Students across the country are dealing with a hidden problem that comes with college that many overlook: housing. While many schools offer on-campus living options, they are becoming less affordable year by year, and many students just don’t believe that living in such a restricted environment is worth the money.
This is why students turn to off-campus housing. This can be a great, cheaper option for some students, but where they can run into trouble is when the landlord tries to take advantage of the young adults’ lack of knowledge about renting.
If students are living in unsafe or overcrowded conditions, such as basement apartments with blocked entrances or individual key locks on bedroom doors, not only is it dangerous, but if inspectors come to the house it can also lead to being forced to move out in the middle of the semester, when relocation options are extremely limited.
“The biggest problem in New York state is that there are no good clear laws for renters on issues like security deposits, and there are no protections specifically for students,” Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services said.
These concerns are amplified by students’ inexperience with the process of finding and living in rentals.
“Landlords can get away with the bare minimum because a lot of us are first-time renters who don’t know any better, and the landlords are well aware of the fact that they are the only alternative to dorms that is within walking distance of campus, which is crucial for students who don’t have cars or do not want to bother with the iffy parking situations every day on campus,” said Daria Burge, a senior at Hofstra University.
While colleges and universities make it clear that they want students to stay safe and in healthy and productive living conditions, they do little to ensure this outside of on-campus living options. Schools like Hofstra University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook offer help with getting students’ loans applied to rent off campus, however they do not get involved to approve these living situations or to verify that houses are up to code.
Landlords have been known to be difficult when interacting with student tenants.
“Our landlord once told us while we were having difficulties with creating livable conditions up to the standards of the fire department that ‘I really only help out with these kinds of things if parents get involved,’” Burge explained. “He basically told us that he didn’t take us seriously because we are 20 and 21.”
So the question becomes, how do students make sure that they are protected against potentially shady landlords while finding and living in yearly rentals?
The first step in avoiding scams or untrustworthy conditions is trying to meet as many people as possible. The property manager, the owner of the house, even people who have recently lived at the property or one owned by the same person are all people who are valuable contacts to know when it comes to looking for a place to live. The more face-to-face interaction you have with people who are renting space out the better.
Speaking to people who previously have rented from a prospective landlord can provide good insight into what is to be expected. Asking questions about how easy they are to deal with, what kind of condition the house is in when it is not being shown, and how quickly the landlord or his employees are to respond to issues at the house is all information that would be more likely to be honestly disclosed by renters rather than proprietors.
Making sure that there is a lease in place that lays out any specific rules about things like subletting, late rent fees, if and when the landlord can come to the house and how much warning they must give you, and how to pay rent will also supply a safeguard against landlords who try to bend the rules.
Wilder stressed the importance of reading the lease completely, and making sure all of the rules seem fair; because once it is signed “you could now be in charge of anything from shoveling the snow to fixing the roof.”
“It is always better to spend time [reading the lease] if possible. You don’t want to rush into a relationship with a landlord just to get it done,” he said.
Students who have had to deal with these problems agree with Wilder’s advice.
“I wish I had pushed my landlord more before I signed the lease for specific guidelines, because now I have a landlord who can show up whenever they want, and get mad at me for things like having people over, because there were no rules deciding what was acceptable ahead of time,” said Morris Aronsky, a second-year Stony Brook School of Medicine student.
Asking the landlord to do a walk-through with you before you move in and after you move out is also advised.
“This way, you can prove that the house is in condition that guarantees you your security deposit back after you move out,” according to Wilder.
Beyond the landlord, it is important to analyze the safety of the neighborhood or street that the house is located on. If the house doesn’t seem to be in the safest area, ask the landlord about incidents that have happened previously, and if they have taken precautions like alarm systems or extra locks on the doors to safeguard their particular houses.
To a certain extent, there is a “this is just how college kids live” mentality, especially when it comes to minor issues.
“The house might not have the nicest kitchens or bathrooms but in college we will take what we can get,” Jennifer Weltner, rising senior at Hofstra University said.
While these things may seem inevitable, landlords and property owners should still be held to some standard when it comes to renting to college students. Problems with appliances, or things that hinder safety, like lack of smoke detectors or proper locks, should be their top priority. Making it known before signing a lease that this is expected will help set the standard.
Consult with a lawyer that specializes in real estate and rental properties if there are any seemingly serious violations of a rental agreement, but paying attention and being aware of your rights is the best defense against faulty landlords. Do not send any money before a lease is officially signed, and when money is sent make sure there is a paper or digital trail that will provide proof of payment.
As long as students pay attention to detail and defend themselves against landlords, there’s no reason they should not have a happy and productive school year living off-campus.