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Five Important Things to Look At in Off-Campus Housing

08/07/2013 10:26 pm 22:26:46 | Updated Oct 07, 2013

I run a university which provides student housing. Whatever your budget or taste, we've got something -- from a basic shared room with the bathroom down the hall, to a private apartment style room complete with private entrance and private bath. And an extraordinarily important part of college life -- one that 20 years later folks who experienced still talk about and those who did not experience still lament forgoing -- is living on campus. College is about more than the classroom, and lots of things happen quickly and without a lot of advanced notice. When it comes to being an engaged part of the college community, being there is half the battle! And, when all the costs are factored in, for many students, living on campus is their least expensive option. But, I've got more folks who want one of these rooms than I do rooms. So, we end up with students living in private residences off campus. Some have great experiences. Some, not so great. Much of this has to do, frankly, with doing one's homework.

We find students have a few reasons for wanting to live off campus. Some do, in fact, save money. We are cognizant of the sacrifices students (and often their families) make to go to college, so we're a not-for-profit which runs lean. But there are some things we don't skimp on which add costs "off the books and under the radar" housing providers can avoid (anyone who has ever taken a "gypsy cab" across New York will know exactly what I am talking about here). We pay security. We pay resident assistants. We actually have staff who live on campus. We comply with building codes. The fire inspector comes and inspects our facilities on a regular basis. Safety does not come cheap; square foot by square foot, a modest college dorm room can cost more to build than a luxury home. It's going to be largely the same with any housing at any reputable college. "Can you pay me in cash?" rentals can be a different story: we've seen students live as cheaply as $100 a month by sharing a two bedroom, two bath house with five other women. Not my cup of tea, but it works for some, and, done right, can indeed reduce the cost of living. Some move off campus because they want to escape the rules and regulations inherent in college living. To the great disappointment of some freshmen who believe that Animal House was a documentary, very few colleges today allow drunken orgies -- or even full on keggers -- on campus. We try not to be overly intrusive in the lives of our students, but we do have a mosaic of rules, resident assistants, and grown up staff in place. And, some, of course, are taking another step towards adulthood -- paying rent, putting deposits down on utilities, negotiating with roommates.

Regardless of the reason for the decision, before you take the plunge and live off campus, you need to do your homework. Here are five important things to consider and ask about when considering off-campus housing.

1) What fire protection is in place? Little is scarier on a college campus than a fire. But, fact is, the vast majority of fires tragically claiming the lives of college students happen at off campus housing. Since 2000, 14 times as many students (86 percent) have died in off campus fires than in either on campus or Greek (i.e., fraternity or sorority) housing fires (6 percent each). That's a staggering number. Ask to see the last fire department inspection (don't be surprised if there wasn't one -- many students live in what authorities believe are single family private homes). Check the fire extinguisher pressure gauges. Be sure the secondary exits (often bedroom windows) are actually functioning. Check smoke detectors. Heck, why not check the circuit breaker box? You don't have to be an electrician to be wary of wires stapled up the wall and over the ceiling!

2) Check the security. When's the last time they've changed the locks? Is it a difficult to duplicate key? Do locks on the doors and windows actually work? How's crime? If the neighborhood doesn't have online crime reports (a couple of neat sites are My Neighborhood Update and Crime Mapping) the local police are usually happy to tell you what they know. Does law enforcement know college students live there? A sad fact of life is that there are those who prey on college students. While many law enforcement agencies make it a point to "drive by when we're in the neighborhood," they cannot do this with houses which deliberately "fly under the radar."

3) Read the lease. Twice. This is where many of our students get burned, as often as not because there is no lease.

4) Find out about maintenance. First thing we do in my office each morning: follow up on maintenance requests we think are taking too long. We might not have a spare everything, but we have a couple of spare air conditioners, refrigerators, and toilet flappers on the shelf at any given time. Who do I call to fix things? Is it 24/7? All good questions.

5) Check the roommates, especially if you're jointly responsible for rent and/or utilities. We've had students get stuck with the entire rent on four bedroom houses. And, lifestyle is important too. I've got dozens of rooms just alike -- the folks who check "stay up late" on their questionnaires go in rooms together; the folks who write "in bed by 9" go in rooms together. If you really hate your roommate on campus, we'll let you move. If you're stuck with someone for the entire school year, you'd better not hate them!

For many students, that first "my own place" -- even if it is shared with others and parents help pay the rent -- is a wonderful, magical time. But, for others, it is a nightmare. Sure, there's plenty of homework in college without making your own. But this is some that is really worth doing: for those choosing to live off campus, a little bit of due diligence can help make it a good experience.