Student Renters Guide: How to Find Housing in College

Get the facts and insight you need to make an informed decision about your first rental and learn how to protect yourself as a college tenant.

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Last Updated: 10/01/2021
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When many of us think of college, we think of students in dorm rooms. While it’s true that a portion of college kids call the dorms home at some point during their enrollment, 87% of students live off-campus. Many of these students continue living with their families, but a big chunk of the rest chooses to rent. Whether it’s your own personal apartment or a big house with friends, renting the wrong place from the wrong landlord can be a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, unnecessary frustration. And because college students are often first-time renters, it can make them prime targets for missteps and scams.

From understanding your budget restraints and personal preferences to getting familiar with renters’ rights and recognizing red flags, there’s no shortage of factors to consider before you sign your name to that lease. Learn how to do your due diligence as a first-time renter, get the ins and outs when it comes to taking the right precautions, and discover the warning signs that every renter should be aware of.

Finding Your Fit: Types of Rentals for Students

Before you go signing your first lease, considering all your options is key to making a smart decision. Finding the best fit requires being informed about the type of rentals available for students and the type of agreement you might be asked to sign. Here are the major considerations to keep in mind before picking a property.

Types of Rental Properties: House vs. Apartment

Factors to consider when looking at rental properties and deciding between a house or an apartment include the following.

Space

Houses tend to be larger than apartments. How much space you need depends on if you’ll live alone, with a roommate, or with family.

Maintenance

Houses typically require more maintenance, including keeping up with lawn care and cleaning a larger space. Apartments usually don’t require you to do any yard work and are smaller spaces to clean, giving you more free time.

Pets

You can find both houses and apartments that allow approved pets. However, houses with yards work better for larger animals than apartments with no private outdoor space. A house may have also a fenced yard, while apartments, at best, have a shared space.

Parking

Especially when living in a larger apartment complex, parking can be difficult to come by when neighbors host events or have guests. Houses, conversely, usually have private parking in a driveway and/or garage.

Types of Lease Agreements

Before receiving the keys to your new rental property, you’ll need to sign a lease. Different types of leases are available, so make sure you understand the benefits of each and which one best meets your needs. Common types include:

Fixed Term

Fixed term leases set a specific amount of time you have the rental, such as six months or a year. At the end of this time, you need to either move or renew your lease.

Month-to-Month

These leases provide more flexibility and don’t lock you into a long-term commitment. Most require at least 30 days’ notice before ending the agreement.

Sublet

If someone sublets their apartment to you, you are responsible for paying rent and utilities and keeping the rental clean and habitable. The amount of time for sublets varies.

Crucial Questions to Ask Before You Rent

Renting is a big emotional decision and financial commitment. Making sure to ask the right questions can save you a big headache in the long run. Below are some of the most crucial questions to ask yourself and your landlord before you rent.

Questions to Ask Yourself

What can I afford?

Most landlords require you to earn three times the monthly cost of your rent. If you earn $3,000 per month, for example, look for a rental that costs $1,000/month or less. If you’re completing your degree in a particularly expensive rental area, consider living with roommates rather than renting by yourself. Also consider additional costs like utilities.

Do I want roommates?

Outside of financial reasons, it’s important to consider if roommates fit your lifestyle. When studying long hours or after completing a practicum at a local hospital or clinic, you may want to come home to a quiet space. Conversely, living with other healthcare students can provide a spirit of camaraderie that makes long days feel less stressful.

Where do I want to live?

Some students want the hustle and bustle of the city, while others prefer a more suburban surrounding. Typically, the further from the downtown area you live, the cheaper rent you pay and the more space you get. Living further away also typically means fewer parking constraints than those associated with living in a busy part of the city.

What type of commute do I want?

When considering where you want to live, also consider how far away you want to be from your college and any practicum/internship sites. You may pay significantly less living an extra 10 miles away from school, but what if those 10 miles add an extra 45 minutes to your commute? After a long day doing rounds, you may want to get home quickly to maximize your sleep and study time.

Will I need a cosigner?

If you haven’t previously rented and/or have a poor credit score, some landlords require a cosigner. If you plan to live with roommates, this should be ample enough security for the landlord. If you plan to live alone, you may need a parent or friend to cosign. Being a cosigner means potentially taking on financial responsibility, so choose wisely when asking someone to cosign for you.

Questions to Ask Potential Landlords

What are the refundable and non-refundable fees associated with this rental?

In addition to a security deposit, some landlords require the first and/or last month’s rent to ensure you are financially able to rent the property. If you have a pet, you may be required to pay a pet deposit and/or monthly pet fee. While your security deposit is typically refundable if you leave the property in good shape, fees associated with pets are not.

What is the application process?

Ask whether the application process is digital or on paper and how much they charge for the application fee. Also find out about the landlord’s screening criteria. Do they require a credit report? If so, is it a hard or soft inquiry, and will it affect your credit score? Lastly, ask about reference requirements. Do they require a reference from your former landlord? Do they require one from your employer?

What is the subletting policy?

Many students want to travel or return home over the summer and for holidays. If you sign a year-long lease, you may wish to sublet your rental while you’re away. Some landlords allow subletting while others have strong policies against it. Always ask your landlord before subletting.

How does parking work and is there an extra fee?

In many apartment complexes, residents have assigned spaces. If you plan to live with roommates, there may not be enough spaces, or you may have to double park and navigate coming and going. In large cities, some landlords charge an additional fee for a parking pass or may not offer parking at all. This can add a substantial amount to monthly costs.

What is the policy on visitors and guests?

Whether your partner likes to stay over multiple times a week or family members regularly come into town, make sure you understand the policy on visitors and guests. Particularly strict landlords have eviction policies for anyone with too many or too frequent visitors. In contrast, others are fine with this if they know who the person is. Make sure these policies are documented in the lease.

Understanding Your Rights as a Tenant

As a tenant, you have rights documented at both the federal and state levels. Understanding these rights ensures you are treated fairly and properly, aren’t forced to inhabit a poor living situation, and receive any funds from your deposit promptly after moving out. Familiarize yourself with these rights to understand how you should be treated as a tenant.

Fair Housing Rights

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law prohibiting landlords and property management companies from discriminating against tenants based on factors like religion, ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, familial status, or disability. Some states extend these rights to protect individuals identifying as LGBTQ+.

Right to a Habitable Home

Every renter has a right to a home that is fit to live in. This law includes no unsafe conditions (e.g., unstable foundation, outdated wiring or plumbing, lack of electricity and/or running water, etc.) and no infestations (e.g., rats, cockroaches, mice, or any other rodents and insects). Both situations make a property uninhabitable, and you can forfeit your lease if your landlord does not address them immediately.

Right to Your Security Deposit

Landlords require deposits to mitigate the risk associated with how tenants leave the property. If it is not at the same standard as when you moved in, your landlord may deduct expenses related to cleaning and repairs. Any remaining funds must be returned to you promptly. Each state sets its own requirements, so review local laws to understand your rights.

Rights Regarding Eviction

Each state has different requirements regarding the steps a landlord must take before they can legally evict a tenant. Most states require a written notice that you are in breach of the contract, including a set amount of time for you to fix any issues. The federal government set a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic for individuals temporarily unable to keep up with rent payments.

Is Renters Insurance Worth It?

Renters insurance provides protection against the financial consequences of property damage, personal liability, loss of use, and medical protection within your property. Some landlords require leasers to have renter’s insurance, but it’s still worth considering if they don’t.

Renters insurance costs an average of $15 per month or $180 per year. The amount of insurance you need depends on the value of your personal property and how much liability you want if your property is damaged. Most insurers take you through a series of questions to help you identify the proper amount.

Since college students typically have little to no savings, a renters insurance policy can help avoid catastrophe in the event of a stolen laptop or textbooks. This can be especially true if you plan to invite your new schoolmates back to your place without yet knowing them very well.

5 Red Flags: Rental Scams & Warning Signs

Although most landlords and property rental companies are legitimate, always be on the lookout for possible scams. Con artists will take your money and disappear, leaving you out hundreds or even thousands of dollars and with no rental property. Below are some of the most common scams.

#1: The price seems too good to be true

After looking at a variety of different listings, you’ll have a good sense of the fair market value for properties based on their size and location. If you come across a rental property that seems far too good to be true for the price, chances are it is. Scammers often bait interested renters with low prices and pressure them to pay a deposit and first month’s rent. Quickly step away from the situation if you feel this type of pressure.

#2: Listing photo watermarks

Some scammers pull photos from listing services like MLS and use them as their own. This means they do not possess original copies of the photos and likely don’t own the property at all. Some scammers also copy existing rental listings, simply changing the contact information to their own. Ask to see the listing in person and to go inside before signing any documents.

#3: Not requiring a background check

Any serious landlord wants to conduct a background check on potential tenants to help mitigate risks. If they find out that you left your last two apartments in a bad state, paid your rent late, or didn’t qualify to receive your deposit, those are all red flags. Scammers posing as rental managers often bypass a background check to entice those with poor credit to pay more than fair market value.

#4: Asking you to wire money

Wiring money for your security deposit or first/last month’s rent is a sure sign of a scam. By sending money in this way, you have no way to trace it, no way to confirm that it arrived, and no way to cancel the transaction if you learn it’s a scam. Only use a check or a registered money order to pay these upfront fees.

#5: No evidence of the landlord online

Especially in the case of larger rental properties, you should always be able to find information about the landlord or property management company online. Often, you’ll see Google reviews or other online postings from current and previous tenants talking about their experiences. If not, the company could be made up.

Resources for Student Renters

This organization helps students find housing near colleges and universities across the United States. The database meets budget needs at every level and weeds out questionable property management agencies.

Sublet.com provides a searchable database of sublets by college students, for college students. If you’re looking for a short-term or more flexible rental, this is a great place to start your search.

Pennsylvania State University provides information on both renter and landlord rights within a lease agreement to ensure students know what they’re getting themselves into.

The University of the People looks at the harm cheating causes both you and others.

Nationwide put together this guide to help renters leave their apartments or houses in a state that ensures they receive their full security deposits at the end of their leases.

These resources from Trulia help first-time renters make sure they cover all their bases before signing a lease agreement.

The University of Maine provides this guide for commuter and non-traditional students thinking about living off-campus and who have questions about the process.

Apartment Guide offers this comprehensive page to help college students considering renting make informed and confident decisions about their next living space.

This nonprofit organization helps renters find the resources they need to know their rights, search for acceptable housing, and locate services that can help them cover rent.