As a college student, you’ve lived through dorm room experiences that were awful, hilarious and sometimes even fun. You’ve seen way more of your roommates than you ever wanted to, and you’ve tried to study through the party going on next door. You’ve hung out with friends, stressed over exams and cooked more packets of ramen noodles in your mini-microwave than you ever thought possible.
But all good — and terrible — things must come to an end, and the dorm room experience is no exception. You’ve decided it’s time to abandon the tiny double room and public bathrooms of your college dorm and instead rent a place for yourself. Easy, right?
Not so much. No matter how many classes you’ve taken on gender studies, research methods and abnormal psychology, there never seems to be a class on the really useful life skills. No one sits you down and teaches you how to pay your taxes, how to recognize when a car salesman is trying to scam you — or, in this case, how to rent an apartment as a college student.
Renting as a student can be a complicated process with a lot of technical ins and outs no one prepares you for. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to tell you everything you need to know as you begin this process. We’ll try to answer the most pressing questions you might have, and teach you the top apartment renting tips and tricks to keep in mind as you begin browsing nearby apartment listings.
Don’t Wait To Look For a College Apartment
Here’s the thing about college towns — rentals go fast. Really fast. Even if you go to a small school, think about the sheer number of students who are going to be looking for rentals within a few miles of the school. If you go to a large school, this becomes an even bigger problem.
If you decide to wait until a week or so before school begins, you probably won’t be able to find an apartment. And if you do, it will be one everyone else has already passed on — either because it’s too expensive, it’s in a bad neighborhood or it has insulation falling out of the holes in the ceiling.
If you’re looking for an apartment to move into in September, start looking right after your school’s graduation the previous spring, when many apartments will open up thanks to the mass exodus of graduating seniors. If you’re looking for an apartment to move into at the beginning of the spring semester, start looking during the fall.
A great way to begin your search is to drive or walk around the nearby neighborhoods, taking note of which ones you would be comfortable living in and which ones you’d rather avoid. This way, you’ll be better able to narrow your search when you begin browsing online listings. While you’re scouting out neighborhoods, you might also keep an eye out for any “For Rent” signs. You never know what you might just happen to find when you aren’t even looking for it.
Another idea is to talk with other students you know who are already renting. If they’re going to be leaving their current apartment, they might just be willing to let you know the day their landlord posts the listing, or even to put in a good word with their landlord. They also might be able to tell you if their landlord has other properties for rent.
Decide on a Budget For Your College Apartment
Maybe you have already made a budget — if so, good for you! If not, this step is absolutely essential before you begin renting your first apartment. For many students, this is their first experience with budgeting. As intimidating as it might seem, it’s absolutely crucial to your success as a renter and as an adult.
Add up how much you spend on things like gas, food, textbooks and other necessities, as well as any fixed payments like car insurance, health insurance or any loans you’ve started to pay off. Designate a chunk of money you can allow yourself to have fun with — to go shopping, out to eat, to the movies or any other activity. Decide how much you want to save each month.
Once you’ve done all this, look how much money you have left. This amount is how much you can spend on an apartment every month. Keep in mind, this figure doesn’t just include rent. It will also include any utilities that aren’t included in the rent, such as water, electric, trash or sewer. Compare your budget to the average prices of apartments in the area, and make adjustments to your budget as necessary. Look at what neighborhoods and what size apartments fit into your budget.
Consider a Roommate For Your College Apartment
We know, we know, you’re moving out of a dorm and into an apartment to get away from roommates. But think about all the benefits that come with living with another person.
First and foremost, you split the cost of living. Rent and utilities suddenly become much more manageable when you only have to pay half. If you have similar taste in food, you might even share groceries. Or, if you aren’t willing to go that far, you could at least share essentials like milk, eggs and bread.
Having a roommate also helps when it comes to furnishing an apartment. Trust us on this — it takes a lot of furniture to fill an apartment. Buying it all yourself means you’ll rack up some serious bills. But with a roommate, this becomes much more manageable. Maybe one of you buys the TV, while the other buys the couch. Or one buys the kitchen table, while another buys a few end tables. You can also pool dishes, meaning you have to spend less money there.
And if the dorm room experience completely ruined the idea of the roommate for you, consider how different a dorm room is from an apartment. In a tiny dorm room, the two of you are constantly tripping over one another, fighting for space, waking each other up, arguing over the limited number of outlets and constantly walking in on each other changing.
An apartment is completely different. Depending on the apartment, you’ll most likely have your own bedroom, a separate living space and a full-sized kitchen. You and your roommate can be the best of friends, or you can be casual acquaintances who happen to live in the same space, but rarely spend time together. An apartment supports both types of roommate relationships.
Make a Checklist For Your College Apartment Visit
Picture this. You’re at an apartment visit, and the landlord shows you the coolest window seat you’ve ever seen in your life. You’re so thrilled by it that you put a deposit on the place right then and there. It’s not until after you move in that you realize the place has no laundry units and hardly any storage space.
It’s important to spend some time thinking about what you want in an apartment. What are absolute essentials that you’re not willing to compromise on? For example, you might need a certain number of bedrooms, or you might want to be within a five-mile radius from your school or internship.
Next, make a list of the things you’d really like, but don’t absolutely need. Some examples here might be a dishwasher, an extra half-bathroom or a ground-floor location.
It doesn’t matter if your list is all in your head, or a physical list you bring with you. Once you’re armed with lists like these, you can be more informed about your needs and wants when you go to apartment visits and tours. You can come prepared, knowing what things to look for and what questions to ask. You’ll never be so enthralled by a novelty feature that you forget your basic essentials.
You also might make a checklist of questions you want to ask every potential landlord. Some questions to include on such a list might be, “ Are any utilities included in the rent? Are all the appliances in good working order? Who is responsible if the stove breaks or a pipe bursts?”
Visit Multiple College Apartments
You’ll often hear people say you shouldn’t marry the first person you ever date. After all, you don’t know who else is “out there.” How do you know the first person you’re with is the one, if you have no one to compare them to?
Whether or not you believe that’s true, this principle is very applicable when it comes to apartment hunting. You might think you absolutely love the first place you visit. But it’s also possible you’re just overwhelmed with happiness at the prospect of having your own bathroom, a bedroom to yourself and a kitchen that has more than a microwave and a mini-fridge.
You owe it to yourself to check out at least two or three apartments. Give yourself something to compare to. Maybe it will turn out your first visit really was perfect. But either way, it’s worth seeing your options. Apartments, unlike people, won’t slap you if you ask them to wait for you while you see if there are any better options out there.
Don’t Limit Yourself to Apartments
While apartments might be the first thing you think of when you think about renting, they aren’t the only option out there. Most towns and cities also have a wide selection of houses available for rent. There are also hybrid options, such as a single house that’s been subdivided into two or more apartments. Depending on your location, there are also options like townhouses or rowhouses.
Let’s look at a few pros and cons of houses vs. apartments.
- Fewer roommates required to pay rent
- Less responsibility for outdoor and household maintenance — maintenance worker will usually take care of these things.
- Sharing spaces such as a laundry room and lounge
- Higher potential for noise from neighbor.
- Shared spaces in the building — such as hallways and stairwells
- Usually more space
- More privacy — e.g., no neighbors you can hear through thin walls, private washer and dryer
- Greater likelihood of pets being allowed
- More roommates required to pay rent
- More responsibility for outdoor and household — think mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.
Pay Attention to the Whole Apartment Complex
Even though you’ll undoubtedly pay the most attention to the individual apartment you’re touring, don’t forget to look at the entire apartment complex as a whole. Whether it’s a multi-story apartment building, a row of houses split into apartments or some other situation, it’s always worth it to be aware of how well they’re maintained.
You can tell a lot about what your living experience would be like at a complex by looking at how well-kept it is. Are there flickering lights and ripped wallpaper in the hallways? Are the shrubs outside the door dead or in sad shape? These are all warning signs that this particular apartment complex is not well cared for, and you as a tenant will most likely not be well cared for either.
Be Wary of Housing Scams
It’s unlikely you’ll encounter something like this, but it’s always best to be prepared. Because most property listings occur online, it’s only too easy for someone to grab photos of a random, nice-looking house and try to pass it off as a real rental they own. If you seem young and inexperienced, you may be a particular target for these types of scams.
Some warning signs of a scam include:
- Prices that seem too good to be true, or are inconsistent with the neighborhood and size/quality of the property
- Endless excuses as to why you can’t visit the property
- Requests to receive payment before you’ve seen the property
- Odd grammar mistakes or broken English in the rental listing
Visit Any Potential College Apartment at Night
One of our most important tips when renting an apartment is to visit a rental property at different times of day. Any apartment can easily pass as cozy in the daylight. The sun is shining, there are plenty of cars driving by and there might even be kids playing in a nearby park. But no matter how much you like an apartment during the day, drive by it again at night and take a good look at the neighborhood.
If it looks the same at night, that’s great. But many neighborhoods that look good during the day become unsettling at night. As you drive past your potential apartment in the dark, ask yourself if you would feel comfortable walking down this street at night by yourself. If your answer is no, you may need to seriously consider looking for a different apartment.
Be Ready to Make Your Deposit on the Spot
As we’ve mentioned, competition for apartments near colleges is fierce. Imagine this scenario. You visit an apartment and love it, but decide to take a day to think about it — to be sure you’re making the right decision. The next day, you call the landlord up and announce you’ve decided to take it. There’s just one problem: In the day you took to think about it, someone else snatched it up.
When you go to apartment viewings, you have to be ready to put down a deposit right away. If you love a place and feel confident in it, don’t be afraid to put down the deposit right then and there. Always bring your checkbook to events like these for this very reason.
When you do fill out an application or sign a lease, you may also need to provide copies of certain documents and certain pieces of information.
You may need:
- Social Security number
- Any previous rental history
- Pay stub or bank records that demonstrate proof of income
- Credit score — If you don’t have a credit score yet, you may need a cosigner, in which case you’ll need to bring their information as well.
- Personal references
Talk About the Length of Your College Apartment Lease
Technically, a lease can be for any amount of time. Most commonly, though leases are for one of the following durations:
- One year
- Six months
- Nine months
It’s important to talk with your landlord or apartment leasing office and discuss which option works best for both of you. For example, if you want your lease to start in September and end in May, ask if they’re open to a nine-month lease. If not, consider going month-by-month for the first three months before renewing for a six-month lease.
While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, many landlords and property companies will rent at a lower price if you agree to rent for longer. They don’t want the hassle of putting the place back on the market after only a month or two. That means they’ll often try to make it worth your while to rent for longer. If they don’t make such an offer up front, you might propose it yourself.
Read Everything Before You Sign It
Yes, the lease might be 10 pages worth of tiny print and technical jargon. It doesn’t matter. You still have to read it. If there’s anything that still seems murky or confusing after you’ve read the lease, ask a parent, a trusted mentor or perhaps a friend who majors in technical writing. Ask them to walk you through the document, and then thank them profusely afterward.
Thanks to the Internet, we live in an age where most of us blindly click the “Yes, I Agree” box without even bothering to read the thousands and thousands of words in the terms of service. You probably do this every day and never think twice about it. However, your lease is different. You need to read through it carefully and know what you’re legally binding yourself to.
What is the penalty for breaking the lease? What does it say about late fees for your rent? What does it say about who is responsible for anything damaged within the apartment? What does it say about starting a business from your home? The list goes on and on.
Check out PMI’s Rental Properties For Students
There are many factors to consider when renting an apartment in college, but it’s not impossible! If you’re going to school, have a summer internship or are otherwise interested in renting in Central Pennsylvania, we hope you’ll consider our comfortable rental properties in State College and Shippensburg. If you have any questions, we would love to hear from you at 717-730-4141.