How To Save Money on Your Apartment Hunt: A Guide for College and Post-Graduate Students

Red For Rent Real Estate Sign in Front House.
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According to a report from Finances Online, just 22% of college students in the U.S. live in on-campus housing. About the same, 23%, live in purpose-built off-campus housing. The largest percentage by far — more than half at 55% — are renters. 

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That means that a whole lot of college students are competing for the same apartments and houses — and today, they’re doing it in one of the tightest and most expensive rental markets in recent memory. GOBankingRates consulted property managers, landlords and rental experts to help students and recent grads get into a rental that they can afford.

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Think Like a Landlord and Put Your Best Foot Forward

Most of the experts GOBankingRates consulted suggested thinking of landlords the same way you think of lenders. Their decisions will be based largely on the risk they think you pose. 

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“My first tip is to put yourself in the mindset of a landlord, so you can speak their language when you communicate with them,” said G. Brian Davis, a landlord, renter, real estate investor and founder of SparkRental. “Landlords want reliable, conscientious, clean renters who will pay the rent on time every month and treat their property with respect. You can speak to those desires by emphasizing your stable income, strong credit, impeccable payment history on all bills, and cleanliness — assuming all those things are true, of course.”

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Bill Samuel, founder of Blue Ladder Development and a full-time residential real estate investor who rehabs and rents properties in the Chicago area, agrees. 

“Get the negotiations started off on the right foot by being personable and likable when you first meet the landlord during the property tour,” said Samuel, a landlord of seven years. “Similar to making a sale, you want to build rapport with the landlord and present yourself as an organized and responsible person. Highlight the main reasons why you are an ideal tenant such as your excellent credit score, and high and stable income. Tell them how much you make per month in relation to rent.”

Aside from financials, Samuel highlights the following personal attributes: 

  • Clean and organized
  • Non-smoker
  • No pets

“These are all considered desirable traits of a tenant,” he said.

College students and recent grads, however, will likely not be able to check all those boxes, which means they’ll have to strike a bargain if they want to compete.

Use the Leverage You Have To Negotiate a Lower Price or Better Terms

In many cases, you’ll find a landlord or property manager who is willing to bend — but only if you bring something to the table.

“Remember that everything in life is negotiable,” Davis said. “If you’re a riskier option for a landlord to choose, find ways to reduce your risk. Offer a higher security deposit or offer to prepay the first three months’ rent upfront, or offer a parent co-signer on the lease. You can also offer to sign a longer-term lease, if you know you’ll be staying for a while.”

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That last tip can help secure your spot if there’s competition for the unit or provide leverage for price negotiations if there isn’t.

“You want to consider offering a longer lease term in exchange for a lower rental rate as this will minimize the landlord’s future expenses by having no vacancy guaranteed for a longer time period,” Samuel said. 

It also never hurts to think outside the box.

“I once negotiated lower rent by offering to pay the rent early, every single month,” Davis said. “We wrote into the lease contract that if I ever failed to pay the rent early, it would revert to the higher standard rent amount for the remainder of my tenancy. I never failed to pay early.”

That kind of creative negotiating will be much more difficult in an apartment complex with professional managers and third-party investors. Instead, students should look for private rentals.  

“It’s quite surprising how relatively fewer students look into this option,” said Cameron Miller, CEO of CameronMiller Real Estate. “My guess is perhaps students like the community experience of an apartment complex better than having to deal with a family in a residential home. But if you’re down with this kind of arrangement, it can actually save you more on rent. Private landlords are more willing to negotiate the price of rent than corporations. This is because they are most likely just looking to earn a few extra dollars to help with the mortgage rather than actually making real estate living.” 

Don’t Be a Mark

Like car dealers, landlords get a bad rap despite the fact that many are honest and handle their business on the up-and-up. But real estate can be a high-stakes, cutthroat business, and shady players are part of the game. Use common sense and protect yourself.

“I don’t know if bait-and-switch is a problem in other markets but it definitely is a problem in New York City,” said James McGrath, co-founder of the New York real estate brokerage Yoreevo. “Renters will see a post about an amazing apartment for a very reasonable price and when they show up to see it, it will have ‘just’ been rented — but they have other worse and/or more expensive apartments to show you.” 

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It’s a classic tactic of unscrupulous landlords and property managers in cities whose rental markets are what McGrath generously calls “opaque.” The good news is, you can protect yourself by going straight to the source. 

“I always recommend renters reach out directly to the listing agent or management office,” McGrath said. “Unless you consciously choose to hire someone to assist your search, there shouldn’t be anyone in between you and the listing side. In each market, there are usually websites of varying quality, transparency, and accuracy. Find the one in your market and focus your search there.”

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Last updated: Sept. 20, 2021

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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