Sooner or later, many college students outgrow dorms and set off to find their own digs. Renting an apartment offers a lot more independence—but first, you’ve got to find a place. That’s where our College Student’s Guide to Living on Your Own can help.
In our last installment in this new series on moving out from under Mom and Dad’s roof, we helped answer the question “How Much Rent Can a College Student Afford?” Once you know what your budget is, it’s time to find the right apartment for you.
Here are the steps!
Where to search for apartments
Your starting point should be your college’s off-campus housing office. If your school has one (and many do), it’ll likely have a list of apartments in the area being offered by reputable landlords.
Of course, you can also look for apartments online. In addition to viewing rental listings on realtor.com®, check out apartments for rent on Craigslist and social media. (A lot of schools have unofficial Facebook groups for off-campus housing.) But be wary of scams—no reputable landlord would ask you for money before you view the unit.
Don’t have all day to spend searching for new apartment postings? Set up some Google alerts, and “include in your search keyword phrases that regularly pop up in listings—like ‘property details’ and ‘schools and neighborhood,'” says marketing communications specialist Rachel Chapdelaine.
Another option is to use a real estate agent who works with rentals. This person can help you find apartments (listings you might not have access to yourself), negotiate with landlords, and review lease agreements. The obvious catch, though, is the pro generally charges a broker’s fee. Fees vary depending on the broker and the city, but some rental agents charge clients one month’s rent or 15% of the annual rent for their services.
How to scrutinize neighborhoods
Finding a great apartment means finding the right neighborhood—ideally near campus. A number of websites offer valuable neighborhood intel, including AreaVibes.com, NeighborhoodScout.com, as well as realtor.com/local. But you’ll also want to do your own reconnaissance in person.
Pro tip: Check out the neighborhood at different times of the day. Visiting an area at night, for instance, can give you a sense of how safe you’ll feel and what the noise levels are like once the sun goes down.
Want a neighborhood where you don’t need a car? Check out how centrally located the place is for walking or taking public transportation to all the places you’ll want to go.
How to research a landlord
Unfortunately, “a lot of college landlords are shady and try to take advantage of renters,” says Nora Bradbury-Haehl, co-author of “The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything In Between.” To fully vet a prospective landlord, look at what previous tenants have to say in online reviews on sites such as Yelp.com and ReviewMyLandlord.com.
Find out a landlord has consistently bad reviews? Run, don’t walk, to the next apartment on your list.
Be prepared to apply quickly
Sweet apartments get snatched up fast, especially in small college towns where a large number of students are competing for a small slice of off-campus housing options. Be ready to submit an application ASAP by having references, credit checks, and deposits lined up, advises Conrad Pool, president of Sleepwell Property Management. Don’t miss out on your dream apartment because you’re unprepared, or dragging your feet.
What to check on a lease
Once you find an apartment you love and the landlord has agreed to have you live there, he’ll hand you a lease—a legally binding agreement that outlines important information you’ll need to know. Alas, that info is often obfuscated in dense legalese. These are the five most important lease terms for you to review:
- The lease term: A standard lease agreement is 12 months, but terms can vary.
- The security deposit: Every state allows landlords to charge a security deposit, but the amount varies. In some states, limits are as low as $100, while others are allowed to ask for several months’ rent, says Michael Vraa, managing attorney and hotline director at HOME Line, a nonprofit tenant advocacy group in Minneapolis. In addition, each state puts a limit on when security deposits have to be returned to tenants (generally, landlords have 30 days after you move out), but what you should get back, and when, will be spelled out in the lease.
- The rent due date: In addition to knowing how much rent is, you need to know when it’s due. Generally, lease agreements give tenants a grace period—a set number of days you have after your rent is due to pay without incurring a late fee. The late fee will also be dictated in the lease.
- Parking: If you have a car, the lease should specify whether you get a designated parking spot, and how much that spot is going to cost per month.
- The number of occupants: Most individually owned apartments and leasing buildings don’t allow more than two people per bedroom, including children, says Natalie Young of A+ Apartment Locating in Austin, TX.
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