Goodbye Dorm Room, Hello Freedom: A 5-Step Survival Guide for Life Off-Campus

When it comes to transitions and new experiences, your late teens and early twenties have all the other decades beat. Think about it—most college students see their living situation change every time a summer break or a new academic year comes around. For many collegiettes, the first and biggest of these transitions takes place in an on-campus residence hall, complete with a random roommate, an 8x10 dorm room and a resident advisor.

Eventually, though, it’ll be time to leave all the fun and frustration of dorm life behind for a new life off campus. You’ll replace the cafeteria’s Chicken Finger Wednesday with Grocery Shopping Thursday, and you’ll swap out your RA for a landlord. The transition from life on campus to life in an apartment or house is a pretty big one in its own right—luckily, Her Campus has you covered with the ten most important things to keep in mind when you decide to venture off campus.

1. Living with landlords - know your rights and document everything

While living on campus, you rarely deal directly with the people who own your space. This, of course, will change when you move off campus. From the moment you sign your lease to the day you turn in your key, make sure you know how to interact and communicate with the landlord who’s leasing his or her property to you.

From the very beginning, make sure you’re documenting everything you possibly can. Any verbal agreements with your landlord need to be in writing as well, says Allison Lantero, a Boston College graduate who took her landlord to small claims court and won.

Allison and her roommates decided to take their landlord to court after their security deposit was only partially returned, with no detailed receipt and no bank statement for a $1,200 damages charge. They won the case, but Lantero says it would’ve been easier if every stipulation of their lease had been in writing—some agreements were made over the phone and couldn’t be documented in court.

“If it’s not in writing within the legal document of the lease, it’s not enforceable,” says Kendal McDevitt, former coordinator for the Office of Off-Campus Community Relations at Appalachian State University. For any agreements that are not written into the physical copy of the lease, McDevitt recommends writing them in, and having each roommate as well as the rental company initial the changes. “First, go through the apartment and document the condition of rooms and appliances. Some apartment complexes provide handouts for this. If not, take a blank sheet of paper in with you and write down damage of anything you see. Second, take pictures of the apartment in its original condition. Keep a copy of the pictures yourself and submit a copy to the rental company,” McDevitt says.

Still confused about your rights as a renter? “Have a lawyer look over the lease for you,” says Chelsea McLeod, a recent grad of Rhodes College.

Related: Rooming With Your BFF: A Guide to Your Best, Most Drama-Free Year Yet

2. Start thinking like your mom

No, this doesn’t mean you have to start worrying about yourself (and calling yourself multiple times every day). But your mom did handle the ins and outs of your childhood home for at least eighteen years, so it might not be a bad idea to tap into her superpowers.

First, put some thought into your surroundings. Remember how your mom hauled dozens of plastic tubs down from the attic so she could redecorate the house for each holiday season? It may seem tedious, but little touches go a long way toward making a house feel like a home. So if you’re allowed to paint the walls of your rental or apartment complex, paint them! If your living room furniture is mismatched, go online and learn how to make fun covers for couches and chairs. If you’re artistic, buy wooden initials - they’re cheap at stores like Michael’s and A.C. Moore - and paint them for your room. Just make sure you clear any big changes with the roomies.

Second, remember that it’s now your job to keep your home stocked and supplied. Collegiettes who were asked about items they forgot to pack mentioned paper towels, vacuum cleaners, floor mops, toilet paper, brooms, tool kits, toilet plungers, pasta strainers, and bathroom mats. Add these items to your list, and sit down with your roommates to brainstorm other basics you may be missing. 

And don’t forget to pack beyond the basics as well. “I noticed what separated other people’s apartments from mine from feeling like home is everyone else had a much more decorated place with candles, posters, and plants,” says Jessica Len, former Her Campus Campus Correspondent at UC Davis.

In addition to year-round decorations, other collegiettes  suggest getting into seasonal decorating. Cut and decorate a Christmas tree with your roommates or make a spring wreath for your door. Do whatever you can to make your new place one you’ll want to remember.

3. Learn to grocery shop and cook some simple staples  

One drastic difference between dorm life and apartment life revolves around one of the things college students love most: food. While living on campus, you’ll typically have a meal plan that grants you access to cafeteria meals, no cooking or grocery shopping required. Off campus, unless you feel like trekking to campus every time you feel like a snack, it’s likely a little bit different. Before you move into your apartment, make sure you’ve discussed the food situation with your parents—namely, who’s paying for what—and make a trial grocery store run while they’re still in town.

It also helps to learn a few simple meals before moving into your apartment, so that after a long day, or after your Julia Child masterpiece burns/collapses/explodes, you can whip something up quickly. If you’ve never cooked before, ask a parent or a family friend to show you how to roast chicken or boil rice. If you know the basics but need new ideas, add a new cookbook to your Kindle. There are dozens of cookbooks tailored to college students in all sorts of living situations, or check out some of HC’s recipe ideas here, and here

Related: A Collegiette's Guide to College Football

4. Learn some simple cleaning fixes

You may have been cleaning your room for your whole life, and you might have even Swiffered your dorm room once or twice, but cleaning an entire apartment is a whole different story. Before you find yourself knee-deep in dust and dirty dishes, make sure you have a cleaning schedule for yourself. You can clean your bedroom on Saturdays and your bathroom on Tuesdays—it doesn’t matter, just make sure you know what needs to be done and when you need to do it.

It’ll also save time (and take some pressure off your wallet) to learn a few simple home-cleaning fixes—this is another area where asking for Mom’s know-how comes in handy. Instead of buying expensive cleaners, clean countertops, refrigerator shelves and other surfaces with white distilled vinegar. Dilute it with water, about one quarter cup of vinegar to every gallon of water. And instead of using up expensive paper towels to clean your windows, pick up a stack of free campus newspapers - the newsprint will remove smudges without leaving any streaks.

5. Stay plugged in to your campus

When you were living in the dorms, it probably wasn’t hard to feel like a part of the action on your campus. After all, it’s literally where you slept and worked and ate. After moving away and embracing the off-campus lifestyle, though, you may feel a little detached from the undergraduate community at your college or university. For Appalachian State University grad Jordyn Coats, whose studio apartment isn’t in her university town, keeping up with extracurricular activities has been the key to staying involved. “I play roller derby with some amazing women at least every other day,” she says, referencing the year-old competitive roller derby team she founded. Whatever your niche is, from intramural sports to knitting club, don’t drop it because the meetings are no longer quite as close by. If you’re only on campus when it’s time for class, you won’t feel as connected to or invested in it.
 
Even if all doesn’t go as planned, make every effort to get to know yourself better during your first off-campus experience. If you’re working too much to pay your rent and not using half of your apartment’s fancy features, find a less expensive place next time. If your roommates are always studying but you’d rather be loud, seek out friends and roommates who feel the same way. As a collegiette, it’s the perfect time to learn what works for you. Soak up all the knowledge you can from your off campus living experience, and make the next one even better.

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About The Author

Meghan is a senior at Appalachian State University, majoring in Public Relations with a nonprofit concentration. She lives in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina and holds the biased opinion that it's the most heartbreakingly beautiful place in the world. 

She spends most of her time surrounded by words - as a contributing writer for Her Campus, the Associate Editor for Editorial Content at The Appalachian, and a blogger for USA TODAY College. She fell in love with journalism when she interned for High Country Press, a newspaper and magazine in North Carolina. She also dabbles in creative writing on her personal blog.

In the future, Meghan's interested in any and all careers that involve writing, editing and people. For now, she hopes to see as many places, read as many books, and have as many conversations as she possibly can. 

Reach Meghan at [email protected]