As I start my first of two senior years (transfer students have it sooo good), I took the leap and decided to not renew my housing contract through the school and get my own place. I'll be honest as say it has not always been a cakewalk, but I believe there will be smooth waters ahead.
I really wish there was someone who could have told me what I know now about getting an apartment for the first time, so I bestow my new found knowledge to you in case you find yourself in my shoes.
1. Ask people who live there, not work there.
Be real here. Who is more likely to give you an embellished answer to your very real and valid questions: someone who pays a company hard earned money every month or someone who earns hard earned money from a company every month because of those people?
Ask on Facebook groups, look for Yelp pages, or ask around your friend groups if you know anyone who lives at a potential residence. They will give you the low down on management, maintenance, and the conditions of the buildings. Asking someone who works there will result in getting the same pre-written answer everyone gets.
2. Roommate matching isn't always 100%
I had a rough time finding someone to live with last year. It wasn't for lack of friends or trying, but certain people had already signed lease months ago, some had parents that wanted them to sign through the school, some had student loans that wouldn't pay the right amount, and some just simply wanted to stay on campus.
My management company has a roommate matching service that makes you fill out a rather long application and they will match you with someone who has a reasonably similar application. I was matched with a girl I'll call Sarah (named changed). Sarah was very nice to talk to, had similar interests, and even shared a few hobbies as me.
As the time passed, I realized Sarah wasn't responding to texts about items I was bringing to the apartment. I asked in a Facebook message if she was going to bring a certain item and I got a message telling me she wasn't going to be staying at the apartment...even though she had already signed a lease.
I'm in the clear because my management company has individual leases, but if the one you sign up with doesn't, you might be stuck footing all of the rent if your new roommate flakes.
3. Evaluate your proximity.
When choosing a location for your apartment, you don't just want to research prices and the buildings, you also need to think about proximity. Sure, you can find a huge apartment with less than $500 in rent a month, but if it's five miles away from campus, it might not be the best option.
While I live in an apartment complex that is a little further that most campus apartments, there are two bus stops, one which is right in front of my building, and to walk to class would still only take about 15 minutes (uphill, mind you!) which is about the same as when I lived on campus in a dorm!
Check out bus routes, look at walking paths, and consider purchasing a commuter parking pass if your dream apartment is out of walking range.
4. Document everything.
We learned this lesson as a family when we moved into a rental house after a tree destroyed my house. The house appeared to be fine, but when you looked closely, small problems added up fast. It also didn't help that our landlord would charge us $100 to fix something, no matter how small.
When we moved out, he came over and pointed out every tiny detail and scratch. But, because my mom is a quick thinker, when we moved in, she recorded videos and photos of all the tiny damaged areas, scratches, and blemishes to the house and included a time stamp. The landlord couldn't charge us for them and we got our deposit back.
When I moved in, my mom spent two hours combing the apartment with a fine tooth comb, filling out the damage assessment report in detail, videoing, and taking photos. All management companies seem pleasant until they're charging you for damage you didn't cause.
5. Don't spend a million dollars decorating.
Let's get one thing straight. It's a college apartment. You're a college student. No one is expecting you to have an impeccably furnished apartment with flawless style. If you know you're going to get an apartment, spend your breaks doing some research. My hometown has multiple Facebook groups that specialize in online reselling/virtual yard sales. I got Vera Bradley bedding for my room for $25 when it retails online still for $140.
If your town doesn't have these groups, check out local or NOT local thrift, charity, or consignment shops. Sometimes the best deals and items are not in your hometown. Especially look in college towns AFTER school lets out in May. Many international or out of state students will donate lots of items to local stores so they have to bring less home.
However, don't go in August. Do you really think you were the only student looking for a couch? It cost me less than $600 to furnish my living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom by utilizing church rummage sales, online yard sales, and not local thrift shops. Just because it isn't new doesn't mean it can't look great!
6. Find some cool neighbors.
Remember when I said to find people that live there for an honest review? Well, the same goes for after you move in! It doesn't have to be your next door neighbor or even someone in the same building, but finding someone to hang out within your complex can be imperative for your mental health.
Having someone neer really helps with the shock factor of moving into your own place. Plus you can come in handy to the other if you need to borrow a hammer, your printer breaks right before class, or you ran out of toilet paper!
7. Research amenities.
When looking to rent, don't just look at price and proximity, also research your amenities. My rent is not only on the cheaper side, but it also includes a fully furnished unit of furniture, water, internet, cable, in unit washer/dryer, gym, pool, sports courts, outdoor grills, hammocks, free parking, and a clubhouse. The only thing I pay for other than rent is my electric, which isn't a ton because of how few people live in unit.
Not every apartment complex/ management company will have a laundry list of included services or perks. But whether a complex has included utilities or not could make or break how much you have set aside for rent. Sure, your rent could be $400, but if you're paying for water, electric, cable, internet, or even gas on top of your rent could really start adding up.
8. Understand safety and protection.
I have a compulsive habit of checking all of my doors at night to make sure they're locked that started when we realized our rental house's locks were so bad that sometimes the front door would swing open in a windstorm, even when we locked it. Securing the house was something that became second nature to me after that.
I realized that a lot of people aren't like me and leave doors unlocked and windows open. I am a single girl living in an easily accessible apartment by myself currently. I am not assuming anything bad is going to happen because I am not giving any potential bad guys a chance to do so.
I'm not suggesting you go out and buy yourself a gun or anything, but lock your doors and windows, secure your stuff, and make sure you know how to defend yourself if, and only if, you ever get in a bad situation (and I hope that never happens to any of us).
9. Stay up to date
Living on campus puts you directly in the center of the hustle and bustle. While it's convenient to be so close to things, the downside is living in a small living space with someone you probably don't know and following a ton of rules. You get more freedom by living off campus, but you lose a little of that convenience.
Stay up to date on events and activities are happening by writing down important events, following school activities accounts on social media, and checking online to see if something fun is happening. Not everything is worth the hike from your apartment, but some stuff definitely is!
10. Actually buy groceries.
I'm not saying you should learn how to be a chef. But if you have a full size fridge, stove, and oven, you should actually utilize it and not just stick to convenience foods you were eating in your dorm room. Look, easy mac and ramen are great, delicious even but learn how to use your kitchen. You'll save money (and calories if we're being real) by not eating so much on campus, and it really shows a sense of independence.
Who knows, you might just make a signature dish that you end up loving so much, you can invite all of your friends over to eat it! Trust me when I say they'll be impressed!
11. Set an easy to follow non-school schedule.
I bet you took all of my previous advice to heart and have perfect school schedule that's the perfect balance of school work and free time, I sure know I did (eye roll, I went to bed at three am all summer). But here's a schedule you really need: an apartment schedule. Set a schedule for when you need to clean the common areas, do the dishes, buy groceries, do the laundry, and pay the bills.
If you live with someone else, you have to sit down and go over who does what on what days, or you'll end up with a mountain of dishes and trash and no clean panties. Don't be that guy/gal. Schedule that stuff asap.
Finding, applying for, moving, paying, and living in an apartment all feels very overwhelming at times. I get it. For a lot of us, this feels like the second step into true independence (the first being you're in college away from your family).
It's hard sometimes. But the truth is, this is your first go-around at all of this. Your practice round. With every apartment, you will learn new tips and wisdom and you'll never make the same mistake twice.