Students studying in the US can choose to live on campus, in dormitories or housing owned by the university, or off campus, in apartments or in group homes owned by people not associated with the university. It is best to contact the International Student Office before you leave to find out about your options. Some factors to keep in mind when choosing which alternative is better for you are:
Cost. How much will you be paying per month to live there? Keep in mind that university housing may seem more expensive, but utilities (heat, hot water, gas, local phone service, electricity) are included in that price. If you rent an apartment, often utilities are not included. Sometimes the landlord will pay some utilities, and you will pay the rest. It is important to understand which utilities you will be required to pay. Try to find out from the landlord or former tenants how much utility costs average per month. In general, you should not pay more than 30-40% of your income or monthly stipend on rent, including utilities.
Distance. If you live on campus, you will be able to walk to class or take a university bus that is free for students. If you live off campus, you need to consider the distance from the university and transportation costs. Buses and metro can cost anywhere from $1-$2.50 for a 1-way trip. In some cities these transportation costs may offset the benefits of cheaper housing farther from the university.
Roommates. You will also need to consider whether you want to live with one or more roommates. Sometimes living with other people can be difficult, but a single dorm room or renting an apartment alone will be considerably more expensive. If it turns out that you are absolutely incompatible with your roommate(s), take steps to move to a different place, to live with different people or alone.
Study Needs. Do you like studying at home, or are you content to spend late nights in the university library? If the university housing is inhabited for the most part by undergraduates, the living conditions may be rather noisy. Try to find out the atmosphere of the place before you agree to live there.
If you decide to rent, ask the following questions of the landlord when you are viewing apartments or group homes:
• Which utilities are included in the rent, and which are not?
• On average, how much are the utilities per month?
• When is rent payment due each month? Are there any fees if payment is late?
• Are laundry facilities available?
• Is air conditioning available, and how much does it cost on average?
• Is the apartment furnished, and if so, is there a deposit?
• Is shopping available nearby?
• Are pets allowed?
• If you will be away for the summer, will the landlord allow you to sublet (to let someone live there and assume responsibility for the lease temporarily)?
• Is the neighborhood safe? (This question can also be asked in the local police department. They can tell you the number and types of crimes in that neighborhood for the past year. They can also unofficially compare the neighborhood to others in the district.)
• What is the first payment if you agree to live there?
Some landlords require the first and last month's rent at the beginning, in addition to a security deposit which is usually equal to one month's rent. If the apartment is in good condition when your lease ends, you will receive the security deposit back, with interest. If there is any damage or difficult cleaning that needs to be done, the money needed to remedy the problem will be taken out of your security deposit. Before you sign the lease, go through the apartment with the landlord, taking written note of anything that is broken, stained, or in any other way damaged. You do not want to be held accountable for a problem that existed before you moved in. While you are living there, the landlord is responsible for fixing anything that breaks or isn't working properly, unless it is damage caused by direct fault of yours or by your neglect.
Once you have decided on a place to rent, you will sign a lease. This is a legal document and is to be taken seriously. Do not sign it until you have read and understood everything completely. When you arrange to sign the lease, bring with you identification documents (passport, driver's license, university ID card, social security card), bank account and credit card information, and address and phone numbers of your department at the university and of the foreign student office.