Renting your first college apartment is exciting: more freedom, fewer rules, and no RA breathing down your neck. But if you aren’t careful, you can make rookie-renter mistakes that will cost you money and add to your stress. Jonas Bordo of Dwellsy shares how not to let that happen.
So long, dorm life! This year you’ll be living in an apartment, and you’re excited to leave communal bathrooms, cramped quarters, and cluttered common rooms behind. But before you get too comfortable in your new digs, you need to spend some time reviewing the rules of renting. According to Jonas Bordo, CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, whether or not you have a great year in your college apartment is largely up to you.
“Before you get busy studying (since that’s how you’ll spend most of your time, right?), commit to learning the basics of renting,” says Bordo, coauthor along with Hannah Hildebolt of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95). “Unexpected rules, responsibilities, and expenses—not to mention a tense relationship with your landlord or roommate—can make the next two semesters feel like ten.”
Unfortunately, Bordo has seen too many rookie renters learn important lessons the hard way. (“Don’t be that person,” he says. “College is hard enough already!”) The good news is, there’s a study guide to help you win at renting. Bordo’s book, Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask, is exactly what the title says: a comprehensive guide that covers the entire process, from preparing for the rental search to getting your security deposit back after your lease is up. Think of it as CliffsNotes for renters.
With several decades’ experience as a renter, landlord, property manager, and current CEO of the largest U.S. rental marketplace, Bordo is a trusted authority on all things rental-related. He shares seven pieces of advice all college students should know about apartment life:
Break out your calculator and nail down your monthly budget. Sorry, humanities majors—you won’t be able to avoid math altogether this academic year. Rent is only one slice of the financial pie. You’ve probably already encountered an avalanche of one-time expenses like the application fee, security deposit, first and/or last month’s rent, etc. There will also be recurring expenses like renters insurance, utility and internet costs, pet or parking fees, etc. And don’t forget to factor in the cost of transportation, food, and other incidentals.
“Chances are your budget is already tight,” says Bordo. “Make sure it doesn’t stretch to the breaking point by familiarizing yourself with all of these rental-related expenses. The total might make you look back on your dorm days with nostalgia, but hey—living on a shoestring budget is a time-honored tradition for college students. Hello, ramen and thrift-store décor!”
Make sure you understand your lease. Many renters—even experienced ones—have a tendency to sign their lease after barely skimming its contents. Don’t feel bad if you’ve moved into your apartment without thoroughly studying your lease agreement—but do dig it out and move it to the top of your to-be-read pile.
“The lease should clearly cover the cost of rent and other fees, how to pay, and when your obligation begins and ends,” says Bordo. “Note any other clauses that might affect you, like how many people can live in your place, whether you can have a pet, what the landlord’s right of entry is, and if there are any community rules or banned activities. Spending a relatively short amount of time familiarizing yourself with your lease terms can save you a lot of money in fines and fees—not to mention surprise visits and scoldings from your landlord.”
Cultivate a good relationship with your landlord. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but your quality of life can depend on the relationship you have with your landlord or property manager. This is the person who will be responsible for maintenance and repairs. They may enter your apartment periodically for inspections. You may even need to meet them in person to deliver your rent check. (Yes, even in the digital age, some landlords require this!)
“Your landlord will want a tenant who’s easy to communicate with, so be polite and courteous,” notes Bordo. “Use professional language and avoid chatspeak (e.g., “u” for “you”) in messages. If your landlord reaches out, get back in touch promptly. And remember, your landlord has a vested interest in making sure you’re comfortable and that you’re clear on house rules, so don’t be afraid to reach out if you have a question or concern.”
Know what you need to maintain. In general, landlords are responsible for repairs (such as a broken appliance or leaky faucet) and pest control. Often they’ll take care of yard work and snow removal too—but not always! You might be in charge of minor tasks such as changing burnt-out light bulbs or filling in nail holes before moving out. However the responsibilities are divided, they should be clearly spelled out in your lease.
“Be sure you understand what’s expected of you up front and hold up your end of the bargain,” advises Bordo. “These tasks usually aren’t too onerous, plus, there are a plethora of DIY videos to help you out. And as a father myself, I promise there’s no shame in making out a list of ‘will you help me with this?’ chores before parents’ weekend.”
Don’t be late. No matter how nice your landlord seems to be, Bordo recommends thinking of them as “that” professor who has a strict no-late-work-accepted policy. Obviously, this advice applies to paying rent. Submitting your payment even a day or two late can result in a fee, and might even translate to a less-than-stellar review in the future if you need to use your landlord as a reference. You should also complete any renter responsibilities on time, such as changing out the air filters every few months (assuming that’s in your lease).
“Bring any safety concerns, repairs, or maintenance requests to your landlord as soon as you become aware of them,” urges Bordo. “The strange rattling sound that happens every time you turn on the heat might not bother you much, but addressing it promptly might save your landlord a whole lot of money—and they’ll appreciate hearing about it as soon as possible.”
Set some ground rules with your roommate. There are plenty of perks to having a roommate. Assuming you’re compatible, you’ll have a lot of fun—and you’ll have someone to split the chores and expenses with. But if you and your roommate clash over finances, division of household labor, standards of cleanliness, eating each other’s food, having guests over, or something else, your lease might start to feel more like a prison sentence.
“If you haven’t already, you need to set some ground rules and expectations with your roommate,” says Bordo. “I recommend ‘formalizing’ these with a written roommate agreement you both sign. It may seem like overkill now, but you won’t see eye to eye on everything. Setting clear boundaries up front can help keep small issues from becoming big ones.”
Remember that while it is your place, it doesn’t belong to you. In popular culture, college students are often portrayed as being loud, obnoxious, inconsiderate, and even destructive renters. That’s unfair, says Bordo, because the vast majority of student renters have no intention of going full Animal House. However, he does caution you to be a courteous renter and neighbor.
“Be mindful of noise levels and the number of guests you have,” he advises. “Take out your trash on time. Your apartment doesn’t have to be sparkling clean, but it should be hygienic. It’s also in your best interests to minimize wear and tear—remember, repairs will most likely come out of your security deposit.”
“All of this might seem overwhelming at first, but hey—so did Chemistry 101, and you made it through that,” concludes Bordo. “Like many things in life, renting can have a steep learning curve, but these best practices and skills will serve you well for years—maybe even decades—to come.”
About Jonas Bordo:
Jonas Bordo is the coauthor, along with Hannah Hildebolt, of the book Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster. He is the CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, the free residential rental marketplace that makes it easy to find hard-to-find rentals. Prior to cofounding Dwellsy, Jonas was a senior executive at several leading real estate firms including Essex Property Trust and BentallGreenOak, and was with the Boston Consulting Group after graduating with his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.