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Applying for housing from the council, a housing association or housing co-op

This page explains more about the application process for housing from the council, a housing association or housing cooperative. It looks at how waiting lists work and how councils assess priority when allocating housing.

On this page, the term 'registered social landlords', or RSL, is used to cover both housing associations and housing cooperatives. 

How do I apply and what should I include on my application form?

Before you fill in your application form, make sure you understand the allocation system and how points are awarded. This should be outlined in a leaflet supplied with the application form, or you can ask the council, housing association or housing co-op to provide you with a list of their allocation rules. The application form should ask you for information about everyone who will live with you.

Make sure you don't miss out any information that could give you extra points. If you're not sure what information to include, you can ask the council housing department or RSL, or get independent advice from a Shelter advice centre or Citizens Advice. You will get an application form from your council or the housing co-operative / registered social landlord you want to get housing from. Some areas let you fill in one form for council housing, housing co-operatives and registered social landlords' housing, this means you'll be put on the 'common housing register' - see below.

If, after submitting your form, you think of something else you should have added, or if your circumstances change, contact the council's housing department or the RSL and ask them to amend your application. It's particularly important to let them know if your contact details change. If they can't get in touch with you, they may remove you from the waiting list.

You have a right to check the information you've supplied to a housing department or RSL, to make sure it's recorded correctly. Contact your council or housing association if you'd like to do this.

What is a common housing register?

A common housing register is a joint waiting list for housing from the council and from local housing associations and housing cooperatives. Putting your name down on a common housing register not only increases your chances of getting accommodation, but can save you a lot of time and trouble, as it means you won't have to make separate applications to the council and to all the individual housing associations and co-ops in your area. Ask the council's housing department if there is a common housing register for your area.

What happens next?

Once you have made your application, the council or RSL will look at your form and decide how many points you should get. This will determine your place on the waiting list. Someone from the council's housing department or RSL's office may need to visit you in your current home to see what it's like and check whether it is overcrowded or unsuitable for you to live in.

Unfortunately, once you are on the list you may have to wait a long time, and in some areas you may not get housing at all. However, the council or RSL should keep you informed of your progress on the list.


How do waiting lists work?

When you apply for housing from the council or an RSL, you will be added to a waiting list. Housing waiting lists can be very long indeed, and will include all kinds of people looking for different accommodation, including:

  • people who are homeless
  • people with special needs
  • people who want to move (or transfer) from one council or RSL property to another.

Waiting lists don't work on a 'first come, first served' basis. Instead, the council or RSL will assess how much you need a new home, and prioritise applicants according to their need. For example, they will prioritise people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, and people whose current homes are not suitable for them to live in.

Councils and RSLs usually use a points system when prioritising people. For example, you will be awarded points if you are homeless or if your home is damp, overcrowded, or lacking basic amenities. The more points you get, the higher up the waiting list you will be. Even if you are very near the top of the list, other people may be able to join the list above you if they have more points.

Read the page on allocation policies to find out how points can be awarded. Remember that allocation policies vary between different councils and RSLs: ask how their systems work before you apply. 

How long will I stay on the waiting list?

The length of time your name will stay on the waiting list varies depending on council or RSL policy. Some places will withdraw your application after a year, unless you reapply. In this case, they will probably send you a form to fill in to update your details.

The length of time you'll have to wait will depend on:

  • how much council or RSL housing there is in your area and how often vacancies come up
  • the number of priority points you've been awarded
  • how many other applicants are ahead of you on the waiting list.

Make sure the council or RSL always has your current address. If they write to you and you don't get back to them, they may remove you from the waiting list.


Will I be offered more than one property?

Councils and RSLs don't have to make you more than one offer of housing. Some will only offer you one property, whilst others may make you several offers. When you make your application, ask how many offers you will get.

If your council or RSL does have a policy of offering more than one property, you will have to refuse one before you are offered another; you won't be given a choice. In addition, you may have to tell them why you're turning the property down, and they may impose a 'penalty' if you turn down a home without good reason. For example, they could refuse to make you any further offers of housing for six months, or they could withdraw your priority. Find out what their policy is on refusals before you make any decisions.

If you turn down an offer of housing and then make a homeless application to the council, it may decide you made yourself homeless intentionally, in which case it won't offer you long term help.

Get advice from a Shelter advice centre or Citizens Advice before you turn down an offer of housing. If there is not much housing available in your area, it's probably best not to turn it down.

What is choice based letting?

Some councils are moving away from a points based waiting list in favour of a choice based letting scheme. This means the council advertises available properties and instead of adding your name to the waiting list, you bid for places where you would like to live and which are suitable for you (for example, you can't bid for properties which are too big or too small for your family). If more than one person bids for a property, it will usually go to the person who has been waiting the longest. Some people may also have special priority, for example, because they are homeless or have health problems.

Edinburgh Council's website has more information on their choice based letting system.

If you are having problems with choice based letting (for example, if you think you should have priority on the waiting list because you have health problems, or if you have been bidding unsuccessfully for a long time), you can get help and advice from a Shelter advice centre, Citizens Advice or other local advice agency.

Scotland map Housing laws differ between Scotland and England.
This content applies to Scotland only.
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The important points

  • When you apply for housing from the council or an RSL, you will be added to a waiting list.
  • Waiting lists don't work on a 'first come, first served' basis. Instead, the council or RSL will assess how much you need a new home, and prioritise applicants according to their need.
  • The length of time your name will stay on the waiting list varies depending on council or RSL allocation policy.
  • Make sure the council or RSL always has your current address. In case they need to get in touch with you.

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