What you should know about Living off Campus

There should be a mandatory college course called, “Guidelines To Living Off Campus” that everyone has to pass before moving into off-campus housing for the first time. In fact, another course entitled, “How To Be A Good Roommate” should be required too. If my many housemates and I had taken those courses, we would have enjoyed our initial experiences away from dorm-life hassles even more. Maybe then I wouldn’t have had a misunderstanding with roommates over our heating bill. Maybe then a roommate wouldn’t have woken me up at 3am while watching Lost Boys at full volume when she couldn’t sleep. Maybe then we would have all understood the importance of chores before the mold monster grew. While it can be blissful to be free of worries about studying during distracting dorm events, or showering with limited privacy, or even dealing with the laundry bandit, living off campus has stresses and perks all its own. Before committing to off-campus housing, every student should weigh his options before deciding if it’s truly the most advantageous move.

The first thing “Guidelines To Living Off Campus” should cover is whether moving off campus is financially prudent. It usually is, but review your existing room and board expenses and compare those figures to what renting an apartment or house in your college town will cost. Upfront expenses for rentals often include paying the first and last month’s rent, plus security (for damages), cleaning and pet deposits. Landlords will want to see a bank record, or some evidence that you can cover these costs. Keep in mind too that some colleges will charge a fine for moving off campus too soon, and some tie scholarships to on-campus residency, so find out if either situation applies to you. Also, don’t forget to consider the regular expenses that living outside of a dorm will cost you, like: groceries, gas, water/sewer, garbage, electricity, and phone/internet services. Some landlords will cover certain utilities, especially in apartment complexes, but rarely all.

In addition, unless you plan to eat pizza off the floor every night, living off campus requires purchasing some homey essentials like furniture, dishes, a vacuum cleaner, and so on. You may also have to invest in large appliances like a microwave, washer and dryer and refrigerator too, depending upon what the rental includes. Yard supplies might be necessary as well, unless you choose to rent an apartment, or you find a landlord who will provide yard care. Sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? Just remember that in exchange for more responsibility you receive more privacy and space, and you begin a rental history that will help you in the future too.

Still, these added expenses are why most off-campus college students live with roommates. If you’re hoping to cut costs the same way, choose your roommates carefully. Your best friend, or the most fun prankster in your dorm might not be a wise choice. You need a balance of trustworthy people that you can have fun and study with, and who will be supportive and responsible. It might sound boring, but there’s nothing worse than having to deal with a roommate stealing from you, flaking on the rent, or moving out while you’re dealing with looming mid-terms.

Whoever you pick for roommates, identify the house rules quickly and in writing. Clearly defined agreements about chores, utilities, overnight guests, parties, study hours, and so on will help keep your living space your sanctuary, free of distractions and unnecessary tension. The first thing you should decide is how payment for rent and utilities will be collected and sent. Generally, utility bills are in one person’s name, and that person tends to mail everything in. If your roommates are dependable, you may only need to post incoming bills and a collection envelope on a highly visible bulletin board to prompt them to pay their share. In the same place, post an envelope for collecting the rent too, with a reminder note of due dates. Another option is to have a monthly house meeting where bills would be distributed and discussed, and payments collected. This would also provide a means to regularly discuss other house issues.

After determining how regular expenses will be collected, the remaining house rules should be established. To do this, all roommates should meet and discuss issues like: Can guests stay overnight? Do you need reserved study hours? Will you each have separate shelves in kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator? And please discuss the number one argument source among all roommates: chores! Everyone hates them, but part of responsible living is cleaning up your messes. You don’t want your blissful home interrupted by recurring arguments about whose turn it is to clean the toilet. Establish a routine chore schedule and post it where everyone can see it. Find a system that works for you. Will you commit to cleaning your dirty dishes after each meal, or by the end of the day? How often should the house be vacuumed? Cover everything from sweeping and cleaning the bathroom to doing yard work and shopping for shared supplies. Knowing that each person will pull his own weight in keeping your home clean and organized relieves a lot of stress and potential future arguments. Whatever you and your roommates decide, remember to reciprocate kindnesses. If a roommate washes your dishes after breakfast when you were running late, return the favor by doing the same sometime.

And don’t forget about food! You cannot survive on cookies and ramen noodles alone! The importance of knowing how to cook a few basics is overlooked far too often. You may be able to participate in your college meal plan still, but rushing off to the campus cafeteria for every snack won’t be very convenient, or cost-effective. If you don’t cook, invest in some standard cookbooks and supplies, and ask a friend or family member to show you some quick, easy recipes to start with, like tuna casserole, chicken burritos, and spaghetti. Keep some healthy snacks around too so you avoid binging on sweets or fast food regularly.

When thinking about moving off campus you should also consider when to look, and what to look for. Do you want an apartment, or a house? Either way, since students tend to hunt for rentals in August, you may find better choices if you look in July, or as early as the end of the school year. The latter situation will provide the most selection, but requires you to live there throughout the summer, or sublet. Whenever you look, it’s a good idea to bring a parent on the search to help locate red flags like: cracked ceilings, faulty lighting, insects, or even a shady landlord. In each place you see, be sure to ask questions like: Where does your landlord live? Is yard work included? What are the total move-in fees? Are all appliances included? Is maintenance provided?

Also, keep safety in mind when selecting a rental. Campus police may only patrol a few blocks beyond the campus grounds, so make sure you investigate the neighborhood and consider how safe you will be living there, and getting to and from school. Will you be walking? Driving? Biking? Are the areas you will travel well lit at night? Is there frequent crime in the area? Does the home you’re considering have good locks on doors and windows? Who will be your neighbors? Often landlords will rent to a revolving door of college students, so ask around and see if there are certain neighborhoods fellow students recommend. Crime can happen anywhere, but paying attention to details can help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Along the same lines, you might want to consider getting renter’s insurance in case of theft or disaster.

And finally, a rental agreement is a binding contract between all parties. Breaking stipulations within it could lead to fines, eviction, or worse. Never sign the rental agreement without reading it first, and make sure you know the current landlord/tenant laws in your state. There will be no Resident Manager mediating on your behalf if issues arise. If you will have housemates, have them sign the rental agreement and pay into all the deposits. This will make you equally responsible, and will safeguard you if anyone causes damages, or decides to move out before the rental term is up.

Living off campus is a dream most college students have at some point-a natural progression into a more adult, independent lifestyle-but as with most dreams, the reality can be quite different than expected. Planning ahead and considering your options before you commit is crucial for a smooth transition. While the added responsibilities of living off campus are many, the experience can be well worth it. When you have a comfortable place, and good, dependable roommates, college life is a little easier. And if you’re lucky, you’ll make lifelong friends that will stick by you, mold monster or not.