Tips that we hope you find helpful for settling into the UK and Durham.
HOUSING: We have a family, so we decided to go with a “privately let” house. If you don’t have kids, it’s probably easiest to just do housing through your college–most Americans live in Ustinov’s Keenan House (at Dryburn Court). Here’s a quick vocab lesson: detached house–normal house, semi-detached–like duplex, terraced–like townhome (a row of houses all attached), bungalo–single-story house, flat–apartment, estate–a group of houses together with the same postal code. Most address are based on estate and not the road, so it can be quite confusing trying to find houses here since there is often no connection to the road on a map.
We ended up in the Gilesgate area (see post code DH1 2HZ). It’s about a 30 min walk into the city center, with a couple of hills that make you healthy. We like the area and are just a couple of blocks from Tesco (~Super Walmart), so that makes shopping easy! Any further out than Gilesgate or Keenan House and you’d have to catch a bus in or have a car (but there is no free parking within a 15-20 min walk of town). Almost everybody walks and only use the buses when weather is bad, etc. I had expected to bike everywhere, but it is quite hilly so very few do. However, I’m doing it more often just because it saves so much time. See this post on places to live and this file on general housing information, which has info about different accommodations and different parts of town.
Durham University has an accomodations office, but we found that almost all their houses were really for a group of undergrads and not really in the condition for a family. So, we went through a real estate agency here in town. We were looking for a 3 bdrm (hopefully furnished) place. After looking at about 10 different houses, we learned that our original budget of £500-£600 was a little low based on our expectations. We did find places in the lower half of that range, but they were on busy streets, too far, run down, no garden for our boys, etc. We eventually went with one in Gilesgate (about 1 mile east of the city center), and it was actually just built this year. It has 3 bdrms, and the letting agent got the landlord to furnish the place for us—beds, dining table, wardrobes, couches, etc. One thing about furnishings is that sometimes even kitchen appliances are considered “furnishings”, so you may find something listed as partially-furnished and that may mean with major kitchen appliances but no other furniture. Although, we found almost all places to have the major appliances (dish washer, clothes washer—often in the kitchen, and refrigerator/freezer–about 1/2 the size of standard US one). We only found one house with decent furnishings (beds/couches) other than this one but it was too far out.
The letting agent we used was Martin Hunter with JW Wood (www.jww.co.uk). Other main agents are Robinsons, Reeds Rains, Cathedral Lettings, Dowen, Countrywide, and Stuart Edwards. They won’t do much more than schedule an appointment to go house hunting before you arrive. We had booked showings for the next day after we arrived for about 8 houses with JWW and Reeds Rains. I also walked into Robinsons and they showed me a couple the next day. We tried to get pre-approved to speed up the process but they never did anything with the info we sent. After selecting a place, we submitted an application (fee of £125). Then they wanted a personal reference (done by email) and financial references (bank statements—they took mine from the US w/o any trouble.) We told them that we’d like to expedite the normal 2 week process, and we were moved in within 5 days of the application. The Reeds woman said that since we had no UK credit history, we’d have to pay 6 months rent up front. For Wood, we did the standard deposit and 1 months rent on move in.
On Council Tax (~Property Tax): Here property tax is levied against the occupants, not the owners. If you have an international student visa, you should not have to pay council tax (assuming your spouse is not British). However, just about everyone I’ve spoken with has been hit up for tax for the time between their arrival and the beginning of term (1 Oct). It worked out to £85 or so for the 2 months we were here. Although, it took several iterations (5 to be exact) with the local gov’t before they got down to the correct bill. This only applies to regular houses. That is, no issue if you are in college housing (again, assuming your spouse is not British).
On College Housing: Keenan House (Ustinov) has several advantages.: around other friends from the department, shares a parking lot with the hospital, and relatively new accommodations, near New College (a gym where we play BB), and decent price without utilities. The 1 bedroom apartments give the feel of college dorms. The 3 bedroomers feel like an apartment. The furnishings are “functional”. There is not any grass that I’ve seen for the kids to play on. It’s also at the top of a long hill from the school. It about a 20-30 walk to the city center. Probably the biggest draw back is no grocery store right near it. Some buy groceries from Tesco online, others buy them in the city center and walk them up, and others take the bus up.
BANKS. (Also see my post on British Banking) We originally tried to go with HSBC, but as an international student you have to sign up over the internet and then wait to receive some letter, which was an unacceptable wait for us. So I went over to Barclays and all it took was a 1-hr appointment with the student banking representative and a £2000 deposit to open an account. It can go below £2000 after that, but you’ll be charged a £5 fee each month that it is below £2000, which seemed to be standard across the other banks I looked at. To open the account, he’ll want your offer letter from DU back in the states as confirmation of your US address. We sold a condo in Dallas before coming so the address on that letter wouldn’t be going to any family (that is, until it got forwarded). Fortunately for me, he let us go ahead and use it b/c no mail will be sent there anyway. But I could definitely tell he was a little reluctant to do it, so if the address they sent the letter to you is different than your current US mailing address, I might not mention it. You can change it over the internet as soon as they set up your account anyway. We opened the bank account the day we found out that we were accepted for the house so we just used that address for the local one, but I believe they shouldn’t give much trouble using a Ustinov or other mailing address.
They are very much more particular about opening an account here than in the US (again, see my post on British Banking). I suppose you have heard, but if you bring a $ denominated check to open your account it will take about 6 weeks for it to clear. It was recommended to us to either get a check in £ or just pull £’s out of the ATM until you have enough to deposit, and we did the latter because our bank doesn’t charge for using other ATMs and it gave us a market exchange rate rather than a 2.5%+ charge. It seems that you can get £400 or £500 per day depending on which bank’s ATM you go to—we did mostly Barclays. But it will take a bit to get all the money you need with £2000 for bank deposit and £1400+ for house move in—not to mention eating, etc. when you arrive.
PHONE: I just called up BT to set up our phone the day we got approved for the house. It was very easy to set it up, and everything was finished over the phone. They did want a £50 deposit b/c no UK credit history, which they took from my US visa card. However, I had another friend whose card they wouldn’t take, so he just used ours and reimbursed us. You are charged for all but 0800 calls. Most companies use 0845 numbers which are 3-5p/min. Landline calls are 5p/min or so from BT.
We use Vonage to call people in the US and landline calls in the UK (for free). Just buy it in the US, and you get a US number people can call just like they would if you were in the US. It runs over DSL with no troubles, and it sounds like you are right next door. If you are interested in going with Vonage, let me know b/c we can both get discounts if I recommend you. Before the DSL got set up to use Vonage we used this number 0844 861 9090 to get 1p/min. calls to the US.
MOBILES: You almost have to go with a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) phone when you get here because you have no credit history. I wanted to get a PDA phone from T-Mobile after we had been here about 4 months. It took 4 separate trips, signing up over the web, and a £100 deposit, but I finally walked out with one. You are only charged when making calls, not when receiving, with PAYG and contract. The best route is to bring your phones from the states and just use them here (assuming they are GSM). Just make sure you get them unlocked so you can use another company’s sim card. There’s a little more info on my moving electronics to the UK post. See also a more extended discussion by a recent addition to the Durham phd family on Mobiles.
DSL: I tried to go with Sky, but they were really slow getting back with me because they were just rolling it out. My guess is that they don’t have enough servers to support VOIP calling (e.g., Vonage), as we experienced with Virgin.net. We have been very disappointed with Virgin, and would NOT recommend them. They were cheap, but had VERY poor customer service and didn’t have enough servers to handle all the traffic when the students arrived in October, so we were effectively unable to use Vonage. But the BT Broadband up to 8MB, with 6GB downloads works just fine. It’s comparably priced and definitely large enough to depend on for an adequate number of servers to maintain speed. Most DSL modems run £50+, so I would buy one in the US before you arrive. However, BT does give you a free one, so check with the provider you are interested in.
TV: There are no cable companies in Durham, so it’s Sky for satellite or rabbit ears. We got a 20″ TV for about £90, and there is an annual TV tax of £130. About half the TV shows or more seem to be from the US (except on the BBC channels). They don’t include English football games on the sports package, you have to pay extra for that if you are interested. Most just go to a local pub to watch. Although, weekly NFL games are televised on Sunday evenings here–usually four games per weekend. If you go with sky let me know, and I think we get discounts if I officially recommend you.
UTILITIES: Water, Gas, and Electric were automatically turned on before we moved in, under the same companies that the last tenant had. We eventually got letters from each service about a month after we moved in. There is a choice here for companies for gas and for electric, and you get discounts for direct debit and for using the same company for each. Instead of billing you for actual use monthly, you pay a flat amount each month of your choosing. (about £30-50/month for each). Then they adjust it each year. After a few months I went shopping and found USwitch.com to be handy for picking out the cheapest rates, and setting up the switch. Get your name and your spouse’s name on the bill, so your spouse can get a bank account. A paid utility bill is required for proof of address at the bank. I would strongly recommed against British Gas, as they have very poor systems for dealing with problems: see here and here.