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A Student's Guide to Finding the Perfect Apartment

07/14/2015 08:13 EDT | Updated 07/14/2016 05:59 EDT
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University students walking on campus, rear view

Students and precarious living arrangements go hand in hand like frats and keg parties, cramming and coffee, and professors and elbow patches. So with another summer marching along, you're likely on the hunt for a new place, but you'll be joined by a host of students and academics searching for an ideal apartment before classes resume in the fall.

That means your window to secure a new apartment is always shrinking. University towns often have super competitive rental markets, so the best flats often go to the most diligent students -- those who start early, come prepared and don't get discouraged. Stay ahead of the competition with these helpful apartment hunting tips to make the quest for finding that perfect pad as painless and straightforward as possible.

General Prep

It's easy to recommend thoroughness and care but remember that the longer you put things off, the more likely you'll have to make a desperate decision. Finding the right place to live should be your top priority. And while that means scanning all the directories, using your social networks, and hitting the streets, it also means getting prepared. Each time you visit a property, you should come with your CV, proof of employment or enrolment, letters of recommendation, and a blank cheque. If you don't have a credit rating, take out a credit card and start making regular payments. No job? Speak with your parents as early as possible about co-signing your lease. If this is your first rental, then get letters from employers, professors and other authority figures to help you.

Rent and Amenities

You're likely on a budget, so don't fall for cushy or posh amenities. Do you really need that swimming pool, luxury gym, or entertainment room? You should be looking for a fair rent with as many utilities included as possible, and enough of the things you actually need to stay happy: enough natural light, quiet, warmth, and space. Tour the area: what's the neighbourhood like? Walk around on both sunny and rainy days and get a real sense of the community and environment, and don't be fooled by flash or a landlord pressuring you to sign as quickly as possible.

On that note, don't let your landlord demand a certain way to make rent. It's your obligation to pay rent on time, every time (otherwise, there are legal ground to evict you!), but you certainly don't have to pay in cash. In fact, a landlord requesting cash might have some illegal tricks up his or her sleeve. You're the one who decides how to pay, whether it's in cheques, post-dated cheques, or direct deposits. Remember, you also don't have to pay a finder's fee or any sort of commission -- that's all illegal. Once you settle in, you should also be aware that your rent can't increase beyond the legal provincial limit or more than every 12 months, and your landlord has to inform you of any increases 90 days in advance.

Rights and Security

This brings us to possibly the most important consideration -- your safety. Knowing your rights is paramount -- students are routinely exploited for their lack of legal understanding. Make sure you do your research and read your appropriate provincial guidelines, which are easily found with a simple search. You can get a sense of what kind of landlord you're dealing with by asking around: speak with potential neighbours (even passing notes under doors, if you're not up to face-to-face chats) about noise, repairs, safety, and other issues. Often this will give you a clear picture of how things actually run in the building.

A few other extremely important tips: ensure that everything your landlord says, does, and agrees to gets put down in writing, and never deal with a landlord who won't divulge any address or contact information. Documentation is key -- it's your best defense in a court of law, your best protection against exploitation, and the best way to keep people honest. Documentation also extends to any damages you find on the property: take photos and videos, date them, and keep strict records, because you don't want to be charged for repairs of damages that occurred before you moved in.

Students aren't always aware -- or eager -- to take out tenants' insurance, but this is another way to stay secure. A basic policy will cover the costs of destroyed possessions or property in the case of an accident or act of nature, and can also cover your accommodations and food should you have to find another place to live during renovations. Don't underestimate how much your possessions actually cost! Also, you might actually already have access free tenant insurance under your parents' plan, so be sure to check it out!

Location

One of the most important pieces of advice is to find a place as close to campus as possible. The best student rental housing directories can help you narrow your search to appropriate intersections, and give you extra perks like "walk scores" for local amenities. But this isn't just for the sake of convenience (though obviously being able to get to class in five minutes is a huge perk), but for three vital reasons.

First, this will save you on spending more than you need to on public transportation, gas and auto bills, or even emergency cab rides; in a related sense, it can save you on always dining out, as there's bound to be a grocery store close to campus. Second, living within walking distance means you're pumping your legs (or riding your bike) on a daily basis, so even if you run out of time for the gym, you're still getting some much needed exercise. Third, your proximity will curtail your urge to sleep in and skip classes. Inclement weather and early mornings are much worse with an hour-long commute factored in, so remember the old Greek aphorism "know thyself" -- living far away might only encourage bad habits, and worse marks!

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