College is a time to learn … and make mistakes. And probably one of the steepest learning curves—aside from “don’t live on credit cards” and “no sleep, Red Bull, and midterms aren’t a great mix”—has to do with finding your own apartment. Sure, graduating from dorms to your own digs is exciting. However, far too many are so eager to snag their first apartment, they make decisions they end up regretting long before a school year ends.
That’s why, in this latest installment of our College Student’s Guide to Living on Your Own, we highlight some of the biggest mistakes college students (and grads) make when renting their first apartment. Make sure to study up on what not to do so you can find a place you adore—and can afford—for the long haul.
1. Going over budget
A good rule of thumb is that your monthly rent should be equal to one-third of your take-home salary. So, if you earn (or have access to) $3,000 a month after taxes, your rent should be no more than $1,000—at least in theory. If an apartment doesn’t fit into this budget range, you may have to settle for something with less pizzazz.
And remember, you still have to pay for food, utilities, student loans, transportation, and a host of other things that come with living on your own. Here’s more on how much rent a college student can afford.
2. Renting an apartment without seeing it in person
Many college grads do their apartment hunting on the internet, a great way to see what’s available from the comfort of your couch. However, it doesn’t always show the whole picture.
“More often than not, apartment agencies or landlords post photos of a display room,” says Carlee Linden, a real estate expert at Home Loans. “However, not all rooms are guaranteed to be exactly the same.”
To avoid any surprises, Linden suggests asking the landlord or agency to walk through the apartment you’d be renting or at least one similar to it. Ask when the last update to the apartment was and if there are plans for updating it in the future.
3. Choosing by looks alone
Of course you want a pad that suits your style, but when it comes to your first apartment, it has to be about substance too.
Amica Graber, a college grad in San Diego, CA, says she had grand plans about what she wanted her first apartment to look like—charming and quaint, with big, old-fashioned windows. Unfortunately, she failed to think about much beyond that.
“This is how I found myself stuck with leaky pipes, no central AC for the blazing-hot summers, and a serious pest problem,” she says. “I found myself stuck on the phone with the landlord every week, pleading with him to send someone around to fix all of the problems that are inherent with old properties. The ‘charm’ ran out fast.”
4. Paying for amenities you don’t need
Sure, you’re salivating over that roof deck or gym in the building. But keep in mind that even if you don’t use them, you’re probably paying for them. And that can mean a substantial waste of cash.
And how badly do you want or need a doorman building? Know that it’ll cost you.
Case in point: According to a July 2018 rental market report, the average one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan in a luxury building with a doorman was $4,856 a month. In comparison, a one-bedroom unit in a walk-up went for $2,825—a difference of more than 40%.
“If you can live without private pools, gyms, and other bells and whistles, the savings can be considerable, even in many high-demand areas,” says Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats in New York.
5. Going it alone rather than having a roommate
As much as you may be over having a roommate after those cramped dorm days, you may need to find one to help share the expenses, especially if you’re living in an expensive city and/or are on a tight budget.
Remember, it’s not just rent that you split, but also utilities, the cost of furnishing your place, and other expenses. In addition to the financial benefits of shared housing, having a roommate can provide an added sense of security and peace of mind.
6. Choosing the wrong roommate (such as a friend)
If you do need a roommate, make sure you choose one wisely. While moving in with a friend seems like a safe scenario, that may not always be the best route.
“It’s much harder to set boundaries with your friends than a roommate,” Graber says. “Are you going to be comfortable asking for their late rent check, or set some ground rules about how you’re going to split household chores? It may be easier to set rules with someone you don’t know well, than with one of your closest friends. After all, the last thing you want to do is fall out with a friend over a late utility bill.”
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