In order to do your best in school, you’ll need a place to live so you can watch TV with the goal of being extremely productive. Some schools generously provide housing to international undergraduate students, or to any graduate students, but it’s not a guarantee and you may have to look for accommodation on your own. Here’s what you’ll need to know.

Where to live
If your school does provide on-campus housing, you should take it at least for your first year. Living with lots of fellow students will help ease your transition to life in the USA as you navigate student life together. You’ll also be able to meet more people than you would if you lived off campus, and this can help you both socially and professionally as you network with your neighbors.

If you live off campus, however, find a place to live that has easy access to your school and is preferably with other students so you can enjoy shared experiences. But it’s important to realize that the cost of renting an apartment or house varies immensely depending on the part of the country where your school is and on the local supply and demand, so you’ll need to pay close attention to your budget while making plans. A one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh, for example, might cost $900 a month while the same apartment in Boston could cost $2,000 or more. The school’s housing office or financial aid office may be able to provide you with an estimate of the annual cost of renting an off-campus apartment.

One extremely useful and exciting piece of information for any housing situation: In the USA, if you enter an apartment building it will usually be on the first floor, and the level above it will be the second (and so on). That means that – unlike in most other countries, which are entered on the ground floor and the level above is considered first – if you live on the third floor in the USA you will have less stairs to climb than if you lived on the third floor somewhere else.

Your apartment guide
If you’re lucky enough to get on-campus accommodation, you won’t have to worry about any of the following information because you most likely will be assigned to your housing and will be provided with almost everything you’ll need.

But for the rest of you, before you actively start looking for housing, you should do your research. Contact your school’s housing office for suggestions, talk to alumni and current students via social media, check availability on housing websites such as Streeteasy or Zillow, and use housing and other groups on Facebook. Once you have a general idea of what’s out there, think about what you actually need:

  • Ask the housing office and current students which neighborhoods are safe and which should be avoided.
  • Estimate the maximum distance you’re willing to be from campus and/or the maximum amount of time it will take you to commute.
  • Decide whether you want to cut costs by sharing an apartment with a roommate (or multiple).
  • Consider which housing amenities are the most important to you – laundry facilities, dishwasher, floor plans, garage, etc.
  • Determine which neighborhood conveniences you’ll need, such as public transportation, grocery stores, restaurants, etc.

The next important consideration is what is included in the rent and what isn’t. Often, the more that’s provided the more you’ll be paying – plus you can expect the rent to increase by about 5 percent each year.

  • Utilities:If the advertisement says that utilities are included, that usually means electricity, heat/gas, and water/sewage, but not cable TV or internet. If the advertisement doesn’t specify any utilities, assume that you will be responsible for paying for them. But always confirm! Air conditioning usually is included in the general electricity costs, but heat may be separate depending on the heating system used. Other than cable and internet, which are set monthly costs, utilities tend to be billed based on usage, so the longer the shower the higher your water bill will be.
  • Furnished or Unfurnished:Landlords decide if they will rent an apartment or house furnished or not, and also decide what exactly they’ll be providing if it’s furnished. And keep in mind that, generally speaking, you’ll probably pay a higher rent to live somewhere furnished. On average, a furnished apartment may include a bed, dresser, and desk in every bedroom, and seating in the living room and dining room – but again, it’s up to the discretion of the landlord. The good news is that all accommodations in the USA provide main kitchen appliances like a stove and refrigerator.
  • Laundry facilities: Again, depending where your school is located and what general housing in the area offers, having a washing machine and dryer in your home isn’t always a given. In some cases, there may be laundry facilities elsewhere on the property that’s available to residents at a cost per use, or there may be nothing and you’ll have to find a nearby laundromat and pay for the use of those machines.
  • Parking:If you intend to own a car, an apartment that includes a garage or off-street parking is vital. It’s often difficult to find a parking space on the street, especially if many students with cars live nearby.

Once you’ve finally found the ideal place to live, you’ll have to sign a lease with the landlord. The lease outlines restrictions on the use of the rented property as well as the responsibilities of both the tenant and landlord. A lease is a legal document, so if there’s anything you don’t understand, ask questions before you sign it so you can make sure that you actually agree to everything the landlord is demanding.

The lease should specify the following, at the very least:

  • The time period covered by the lease, usually (but not always) one year.
  • The total amount of the monthly rent and when it’s due. The lease may mention how the rent will increase in subsequent years.
  • Whether utilities are included in the rent, and if so, which ones.
  • Restrictions on the number of unrelated people (in other words, non-family members) who may occupy the property.
  • The amount of the security deposit, which often must be paid in addition tothe first month’s rent when the lease is signed. The deposit will be refunded at the end of the lease if the property is left in good and clean condition or will be used to cover costs of cleaning and repairing if there are damages. This means that it’s super important to take note of anything broken, leaking, stained, etc. before moving in and to document it (both in writing and with photos) so you’re not held responsible for those problems when you move out.
  • Pet restrictions, since many landlords are not pet friendly because of the potential for damage and noise. The lease may also contain a provision prohibiting noise from musical instruments, stereo systems, loud parties, and other sources.
  • Landlord responsibilities, such as repairs to heating and plumbing facilities and fire or water damage that wasn’t caused by the tenant.
  • A clause about terminating the lease. This clause will describe the penalties to the tenant for breaking the lease. Such penalties can range from forfeiting the security deposit to being responsible for the remaining rent.
  • A clause about subletting. This clause will either allow or prohibit the tenant from subletting the property to another person during the term of the lease.
  • A clause about eviction proceedings. This clause describes the rights of the tenant and the landlord if the landlords want to force the tenant out of the property during the term of the lease. The most common reasons for an eviction include failure to pay the rent when due or causing significant damage to the property.

Moving in
If your rent does not include utilities such as electricity or internet, you may have to get them turned on when you move in so you’ll be able to see while you unpack. The landlord can provide you with the name and telephone numbers of the gas, electric, and cable companies that handle your apartment. Most companies offer multiple promotions based on combinations of services, special discounts, etc., so make sure to ask about all your options before signing up. Also make sure to read the fine print – some companies require a contract, some charge high interest or fees if you miss a payment, and some may not even provide service if you don’t have a good credit score. The more you know about potential problems, the more you can prepare to avoid them.

Renter’s insurance
Many students obtain renter’s insurance to insure their possessions against fire or theft. Even if your apartment is furnished as part of your lease, the landlord is not responsible for your personal belongings if they are destroyed in a fire or stolen. Most renter’s insurance policies also protect you if someone is injured while on the property or if you cause significant damage to it. Every policy offer provides different coverage, payouts, etc for a different annual cost, so make sure to research comprehensively before choosing a policy.

Home safety and security
Your landlord should have installed a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector before you moved in – in fact, in some states they’re required to have them by law. If they’re not provided, ask your landlord to do so. The most important thing, though, is to have them working immediately, so talk to your landlord about potentially speeding up the process by buying and installing them yourself and then being reimbursed.

No matter how friendly your neighbors are, always lock your doors when you’re not home and when you’re sleeping. And if you’re on a lower floor or next to a balcony or fire escape, make sure your windows can lock as well. Safety first!