Student housing is pretty notorious for being terrible. Beans on toast, no heating and thin walls are three pillars of the typical student lifestyle. Whilst the rise of ultra-pricey, ultra-glam, ‘Instagrammable’ student accommodation has left those who can afford it with beautiful high-rise city centre apartments, there’s still a lot of housing options that don’t hit the mark and seem stuck in the past.
Law graduate Natasha Hopewell, 24, is trying to change this by encouraging students to shame bad landlords via her website, CribAdvisor.
CribAdvisor works similarly to TripAdvisor, where currently leasing or previous tenants can leave reviews for their student accommodation, be it letting agents, private landlords or student halls.
When signing up, users must input their student email address to verify their status to ensure it’s non-biased.
Natasha worked on the site throughout her third year at University of Lincoln and ended up leaving her job after uni to concentrate on running the website full-time – and reckons it is worth the gamble.
She spoke to Student Problems from her home in Leicester:
“It’s such an important decision when you choose who to let with for a year. You only really go through two or three providers, so even your mates might not have the best insight on who to suggest,” she explained.
“The letting agents that I’d chosen, all through my years at university, had been terrible every time. Why wasn’t there a place for all students to come together and put their thoughts in one place?”
So, with a couple of friends, she decided to put exactly that together.
Lawrence Thorpe, 25, is Natasha’s former housemate and the web developer for CribAdvisor, whilst Dominic O’Connor, 25, a graduate from Leicester’s De Monfort University, is the graphic designer and social media manager.
“They’re both fantastic, because they see what I say and have the ability to make it a reality,” Natasha says.
Students often let their properties very early – before they’ve had a chance to properly investigate various letting agencies.
“It’s a real problem,” Natasha explained. “None of you are experienced with what you’re looking for. You’re quite naïve,
“It may be the case that landlords with the biggest advertising budget get you, because they’re on Facebook – but that doesn’t mean they’re the most suitable provider for you.”
CribAdvisor, she asserts, is more about putting power into the students’ hands, rather than bringing down landlords, “we just want people to have the power to have an informed decision.”
They launched in Lincoln in July 2019 with a ‘soft launch,’ where people receiving their deposits back from the year before reviewed how simple this process was.
This was met with such a positive response, they knew they had to accelerate the full roll-out in Lincoln to Freshers’ Week in September:
“People we were speaking to had really positive responses ‘why hasn’t this existed before?!’”
They expected negative feedback from the housing providers, but as soon as they launched, the team were getting calls and emails from letting agencies attempting to sign up to the site.
Natasha says landlords see it as a great way to get anonymous feedback.
“We had a provider reach out to us – and we were concerned, because they’d had some negative reviews – but they said because of this review, we’ve changed the way we monitor maintenance jobs being completed,
“So in our first week we’d already seen providers changing for the better because of a review that was left on our website.”
Student users can update their review an unlimited amount of times throughout the tenancy.
It’s a pretty clever move.
“This means that the providers are encouraged to address the issues during the tenancy period – not at the end when they’ve moved out. We don’t want them to be condemned – we want them to change it for the benefit of the tenant.”
The landlords have a right to reply – and Natasha is waiting to roll out CribAdviser across the country until they’ve communicated with letting agents up and down Britain.
“So far, there’s been a very enthusiastic response from all providers. We gave them all a breakdown of what we want to achieve – I offered to meet every one of them,
“A couple of smaller letting agents were a bit skeptical. The larger ones were very excited,
“They wanted to know what we were. Both of them left the conversation positive – wanting to stay on the site.”
Not to say there hasn’t been any pushback:
“We had a landlord who rang us because they received a negative review. It surprised me how personally they take it,
“Landlords aren’t used to getting reviews. Speaking to him on the phone – I told him we’re in a generation that’s used to taking reviews with a pinch of salt – Amazon, TripAdvisor, as examples – so warned against taking the single one-star review too personally, next to five nine-stars,
“I explained to him the importance of responding in a professional way and he left feeling okay about it – it’s just getting used to the idea of getting reviewed.”
The review remained on-site.
“I get in touch with every provider and let them know to contact us with any issues – they all have my email address and phone number,
“In our terms and conditions, the landlord promises not to contact a tenant they believe, or expect, to have left reviews.”
She’s aiming to get as many students aware of, and involved, with the website as possible – because rolling out around the country is entirely dependent on people actually using the platform.
“We have a number of student volunteers working hard to help us develop more of our Tenant Rights Guides, to be published on our Tenant Rights Page and used by students across the UK.”
Ultimately, Natasha still wants to get her masters and become a barrister:
“I will not rejoin my academic career until the site is helping people in the way we envisioned it would,
“I want to make sure our passion and vision for the site is never compromised. We don’t want to take any money from student accommodation providers – that would bias the user rankings,
“We don’t want anyone to come in and see it as a business opportunity that would compromise us,
“Only when I’m in a position to ensure that would I hand it over – or step aside – it’ll always be my baby.”