How to Live in Off-Campus Housing

Augusta State PR/flickrI wanted to call this "How to Live in an Off-Campus Apartment Without Getting Evicted, Harassed or Jacked Out of Your Security Deposit," but that title is way too long, and does not do justice to the advice I'm also giving you about the more nuanced aspects of off-campus living, like procuring free furniture and how to, say, avoid kitchen fires.

I lived off-campus in the bucolic college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where I witnessed off-campus houses that varied from beautiful collective Victorians adjacent to farmland to totally nasty hovels that literally got condemned mid-semester. It helps that I am presently a full-time home improvement writer and editor, so you can trust me: I've been there, and now it's my life's work to educate the American public about the finer points of dwelling. Follow me through off-campus apartment living, step by step:

Step: 1: Thoroughly inspect the place before signing a lease.

To put it bluntly, I've seen students live in some pretty decrepit apartments. While financial necessity may force you into a substandard place, there are certain things you should not compromise on. If any of the following is broken or missing, be sure that you note it on the lease so that you do not get charged for pre-existing damage when you move out. In fact, I recommend that if any of the following are problematic, you get an agreement in writing from the landlord stating that he will rectify the problem before you move in:

  • Broken, creaky, or wobbly stairs or floorboards.

  • Windows that don't open, don't close, don't have screens, or have cracked/broken panes.

  • Water damage or mold (if you smell or see mold, I advise not even considering the place).

  • Bathroom fixtures that leak or don't work at all. Turn on the faucets and shower when you are touring the apartment to check.

  • Marred paint, wall paneling, or drywall. Don't get jacked out of your security deposit for the previous tenant's nail holes.

  • Non-working appliances and/or non-functional gas and electrical connections.

  • Signs of rodent or bug infestation (even one bug or one mouse turd). Don't take the place unless you have absolutely no other housing options AND you get a written agreement from the landlord that he'll pay for extermination services before you move in. Be especially wary of bedbugs; ask the current tenants and the neighbors if they've had any problems. Student housing is often in older, neglected neighborhoods where bedbugs may be a big problem.

  • Check that the door locks with a deadbolt, and verify that the lock will be changed before you move in so that the previous tenant is not at liberty to let himself in and steal your laptop.

Step 2: Review the lease carefully before you sign.

It's likely this is the first lease you've ever had to sign, especially if you are an undergraduate. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a lawyer as a parent (or to have access to some other form of free legal advice), and in their haste to find housing, undergraduates often get hoodwinked into leases that are less than forgiving.

Examine the following before signing anything: How many people are allowed to live in the house? What is the landlord's policy on subletting? Who is responsible for clearing snow? What is the policy on early exit from the apartment? Has the landlord set out any stipulations around things like noise, overnight guests and parking? Does the lease include parking spaces? Who is responsible for fixing broken appliances and fixtures? Be extremely careful to find out what the policy is on refunding your security deposit. Be sure that the stipulations are reasonable.

Step 3: Find responsible roommates.

It's not important that you live with your best friends. What is important is that you live with people who'll pay their rent and co-pay the utility bills with you, on time. If your name is on the lease or on the utility bills, you will be held liable for payment. In my experience, slightly nerdy roommates who have stable relationships with their families are the best at paying bills promptly.

Partying elsewhere and living with quiet, responsible people is less fun than living in a party house, but has proven time and again to be far less frustrating, as well. If you move in with a really fun friend who might, like, spend his electricity bill money on a bag of whatever substance, you may find the lifespan of your friendship expiring before its time. Do yourself a huge favor and party with your fun friends in their houses, and relish the sanity of living with normal people who pay bills on time.

Step 4: Furnish the place for free.

Once you've found an off-campus apartment and moved in, you'll need to furnish it. The easiest way to acquire furniture is to inherit it from the previous tenants. Graduating seniors are excellent sources of free or cheap furniture. Also, never underestimate the power of dumpster diving. The best time of year to scavenge free furniture in college towns is right before and after spring finals. In Amherst, we called the days after finals "hippie Christmas," because of the plethora of furniture and brand name belongings that exiting students left on the sidewalks and beside dumpsters.

Be wary of stuffed furniture (i.e. mattresses and upholstered couches) that you find on the street. Due to the bedbug epidemic, it is likely that a few living organisms have made themselves at home inside of it, and you are better off passing it up. Hard furniture is generally fine and can be refurbished with soap, water and a little bit of Lysol. Art students are fantastic at painting ugly used furniture, and will generally commission their work for a growler of your college town's local brew house specialty. If you can't find furniture on the street, there's always Craigslist and Facebook.

Step 5: Take care of basic home maintenance.

My dad wisely sent me off to college with a hammer, a screwdriver, nails, screws, metal wire, and scissors. If you're living in a rental for the school year, I don't suggest making any major changes to the place (like painting the walls funky colors), unless your landlord has given you express permission. Your objective is to do as little damage to the house as possible. If you want to hang some art made by your wildly talented artist friend, I suggest hanging it with the tiniest possible nail you can find. Be prepared to fill any holes that you make in the walls.

You also need to invest in a broom, dust pan and mop. Since you are busy studying and working, you probably won't have much time for home maintenance. If something breaks, call your landlord right away, and document the call. I know dealing with landlords is a drag, but most leases obligate the tenant to report or fix any part of the apartment that breaks during their tenancy. If you allow, say, a loose floorboard to become a missing floorboard, you can bet that it will come out of your security deposit. Deal with house problems as soon as they come up, and you're less likely to pay for them in the end.

Preventing fires is quite important for a happy and healthy tenancy. Invest in a fire extinguisher, and be extremely careful with incense, candles and halogen lamps. Never attempt to put out a grease fire with water (smother it with the lid of a pan or use the fire extinguisher), and periodically check the batteries in your smoke detectors.

Step 6: Set up the kitchen.

A great thing about living off campus is being able to cook for yourself. I'm sure you're excited about the absence of mystery meat from your meal plan. Food storage and cleanup are two of the more challenging aspects of sharing kitchen space with roommates, though. In terms of the latter, it's best to come to some sort of agreement before moving in, such as, "Only water glasses are allowed to stay in the sink overnight" or "We rotate taking out the kitchen trash on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday."

For food storage, what tends to be most successful is allocating an individual cabinet to each household member, while also keeping a communal food cupboard. It also tends to work best for each roommate to have his own shelf in the refrigerator, so that no one accidentally drinks your beer or eats your cheese. When I lived with roommates, we kept a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker on top of the refrigerator so everyone could label his own food. Expensive items like olive oil, orange juice and coffee are best kept private in order to prevent conflict, although it is economical to share milk and jars of spices and salt. 

Periodically, clean out the fridge. It's better to do biology experiments in the lab than in your kitchen.

Step 7: Be a good neighbor and live happily.

As a college student, your resources are limited. When you need something, like a ladder, you may be forced by necessity to ask a neighbor. I recommend getting to know your neighbors for this reason, as well as to avoid unnecessary visits from the police. It is likely that at some point in your tenancy, a gathering at your house could become overly exuberant. Your neighbors will be far less likely to call the cops if they know you and have your phone number to call first.

When you move in, it would behoove you to bring your neighbors a plate of freshly baked cookies and a card with your phone number on it. Say "hello" whenever you see them. Offer to help rake their leaves or shovel their snow. It will pay off down the line. Befriending your neighbors will also help you score points with leftist "community-building" classmates, the benefits of which can only be summed up as invitations to delicious pot-luck suppers that involve ample dessert platters and private performances by aspiring disc jockeys.

Updated November 27, 2018.

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