Step 2: Review the lease carefully before signing it.
It’s most likely that this is the first lease you’ve ever had to sign, especially if you are an undergraduate. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a lawyer as a parent (or to have access to some other form of free legal advice), and in the haste to find housing, undergraduates often get hoodwinked into leases that are less than forgiving. Examine the following before signing anything: How many people are allowed to live in the house? What is the landlord’s policy on subletting? Who is responsible for clearing snow? What is the policy on early exit from the apartment? Has the landlord set out any stipulations around things like noise, overnight guests and parking? Does the lease include parking spaces? Who is responsible for fixing broken appliances and fixtures? Be extremely careful to find out what the policy is on refunding your security deposit. Be sure that the stipulations are reasonable.
Step 3: Find responsible roommates.
It’s not important that you live with your best friends. What is important is that you live with people who will pay their rent on time, and who will co-pay the utility bills with you on time. If your name is on the lease or on the utility bills, you will be held liable for payment. In my experience, slightly nerdy roommates who have stable relationships with their families are the best at paying bills on time. Partying somewhere else and living with quiet, responsible people is less fun than living in a party house, but has proven time and again to be far less frustrating. If you move in with a really fun friend who might, like, spend his electricity bill money on a bag of whatever substance, you may find the lifespan of your friendship expiring before its time. Do yourself a huge favor and party with your fun friends in their houses, and relish the sanity of living with normal people who pay bills on time.
Step 4: Furnish the place for free.
Once you have found an off-campus apartment and you’ve moved in, you’ll need to furnish it. The easiest way to acquire furniture is to inherit it from the previous tenants. Graduating seniors are excellent sources of free or cheap furniture, and never underestimate the power of dumpster diving. The best time of year to scavenge free furniture in college towns is right before and after spring finals. In Amherst, we called the days after finals “hippie Christmas,” because of the plethora of furniture and brand name belongings that exiting students left on the sidewalks and beside dumpsters. Be wary of stuffed furniture (i.e. mattresses and upholstered couches) that you find on the street. Due to the bedbug epidemic sweeping the country, it is likely that a few living organisms have made themselves at home inside of it, and you are better off passing it up. Hard furniture is generally fine and can be refurbished with soap, water and a little bit of Lysol. Art students are fantastic at painting ugly used furniture, and will generally commission their work for a growler of your college town’s local brew house’s specialty. If you can’t find furniture on the street, there’s always Craigslist and Facebook.