Fear not, young housing Padawans. Whether you're a senior whose future after college is staring you right in the face, or just an underclassman looking for an alternative living arrangement, navigating the ocean of apartment options and rental houses doesn't have to be a worrisome chore. Look on the bright side of things: you are exercising a greater deal of control over your living situation, you aren't limited to dormitory-style accommodations and (if you're 21 years old) you don't have to put up with any dry-campus policies.
At the moment you sign that lease, you'll probably wish that some cover band was there playing "Freebird." Or maybe not; maybe that's the last thing you'd like to hear playing at your moment of triumph. Anyway, my point is that making living arrangements off the college campus can be an incredibly liberating and informative experience.
Still, there are a number of issues that you should be aware of when choosing your perfect off-campus abode. Lease arrangements and utility payments, for example, are just two things that can cause students grief. Here to help you navigate the pitfalls of off-campus living is a housing "A-Team" comprised of Jerry Baack, the owner of the Central Block apartments above the Rare Pair in downtown Northfield; Marva Allen, the property manager of Cannon Valley Apartments, one block off Lincoln Avenue; and our own Residence Life director, Pamela McDowell.
Baack, the president and CEO of Bridgewater Bank in Bloomington, Minn., owns the Central Block building that houses the Rare Pair, several smaller commercial interests and seven third-floor, loft-style apartments. Despite his busy financial career, he takes the time to help with maintenance and leasing as well as interview prospective tenants.
"I just want to provide a nice environment [for the tenants] to live in," he said in a phone interview.
Allen, as the property manager of an entire apartment complex, spends a lot of her time working with her assistant managers, the maintenance technicians and the tenants that frequent the Cannon Valley Place apartments. For 20 years, Marva has been "keeping the peace" between her tenants at Cannon Valley, which is owned by Olsen Management.
As the residence life director, McDowell works with the St. Olaf administration on all off-campus policies and is the go-to person for housing questions and concerns.
Now that we've assembled our A-Team, let's get down to business.
Picking the Apartment or House
The first, and arguably most exciting, part of off-campus living is choosing your own place. This process can be a bit like one of those old "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books. There are a ton of apartment and housing configurations that you can arrange, though all, to varying degrees, depend on money and other circumstances.
For starters, what kind of budget are you working with? Some apartments, like the studios at Cannon Valley, cost as little as $475 a month. Others, such as Apartment 7 in the Rare Pair, are more royally apportioned. Obviously, the bigger you go with accommodations, the more expensive it's going to be (Apartment 7, in all its three-bedroom glory, costs $1,600 a month). Renting houses in Northfield can be significantly cheaper for comparable floorspace. Monthly rent for a duplex in Northfield can go for as little as $450, whereas some 2,900 square foot homes in Northfield are $1,595. However, prospective renters should know that utilities are most often not included in the rental lease. So, if you want the luxuries of running water and workable electricity, be prepared to fork out extra cash.
"Three hundred seventy-five dollars at a house that is old is going to be a lot more expensive than $650 at a brand-new rental complex," McDowell said.
With many apartments, on the other hand, many of the basic utilities are covered.
"In the bigger complexes like Cannon Valley, heat, water, sewage and garbage are all generally included," Allen noted. Residents still have to pay for electricity as well as cable and Internet, though.
To a degree, the price of a house or an apartment usually depends on market forces. This seems like common sense, but it's worth looking into.
"A few years back, when houses were selling like pancakes, we offered a lot of lease specials on our apartments," Allen said. Specials are temporary reductions in rental rates. Now that the housing market is down, apartment complexes are raising rates again.
For the most part, though, the rental rate of a unit depends primarily on the characteristics of the space.
"Frankly, it comes down to the appeal of the apartments and their square footage," Baack said.
Finally, before you go ahead and sign the lease on an apartment or a house, make sure you look over the unit.
"There should be functioning fire detectors, fire extinguishers, egress windows in the basement if you have a basement," McDowell said. "Is the place you're looking at up to rental codes? Is it safe?"
Arranging and Signing the Lease
Once you've picked out an apartment, there's the matter of negotiating the lease with the property manager or landlord. Of course, managing apartments is a commercial enterprise, so Baack requires that all potential leasers come prepared for their lease application. "I do a background check and a credit check. I also check out their job information and status."
Baack also requests that all tenants provide basic information like their Social Security number and their contact information.
"As long as they don't have bad credit, I'll more than likely accept them as a tenant," Baack said.
Allen has a similar modus operandi. Like Baack, she gets employment verification from the employer of the individual and does a credit check. Allen also checks in with the prospective tenant's previous landlords - if there are any - to get their impressions of the client.
The only thing that can really derail the application process, beside bad credit or a poor employment history, is dishonesty.
"One of the biggest mistakes you can make when applying for an apartment is to lie - if you aren't giving truthful information to me, and I find out, it kind of knocks you out of the game," Allen said.
Allen believes that managers are generally pretty perceptive - they'll figure out, one way or another, if a person is being honest.
"After 20 years of this, I kind of have a sixth sense for when issues are going to arise," Allen said. "Sometimes people come in here and tell you one thing, but then they divulge other information later on in the conversation. You have to learn how to tell when they're withholding information from you."
A lease application isn't the only set of paperwork you'll end up filling out if you'd like to live off-campus. St. Olaf also requires students to fill out an Off-Campus Application and hand it in to the Residence Life office. Technically, students are required to live on-campus for all four years, but the college makes exceptions on a space-as-needed basis.
"Essentially, you already have a lease with the college for four years, and you need to be released from that," McDowell said.
The off-campus forms for next year are due in on Friday, March 14, so students who want to live outside the Olaf campus will have to be thinking and planning in advance.
Dealing with Neighbors and Landlords
Now that you've signed the lease and moved into your beautiful apartment, how do you put up with passive-aggressive neighbors, the aforementioned cat-lady and (above all) your landlord?
Baack believes that good landlord-tenant relationships are based on responsibility.
"It comes down to taking care of your unit and paying your rent on time," he said without hesitation. "Treat your rental unit like you'll treat the house you'll eventually own and live in."
Allen takes a slightly different tack. She worries that when student residents have parties, the overflow parking and noise from the parties causes problems with other residents.
"The number one complaint I get from residents is about parking," she said.
As for tenant/landlord relationships, Allen urges that residents communicate with her about any potential problems. "Just talk to me," she said.
Jean Polkow, an assistant manager at Cannon Valley Apartments, advised students to look over their lease carefully when signing it, since the lease isn't only a financial contract, but a behavioral contract. "Just read the fine print," she said.
Wrapping it Up
I think by now most students have realized they don't have to be a whiz kid to rent an apartment. It just takes some common sense and attention to detail. Besides, as college students, we've got a lot going for us. Both Baack and Allen said they had minimal problems with student renters, and were pretty well-disposed to students.
"One thing I've noticed is that college students pay their rent - in the 20 years I've worked here, I've never had a problem with rent payments from college students."
So whether you're a senior preparing for life on your own in the real world or an underclass student that wants to try out an alternate form of living, a little responsibility, preparedness and common sense will get you far in your efforts.