When I got an official letter of acceptance from my university, I was over the moon. The uncertainty was no more, and all I had to take care of was some additional school paperwork, visa, and housing. The latter proved to be quite a wild ride.
I started by googling all possible housing options in the area surrounding my university. All of them showed off fancy pictures of rooms with posh furniture, lots of light and space, and (in apartment complexes) great facilities - along with a steep price tag. My hopes of finding an affordable space where I could live by myself faded very quickly so I looked into options with roommates. One studio apartment complex seemed very student-friendly, an okay distance to school with free shuttles, more or less decent facilities and a price that I could afford - or so I thought. After a thousand emails about details that the company chose to hide from applicants, it turned out I had to pay a huge deposit because I had no rent/credit history in the US and that utilities were pretty expensive. I was unfortunate/naive to learn about it after I already paid $300 as a holding fee for them to hold a particular studio unit for me.
As soon as I realized I couldn’t afford the place, I found someone who was looking for a roommate in the same apartment complex for a 2-bedroom apartment and asked to transfer my application for that unit - which they did. And then my future roommate bailed on me by ignoring all of my messages for a while, forcing me to ask the apartment complex to go back to my previous application because I was going to move to the US in about 3 weeks...To which they “kindly” said yes and requested another $300; you see, my first holding fee was gone because I was re-applying for the studio again, and they didn’t give a damn about the fact that it was the exact same studio I applied before.
Basically, they (mildly speaking) appropriated $300 from me and offered no help whatsoever to mend the situation. Needless to say, I ditched them and never looked back.
Meanwhile, I had 3 weeks left and no place to go. My anxiety soared through the roof. I was angry, frustrated, and semi-broke. Eventually I found a place at the last minute which ended up being my home for the first year. It took me a few years to become well-versed in how this system works in the US.
If you are an international student or are new to renting on/around campus in the US, you must know how it works before you get into it. It will save you money and lots, lots, LOTS of headache.
This is post #1 of the series on renting housing in the US. It will introduce you to the basic terms and things to look out for when you start renting. In the upcoming posts, we will talk about where and how to look for housing when you are in or out of the country, go through actual lease ads, delve into the specifics of how to apply for your housing and how to avoid legal and financial problems, and tackle the intricate nuances of interacting with your roommates and agency.
DISCLAIMER: The following information is based on my experience of renting in the Midwest (specifically, in Ohio), my travel experience (I lived in graduate housing in another state), conversations with other people, and research. While the core aspects of this experience will most likely apply to your situation, always consider it in the context of your particular city/state.
Types of housing
On-campus vs. off-campus housing
On-campus housing refers to accommodations located within the university’s official campus area. This is typically the closest you can get to school. You should be able to walk to most of your classes and campus facilities in a matter of just a few minutes. However, its central position means less space and higher prices, as well as a few other limitations.
Here are the pros of on-campus housing:
+ No commute and quick access to most university amenities (although this depends on how spread out and big your campus is).
+ Free access to shared spaces such as study rooms, gym, laundry, sometimes music room, etc.
+ On-site personnel to talk to if you need help with your apartment.
+ The reception desk can receive packages for you, which is great for days when you’re expecting a package but have to be out all day.
+ It’s easier to meet other graduate students.
+ It might be near campus shuttles.
Now let’s look at the cons:
- This housing is expensive - and often much more expensive than off-campus housing. For example, I rented a spacious room in a 4-bedroom house with spacious common areas (living room, kitchen, dining room) for $320 a month - a 15 min walk to central campus. A bedroom in a 3-bedroom apartment in an on-campus graduate building costs $860 in my university. My current studio apartment is just under $600, and a studio in graduate housing is almost $950. Yikes!
- Potential problems with parking. This depends on your university, of course, but you might have to get a campus parking pass which can break the bank.
- Less space. On-campus graduate housing is most likely an apartment in an apartment complex, meaning smaller rooms and less storage.
- Less privacy. In an apartment building, you’ll be surrounded by many other people. An advantage for socializing, it can be a big disadvantage when it comes to privacy and quiet time.
Off-campus housing means any accommodations outside of the university’s official campus area. It doesn’t mean that they are far from campus. I live in an off-campus apartment but it takes 5 minutes to walk there.
The pros of such housing are as follows:
+ A wide variety of choices, prices, and available locations. You are free to choose literally any apartment/house in the city within your price range. As I already mentioned, I rented a room for super cheap (by Ohio standards) - $320 - but later switched to a more expensive option so that I can live alone (around $600).
+ Parking situation might be better. There is usually free off-street parking or a paid parking spot in the backyard.
+ (Usually) lots of space. In a house, you will have a dining room, a kitchen and a living room + bedrooms + a basement. In an apartment, your space might be limited depending on your apartment complex.
+ More privacy if you are in a house - you’ll probably have 3-4 roommates (sometimes fewer or more) and won’t have to deal with neighbours (which might be different in apartment complexes).
And onto the drawbacks:
- You might be located far from important facilities and on-campus buildings.
- If you choose to commute using public transportation, it might be time-consuming and really annoying, especially if you live in a smaller city.
- You usually have to find roommates by yourself (in graduate housing there is often a system in place to help you do it and sometimes it’s literally a lottery).
- More choices means more research time and more headache.
- You will most likely rent from agencies, and they might be horrible to deal with. Most off-campus agencies leasing close to campus try to prey on students because the latter don’t have much of a choice, money, or knowledge.
- The term of renting (how many months your contract will last) might not align with important university dates. E. g., it might end in the middle of summer when you don’t have classes or go on vacation.
- No freely available spaces such as gym, pool, study and music practice facilities (I did practice music in my basement though!).
To sum up:
Ranges from cheap to expensive
Close to campus facilities
Can be close or far
Usually little space
Usually more space in houses; varies in apartments
Gym, study rooms, sometimes pool and music room
Same as on-campus in an apartment complex except for study spaces; none in a house
Might be hard to find or expensive
Generally free or not
Usually very limited
Lots of different companies, locations and prices
More homogeneous (probably other graduate students), more support in finding a roommate or automatic pairing
You have to find roommates yourself or join someone who already lives there
Furnished vs. unfurnished
In Russia, most apartments for rent come furnished, so the concept of unfurnished apartments didn’t even make sense to me until I started searching for accommodations in the US.
When a space is furnished, it has furniture available for you to use. In other words, you will have stuff like a bed, dresser, desk, table in the kitchen, and all kitchen and bathroom amenities.
Unfurnished spaces have no furniture but still include basic amenities. Usually, they are kitchen basics (stove, microwave, counters and cupboards, a (usually double) sink) and bathroom essentials (toilet, bathtub or shower stall, some shelves, sink and mirror). The rest is up to you to buy (or not buy).
Here is an example of an unfurnished room:
And a room furnished by me (in which I lived for a year):
Most American places for rent are unfurnished. This is really important to understand! On their websites, companies tend to post images of rooms with furniture to make them pretty. Don’t let it deceive you: when the space is empty, it might look nothing like the pretty picture.
Always look for information about whether housing comes furnished or not.
Let’s count the bedrooms: studio, 1-bedroom, 2-bedroom & up
The structure of housing in Russia is different enough from the US to have had me confused for a long time about why the heck a 1-bedroom apartment would have 2 rooms.
Here’s the thing. In Russia, we count rooms, not bedrooms (except for kitchen). One room available and the kitchen is in that room? Then it’s a studio. The same works in the US. However, when we say “1-room apartment” in Russian, we mean that there is one room and a separate kitchen. “2-room apartment” = 2 separate rooms and a separate kitchen.
In the US, they count bedrooms. 1-bedroom apartment means there is 1 bedroom + 1 living room + kitchen. In other words, there are actually 2 rooms available. However, the living room is usually not private and connected to other spaces.
Seeing floor plans can give you a good idea of what the space is like without seeing it live. Floor plans are schematic drawings that show the layout of the space and its size. I haven’t really seen floor plans for houses but they are a must for all apartment complexes. They are fairly straightforward to read. Always check the size of the space when you are looking at floor plans - it will give you a good estimate of how spacious the place is.
Utilities are services that make our life in housing possible and/or comfortable. Basic utilities include:
In Russia (at least in apartments), once a month we get a bill sent by a centralized agency that includes all utilities save Internet. In the US (at least where I live), electricity and gas are managed by different companies and you have to sign up for their services separately on your own. Your rental agency will let you know what companies you should use. Water is usually included in the cost of your rent, so you probably won’t have to worry about it.
There might be other fees included as utilities such as:
- Trash collection
Some companies feature “All utilities included” offers. What it means is that your overall bill will include all utilities + your monthly rent and you will NOT have to sign up for any services on your own. Sometimes it might also be all utilities included without the Internet/cable - so read listings carefully
Now, there are advantages to both options. With all utilities included, you don’t have to think about setting up payments to different companies. At the same time, it means you have no control over what providers you have (which is especially relevant for Internet) and some of the utility charges might be fixed prices - even if you spend less water, gas or electricity than average customers. With utilities not included in rent, you can save some money by using less gas and electricity and pick an Internet provider you like, but it also means keeping track of more payments, dealing with three companies instead of one, and it doesn't necessarily amount to much bigger savings.
When you calculate the total rental price, always consider utilities. If you don’t know the average price of gas and electricity, ask the agency or google this information based on your state.
Lease term (how many months will you lease last)?
When I was renting an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, my rent was month-to-month. If I wanted to move out, I would have to give a 30-day notice and be out within a month. As simple as that.
Naturally, when I was faced with 9 to 12-month contracts in the US, I was horrified. What do you mean I have to be on the lease for 12 months? What if I have a fallout with a roommate? What if the company is terrible? What if I need to move somewhere closer? ARE YOU GUYS CRAZY???
Well, here’s the sad truth: when renting on campus, students are easy targets. They desperately need a place in the vicinity of the school (most of the time), and there aren’t tons of choices out there. They are also financially vulnerable and often inexperienced. So why not lock them in a contract that they have no way to get out of without severe repercussions?
As a student, prepare to be locked into a 9-12 month contract when you rent housing closer to campus. I’ve never seen them offer month-to-month options as an alternative. In other places (further away from campus) month-to-month contracts are usually available but are more expensive than longer terms. Even if it makes sense to offer contracts that coincide with the school year length (excluding summer), in my view this policy severely limits students’ freedom to move out when they really need to.
Be ready to be legally obliged to stay at the place you rented for the entire school year when you rent in the US because it is a common renting model.
That said, there is an option that can help with this problem - and that’s subleasing.
Subleasing your place
Subleasing (also known as subletting) is a legal procedure allowing another person(s) live in your apartment and pay the rent for you. For example, if your lease is up in August and you travel all summer, you can sublease your apartment to someone else for 3 months and save some money. It is usually done through your agency.
Subleasing can be great. It gives you the leeway to not pay your rent without breaking the lease (since the other person pays for living there).
But it also sucks - a lot more than you would think. First, even though you can sublease officially (not every company allows that, btw), ultimately YOU are still responsible for the rent (in most situations). In other words: if your subleaser refuses to pay, you’ll be on the hook. Second, you’re most likely to sublease in summer or winter during school breaks...Exactly when everyone else does. That means a lot more supply than demand, which drives prices down. If your apartment costs $600 a month, chances are you will have to give a good discount to find a subleaser. Third, you will be responsible for any damage they do to your place, even if it was unintentional - meaning potentially losing money from your security deposit. Fourth, there are usually costs involved in subleasing through agency; in my case it was a $30 fee. My boyfriend had to pay $200 for his. Finally, I once was in a situation when I subleased for the summer but then had drastic changes in my personal life and my summer plans fell through, so I had nowhere else to go (it was in my first year). So if you have no backup plan, this might turn out ugly.
Know your subleasing options when you rent but be very careful. It might be trickier than it seems.
Upon signing the lease, you will be required to pay a security deposit. It usually equals the amount of one month of rent and is a safety cushion for the agency in case you break the lease/damage the place. In other words, if your rent is $400 per month, you will have to pay a security deposit of $400 and then pay the first month of rent (sometimes the two of them are paid at the same time).
At the end of your lease term, the agency will return this deposit to you. If you damage anything in your apartment/room/house, the agency will take some money out of your security deposit to fix it. Unfortunately, many companies abuse this policy and will take as much as they can from your security deposit for stuff like cleaning after you move out (even if you cleaned well), any items/furniture you left there, and many other things. You have to do a very careful inspection of the place when you move in and move out and address any maintenance issues immediately.
We will talk more about security deposits and how to make sure you get your money back in the next posts.
If you choose to rent an apartment and have a specific one in mind but are not ready to sign the lease right away, you might have to pay a holding fee for the agency to keep this apartment available for you. If you pay this fee, technically they cannot give that specific apartment unit to anyone else until you sign the lease. Such fees can be pretty steep and I generally don’t trust agencies to not mess it up like they did with my first renting experience described above, so I would not recommend paying it and postponing signing the lease unless you absolutely can’t do it otherwise.
When should you start looking for housing/sign the lease?
In my area, students tend to sign the lease as early as a year in advance.
↑↑↑ That was me when I found out. I am a planner but how the heck am I supposed to know what I’m doing a year from now?!
Of course, not all students do it but those who do benefit from more affordable choices and have more time to compare and pick a good deal - simply because more places are available at the time. As a first-year international student out of the country, this is off the table simply because you won’t get a decision on your admission earlier than at least half a year before school starts.
As soon as you know you’re in, start looking for a place. The earlier, the better. Read this blog post series to make sure you know all the nuances and get started on your search. As a returning student, start looking as soon as the year starts to make sure you get a good deal. Generally, leases start in late August and end May or June (or in August if it’s a 12-month lease). I had to find housing in the spring semester and it was a lot harder because good options were already sold out.
Alright, now you now the very basics of renting in the US - but there’s so much to cover! In the next post, we will look into the best places to search for apartments and roommates and go through several real renting ads to understand how to read and analyze them.
If you have any questions, please let me know in the comment section. Feel free to share your renting experience in the US in the comments so that we can learn from you!