So it finally happened, your first year at university or college is done and you've now been thrust from a warm and communal dorm environment into the confusing world of landlords, leases and budgeting.
You may be excited for this move - thrilled to have a room and bathroom to yourself again, and get away from the prepaid meal plan.
Or you may be scared of remembering to pay rent on time, and that you'll now have to commute and won't be able to roll over at 8:15 a.m. and stroll to your 8:30 psych class, still in pajamas.
Either way, the transition from cozy dorm life to independent living off-campus comes with a lot of decision making. How much do you want to spend? Do you want a roommate? What areas in town are good?
Not to worry - we're going to help with all that. Here are our ideas on how you can make the changeover as seamless as possible.
Is it worth it to move off-campus?
Now, we want to mention that you don't necessarily have to move off-campus if you don't want to. Plenty of students are choosing to remain in their dorms for the convenience. While it's not possible at every university since many don't have the space, sometimes universities provide housing for older students, in more apartment style settings.
If you thrive on the all-inclusive features then this may be right for you. On-campus housing is likely more expensive than DIY, with less flexibility, but it also takes away the hassle of cooking your own meals (if you opt-in for the meal plan), dealing with a landlord, finding furniture, taking transit to class and finding subletters for the summer months.*
If this is an option that interests you then check to see if your university has the space to house you and then compare the cost of doing so to renting an apartment in the city on your own. Average rental and grocery prices for your city are easily searchable online.
Another option, that actually saves you money, is applying to be a residence advisor. While it can be a stressful job, it can also be fun and a great experience. You get a discounted room and board in exchange for managing first-year students on one floor in a dorm. The discounts vary from university to university, but can range from $3000 per semester to the entire room and a free meal plan for the year.
It supposedly takes up around 10 to 15 hours a week, but it varies considerably week to week. Positions are usually posted on the university job board and are often due by January, so consider this option early.
When should I be looking for student housing?
The best time to look for student housing is earlier then you think. Keep your eyes open starting in February, even though there may not be many vacancies. It’s is a great time to put the word out that you are looking for a place. By early spring, more classified ads should be posted online as well as in the student centre. Certainly, you should try to secure a place before the semester ends and you leave for the summer in April/May. But don't worry, even if you've left it quite late, chances are there will still be a place for you - it may just not be in the perfect location or have all the amenities you're looking for. Scour private Facebook groups for rentals or ask your student housing office if they have a dedicated and classified service that landlords pay for, in search specifically for students.
It also really depends on the city you're in and your expectation for housing- does your university town have a low or high vacancy rate? How competitive is it to secure a rental? Are you dead set on a place in a specific neighbourhood or with an in-house laundry unit? These factors will influence how early you want to start looking. In a city, like Toronto for example, the vacancy rate is so low that the earlier you start looking the better - even if it's in January. In a city like Saskatoon, however, which has much higher inventory for housing, then you'll probably be able to put off the search until mid-spring if you want.
Proximity to campus
Proximity to campus is likely the most important factor in your search for housing. As they say: location, location, location. You might want to be as close as possible, ideally within walking distance, to your classes. That way you'll be able to attend all your early classes, stay late at the library, plus save on transportation costs. Most towns with universities or colleges have a fairly established student neighbourhood. This is a great place to start your search. If you find the area is too party-focused with late night street rowdiness, or with properties that are falling apart (some landlords don't spend much on maintenance for student housing because they know they'll still attract tenants) then widen your search.
Don't be afraid to live frugally
This is the best time of your life to live frugally. The luxuries of a gym, a concierge and a granite island can come later, when you're pulling in a good income. Right now, focus on minimizing your debt. Your rent will likely be your biggest expense every month, so making it as low as possible will give you wiggle room for other necessities, like food, nights out and train tickets home (see below). If this fixed expense is too high then you won't have much to spend on anything else and your social life may suffer. For the sake of your freedom (and being able to dine out once in a while), search for as affordable an accommodation as you can find.
Budgeting for living off campus
Your budget will most likely need to be bigger than you think when you live on campus. There are certain things you may have taken for granted, which, as it turns out, cost money. While laundry and electricity may have been included with your dorm, you'll probably now have to pay for them. Tenant insurance can be around $20 monthly, coin laundry can cost upwards of $50 a month and heating a place during the winter can easily reach $200 (especially if you have electric floorboard heaters).
Food may be another sticker shock. Most Canadian households spend $8,527 on food annually, or $710 a month, according to Statistics Canada.** Since you're likely just paying for food for yourself, it will probably be slightly less and with some effort, you can certainly reduce this cost. Fresh produce can be extremely expensive, while starches and legumes are usually the cheapest. Avoiding eating out is the quickest way to save a few bucks. Luckily, there are plenty of awesome student-friendly cheap eats cookbooks you can get online or from the library.
Ask a few older friends what they generally spend, so you can get a clear idea of what realistic costs are and can plan for them.
Considering having a roommate
Getting a roommate is one of the easiest ways to keep your housing costs down. Plus, it's fun … or horrible. Depends on the roommate so try to choose someone compatible! Look for someone with roughly the same schedule and preferences as you. If you're a partier, live with a partier. If you're studious, live with someone who motivates you to get up earlier and study. Look at roommate compatibility checklists to think about what you are looking for. Either way, you can always move next year so it's not the biggest deal. Being able to split rent, hydro and internet can make up for a lot of the downsides of sharing your living space.
Overall, life off campus is pretty sweet. You get to learn how to be an adult and can practice managing bills. At the same time you finally get your own living space, away from your parents and the administrator at the dorm, with full freedom.