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Housing & Residential Life

When Your College Student Wants to Live Off Campus

Vicki Nelson

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It’s not inevitable, but the topic comes up in many college families. Your student wants to move off campus.

You may share their excitement about establishing a life off campus or you may have reservations. It can be just the right move for some students but not the best decision for others.

You can help your student think through a move by asking lots of questions. This will put both you and your student in a better position to make an informed decision.

What should my student think about?

1. Cost

Sharing rent with several roommates and doing your own cooking may mean lower costs than living on campus — or it may not. Make sure your student has a realistic budget. They will need to factor in:

  • Initial deposit
  • First and last month’s rent
  • Application fees
  • Monthly utilities (if not included in rent)
  • Amenities such as internet, cable, laundry
  • Transportation to and from campus
  • Cost of food and supplies
  • Potential unexpected costs

Key consideration: Talk about whether your student will be solely responsible for paying or whether you will help out. If so, is there a limit to how much you're willing to contribute?

2. Privacy

Some students are anxious to get out of the residence hall for more privacy and quiet. Escaping the constant commotion (not to mention the communal bathrooms!) has a lot of appeal. But there's a flip side. Help your student think through what it will be like not to have easy access to other students and to campus life.

Key consideration: Will they be able to stay engaged with activities, friends, and campus departments?

3. Roommates

If your student has been sharing a small dorm room with one or more roommates, they may look forward to having some space to call their own. Ask your student these questions:

  • Will you need to have roommates to be able to afford an apartment?
  • How will you find them?
  • How will the group of you divide up the space and responsibilities?
  • What if one roommate fails to pay their fair share or decides to leave?

Key consideration: Make sure your student has a plan for handling potential difficult situations.

Find tips on choosing and getting along with roommates >
4. Responsibility

One of the wonderful outcomes of a good off-campus living arrangement can be your student’s growing sense of independence and responsibility. But make sure your student is ready to take on this increased responsibility. They need to be able to:

  • Pay rent and bills regularly
  • Do their own shopping, cooking and cleaning
  • Know how to deal with a landlord in case of emergencies
  • Manage a commute to school

Key consideration: Off-campus life is very different from the comparatively carefree routine in the residence hall.

5. Year-round housing

Most leases are for a full year. But most students are not on campus over summer and winter breaks.

If your student needs to be on campus for the summer, an apartment can be an ideal arrangement as summer housing in the residence hall is not always available, but if they'll be home during breaks (or possibly away for a semester for study abroad) what arrangements will they need to make?

Key consideration: Is your student prepared to pay rent all year even though they may not be living there? Does the lease allow for a sublet?

6. Neighbors

One of the wonderful things about living off campus is the opportunity to get to know many different types of people. Depending on the location, the neighbors may also be students, but they may not. Your student needs to remember that non-students — perhaps older retirees, working professionals or families with young children — may not be especially tolerant of the “student lifestyle.”

Key consideration: Your student needs to be prepared to be a good neighbor.

7. Transportation and parking

How will your student get to campus? Is it walkable? Is there public transportation nearby? If your student plans to have a car, does the apartment have designated parking or will your student need to find street parking? Will your student have to pay extra for a parking space or garage?

Key consideration: Make sure the commute will not present an obstacle to getting to class on time.

8. Safety

Most campus residence halls are relatively secure with a keyed entrance, a lock on each room, and campus security officers who patrol regularly.

Make sure your student considers the safety and security of any off-campus housing options. Is there a keyed entrance to the building as well as a lock on the unit? Is the apartment on the ground level or on an upper floor? Is the neighborhood well lit?

Key consideration: Will your student feel comfortable walking home late at night?

What’s next?

If you and your student have thought through and talked about all of these factors and your student is still interested in living off campus, what now? Here are some next steps.

  1. Make a written list of the pros and cons based on the above factors and questions.
  2. Plan a realistic budget that includes all expenses. Decide what this will cost and where the money will come from.
  3. Talk to other students who have lived off campus. What were their experiences like? Do they have any advice?
  4. Be sure that your student understands your involvement. Who will sign the lease? How much, if anything, will you contribute?
  5. Write out a contract that covers issues that may come up with potential roommates.
  6. Start the process early. In many college communities off-campus housing fills up early. Be ready to move quickly if the right house or apartment turns up, but remember that signing a lease early may mean paying for extra months of rent.
  7. Don’t take a rental without looking at the space. Check the conditions of the apartment carefully.

The decision to live in a first apartment is not an easy one. But it is easy for your student to get caught up in the excitement. Make sure you help them think carefully about all of the aspects of living independently. Then, if the decision seems right, step back and watch as they take a huge step toward independence.

Read and share "The Smart Off-Campus Housing Search" >
Learn more about how to help your student make a successful transition to off-campus life, including tips on being a good tenant and neighbor >
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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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