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.