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Tailor your rental for record-breaking numbers of international students

By Sophia Wood-Burgess

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International students are a massive part of why the lettings market is so busy in the summer. London’s esteemed universities garner significant international interest, and students in affluent APAC families provide a huge portion of the demand for luxury developments. Many sectors, including Build to Rent, rely on this student base for lease up. Freya Wan, Head of Foxtons Asia-Pacific (APAC) department, sat down for an interview to talk about what APAC international students are looking for right now.

Following 2020/2021’s record highs, 2022 is set to be another record-breaking year for UK student applications inside and outside the country, according to UCAS. By the 30 June 2022 deadline, “Applications from China increased by 10 per cent to 31,400” (UCAS). Term typically starts in September and London lettings are designed for short void periods, so right now, we're in peak student lettings season. Freya said, “We get a lot of enquiries in April, but most of the property is not available until July or August.”

In this article, we'll cover the following (click to go straight to a section):

What international students want from a rental

Freya has found that international students often prefer, “Build to Rent developments and New Builds with facilities like concierge, that are close to the university…some students want to have a six-month break clause. It doesn’t mean they only want to rent for six months, it’s because it may be the first time they are in London and they’re not quite sure.” It is challenging to choose an apartment in another country, especially if there are language and culture barriers. Foxtons APAC team help students to feel confident in their choices, but a six-month break clause also provides a nice safety net.

“Also, some of them want to go travel after graduation,” Freya explained. Students look for rentals with the option to rent for the 39 or 40 weeks of term time, so they can take the summer to explore the UK and Europe. The option of a modified rental contract – a slightly shorter tenancy length/a six-month break clause – might benefit landlords who hope to rent to international students.

Why students from APAC countries favour Build to Rent

There are many reasons international students enjoy Build to Rent. “Concierge is a must because then they feel that the place is safe. This also helps with online shopping and keys handling.” We find that APAC students also tend to regard new buildings higher, and appreciate the amenities Build to Rent developments provide.

Group work areaBuild to Rent developments often have great community spaces as part of the amenities. Areas to work and study as well as gyms, cafes, bars and an agenda full of networking opportunities can all be a big draw for international students. Freya noted a change that came with the pandemic, “A lot of universities, they are fully open but they still have online courses. COVID changed people’s habits, so classmates meet online, and then they can have a community space in their residents’ lounge or meeting room to study together and work on projects.” Coming such a long way to study in a different country can be isolating, so the community areas can provide valuable connections, as Sarah Tonkinson explained in answer to a question on additional incentives in her Build to Rent Management Q&A.

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Underrated areas of London for student lets

Students start their search close to campus, “A lot of students, like UCL students, want to find property close to UCL or in central London, where there is not much large-scale Build to Rent, not much available to rent.” Hurdles like planning restrictions and lack of space can impede Build to Rent in these central areas, whilst an area further out can take advantage of London’s exceptional transport links to provide luxury rentals for wealthy APAC students attending prestigious London universities. Sarah Tonkinson describes this in detail in her Q&A on the Build to Rent Market.

The Foxtons APAC Lettings team often help students to look outside their initial search areas for places they hadn’t considered, which may better fit their search parameters, “for example, Southall, because they have the Elizabeth line open, it actually is quite quick to Central. Many don’t know that Southall is just one stop – about 5 minutes – to Ealing, a more popular student area, and the rent is much cheaper.”

“Another area I would say has been increasingly popular is Vauxhall, because there are a lot of New Builds, and they keep building New Builds but the demand keeps growing. Transport here is very good…[students] can rent with all the luxury and facilities and they’re still in zone 1 and can take the underground.” Foxtons have a range of student houses in London available, find your accommodation with our search function.

Speed is key

In a typical year, August is peak lettings season across London, and this year, demand is reaching record heights. It’s fair to say international students have intense competition for the apartments they need, so speed is important, “Our APAC lettings team acts very quickly, and can help students secure a rental property quickly.” The APAC team provide guidelines through WeChat (Weixin) – an app that students are more likely to use than a traditional website. We began displaying a WeChat QR Code in many of our offices in 2021, and quickly gained over 4,000 connections. “Students find Foxtons APAC to be reliable, because we respond on WeChat. These students don’t really use email or phone calls,” Freya says.

WeChat logoNot only are international calls expensive, but WeChat is overwhelmingly preferred over email, especially in China. According to Statista, WeChat registered 1.28 billion active accounts in the first quarter of 2022. “Chinese students are not checking email daily, but they are checking [WeChat] constantly. That’s where they are expecting negotiators to reply in seconds,” Freya said, “We provide guides like ‘10 Tips to Secure a Property.’ A lot of students will apply for property on Rightmove or Zoopla and find the property is already gone.”

Freya's team helps students every day who have difficulty with tenancy agreements because of the language barrier. The team are fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, so they can help students and landlords understand and agree on the terms so students sign the tenancy agreement much quicker. She said, “We explain to them, from day one, what documents they require. For example, [Londoners] find it normal to provide a proof of address, but actually, …we don’t really use that in China. [Foxtons APAC Lettings team] know what documents can be accepted, and tell students in advance, so they have enough time to get ready. With the APAC lettings team, students and landlords can avoid a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunications.”

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A smoother transition; a better experience

Foxtons APAC team have been expanding into our Property Management to talk to students in Cantonese and Mandarin. This provides a better tenant experience and better level of care for the property, “After students move in, they still have a lot of questions because they’re new to the country – they might not know how to set up the bills.” If the property management speaks the tenant’s language, we see both the tenant and the landlord are happier with the relationship.

“We have articles and videos to explain what tenants need to be aware of after they move in. The check-in report, who to report maintenance to… most issues can be resolved easily earlier on, before they become bigger issues.”

The impact of COVID-19

The path to studying in the UK can take many years. Parents may prioritise it in early education, sending their children to schools that offer routes to study in the UK. This path could have been impeded by COVID restrictions. However, London is resilient. Chief Executive at UCAS Clare Marchant said, “the robust demand from China, India and Hong Kong, as well as demand from a number of new and emerging global regions, shows the enduring appeal of our world-class universities, with our recent report indicating that nearly 9 in 10 still view the UK as an attractive place to study."

Freya has noticed a positive trend, “Travel restrictions are now less…I see some parents come over with their kids in the fall for early education, too. In China, they spend 1/3 of their income on children’s education. That is a lot of money. So, more parents are coming over with their kids to get that experience.”

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Graduate route benefits to the property sector

The Graduate Route was announced in 2019, allowing international students to stay two years after graduation to pursue work opportunities (A PhD or doctoral qualification allows a three-year visa). The PSW (post-study work) visa is designed to boost the economy and bring in a wider talent pool. It also benefits the property market two-fold, as it makes UK programmes more appealing for international students and gives them more time in the country, which both may contribute to higher demands for rentals.

Peak lettings season in 2022 and 2023

This should be a busy month for Build to Rent managers, especially those with developments along transport lines that connect through to central London universities. We suspect many managers are counting on their estate agents, like ours are, to attract international audiences this summer.

Next year, competition may be even greater. The UK government is off to a strong start with their International Education Strategy. One ambition was to achieve 600,000 international higher education students in the UK per year by 2030, and they already achieved it with 605,130 students in 2021. This programme should advance the number of international students next year. If you ensure your agent has the reach to appeal to international students, next August could be key for your developments.

Get in touch with our Foxtons APAC Lettings team to make the most of this incredible demand.

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