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Empty nest? Make up the spare room and earn up to €14k tax-free

Student digs are back in fashion, and providing them can be a nice little earner for homeowners, writes Tanya Sweeney


Mairead Corr in the guest bedroom at her home in Ranelagh

Mairead Corr in the guest bedroom at her home in Ranelagh

Mairead Corr in the guest bedroom at her home in Ranelagh

For a great many years, thanks in part to on-campus complexes and the time-honoured flat share, student digs fell out of fashion. Historically, homeowners would rent rooms to students on Monday to Friday, with the unspoken agreement often in place that the student would return to their home county on the weekends.

The cooking on offer was basic, as was the room, but digs were preferable to a commute from rural Ireland.

Figures show that while 10pc of Irish students stayed in digs in 2000, the figure dropped to 2pc in 2006.

A landlady, willing though she might have been to cook and clean, became less preferable to Pot Noodles and parties, especially for those straining to be let off the leash. For youngsters experiencing their first ambrosial taste of independence, moving out of the family home and into another was often a last resort.


Mairead Corr in her Dublin home

Mairead Corr in her Dublin home

Mairead Corr in her Dublin home

Yet for those with spare rooms to rent, the unforgiving headlines about students and the Insta generation in general - not to mention more recent factors like the advent of cash cows like Airbnb - have also been off-putting.

But now, the scrum is on to find student accommodation, and with a shortage of supply, the tide has turned back again to the humble digs. Even ministers, among them Education Minister Richard Bruton, are recommending the digs model to students and homeowners alike, not least as a way to ease the growing student housing crisis.

On campus, the rental figures have started to climb: UCD's student rooms are the most expensive, with accommodation costing between €6,792 and €8,334 in September. UCD has raised the price of on-campus rent by an average of 38pc since 2014.

Yet according to Dr Brian Gormley, Head of Campus Life at DIT, all indications show that the figures of students renting rooms in family homes has 'increased dramatically' since its 2006 nadir.

"Homeowners are increasingly looking into the digs option," he says. "Many of my city centre neighbours rent out rooms to students. Students have a kind of antiquated view around digs, and worry about not having the freedom and independence they'd have if they rented on their own.

"But in reality, that's not the experience that they have. Survey results show that students who live in digs are happier than those who live in independent accommodation. And why not? Meals and utilities are often looked after, and the houses are warm and well kept, which might not be the case in a private rental. It's a win-win."

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And a growing number of people are realising the merits in not just a tax-free cash injection of up to €14,000 a year, but some younger and spirited company to boot.

Mairead Corr lives in a five-bedroom house in Ranelagh with her husband and four children (aged between 12 and six). On her decision to rent to students from the Royal College of Surgeons (via homestay.com), she says: "They're quite easy to have around. This is a vivacious and active house, and the comings and goings of students suits us. We're also quite close to town, and the Luas leaves students directly at the door of the college. They are also quite studious and have a very long day - you don't have to deal with a student who has six hours of lectures a week."

Mairead and her family offer a home away from home for students who might be experiencing their first time living away from parents, but when it comes to mammying, she takes a hard line.

Towels and bedclothes are changed once a week, and the students are encouraged to contribute in small ways, like emptying the dishwasher.

"I always say to them, 'You only have one mammy'," she explains. "I had to learn that lesson as I started mammying them. When I was cooking for them, it was like Great Aunt Emily was at the head of the table - 'eat your potatoes'. Now, the students cook for themselves, have an allocated place in the freezer, and the whole family knows not to go near the third floor [where the student's room is]."

For Mairead, having adult company in the house is a boon. "I was overrun with children, and when someone is staying with you, we behave better as a family, and I behave better as a parent. We've learned to let them do their thing. If they want to sit in their room, that's fine, but many of them will sit in with us for a Saturday night movie.

"So many people have said to me, 'I don't know if I could [take in students] myself," adds Mairead. "But the money is lovely and appreciated. We've never looked back, and we've never had a problem. My children have had 'Happy Birthday' sung to them by people from around the world."

Down in Limerick, Liam Farrell opened his family home in Corbally, which he shares with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. His first charge, which he found via student accommodation website CollegeCribs.ie, was a first-year student from the UK.

"We were nervous as we didn't know who or what we were getting, but we didn't see her all day," he says. "She had her breakfast and dinner up in her room and while she was lovely, she never came near us. By the end of the year, you could definitely see more maturity and independence in her. A year makes a huge difference in that regard."

Still, Liam and his family helped her find her way around Limerick, cycling her to college and walking her to buses in a bid to help her find her feet.

"She broke her foot during the year, so I dropped her back and forth to college for a few months," he says.

Again, Liam found that creating rules - first and foremost, to respect that theirs was a family home - helped in creating harmony.

"During Rag Week, she did ask if her boyfriend could stay, but we said no as her room was next door to our daughter's," he says. "She respected that. No harm in her asking, I suppose! In any case, we're doing it all over again this year, which you wouldn't even consider if it was bad last year."

Mum-of-three Emma-Jane O'Connor opened her Stepaside home to UCD students after her eldest two children flew the nest, again via CollegeCribs.ie.

"My youngest is in UCD, and we have a big house with two empty rooms," she explains. "One mother contacted me about the room for one of her kids, and she told me that what we were offering was half the fees for on-campus accommodation for the year."

It's a busy household, with Emma-Jane and her husband rising early for work. Awareness of the family routine, she notes, is paramount for students.

"We have rules like 'no talking on the phone after a certain time at night'," she reveals. "Creating rules has never proved a problem. And it makes for an environment that is better for them to study in.

"I've been very lucky personally," she says, referring to the students that have lived with the family. "There was one who was a little disrespectful of the house, but he was leaving in such a short amount of time, it was just a matter of gritting my teeth for a while. None of them has ever been a party animal. I have told them, 'If you come home after a night out, you'll have to be quiet or we may have to review things'."

To anyone considering taking in a student for a financial boost, Emma-Jane says: "My advice would be to tread carefully.

''Make sure that the arrangement suits the family. A set of rules and guidelines in black and white, and a deposit, often help everything go well for everyone."

How to run hassle-free digs

  • Use sites like hostingpower.ie, homestay.com and CollegeCribs.ie: some of which vet students using an ID and credit card check.
  • If peace and quiet is your thing, try looking for a mature student or someone doing post-doctoral studies, as they will likely be more elfsufficient.
  • Lay down ground rules from the outset; don’t be afraid to tell your tenant that you’d like to make a family meal at a certain time each day, or that you and your family will need the bathroom at a fixed point each morning.
  • A little hospitality goes a long way, so be prepared on occasion to share your common areas like sitting rooms. After all, your house is now their home, too.

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