College Financial Guide: Housing

A huge part of the college experience — and college costs — is housing. Before you sign that lease, choose your roommate, or start packing for the dorm, here is what you need to know to make the right choice for you and how to save:

Living in the Dorms

One of the most iconic experiences of college is living in a dorm room. Depending on your college, you may be required to live on campus for at least part of your time there, commonly the first year, or longer with certain scholarship stipulations. But you also may choose to live in the dorms the entire time.

Many colleges offer a variety of options when choosing a dorm:

  • Coed or same-gender floors.
  • Floors or entire dorms organized by major, such as nursing.
  • A quiet floor, which has noise restrictions.
  • Floors by specific sports or activities.
  • Floors or entire buildings for international students or for the LGBT community.
  • Some colleges, such as the University of California-Santa Cruz, offer housing for recovering addicts for a clean living environment.

Costs for housing and a meal plan vary greatly depending on your college, and will likely be in the thousands of dollars per year.

Staying Healthy in the Dorms

As if college isn’t stressful enough, there are increasing health concerns associated with living in dorms. Instances of meningitis, mononucleosis (also known as the kissing disease), athlete’s foot, colds and flu, mold, and bed bugs are just a handful of health hazards associated with dorm living. Health.com advises dorm residents to get a meningitis vaccine and flu shot, wash hands thoroughly and often, and use some type of antibacterial cleaner (e.g., Lysol) on surfaces such as counters and desks.

For mold, keep things dry. Don’t throw wet towels and clothes in the back of a closet. If you notice a moldy smell throughout your dorm, report it to the housing department. Wear flip-flops or shower shoes around the dorm, halls, and in the bathrooms and showers to avoid athlete’s foot.

You can avoid bed bugs by being certain any furniture, clothing, or other fabrics you’re bringing in are bug-free. Unfortunately, you can’t control what other people bring into the building. Keep an eye out for bed bugs on your belongings that could have spread from someone else, especially if you develop the itchy red bites that are often the result of the little critters.

Visit your college health center to see if they offer free vaccines, tips for staying healthy in the dorms, or other health products.

How to Save on Dorm Costs

If you’re opting to stay in the dorms past your freshman year, apply to be an RA, or resident assistant. Depending on your college, this could mean free or discounted room and board, or even a paycheck.

Some colleges may offer an option of a private dorm room, but this most likely will be pricey. To save, stick with a roommate. If you’re concerned about living with someone you don’t know, ask family, friends, classmates, and anyone else if they know someone attending your school whom you could meet.

Many times your meal plan is lumped in with your dorm costs. See if your college allows you to upgrade during the semester. This way, you can start with a more modest plan and see if it’s sufficient — and then pick a pricier plan later if desired. You can supplement a smaller meal plan with clipping coupons, signing up for grocery store reward programs, and finding other ways to eat cheaply in college.

Living in an Apartment

If dorm life isn’t for you, you’ll be on a quest to find an apartment near campus. Here’s what you need to know:

Off-Campus Living and Financial Aid

You’ll need to indicate that you’re living off-campus on your FAFSA when you’re applying for financial aid, as it may factor into your aid. Temple University in Philadelphia, for example, calculates your aid budget based on the standard cost of living off campus.

In many cases, your financial aid will cover your off-campus housing. Instead of the aid being directly disbursed to your college’s housing department, you will get a refund (in the form of a check or direct deposit), which you will use to pay your rent. You’ll usually get this check at the start of the semester, so you might need another way to fund a security deposit or first month’s rent if those payments are due before then. You’ll also need to budget those funds so you don’t blow through the lump sum early in the semester.

Finding a College Apartment

When you’re compiling your list of apartments to look at, your first stop should be your college’s housing department. Many times they have helpful information on living off campus.

Some colleges even offer a list of recommended apartments, which would probably indicate there are less likely to be problems or complaints associated with them. In larger cities, you can also search for student-friendly apartments for rent on Craigslist. Here are some additional resources to check out:

Talk to your potential landlords. Come equipped with questions, such as:

  • How much is the rent?
  • What utilities are included?
  • What is the average cost of utilities, if not included?
  • How long is the lease?
  • What is the parking situation? Is there an additional cost for parking?
  • Are the locks changed after each resident moves out?
  • Is there a laundry facility on-site?
  • What’s the situation with maintenance? What are you responsible for? How long will something take to be fixed? Is there 24-hour help?
  • What is the security deposit? Is this returned to you?
  • How much is due at signing? This could include application fees, costs of a background check, first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, and more.
  • What other costs are there? Some apartments may charge you a fee for trash pickup or bug spraying, for example.
  • Are there options to sublease? You’ll want to know what the options are in case your or your roommate situation changes.

Before You Sign a Lease

  • Scope the scene. You’re going to want to do a little more than check out the closet space during a walk-through. Check the window quality – do they look safe and secure? Are they drafty? What is the overall condition of appliances and the apartment itself? Do the lights flicker or make buzzing noises? Are there adequate smoke detectors and fire exits? Some college-area landlords may neglect basic safety issues with tragic results.
  • Read reviews. Check the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any formal complaints filed against the apartment building or management. You can also find apartment reviews online at Yelp, Apartmentratings.com, Apartments.com, and often by simply searching the property name and address online.
  • Consider the location. Can you walk to your classes? If not, is there some type of bus or shuttle that can get you there?
  • Choose your roommate(s) carefully. You’ll be living with these people for the better part of a year, so make sure you’re all somewhat compatible and respectful of each other’s space and belongings. The more roommates you have, the more money you could potentially save on rent and utilities each month. However, unlike in a dorm, all roommates on an apartment lease share a legal obligation — if one roommate flakes out, the rest of you are typically still responsible for that portion of the rent. Likewise, if one of your roommates puts a hole in the hall or damages the floors, you all may lose part of your security deposit.

Once You’ve Chosen Your Place

  • Read the lease before signing. This is vital to be sure you don’t run into trouble down the road. There might be hidden fees and other costs or rigid restrictions you’re not comfortable with.
  • See the actual apartment you’ll be living in. You probably know never to sign a lease without visiting the apartment you’ll be living in. In some cases, the model unit could be much nicer and better maintained.
  • Get renter’s insurance. Depending on your coverage and policy, renter’s insurance can cover you if someone breaks into your apartment and steals your belongings, there’s a fire in your apartment, water damage from another apartment, or even if someone slips in your apartment and hurts themselves.

Apartment Living vs. Dorm Living: Pros & Cons

A Case for Dorms

  • A dorm will generally grant you close proximity to campus, which means less time to get to your classes and less worry about transportation.
  • Unlike with an apartment, generally dorm living includes the cost of utilities, cable TV, and Internet.
  • Apartments are a much bigger responsibility. You’re obligated to pay your rent and all your utility bills on time every month or else your credit will suffer.
  • Dorm living usually includes a meal plan, which means you won’t need as much time to grocery shop, plan and prepare meals, and clean up from cooking.
  • Dorm life is often a social experience for people, with events and activities happening in the dorm, meeting new people, and spending time with friends. Beyond the social benefits, if you choose to and it’s available, living among other students in your major may enhance and strengthen your education.
  • Living in a dorm may offer certain amenities such as an entertainment room or computer lab.
  • If you and your dorm roommate are having issues and no longer wish to live together, your college housing department could probably assist you in finding a new roommate or rectifying the situation. In an apartment, once the lease is signed, you are all legally responsible for paying rent on time and abiding by the lease agreements. It could be a little trickier to get out of the lease, sublease, or find a new roommate.

A Case for Apartments

  • While paying rent and utilities could be a negative if you’re late or have problems relying on roommates, it could also start your way to a positive rental history and a way to establish credit.
  • An apartment can offer more privacy, which could mean a more peaceful environment for studying.
  • Apartments could allow for more flexibility, such as having guests.
  • With your own kitchen, you can have the option to eat healthier and save money on food. If the cafeteria or kitchen is closed in a dorm, you’re probably ordering fast food.
  • A possibly underestimated benefit is having your own bathroom or, at the least, sharing with far fewer people.
  • Depending on your college and location, renting an apartment can sometimes be cheaper than a pricey room and board plan, even factoring in all the utilities. However, it can also get far more expensive if you let it, so be careful about overspending on food or furnishings or opting for the modern complex with the heated pool.

Save on Furnishing Your New Place

According to a survey, the average incoming college student will spend $836 on dorm furnishings, electronics, and clothing. Here’s how to save on that amount:

  • Check with your college or your new landlord. Know what you can and can’t bring. Things such as hot plates, toaster ovens, candles, or pets may not be allowed.
  • See what they already have. You’ll also want to know what you don’t need to bring. Some colleges offer a mini-fridge in the room or a community area with an ironing board and iron. Your apartment might already come equipped with a microwave.
  • Plan with your roommate. Before you spend all of your hard-earned money, talk to your roommate to see what they are planning on bringing.
  • Use what you already have. Many items you already have could work for your dorm or apartment, including bedding, room decor, and furniture.
  • Shop smart. Thrift stores and secondhand stores are popular with college students. Just be sure you’re not taking in a piece of furniture or fabric that has bed bugs, mold, or any other harmful health issues. Plan to watch for deals and sales.
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