Unless you’re one of the lucky few who get their accommodation provided by their college or university, you may or may not have stumbled upon the following dilemma.
“I am about to go abroad. I do not know a soul and I haven’t a penny to my name. I heard a rumour that students do not sleep but I myself find lecture theatres too uncomfortable for a snooze. I must find somewhere to live, somewhere cheap, within crawling distance from a bar, close to university I suppose, and preferably not falling apart. I’m sorry, did you just ask me to organise this before I’ve even got there?”
Go away and panic first if it helps. Then go to any student forum for people going to study abroad and you’ll find so many people in the same position. Forums are not for sad people with nothing else to do with their time - be proactive and get involved, you might find someone who is willing to look for a flat with you or even receive a direct offer from a landlord.
A few research tips:
- Belgium is not a big country, and its cities, even Brussels, are surprisingly small. Thus GoogleMaps may make the walk to university look like you might need well-fitted hiking boots and a stick, but in reality you’d be close enough to warrant attending all classes on a regular basis.
- Be really careful about renting from abroad. Many of the websites listed in this article are well-established with hundreds of previous student tenants, but many of the private forum posts will need to be checked. If you agree to ten-month tenancy without seeing a property you have no choice but to accommodate the pre-established ant asylum in your living room.
- Many universities suggest that you come to Belgium a week or so before term starts to find accommodation. While daunting, this is a great opportunity to find out where you want to live, find a place you like, and maybe even find people in your hostel in the same situation. All you need to do is book a few nights in a cheap hostel, arrange a few viewings via the internet to give you a sense of purpose, and ask around to see if there is anything else available.
- When looking at properties, fall in love with the safety features before you fall in love with anything else. You will not like the pretty kitchen so much when you accidentally set light to the grill, cannot open the windows and find out that you have nothing more than a jug of water to throw at the flaming electrics. Embrace your fire extinguisher.
- Pictures. Why do they not put up pictures when they advertise a room? Yes it is ridiculous, just email the landlord and ask for them, if he/she doesn’t send them to you it was horrible anyway.
- Important: if you don’t speak French or Flemish do not go through a non-English speaking estate agent. You clearly have a brain if you’ve been accepted to study at university, do not let yourself down here. Gallant efforts to speak a foreign tongue could result in the misreading of information and you may end up living in a small cave a little south of Smuid. (Where? I hear you say? I don't know either, somewhere in Belgium.)
Below are some lists of useful websites to try and find a room, or a kot, as they are commonly known in Belgium.
Here are some lists of websites found in four of the country’s main university cities. Many of these are companies advertising their own properties designed especially for students so you can rent directly from them.
They also offer a useful service, KotSharing, connecting Erasmus students between countries so they can swap apartments in their year abroad.
This site also has a basic survival guide for new students, including information on how to open a bank account and a history of Belgium. It seems best to email them for information on accommodation for a comprehensive list. Available in English, Dutch, French and Japanese.www.vremco.com
First Student Housing: Specifically aimed at new students with a separate page for Erasmus students.www.1sh.be
Easy to use website advertising good value rooms around Brussels. Rooms are always available and get cheaper the longer you want to stay in them. Like university halls abroad, all have wireless internet connection.www.lviimmo.com
This seems to be the main site for private rental in Leuven, offering hundreds of rooms in student houses around the city.www.globiss.be
Remember, this part was never going to be painless. And it probably won’t be even when you’re old and grey. The initial thrill of student house-hunting has a nasty aftertaste… the realisation that you have very little time, you’re very poor, and whatever you find is going to have something wrong with it anyway.