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Apartment shopping 101 for college students

Date posted:  11/29/16 09:30:00 AM Living off campus has plenty of perks, but make sure you’re ready to manage the finances.

You could say freshmen have it easy when it comes to living situations.

For that first year, freshmen are typically required to stay in a dorm, which takes the guesswork out of their living situation, although the room may be small and lack privacy. Dorms are typically close to a dining hall or two, where meals and foods are readily available throughout the day, which is another upside.

But, once you're finished with your freshman year, you may still prefer to look for an apartment on- or off-campus. Student apartments can either be owned by the university, or by a third party.

Living off-campus comes with both perks and downsides, and the living situation is immensely different than staying in a dorm room.

While a majority of students have their housing situation in order for the 2016-2017 school year, it's never too early to start thinking about the next year. In fact, some students sign leases for the following school year many months in advance, especially for popular apartment locations.

The basic costs
Unlike dorm room living, your apartment expenses are completely up to you to handle. This means paying rent on time, which is often by the first of every month. The same applies for all of your utility bills, unless they are part of the lease and covered by the landlord, or included in your rent. Typical utility expenses include water, electricity, gas and garbage pickup.

Every landlord is different. As such, before you sign a lease with your potential roommates, have a detailed conversation with the owner or property management company to find out what's covered, Fastweb recommended.

You should also ask about any additional move-in fees or if pets are allowed. The more information you have beforehand, the better you'll be able to determine if all of the associated costs fit within your budget.

Above all, expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars in rent. Your cost will vary depending on the landlord, location, number of roommates and quality of the building. If there's a certain complex or apartment you have your eyes set on, check to see if you know someone who lives there and ask them some questions about their experience.

A good way to lower your monthly rent is to live with roommates, but be sure to spend time with potential roommates before committing to a lease together. You'll want to make sure you have compatible schedules and cleaning expectations, among other characteristics.

Finding the apartment
Once you start your search, create a list of features you and your roommates are looking for, like:

  • Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
  • Location
  • Total monthly rent
  • Landlord rules
  • Utilities included

In terms of location, the closer you are to the campus, the more expensive rent will likely be. Ask yourself if you're willing to pay more for the convenience of being right by anything. Living further away from the campus may be the more appealing option for renters on a budget, even if it means having to hop on a bus or walk 10 minutes. The money you can save on rent can be put toward bills or a savings account.

When it comes to finding potential listings, landlords will likely have websites showcasing all of their properties for easy viewing. Websites such as Craigslist and Zillow will also display results, but you have to always stay alert because you may encounter a few apartment listings that are trying to scam you. As the saying goes, if it's too good to be true, it probably is.

The showing
Once you and your potential roommates have found some appealing locations, schedule as many showings as possible. You don't want to base your decision off online pictures alone.

While there, take as many pictures as possible with your phone so you can view them later. Bring along a notebook to write down important information and to take notes on certain aspects you may notice. Things to keep a particular eye out for are:

  • Leaky faucets
  • Faulty lights and electrical wiring
  • Holes in the walls or ceiling
  • Stained carpets
  • Bug infestations
  • An apartment that doesn't match the online photos

If you encounter any of these red flags, it's best to move along until you find a better space. Even if rent may be cheap, you don't want to experience subpar living conditions for the year. Make sure you balance urgency with carefully choosing a place to live in because you don't want to find yourself surprised by underlying issues.

For your consideration
Additionally, as U.S. News & World Report pointed out, most school years last for only nine months, whereas the lease is for an entire calendar. You have to figure out what to do during those three remaining months because you're still liable for rent and utilities, even if you return home for the summer.

Consider subletting your room to someone staying on campus over the summer or you may even want to consider staying through the summer as well.

If neither of those options are viable, you may just have to factor in the expense of the summer rent.

The benefits of an apartment
Even though more costs are involved, living in an apartment while in college comes with many perks.

For one, your living space will be larger than a dorm room. This includes the kitchen, common area and your bedroom. And, the days of sleeping on a twin sized bed can be over.

The biggest benefit of off-campus living is it helps you take on more responsibilities and prepares you for life after school. You'll be able to have guests over and build an understanding of how to manage your independence, but if you don't pay rent or the monthly bills, your financial health will be negatively affected.

Shopping for an apartment involves lots of moving parts, but the process it worth it to ensure you find the best possible place to live in during the school year.