While this student’s guide to finding housing, originally published in May 2015, is directed at international students, it offers good tips for anyone looking for off-campus housing long distance.
You have just received your acceptance letter from your dream university in the United States and as you are celebrating with family and friends, someone asks you, “Where will you live?” You hadn’t thought about that. You go through the acceptance package, find the section about housing and realize that you have to find a place on your own. Thousands of miles away! In a city you have never even visited!
Before you panic, follow these guidelines and you’ll see that you have many options even in the toughest rental markets.
1. GATHER INFORMATION
Before you start looking, find out as much as you can about the city where you are heading to and its housing market.
Your school probably has a website with all kinds of pertinent information. (As an example, see Brandeis University’s excellent Graduate Student Guide to Off‐Campus Housing.) Use it! Look at maps online, so you know the location of the various neighborhoods and – most importantly – how close they are to your school. Study the city’s public transportation network and use Google Maps to find best routes and estimated travel times. Also, check out neighborhood crime statistics.
Use your social media network to find friends and friends-of-friends who are attending/have attended your school, or at least have lived in the same city. And don’t forget about the network of contacts your parents and other family members have. Get recommendations and referrals. Get the word out about when you’ll arrive, where you’d like to live, and what’s your budget.
2. GET YOUR DOCUMENTS IN ORDER
U.S. landlord would typically want to see a credit score report, two years of tax returns, 3 months of bank statements and 2-3 months of paycheck stubs verifying that the prospective renter has an annual income of 35-40 times the monthly rent. Most likely you do not have those documents, so you’ll need to show your future landlord an official identity document (=passport), your acceptance letter from the school and proof that you have the funds to cover your rent. Make copies of these documents and have them with you if you are looking for a place in person.
3. EXPLORE YOUR HOUSING OPTIONS
You have five basic options to get housing: buy, rent, sublet, find a roommate share or a dorm room. Your financial situation will most likely determine which option you’ll pursue.
This is your most expensive option. You would probably look for a condominium, and even a small studio condo in a major city can cost hundreds of thousand dollars. You need to be prepared to pay the full price in cash and perhaps also fund an escrow account for couple of years of maintenance expenses, because you will not be able to qualify for a mortgage without U.S. credit history and bank relationships. Check out this site for basic information about buying a condo.
The second most expensive option is your own rental apartment. Because you do not have U.S. income or credit history, the landlord may require you to pay a full year of rent in advance, plus one month security deposit, for a total cash outlay on signing of the lease equal to 13 months of rent. And, if you used a broker, a fee equal to 1 to 1 1/2 months of rent. Make sure you avoid these 5 first-time renter mistakes.
Subletting an apartment can cost same on the monthly basis as renting, but requires lower initial cash outlay. Subletting an apartment means that you will be taking over someone’s rental for the remainder of their lease. Typically, you’ll pay first month’s rent and one month security deposit on moving in. The downside of subletting is that it is often short-term, so you’ll be facing another apartment hunt before the year is up. The upside is that sublet may come furnished, eliminating the need to buy furniture. Check out here how to find and negotiate for a sublet.
Roommate share is usually the least expensive housing option. Roommate share is a room, or a part of a room, in an apartment that one or more people will be sharing with you. The best roommate share situation is if you find a place with other students in your school. Living with random roommates found online who may have very different schedules could be distracting for your studies. Here’s how to look for a roommate share.
If you are an undergraduate student, you may also have a dorm room housing option, but it is often not available for graduate students. Dorm room costs range widely, with dorms in major cities sometimes costing as much as rental apartments. Here are some pros and cons of dorms.
Don’t forget to include electric, internet and other utility costs in your housing budget. As a very rough rule of thumb, estimate that they will run about 20% of your monthly rent if you live alone and 10% if you live with roommates.
4. START YOUR LONG DISTANCE APARTMENT HUNT ONLINE
International students typically have visas that allow them to arrive in the U.S. no more than 30 days before the school starts. Because of this, you need to start your housing search online before you can personally visit the places.
First, learn apartment ad terminology. This adspeak translator explains most common apartment ad abbreviations.
Consider using a broker. If you are looking to buy, you will definitely need to use a buyer’s broker who will protect your rights and shepherd the deal through the many hoops that buying real estate in the U.S. entails. If you are looking for a rental or sublet, using a broker will give you’re a larger pool of apartment to choose from, because some landlords only rent through brokers. Your best bet for finding a reliable broker is your school housing department staff. If they do not make recommendations, contact several large real estate firms and ask for brokers who specialize in finding student apartments in your target area. Beware of independent brokers without any large firm affiliation.
The broker’s fee can be as much as 12.5% of the annual rent in some markets, payable by the renter. However, in other markets the fee is paid by the landlord. Before you retain a broker, make sure you know who’ll pay the fee.
Contact large multi-unit landlords directly. If your school has list of recommended landlords, it means they are already used to dealing with international students and may even offer a small rent discount to you. If there is no such list, you can find the largest rental landlords online. For example, here is a listing of largest rental landlords in New York City. Going the direct-to-landlord route saves you the broker’s fee, but you may have to choose from a more expensive selection of apartments.
5. ARRIVE EARLY TO SEARCH IN PERSON
If you have a place to stay or can afford to stay in a hotel/hostel /Airbnb, and can arrive at least two weeks before school starts, you can search for a perfect place in person. Keep in mind that most apartments change hands at the beginning of the month, so depending on when you find a place, you may not be able to move in immediately.
For the most efficient search, make a detailed plan of action and arrange to see several apartments that you have found online as soon as you arrive. Even if none of them work for you, you have learned what is available in your price range and what the neighborhoods are like. You can then adjust your search criteria to the market. Read this post by Ben on how to find an apartment in the tough New York City market in 8 days, after much preparation.
The in-person search is very important if you are looking for a roommate share. Even with all the Skyping and G-chatting, it is hard to get the vibe of the place without actually seeing it and your future roomies in person. That said, a roommate share is the most flexible arrangement, so if things don’t work out you can always find something else.
6. BEWARE OF RENTAL SCAMMERS
Hunting for a place long distance is an invitation to scammers to try to take your money.
Craigslist, especially, is a jungle that you have to approach carefully. They even warn you about suspicious activities to keep an eye out for.
Scammers are known to go to extreme lengths, including setting up phony social media accounts to establish their fake identity. Read how our blogger Alexandra was almost taken by a clever scam.
To avoid scams, in the minimum:
• Google the address, to make sure it exists
• Make sure the apartment exists
• Make sure the person offering the apartment is authorized to do so
• Check the apartment on Airbnb to avoid the latest scam from people who rent an Airbnb apartment, then advertise it for sublet, collect deposits and disappear.