Twas the bleak mid-winter. Frosty wind made moan. And a queue of more than three hundred cold students snaked its way around the streets of Cowley, huddling for warmth and grasping flasks of hot coffee which they poured down their frozen throats. The atmosphere was one of competition; those at the back of the queue eyed the students ahead hungrily, and mutters of ‘queue jumper’, ‘taking shifts is cheating’ and ‘why why why am I here?’ could be heard along the rows.
We weren’t queuing for the new iPad, J.K. Rowling hadn’t done a volte-face and released ‘Harry Potter: the University Years’, and even Kate Moss’ Topshop crop-tops couldn’t have inspired these sort of scenes. It was the last week of term, and Finders Keepers, one of Oxford’s student estate agents, had just opened viewings for their much-anticipated ‘list’. With some students camping out overnight and thus opting for homelessness in their determination to secure a house for next year, it was clear that Finders Keepers’ marketing strategy had worked. ‘The List’, with its glossy photos of double bedrooms and fitted kitchens, suggested exclusivity. If your application to rent were successful, you were one of the chosen few: the Buffy of the real estate world, destined to enjoy the privilege of paying your landlord. I hadn’t felt so nervous about an application and feared so keenly that it was a personal reflection on myself since applying to the university itself.
Those provided with accommodation for the entirety of their degree (I’m looking longingly at you, St. Catz and New) need never have to worry about trying to find a house with people you’ve only known for two months, most of which were spent in a state of tolerance-increasing inebriation. Private housing, away from the cushy security of college and the well-intentioned moral judgement of a scout, was an unknown and fearful concept.
Heady flatmate fever, a more dangerous strain of Freshers’ Flu that reaches contagion as the Christmas vacation approaches, can lead to some poor housing decision-making. However, like Elizabeth Bennett, the canny housemate does not say yes to the first proposal that comes along. The huge relief that you won’t be living alone in a bedsit next year and the warm glow of being considered a good prospective housemate should not render you an undiscerning customer. If someone has revealed some degree of psychopathy in the last two months, this will rear its ugly head during a year of shared residence. Your housemates don’t have to be your closest friends but do know them well enough that odd habits won’t come as a surprise. One of my housemates declared that he approved of our chosen house because it is numbered ‘70’. When pressed on this he revealed that he couldn’t have lived at an odd number. These are the kind of colourful quirks it would be useful to know before signing up for a year of studiously avoiding having the volume turned to anything other than a prime number.
I’ve learnt little from my estate agents experience, except that ‘Location, Location, Location’ is founded on the lie that house viewing is fun, and that houses can grow mould just as dramatically as the milk did the last time I tried to make cheese. I should advise you always to knock before entering a room on house viewings to avoid such awkward encounters as trying to force your way into an occupied toilet that you are convinced is a bedroom. However, we knocked before unwittingly becoming party to one resident engaged in entertaining himself, so clearly some voyeurism cannot be avoided. My only tip would be that the correct response on that occasion is not, “Gosh, your bedroom is the tidiest!”