How to Find an Apartment: HC's Guide to Apartment Hunting

Getting housing freshman year was easy. You filled out a survey about your sleep and study habits. Then your school paired you up with a random roommate and stuck you in a dorm room. Finding off-campus housing, though, can be as much of a pain as waking up for that 8am class.
 
Her Campus spoke with Kerry Heckman, Program Coordinator in the Office of Off Campus and Commuter Services at Syracuse University, to give you the best tips and tricks to finding (decent) housing – without an RA down the hall.
 
Make a list of what you’re looking for.

Heckman says step one in beginning the apartment hunt is figuring out what your wants and needs are for off-campus housing. Do you want to be able to bring your pet? Is accessible parking important to you? What about on-site laundry machines? Decide what are deal-breakers, and what you absolutely have to have. Then decide what things are negotiable: Would you rather live closer to campus but pay extra for utilities?
 
“If you know in advance that you want laundry in the building,” Heckman says, for example, “you know there are a whole group of apartments you can easily cut out of your search.” Knowing your priorities will speed up the entire process. Decide what is a want, and what is a need.
 
Here are some things that Heckman suggests not skimping on. Put these at the top of your “must-have” list:

  • A well-maintained apartment – Look for a place that’s clean and well-kept. “It shouldn’t have pieces of wall missing,” Heckman says. “If you walk in and cringe, you probably shouldn’t live there.” Use your friends as a resource here, too. Ask around on Facebook, or in class, if anyone has lived in that apartment before. Did they have any issues with neighbors? Or safety?
  • Good lighting – Both outside and inside the apartment or house. There should be a light outside the front door, or on the front porch for when you come home at night for safety reasons. If there are overgrown shrubs or trees covering any outdoor lighting, make sure those are removed before you move in. 
  • Good locks – Check every entrance to the house (front door, back door, basement door, etc.), for locks that work. You should have a key to each, if you decide to rent the place. You should also check bedroom doors. If you’re away for the weekend, it’s always a good idea to lock your bedroom door, as well as the entrance to the apartment.

These are things that Heckman says a lot of students think they want, or need, but should not limit your off-campus search:

  • Utilities included in rent – Heckman says this will probably end up costing you the same amount as if you paid utilities separately anyway. “There’s some additional planning [with roommates] involved when paying for cable or heat separate from rent,” Heckman says, “but it’s completely doable.”
  • Pets allowed – It might seem like a great idea to be able to finally get that cat or puppy you’ve wanted, but Heckman says not only should this not be a priority during your house-hunt, but she recommends not getting a pet at all while in college. “When you graduate, you probably won’t be able to take your pet with you to your new apartment,” Heckman says. “Every year after graduation stray pets turn up on the streets on in shelters because seniors can’t take them with them.”
  • Huge cable packages – If you’re paying for your cable through a provider and not as a part of your rent, you may be tempted to get a fancy cable package – you need DVR, right? Heckman says, as a student, you probably won’t have a lot of time (or shouldn’t be spending a lot of time) watching TV anyway. “Think about how you want to be spending your time, and what’s important to you,” she says. You’ll also save a bunch of cash by skipping out on all those extra channels.
  • Snow removal – Sure, waking up in the morning to a plowed driveway and shoveled walk is nice, but is it necessary? “If you’re living with 3 people, it doesn’t take long to shovel a few steps,” Heckman says. “Plus it’s great exercise!”

Know when to start the search

There’s no one answer for when to start the apartment hunt. It all depends where you are. “Every community has a different renting cycle,” Heckman says. “Here in Syracuse, students start signing leases almost a year in advance, but it’s different at every school.”  The best way to know when to start: be clued in to what is going on in your own community. Keep your ears open to when other students start discussing renting and leasing plans. Ask your friends who currently live off campus when they began searching for a place.
 

Be a savvy renter

Skip head games with the landlord and be prepared with these tips from Heckman:

  • Know what leases should look like. – You won’t have to call Dad to ask about the fine print if you’ve done your homework. Look up a lease online, or ask to see an example of one at an off-campus housing company’s office in your area. Here’s a link to Heckman’s office at Syracuse University.
  • Know what a reasonable rent rate is in your area. – The range of monthly rent charges varies by city just about as often as Aria gets a text from “A”. Decide what a decent price range is for your area, and for you, before you visit any apartments. For an easy way to compare prices, check out Rentometer.com.
  • See at least 3 apartments. – The first one might look OK—until you see the twice-as-big bedrooms in the second one. Or the two extra bathrooms in the third.
  • Ask your landlord a ton of questions. – Make sure this is somebody you can trust and that you’ll be able to work with for the next year. When you call for repairs, you should be OK with the landlord coming into your apartment or house. Ask them questions about the building as well - what is the maintenance like, how is trash removal handled, etc. – anything and everything you’d want to know before you decide to move in. If you’re planning on studying abroad, ask about their policy on subletting; some landlords have specific rules about it. Also, if the bedrooms are different sizes, ask if the landlord allows pro-rating. That means that those living in the smaller bedrooms pay less—it’s a good plan for roommates who aren’t sure they can swing the full rent.

Always visit an apartment before signing

Heckman says this is absolutely vital to the off-campus housing search. Rather than thinking of your new place as costing you $500 per month (or whatever the rent may be), think of the cost in terms of a year – that’s around $7,000. “Would you go out and spend $7,000 on a car without driving it first, looking for dents, and checking the interior?” Heckman says. “This is a big investment, and you’ll be in a contract for a year.” Take the search seriously, or risk getting stuck in a bad housing situation.
 
Everyone that is living in the apartment or house should see the apartment. If only one or two roommates can go, take pictures to show those you couldn’t make it. Everyone living in the house should be on the same page about the living situations and conditions. Don’t forget to scope out the parking situation as well. If all three roommates plan on having a car, can the driveway hold all vehicles, or will someone have to park on the crowded street?

Use your school’s (and community’s) resources for apartment hunting

If you’re worried about entering into a faulty lease, or aren’t sure if you trust the landlord, Heckman says, most importantly, trust your instincts. “If you walk in and things seem off, they probably are,” she says. There are plenty more apartments without dealing with the hassle of a bad landlord.
 
Heckman recommends you research what is available through your school and community. “Some schools have lists of approved landlords,” she says. These schools work with landlords to contract prices. Your university may know what properties are good, clean, and appropriate for renting. Other schools may have lists of rentals where students have lived in the past. Heckman recommends calling the division of student affairs at your school to find out what resources are available to you, before you even start apartment hunting.
 
Take advantage of a program at your school similar to the one that Heckman is part of – Off Campus and Commuter Services. They’re there to help you. Heckman says her program, and others like it at different schools, provide students with information about their rights and responsibilities as tenants. They can also help you with any issues you’re having during the process – from start to finish.
 
Make sure moving off-campus is right for you

Most importantly, before signing any lease, be 100% sure that living in a house or apartment off-campus will work for you. Heckman says it can be great to learn how to pay rent and take care of your own place, but at the same time, it’s a lot more responsibility than living in the dorms. “Even if you’re moving in with friends, when a roommate conflict happens, there’s no RA to make a decision for you,” Heckman says. Nor are there automatically locking doors, maintenance staff to clean the showers and sink for you, or security officers there at the door when you come home late at night. Just be positive that you’re ready to take the next step.
 
Good luck, collegiettes!