want. Weigh up the pros and cons before making your decision. Look at reviews online too as it provides some very helpful guidance.

 

Image Source: Gabriella Fidelia’s personal collection

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Gabriella Fidelia
Having been born to an entrepreneurial family, Gabriella experienced various events that play a huge role in developing her interest in business. She attended Social Entrepreneurship program at Yale University during her high school summer holiday, which further developed her passion in entrepreneurship and start ups. Gabriella is currently pursuing a Business with Enterprise and Innovation degree at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She is an investment analyst at the Edinburgh University Trading & Investment Club. In her leisure time, Gabriella enjoys reading contemporary novels & motivational books, watching TV series and travelling to scenic places.