Finding Your Non-Dorm Dwelling: A Student’s Guide to Off-Campus Renting

Ginger Abbot

Dec 27, 2019
student-renting-before-signing-lease

Ah, your first apartment. Whether
you’re sharing with fellow students or finally getting your own place off
campus, the first time you rent during college is a momentous occasion — and
good preparation for the future. A smiling landlord hands you the keys, and you
unlock the door to your dream — or so you hope. How can you keep your
first rental from becoming your worst nightmare?

If you’re new to the rental
world, you might face a rude awakening. Have no fear! When searching for your off-campus
student housing, keep these tips in mind so you know what to expect.

1. Chances Are, You Can
Forget the Picket Fence 

If you’ve dreamed of a place
of your own, you might be hoping for the best. Marble countertops and stainless
steel appliances, tile in the living areas and plush carpeting in the bedroom —
you wish you could have it all in your living space, but odds are, you’ll have
to settle for less.

Your first apartment doesn’t
have to be a dive unless you earn close to
minimum wage

and refuse roommates, but it’s not going to be the Ritz, either. To make sure
you’re happy with the space you choose, make a list of must-have apartment features
to inform your search. Maybe you’re willing to live with an electric stove
instead of a gas model, but you need hard floors due to allergies. Decide what
you can compromise in advance.

2. You Need to Read Before
Signing the Dotted Line 

Before you sign any lease,
you need to read it thoroughly. This document is legally binding in court, and
you don’t want to agree to terms you’ll later regret. Ask yourself the
following questions:

  • How much is the monthly
    rent? 
    This
    sounds like a no-brainer — until your landlord informs you they’re raising your
    rate by $50. Find out how much you’ll owe, whether it’s fixed rent and what day
    it is due. If you pay late, what fees will you be charged? 
  • How long is the lease
    term? 
    How
    long is your rate locked? Does your lease automatically convert to
    month-to-month after the end? Will your landlord expect you to sign a new
    contract each year? 
  • What is the notice
    period? 
    Life
    is unpredictable, and it’s always possible something might come up to change
    your living situation. How much notice do you need to give your landlord before
    moving? If you break your lease early, how much do you have to pay, if
    anything? Will your landlord expect you to help find a new tenant? Find out
    before you sign.

3. Roommates? Check With
Your Landlord

If you find yourself short
one month, you might think, “I’ll rent out my spare bedroom on
Airbnb.” This plan can be a great way to make extra money — or it could
land you out on the street. Some landlords don’t care who resides on the
property as long as the rent gets paid on time. Others reserve the right to
terminate your lease if you sublet or let an unauthorized person move in with
you.

Protect yourself by checking
with your landlord before letting guests linger more than a week or two. And if
you’re moving in with roommates from the get-go, make sure each of you signs
the original lease.

4. Not Knowing Your Rights
Can Cost You

When you move in, chances
are, you’ll need to pay a security deposit as well as move-in fees. Your
landlord must follow state
laws

regarding security deposits, meaning they have to return what you paid them — minus
the cost of any repairs. Remember, odds are they’ll try to keep as much as
they can, so take care of your rented space.

Fees can be refundable but
typically are not. Your landlord can charge for pets or cleaning. Many jurisdictions
limit how much they can ask for, usually no more than one and a half months’
rent. However, if you have a qualifying psychiatric condition and have a
therapy pet
,
your landlord cannot charge you extra for your animal. 

5. Your Move-in Inspection
Matters as Much as Move-Out

Many first-time tenants fall
into the trap of skipping the move-in inspection. Hey, you just got your keys,
and you’re chomping at the bit! Understandably, you want to get to the
“quiet enjoyment” part of your tenancy as quickly as possible. But if
you miss damage during move-in, your landlord can later hold you liable — even
if you didn’t cause it. If your landlord doesn’t do the move-in inspection with
you, make a written list. Keep one copy and forward the other to them, along
with photographs of existing damage. 

6. You’ll Need to Invest
Some Elbow Grease 

Chances are, you won’t know
who lived in your apartment before you. You also don’t know if they smoked or
had pets. Yes, your landlord should clean the residence thoroughly before they
hand you the keys. Even so, they often overlook areas
like HVAC vents
that are breeding grounds for bacteria.

Before you haul in your
furniture, roll up your sleeves and make sure the place is clean. Check under
sinks and in bathroom corners for mold, and report it if you find any. Change
out the air filters. 

7. Sometimes, You Can DIY

One of the joys of renting
means not needing to perform maintenance yourself. However, if you call your
landlord every time a lightbulb blows, you’ll get on their nerves. You can make minor
repairs
,
such as replacing a loose doorknob, and deduct the cost of materials from your
rent. 

8. Don’t Let Maintenance
Concerns Spiral Out of Control

It’s a good idea to take small
maintenance tasks on, but don’t try to take care of large issues yourself. If
you notice something that could lead to a severe problem — like leaky plumbing
or a malfunctioning smoke alarm — tell your landlord. They might not like
hearing the news, but they’ll appreciate fixing a minor problem more than
making major renovations. 

9. Hope for the Best — but Be
Prepared for the Worst

Protect yourself. Before you
decide to live solo off campus, try to save an emergency fund of 3-6 months
living expenses
, just in case. This way, you always have a safety net if something
goes wrong.

Find Your Ideal Off-Campus Home

Renting
your first place is an exciting milestone — but it also comes with challenges.
Before signing your first lease with your college roommates, remember to remain
realistic and prepare in advance.

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