When it comes to housing, most colleges have a pretty clear breakdown of what to expect in on-campus dorm arrangements - everything for pricing, meal plans, and transportation logistics, all the way to roommates, dorm layouts, and common area amenities. In many cases, colleges even promise guaranteed housing for 2, 3 or even all 4 years, which makes the housing search either much easier, or non-existent for many students. However, if you’re like me, you might attend a college that cannot actually guarantee more than 1 year of housing in campus-owned set-ups, so you’ll be responsible for figuring out arrangements for the majority of your time as a student.
Because of rising housing prices in particularly urban areas (larger cities where rapid development and expensive housing is becoming more common), many college students are learning the hard way that living close to campus can be extremely expensive. However, if you start your search early, you know what to look for, and you prepare questions to ask potential landlords ahead of time, you can set yourself up for a much easier process, and save a lot of anxiety in the long run.
(For more information about finding off-campus housing, check out our video on YouTube where I talk all about my experience and give some great tips: youtu.be/v5NvSj5JWa4)
So, to begin, think about your priorities, and start by looking at listings on various sites (Craigslist, Apartments.com, etc.). Oftentimes, you can also contact your college’s residential program to get advice on finding local listings.
1. What location/area of campus would you prefer to live in? Are you interested in being able to walk to nearby parks, grocery stores, theaters, or campus itself? Do you want to be near a bus line that can take you to campus or elsewhere? Are you easily bothered by street noise? Are there certain areas of the city that your college is in that may not be safe enough for you to feel comfortable walking around? Additionally, what do apartment prices look like in those different neighborhoods, and is a desirable location an affordable amenity for your own budget?
2. How many people do you want to live with? Are you willing to live in a double (sharing your room), or do you want to pay a little bit more for your own room?
3. What internal amenities are important to your style of living? Do you need a dishwasher, garbage disposal, and/or washer/dryer in in your unit? Are you okay with walking to a local laundromat instead?
4. Do you want to live in an apartment, a condo, or shared house? You can also think about whether or not a sorority/fraternity is something you are interested in, or if your college has apartment or cooperative housing (co-op housing) as well. Check your individual university housing site for those options. For these options, think about the kinds of security and community they provide.
5. Do you want outdoor space that is accessible to your living arrangement (apartment rooftop, common garden area, etc.). Especially during COVID-19, this could be a priority for students learning/working from home: a chance to get outside during the day/night while still being within the safety of your own housing community.
Once you brainstorm your own priorities, you can set out in search of the perfect living arrangement. By looking at reasonable prices near you, you can decide what combination of location, price, amenities, and layout work best for you. If you are a grant recipient and qualify for financial aid, check in with your university to see if they have advice on local apartment owners that offer affordable student housing options, or ask the leasing office that you contact when searching for a place. Based on your family income and financial situation, you may be able to find options that are well-suited for your situation. In any case, when it comes time to really ask the hard questions and learn about a potential apartment/home to rent, here are some things to think about (and ask the landlord):
1. How long is the lease term? (month-to-month (you can give notice and leave at the end of any month), 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, etc.) This is important to know before signing a lease, because you will be tied to an agreement to pay rent each month for that period of time. There is usually a hefty fee for breaking your lease early.
2. What is included in the rent? Usually, tenants (you) will have to pay the base rent (listed price), plus utilities (which can include water, gas, electricity, heat/AC, garbage, parking, yard care, internet, etc.) Ask what is included and what you yourself will need to cover in addition to the base rent. Additionally, ask if the utilities are metered by apartment or split among all tenants (this can be important and can really change the cost of utilities).
3. What is the security deposit? Usually, you will have to put down a sum of money that acts as collateral: your landlord is assured by that amount that you will not damage your apartment or break the terms of your lease, and as long as you follow those terms, the deposit is refunded in full. If your apartment suffers damage during your lease.
4. Is renter’s insurance required? Sometimes landlords require that tenants have renters insurance to cover belongings if they are stolen or damaged in a natural disaster (liability coverage too for cases in which someone is injured on the property).
5. Are pets allowed? If you have any furry friends joining you for your lease, make sure to ask the landlord beforehand. Oftentimes, apartments do not allow pets without a deposit or added monthly fee. (Service animals are required to be allowed if they are registered in many places, but this should be talked about with your landlord beforehand).
6. What is the limit on the number of tenants allowed on this lease? Adding more people to the lease and sharing rooms can make for cheaper rent, but most of the time there is a limit to what apartments will allow (occupancy restrictions dictated by the city/neighborhood).
7. Is there any known construction planned for the building or nearby? Sometimes, landlords will not know, but they are generally notified well in advance of something going on around the location. They should tell you this information, because it would severely change the atmosphere and noise level, as well as any dust or potential damage/danger that could happen.
8. How/when is rent paid? You should figure out when the lease start and end date would be, and which day every month you would need to have your rent submitted by. Also, will you use a paper check, direct deposit through an online portal, etc.?
9. Is the apartment “rent-controlled?” Most older apartments are rent controlled, while newer developments are not, which means there is not a protection/limit on the percent increase that can occur with your rent price after each lease cycle. This means that if you are planning on staying in the same place for more than 1 lease cycle, your rent could go up hundreds of dollars, to the point where you couldn't afford it anymore. Figure out the apartment’ s classification, and do some research on the trajectory of prices in the area.
10. Are there any important rules or expectations that the landlord has in terms of altering the apartment (nails in the wall, painting, installing wires), noise level, trash maintenance, etc.? This is important to know in order to save yourself from getting dinged on your security deposit later on, or souring your relationship with your landlord unintentionally.
11. Most importantly, read your entire lease before singing it. Make sure that the landlord has included policies such as “entering your apartment when you are not home,” “when and how to pay rent,” and things of this nature.
Look out for:
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.