Understanding the Ins and Outs of Off-Campus Housing

At many colleges, students need to begin planning in the fall for the big move.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Both of my kids lived off-campus in college, the oldest starting in her sophomore year and her brother in his junior year, the delay so that he could wait for her hand-me-down furniture and kitchen supplies. So I understand that you’re confused about why finding off-campus housing must be completed by Thanksgiving break, skeptical that an 18- or 19-year-old has any idea of how to find a decent apartment, concerned over what it means when your child signs a lease with kids he hardly knows and questioning your liability when you’re asked to co-sign.

In a previous post, I’ve covered the positives and negatives of moving off-campus. If your college student is ready to go, here are some things you need to know.

Colleges have different policies Some colleges, particularly large universities, don’t guarantee housing after freshman year. Their on-campus housing lotteries can take place as early as the fall semester, which means a student knows before the holidays whether she’s moving off-campus. (Yes, your freshman will choose whom to live with for sophomore year after barely getting to know his roommate or establishing a group of friends.)

Other schools require students to use college housing at least through their second year, or strongly encourage it, theorizing that living on-campus longer supports academic success.

At certain colleges, particularly small private schools, students must receive permission to live off-campus, even for senior year.

Where to learn about off-campus housing Start with the college website, which may provide a listing of landlords and rental agents, but won’t recommend any, for obvious reasons. My kids attended a university with an off-campus housing office that offered apartment hunting and leasing tips. The office also reviewed leases free-of-charge, handed out free window locks and more.

If your student’s college offers no information, she’ll need to rely on upperclassmen, friends of friends, kids she’s met in class or someone else she knows who is currently living off-campus.

When to start looking The fall is the most common time to begin apartment/house “shopping,” according to parents I’ve spoken with. Generally, this enables students to find the best prices in the more popular neighborhoods. But I also have a friend whose daughter didn’t need to commit to a place until June.

Understanding rental rates One of the reasons we were okay with our kids moving out of college housing was the cost savings. Generally, it’s cheaper, but options make a difference. Teach your student to compare apples to apples: Which, if any utilities, are included? Does the apartment come furnished or unfurnished? Is there a dishwasher? Air conditioning? Washer and dryer in unit/building? Will there be a monthly or annual parking fee? The answers will help determine which place offers the best value.

Leasing terms Most leases run twelve months, which means you pay for the summer, even if you’re living at home. Students do sublet during the summer break or while studying abroad.

Responsibility and liability Depending upon the landlord, students either sign one lease or just their own. Individual leases mean that each person is only responsible for her part of the rent. One lease means that everyone is liable, including when one renter leaves campus and refuses to keep paying.

As the parent, you may be required to co-sign on the lease.

Other considerations Make sure your student is realistic about the distance to campus, especially if he sleeps through his alarm, attends school with harsh winters or daily downpours, or won’t have a car to get around.

Before signing a lease, your teen should talk with other kids who’ve rented from this landlord to learn how responsive he is, especially with repairs.

Leases usually begin and end at least a week before the start of fall semester.

Understand the upfront costs, like the security deposit, plus first and/or last month’s rent.

You, the parent, are unlikely to see the apartment before a lease is signed. Offer plenty of advice before and during the search.

The upside College is a learning experience, both in and out of the classroom. One of the reasons I support students moving off-campus is that it teaches them how to find an apartment and introduces them to the costs and responsibilities associated with living on your own. These are life skills they’ll need soon after graduation.

Share your experiences and recommendations with your student’s off-campus move in the comments section below.

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