By David Replogle for The Real College Guide
Ah, the lure of off-campus housing … freedom, privacy and space. All good reasons to rent an apartment: You can throw parties, cook meals and get real-world experience. But you’ll also get hit with the real-life costs of apartment living.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that compared with those who live on campus, its off-campus grad students will pay $2,553 more for housing (not including other cost-of-living expenses such as food and transportation) during the 2010-2011 academic year. Even if you split the rent with roommates, breaking out on your own can be pricey.
How Much to Get in the Door?
Typically, upon signing a lease, you’ll need the first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit — which all add up to the equivalent of three months’ rent up front. You might also have to pay for acredit check and a pet or smokers deposit if necessary.
If you’re willing to wait to sign a lease (instead of standing in line at the leasing office on the first day of the leasing season), you might get reduced rent — or incentives like free furnishings and Internet access. Says a rep of Management Services Corp., a company that manages several popular student complexes near the University of Virginia: “If there are vacancies, we feel a greater initiative to market these opportunities to students. That often leads to lower prices and more perks.”
Consider Your Living Expenses
Look, toilet paper doesn’t magically appear on the roll. And electricity isn’t free. Here are some costs of living in an apartment that might not have crossed your mind:
Utilities. Some apartments pick up the gas and electricity, but if not, you’ll have to pay a monthly power bill. Plus, ask about water, cable and Internet. If these aren’t part of the rental package, consider the extra costs.
Groceries. No more dining hall? Factor in how much you’re able to spend on food each week. Don’t forget toiletries (shampoo, soap, etc.) and cleaning supplies. Save money by using coupons from newspaper inserts or the Internet.
Furnishings. You don’t want to camp out on the floor, do you? You’ll need bedding, seating, tables and lamps. You’ll also need cookware, dishes and flatware, as well as such appliancesas a microwave and vacuum cleaner. Scour thrift shops and discount stores, and don’t be shy about asking friends and relatives if they’re tossing out used stuff.
Maintenance. General maintenance — such as lawn care, trash pickup and home repairs — is usually covered by the apartment owner, but this isn’t always the case. Find out and if not covered, take these costs into account before inking your name on a lease.
Transportation. If you’re no longer on campus, you can’t walk to class. Do you need a bus pass? A car? If you’re getting a car, factor in the ongoing costs of insurance, gas, maintenance(oil changes, tire rotations, etc.) … and unexpected repairs. And don’t forget parking.
Reading Your Rental Contract
If you can’t decipher the jargon in your apartment lease, enlist the help of a trusted professor or your parents. “My husband and I have read all the contracts my kids have signed,” says Sheree O’Neil, who has two students at Auburn University. “A lot of hidden costs can be disguised through tough legal language.” Here are a few things to look out for when reading the fine print:
Parking fees. Some apartment complexes assign parking spaces to residents, but it isn’t always free. Check your contract.
Late charges. If you don’t pay your monthly rent on time, you’re probably subject to a late fee. Also, you might get slapped with a service charge if you pay with a check that’s denied. Know when your rent is due, have the correct funds and pay it on time to avoid extra costs. Keep in mind too that your landlord can report late payments to a credit agency — not good for your credit standing.
Property insurance. The apartment owner should, by law, have insurance on the building structure — but it’s doubtful that covers your personal property. If you have valuables, talk to an insurance agent about obtaining renters coverage.
Key replacement. Some leases require you to pay up if you lose your house key. Do yourself a favor and keep a spare.
Early termination. If you sign a one-year lease and vacate early, you could be held financially responsible for the remainder of the term. Have a month-to-month agreement if you intend to occupy the place for less than a year.
Security deposit. When your lease expires, you’ll receive a full refund of your security deposit — as long as the property is in good condition upon vacating. If the property is damaged, you will likely lose all or part of your deposit. But you might lose your deposit too for prettying up the place. If you paint your bedroom turquoise and don’t paint it back to its original white, you might stand to forfeit your deposit.
“I was very thorough when I did the walkthrough of my apartment before moving in,” says Indiana University of Pennsylvania junior Meghan Decker. “Then at the end of the year, my apartment complex fined me and my roommates crazy amounts because of little scuffs on the walls. It wasn’t fair at all.”