What to do when finding a place to live in college

Spring is upon us, and with it comes the need for college students to find a place to live in the coming school year. Excitement flooded my veins at this time every spring when I was in college. If I remember correctly this excitement is a chemical mix in the blood of extra oxygen, adrenaline, lightning storms and fully-bloomed flowers (even for men), so it makes sense that it comes in spring. Or this may be a pure coincidence.

Anyway, as much fun and excitement as finding a new place to live is, it is also serious business. You need shelter to survive (even if you aren’t in college), and nowadays shelter that is up to the standards of the elite citizen known as the college student is expensive and varied in quality. This means that it is your responsibility to find a place to live that works best for you. I have had several positive and negative experiences regarding where I lived in college, and from each I learned more lessons that will help other people who are still looking for places to live. These lessons are still fresh in my head because I just graduated less than four months ago, so I want to pass them on to you, my studious friends, before my greying head loses track of them forever.

1. Dig up the price of living there

The price of living at any rented property is like a hidden treasure, and by simply living in the town or city where your college is located, you have the map to find it. Don’t be fooled: the cost of rent is only the beginning of the total cost of living somewhere. There are various other costs to find out as well. Some are the same no matter where you live in the city, such as the rate of the utilities bills. Others vary from one place to another, such as the cost of doing laundry: if you have in-unit laundry machines, they run free of up-front charges; if there are shared laundry machines in an apartment complex, however, they will require some cost each time you use them.

Then there are lifestyle costs. These aren’t directly tied to any monthly bill, but play a significant role in your finances over the course of the school year. Think of these as anything having to do with how you spend your time. I’ll give some examples: first, there is the location cost. If you live near campus, you can walk to school each day; if you live far from campus, you will likely have to find another way to get to school, whether it is public transit, riding with a friend or driving yourself. Each of these has a cost (unless you have an unusually generous friend), and you should account for it when choosing where you will live. Second, there is the home recreation cost. If you spend a great deal of time on campus, you won’t need much to do at home. If, on the other hand, you plan to stay at home with a good deal of your free time, you should think about what you will do. Will you watch TV? Look into the cost of TV service. Will you use the Internet? There’s another cost. Figure out how you have fun and add the items that cost money to your budget. (Oh, and if you haven’t yet, learn to budget. There are many free tools online you can find if you search for budgeting tools.) Third, find out how you, your roommates and your guests will eat. If you prefer to eat out, figure out roughly how much you’ll spend in a month at restaurants. If you prefer to make your own meals, do the same for grocery bills (I did this by keeping all my grocery receipts for the first month I lived on my own, then using that total as a basis for every month.) Eating doesn’t necessarily connect to where you live, but it is an important expense to keep track of regardless.

Other things to keep track of are: what you’ll spend on entertainment, how much you will travel and how much you will spend on cleaning supplies (I suggest you clean the place you live regularly since you will be turning it back over to your landlord, who will always want it left better than when you began your lease).

2. With whom will you room?

This is a large topic that I plan to write more on later, but for now I’ll provide some lessons I learned. First, you must be honest with yourself regarding your lifestyle. How clean do you like your home to be? How many people can you put up with being in your home, and how regularly do you like having guests? How often will you be at home? How loud can your roommates play music from their stereos? How loud can your roommates crunch on their cereal before you scream? Okay, that last one doesn’t matter much, but you get the idea. Take note of your lifestyle preferences and room with people who will, by your best judgment, not cross any lines that will lead you to insanity and rage and depression simultaneously.

Further (and opposing the previous point in many ways), refrain from limiting your ideal roommate very much. You want to have fun, and the best way to kill such fun would be to live with people who are near-clones of yourself. Allow people who live in different ways than you to broaden your understanding of what it means to live. And as you live with them, have patience and give them grace. You will disagree with ways that they live: many of these disagreements are best left unmentioned, as you will not change them but you will irritate them. Others must be acknowledged and solved, though, to make living together possible. Expect both situations to come, and learn to discern which situation is which.

3. What reputation does the landlord have?

In my senior year I eagerly and quickly signed a lease with cheap rent to live in the top floor of a house with three guys whom I still consider great friends. In my excitement, though, I ignored many red flags that would have clearly shown me that the place I was going to live would bring messy dealings with the landlord. The most obvious was the condition of the house: it was a dump. The paint was old, the bedroom windows didn’t seal completely, and the gas fireplace, which was the only source of heat for the main part of the house, didn’t work. Then there was the lackadaisical attitude of the rental agency’s staff. When I asked them to fix the windows, they said they would send someone over soon. It was four weeks and two more times of me prodding them before they sent a maintenance staff member to install new windows. And when he did, he only installed two new windows when all four of my bedroom windows had ineffective seals. The same delay happened when my roommates and I asked our landlord for our fireplace to be repaired–and in Pullman, where I went to college, winters got down to as low as ten below zero while I was there. And the bad service culminated in the end of the term, when my landlord, who had never once initiated contact with us, told me that my roommates and I owed two thousand dollars, even though each of us had paid our rent in full. That’s a long story, but the point is that I could have found out that I was entering into a tumultuous relationship with my chosen landlord.

What it comes down to is how well you allow yourself to be informed about each available landlord in your college’s city. Take note of other people’s opinions and experiences with different landlords (both in person and online), look with a keen eye at the properties each rental agency leases, and read every line of the lease you are considering signing–twice. These will help you have a better idea of whether or not you truly want to go through the hassle of renting that property.

There is much more to be said about what to do when figuring out where you will live in college, but these are some basic yet often-overlooked guidelines that I hope will lead you to the most peace of mind you can find as you continue in college!

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