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Renting a home

Many single parents rent a home for themselves and their children. This page explains the different types of rental housing – both private and council housing – and how to find it. 

It’s important to consider what’s right for your family – in terms of space, affordability, location and so on.

If you’re not working or are on a low income, you might be able to get help from the government towards your rent. You can apply for help with the cost of rent whether you’re living in council housing or privately rented accommodation. See our page on help with rent for more on financial support.

If you’re thinking of living with friends or family, you should still be able to claim benefits as a single parent, although the rules are different. You can get more information on this from Shelter.

If you’re homeless or about to be made homeless, you can apply to your local council for housing. This is a different process to applying to go on the general waiting list. See more about this – and Crisis and Shelter (or Shelter Cymru in Wales) have useful guidance on how to apply.

There are 3 main options when it comes to renting. You can rent a home through:

Renting privately

To rent privately, you usually have to prove that you have a certain income to cover the rent. The landlord or letting agency might also ask you for references. Most tenancy agreements will be for a set period of time – 6 or 12 months – and then roll over from there as long as both you and the landlord or letting agency are happy. 

Renting privately usually costs more than social housing. Before signing a contract to rent privately, you might want to check how much Universal Credit or Housing Benefit you could get to help with the rent. More on financial help with rent

Make sure you know the rental amount and how it will be paid or collected with your landlord or agency before you sign the agreement. Check the contract carefully before signing it and make sure you understand the terms & conditions and any charges you’ll have to pay. Ask the landlord or agency to explain anything you’re not sure about.

Shelter has lots of useful information about renting privately – including what to look for in a tenancy agreement. And Citizens Advice has useful guidance about finding a place to rent. The quickest way is usually online, where there are lots of search sites like Rightmove and Zoopla.

What you need to pay in advance

Private landlords usually ask you to pay the first month’s rent and a deposit before moving in. As long as you leave the property in the same state you found it, this deposit should be returned to you after you move out. 

Moving into a private property can be quite expensive. You might be able to get a Discretionary Housing Payment, a Budgeting Advance or Budgeting Loan from your council to help with things like the deposit, your first month’s rent or moving costs. See our page on help with rent for more.

Protecting your deposit

If you sign a rental contract for at least 6 months (called an assured shorthold tenancy), your landlord has to put your deposit money in a secure deposit scheme. They should give you details of the scheme, including contact details for the company who’s holding your deposit. That company can help you if you have a dispute with the landlord about getting your deposit back when you leave. You can find more about tenancy deposit protection on gov.uk.

In Wales, almost all private tenants must have their deposits protected in a secure scheme. Shelter Cymru has more information. 

Council housing

This is when you rent from either your local council or a housing association, a private, not-for-profit organisation. The rent for a council property is usually lower than a housing association home, which in turn is lower than renting privately. 

Most councils have one register for both council housing and housing association homes. Some housing associations have an open register and you can apply directly to them. But most will only take people who have been nominated by the local council.

Local councils have different systems for allocating social housing. It might be:                

  • A waiting list: the council will tell you when a home is available     
  • Choice-based lettings: you can bid for homes that you’re eligible to apply for     
  • A combination of both systems           

The council will always give housing to people with the highest need (called priority need) first. This includes people with children and at risk of domestic abuse.

Moving into a new property can be quite expensive. You might be able to get financial help from your council to help with things like the deposit, your first month’s rent or moving costs. See our page on help with rent for more.

Who can apply for council housing?

Councils have different criteria for who can apply and who gets priority.  Priority groups include people trying to get away from domestic abuse or whose child needs to attend a special school in the area. You can check your local council’s housing policy to see if you can go on your area’s housing list or register. Shelter has in-depth advice about how to apply for council housing.

If you’re not a British citizen or don’t have the right to live in the UK, check whether you can apply for social housing. It’s a good idea to  get advice before you apply. You can get immigration advice through Citizens Advice, who can refer you to a specialist adviser if you need one.

How do I apply?

You can apply for social housing by either:

  • Applying directly to the council   
  • Being referred from a hostel or voluntary agency (if you’re already living in accommodation owned by them)
  • Making a homeless application 

Speak to the housing department at your local council to find out how to apply. Shelter or Citizens Advice can help if you’re not sure whether you should make an ordinary housing application or a homeless application.

What will happen after I’ve applied?

The council will let you know whether you’ve been accepted. Generally, you’ll need to have lived or worked in the area for a certain amount of time. There are some exceptions to this, for example if you’re in a refuge because you’re escaping from domestic violence. 

The council will tell you whether you need to wait on the list until you’re offered a home, or whether you’ll be expected to make bids. They will also tell you what priority of housing need you’ve been assessed as having. 

The council should give you an idea of how long you have to wait for an offer of a home. The waiting time will depend on the priority of your housing need and the accommodation available. It’s important to let your council know if you become pregnant or have another child, as this will change your position on the housing list. You could be on the list for months or even years, even if you’re in a priority group.

How is the priority of my application decided?

Councils generally use priority systems to allocate housing, although some still use points systems or waiting lists.

You should be given priority if you:

  • Are homeless or trying to get away from domestic abuse
  • Are living in unsatisfactory conditions, such as a home that has mould or is too small for your family
  • Need to move because of your health or wellbeing – for example, to adapted housing if you have a physical disability 
  • Need to move to a particular area and not doing so would cause hardship to you or to others – for example, because your child goes to a special school in the area or you need specialist medical treatment
What choice of accommodation will I have?

Your choice of accommodation will depend on what’s available. In many places there’s a shortage of council housing.

If you’re offered a home, check that it suits your needs. For example, make sure there are enough bedrooms for everyone, or that it has the adaptations you need if you’re disabled. 

If you refuse a home you’re offered and your council disagrees with your reasons for turning it down, this could affect your place on the housing register. You could be moved down or removed from the register altogether. It’s a good idea to speak to Shelter or Citizens Advice before refusing any accommodation.

Can I apply for council housing if I own my own home?

Yes. Even if you’re living in a home you own, the council should consider your housing application in the same way. You could still be at risk of homelessness if, for example, you can’t afford your home anymore or you need to sell it because your relationship is ending. You can also apply if you’re living in poor conditions and wouldn’t be able to afford to rent privately or buy somewhere else even if you sold your home. 

More on council housing from Shelter.

Housing cooperatives

A housing cooperative is where properties are managed and sometimes owned by the members of a cooperative, a small housing organisation. 

It can be hard to get a cooperative home – vacancies are rare. You might have to apply through your council’s housing register, or directly to the housing cooperative. It can be useful to know someone who already lives there to find out about available properties.

Rent will usually be lower than renting privately, but higher than renting through a council or housing association. There are different types of housing co-operatives, including those where tenants have been involved in building the properties.

You can find out more about housing cooperatives from  Radical Routes and the Confederation of Cooperative Housing.   

Date last updated: 23 July 2024

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