Student’s Guide to Utilities

With the great freedoms that come with living away from home (to stay up until 5am, to eat meals entirely of crisps, and to never clean the kitchen) comes great responsibility. You know, the boring stuff: making sure the lights stay on, the WiFi doesn’t go down, and the bailiffs don’t come knocking for your council tax.

If you’re moving into a student house, you might be overwhelmed by all the things you need to arrange. There’s flatpack furniture to assemble, fairy lights to string, chore rotas to figure out, and worst of all, the utilities to set up and pay. But despite all the fuss your parents made about bills and how much your 40-minute showers were costing them, it isn’t that complicated to select, set up and pay for fuel, water, and internet.

Adulthood is basically just like giant Monopoly board, with rent and utilities and rail fare to be paid. Comparison sites, internet billing portals, and apps have all made it easier to find affordable utility deals, track your usage, and pay your bills. Additionally, you’ll be dividing the bills amongst several people, which will lessen the financial burden and ideally, the responsibility.

But let’s face it: if you’re reading this guide, you’re probably the responsible one in your shared student house, the one who washes the dishes and reads the post, and you’ll be choosing the fuel tariffs and setting up the WiFi. So let’s make sure you get it done with minimal cost and hassle—and without phoning your dad.

Gas and Electricity

When you move into a property, unless it was previously unoccupied for a period of time, it should have electricity and gas, provided by the previous occupant’s supplier, so you’ll be able to switch on the lights and immediately make yourself beans on toast. You’ll be responsible for those bills, and you might be able to find a cheaper tariff, or one that better suits your needs, from another supplier.

Fuel will generally be your largest utilities expense, but savvy shopping can save you hundreds of pounds a year. A comparison engine can direct you to the cheapest tariffs for your postcode, size of house, and estimated energy usage.

You’ll have to decide between a standard variable tariff and a fixed energy tariff. A standard variable tariff, also called an evergreen tariff, has prices that will go up or down as energy prices change (although the tendency recently is for them to rise) and has no fixed end date.

You can often save money by opting for a fixed tariff, which locks in a price (for per unit consumption and for standing charges) for a certain contract period. But you’ll often be penalised for leaving the contract early, so you’ll have to factor in those costs if you’re going to be vacating your student house over the summer and not staying for the full term of the contract.

In both cases, the amount you pay will depend on the amount of energy you use: a fixed tariff simply locks in a charge for each kilowatt hour of energy consumed. So it will pay to turn off lights in empty rooms and to unplug electronics when they’re not in use. Some tariffs may come with a smart meter, which will enable you to track your energy usage in real time, even via your smartphone, and use that information to browbeat your housemates into turning down the heat.

If your student house receives both gas and electricity, a dual fuel tariff, supplying both for one monthly bill, will generally save you money and hassle. But if you don’t have a gas boiler (if your heating comes from electric radiators, for instance) or a gas hob, you’ll only need an electricity supply.

You could opt for a tariff from one of the Big Six providers: British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and SSE. They supply half of all UK households so you might recognise one of them from the bills that come through the mail slot at your parents’ home. But more and more consumers are opting for tariffs from smaller competitors these days, and often racking up savings.

If you’re environmentally conscious, you might want to consider a green energy provider such as Bulb or Ecotricity.

Sometimes your landlord will cover all energy bills and include the sum in your rent. In that case, you won’t have to renegotiate the supply, unless you think you’re being ripped off or you have strong preferences about using a renewable energy company.

Water

Luckily, here you don’t have much of a choice to make: water is water and one regional provider will supply all homes in your area. You’ll either be on a standard tariff, meaning you’ll be charged a flat rate for all the water you consume, levied monthly or yearly, or will have a water meter and will be charged per unit. In a crowded household full of people competing for showers, a tariff with a  meter could work out to be more expensive.

Again, your house should already be connected when you move in. You’ll simply need to contact the regional supplier to set up a customer account.

Broadband

Perhaps even more important for students than electricity and water is the internet. You can’t envision a student house without it: without social media, without Netflix, without a last minute rush to download lecture notes the night before an exam and upload that essay seconds before the deadline.

If you’re sharing a house with several internet-hungry students, you’ll want the superfast speeds (that’s download speeds exceeding 24 Megabits per second) a fibre optic or cable connection can provide. Superfast internet will provide enough bandwidth that all members of the house should be able to comfortably surf the web, stream video content, and play online games without stepping on each others’ toes. Nearly all broadband contracts on the market these days come with unlimited downloads, so you shouldn’t be overly concerned if your flatmate’s boyfriend starts downloading Blu-ray films using your connection.

Most broadband contracts are for 12, 18, or even 24 months, however, and this could be a worry if you’re only planning on staying in your student house during term time. BT and Virgin offer term time-only broadband deals for students, which only last nine months and can be purchased between July and October, generally with a student ID. Do the maths before committing to one, however, because they may work out more expensive than 12-month contracts from other providers.

You can also opt for short-term, ‘no contract’ broadband from providers including Virgin, NOW TV, and Plusnet. These operate on a rolling, 30-day basis, automatically renewing—and charging you—each month. But you may pay more per month for the flexibility of a ‘no contract’ deal and you’ll have to remember to cancel it with adequate notice before you move out for the summer.

It’s important to remember that not all internet providers and technologies are available in all areas. Virgin Media cable broadband can only be accessed by half of all UK addresses, for instance. You can use a postcode checker to see which ISPs deliver services to your area and what average speeds they offer.

It generally takes two weeks for an internet connection to be set up, so you’ll want to act fast, before you move in, or risk spending a fortnight squatting in the library so you can refresh Facebook or siphoning internet off your neighbours’ unsecured network. Speaking of which, you should always put a password on your WiFi account, to ensure passers-by are laughing at your punny network name but aren’t gobbling up your bandwidth and slowing your speeds.

Splitting Bills

If you’ve ever lived in a shared house before, you know that sometimes setting up utilities is the easy part. The tricky thing can be ensuring they all get paid on time and everyone is chipping in equally to cover them. You should work out a system with your housemates early, ideally before contracts are signed, to determine who will be the account holder for each bill and how costs will be divvied up and paid. You don’t want to end up having your electricity shut off because Jack didn’t have enough money in his account to pay the bill, and you don’t want to end up paying for everyone’s internet by yourself.

Here are some tried and tested tips for dividing up bills in a shared household, so you don’t have to resort to passive aggressive notes on the bathroom mirror and fights in the house WhatsApp group.

  1. Assign a utility to each housemate: Most energy companies and internet service providers only allow for one name on each contract—and that person is legally responsible for the bill. A popular way of dividing the responsibility for bills in a shared household is to assign each tenant a utility. Their name is on the utility bill and, usually, it’s paid directly from their bank account. But because bills will vary in amounts—for example, those for gas and electricity will be steeper than those for water—you’ll have to work out a system to compensate each other. A spreadsheet can help with this. You’ll also need to ensure that the housemate on the bill has enough money in his or her account to cover each month. Miss a payment because Jack is overdrawn and you can accrue penalties from your providers and possibly have your broadband or fuel shut off.
  2. Use a bill sharing app: An app can spare you some of these calculations and ensure each tenant is contributing to the household equally. For example, the free app Splitwise allows you to keep a running total of what everyone has contributed and to request money from each other, with due dates. You know how some of your friendships involve passing the same £10 back and forth between each other? Splitwise does the maths and figures out exactly who needs to be made whole, so you’re not paying Jack £12 for your share of the electric bill when he owes you £6 for broadband.
  3. Set up a joint bank account: You may want to set up a joint bank account for the house from which bills are paid. You all contribute to it equally every month, perhaps by standing order. But you’ll have to make sure everyone is paying their full share, however, or direct debits for your utilities could push you into the red.

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