Complete Guide to Renting an Apartment for College Students

Whether you want a dorm or an apartment, we'll help you find the perfect place to live.

If you're a college student and a first-time renter, looking for student apartments for rent may seem a bit overwhelming. But with a bit of organization and some clarity on what you're looking for, you can find a great college apartment for rent.

In this comprehensive guide, you'll learn about the basics of apartment hunting for college students. You'll also get information on dorms vs. off-campus housing, as well as tips on finding a good roommate. If you're a first-time renter, you'll also learn about leases, security deposits and sublets. Read on to learn more!

In this guide:

Which is better: a dorm or an off-campus apartment?

Many students opt for dorms as their student housing of choice for convenience and cost. But dorms have their drawbacks, not the least of which is their lack of privacy. In fact, both dorms and apartments for college students have their pros and cons.

College dorms: pros

Generally speaking, the conventional wisdom is that it's best to stay in a college dormitory for at least your first year of college. The college dorm experience allows you to get to know a variety of your peers in a community environment. Dorms typically have their own “personalities," and if you're lucky, you can live in a dorm with a vibe that resonates with you.

A dorm's personality

The personality of a dorm often depends on its location. For example, engineers will typically live in the dorm close to the engineering buildings. Thus, some dorms might have a reputation for being the “sports dorm," the “artsy dorm" or even the “snobby dorm." Many colleges and universities will allow you to indicate a preference for your dorm. On the downside, you might not get your first pick.

Dorm room types

The types of rooms you can get in dorms will vary. If you prefer being solo, you can apply for a single, if they're available. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some dormitories have apartment-style suites with private kitchens that can house up to four students comfortably.

Other pros

  • It's easier to make new friends when living in a dorm
  • Dorms are a great place to experience the community and the unique culture that's fostered in each dorm
  • In a dorm, there's no need to worry about cooking your food (that is if you don't mind cafeteria food)
  • If you enjoy the unique experience of dorm living, you'll have great lifelong memories
  • Dorm costs are typically cheaper than off-campus living and tuition, scholarships and grants may partially cover rent
  • If the school has a public transportation system, the dorms are likely very close to the stops if they're not already right next to campus.

College dorms: cons

Personality fit

College dormitories are not for everyone. Sometimes, it's just a bad fit. If you're a studious type and you've landed in the “party dorm," then you'll probably be unhappy.

Roommate trouble

You might also be matched with a roommate you can't stand. Some of these problems don't necessarily mean you need to quit dorms altogether. If you're having a problem in your dorm or with your dorm roommate, you should contact your school's residential housing office and see if they can help. They could switch you to a different dorm, find you a better roommate or provide you with a single room instead of a double.

Other cons

  • Dorms aren't very private, especially when you consider the communal bathrooms
  • You don't have much choice as to who else lives on your hallway
  • If you're not into group drama, then you won't be happy in a dorm
  • While many dorms try to have quiet hours, enforcement of this is often spotty at best.
  • If you prefer cooking your own food and hate cafeterias, then a dorm probably isn't for you
  • You'll have very little space for your stuff. And expect the parking situation to be difficult, as a parking spot is not typical, especially at state schools.

Off-campus student apartment

Off-campus apartment rentals

If you don't want to deal with dorm life, then an apartment is a great option. You'll be free of the communal bathrooms, cafeterias and non-existent "quiet hours" of dormitories.

Of course, you can expect to pay more for an off-campus rental than for dorm housing. But, in general, off-campus rent for college students is often more affordable than the average rent in an area, because student apartments are usually a bit less “upscale" than what a working professional is willing to pay for. However, this is a stereotype. You might very well be able to find a beautiful apartment that's affordable for a student.

With so many apartments for rent for college students, which type of off-campus housing should you choose? Here are some options to consider:

Long term vs. short term student apartment

Before you start looking for student apartments as a first-time renter, you should determine whether you need a short- or long-term rental. Most apartments have one-year leases. At the end of each year, you'll decide whether to renew the lease or vacate the apartment.

Often, if you want a short-term lease, you'll be charged more per month. If you just need a place for a few months, you might also consider subletting or renting from another renter (see the section on subletting below for more information).

Furnished or unfurnished?

If you're only staying at a place for a few months, you're likely going to want an apartment that's already furnished. Furnished apartments will generally cost more unless you're subletting from another tenant who's simply grateful that you're “watching their stuff" while they're gone.

Most student rentals have no furniture, however. Thus, you'll need to account for your furniture needs when moving in, including your bed, dresser(s), couch and dining room table at a minimum. This adds to your expenses and makes moving in and out more difficult.

Location, location, location

Usually, the closer you are to campus, the more you'll find student apartments as opposed to rentals for the general public. Depending on where you choose to go, you may be able to find something a few blocks from campus (like in a relatively small college town), or they might be several miles away (in a larger city).

For some students, this means you'll need a car and have to pay the associated costs in addition to rent. You'll also need to factor in commute time and the cost of gas into your financial equations. You're likely to have a better parking situation than living in a dorm, but don't just assume that a parking spot is included in the rent.

Living closer to campus is more convenient — you might be able to get around completely by bike or public transportation, for example. However, if you prefer driving and want an apartment with luxury amenities, such as a swimming pool, fireplace and swanky touches like granite countertops, and these aren't available (or affordable) near your campus, living farther out might be the better option.

How to find an off-campus apartment

Finding an apartment for college students isn't typically that difficult. However, you don't want to wait until the last minute to search for an apartment, because you could end up with no place to live. On the other hand, if you look too early, you might not find many places available yet.

You'll want to start your apartment search a few months before you intend to move in. About two months in advance is usually sufficient, but not always. In some cities, especially next to big colleges, the apartment hunt is highly competitive and units can be rented out months ahead of time, so do some research into the area. Check with the property manager or people who live there to get an idea of what the timeline looks like.

At Rent., you can use the search function to look for apartments in specific neighborhoods. You can also refine your search to look for just apartments or houses, certain sizes or specific price ranges. Students may want to filter to include apartments that are “furnished" or have a “university shuttle."

College roommates

How to find a college roommate

Renting an apartment by yourself is expensive, so many college students opt for roommates to help save money on a place to live.

Finding a good college roommate is one of the big challenges of student apartment rentals. The roommate or roommates you choose can make the difference between a good rental experience and a bad one, making the already difficult first apartment search into a much larger headache.

Rooming with friends

You might be tempted to room with friends. This can work out well, but in the worst case, can end friendships. So, make sure you discuss everything before signing a lease with friends. Talk about your preferences for household management and bill payments. Come up with a contingency plan in case someone ends up being late with the rent. Try to work out the details in advance to avoid problems down the line.

Rooming with strangers

If you don't have friends to room with, you can try to find a stranger. You'll, of course, use caution if you room with a total stranger. Certainly, you could find people looking for roommates online at places like Craigslist, but it's probably safer to try to find someone within your extended personal network. Ask friends and family members if they know of anyone who is looking for a roommate.

Some universities offer private roommate listings just for students on their websites. Free college-sponsored databases, such as these, are also good options for finding a roommate. While you aren't guaranteed that every person attending your university is a good person, these services at least screen out the general public.

Be selective with your roommate

Regardless of the way you go, you'll want to be careful picking a roommate. This is someone you're going to have to live with for a while, so caution and compatibility are important.

Are you quiet and they're loud? Or the other way around? This doesn't have to be a deal-breaker, but some house rules about quiet hours may be as necessary here as they are in dorms.

Do they have the money to pay their part? You don't have to do your own background or credit check on them, but making sure that they have a job, source of income or some sort of rental history is important. If this is their first apartment, then you'll both be learning how to live in an apartment at the same time.

Do they want the same things you want in an apartment? This is especially important if you're trying to find a roommate before embarking on the apartment hunt, as you want to make sure you're both looking for the same kind of thing.

Additional costs with off-campus apartments for college students

The type of apartment you depends on how much can you afford. While rents for college students is typically cheaper than the average in a particular city, rents, in general, have gone up everywhere in recent years.


When looking at apartments, make sure you factor in hidden costs. Are utilities included? Or, will you have to pay for gas, electricity and water separately?

Electricity, in particular, is very expensive, depending on where you live. Electricity is hard to calculate because usage will rise and fall depending on the weather. Furthermore, electric companies will often charge more during peak times, making a particularly hot summer that much more expensive.

Thus, if your apartment runs solely on electricity, not just for air conditioning but also heat in the winter, you could be looking at a bill that might run hundreds of dollars in a particularly bad weather month.

The bigger your apartment or house rental and the more poorly insulated, the more you'll be spending on energy costs. While there are many tricks you can do to save money on electricity, you can't depend entirely on that.

Miscellaneous expenses

You'll also need to figure out the costs of your security deposit. In order to move in, you may also need to pay the first and last month's rent upfront. Some may also charge an application fee just to apply to live there. Others will require you to get renters insurance, another expense that needs to be accounted for.

While you're likely to have a better parking situation with an apartment over a dorm, parking spots are sometimes an additional cost.

Signing an apartment lease

Signing the apartment lease

Signing the apartment lease may seem a bit intimidating and overwhelming for first-time renters. Prior to signing the lease, you go through a credit check. If you have poor credit, don't panic, but prepare to pay more for a security deposit. If you have roommates, they may need screening, as well.

This is likely to be your first apartment, and first-time renters face a lot of scrutinies. Sometimes, you may need to get a co-signer or guarantor for your lease if you have bad credit and/or no rental history. Often, parents will help out with this, but there are other options, as well, such as a co-signing service.

These days, many apartment leases are electronic, but you might still come across a landlord who has a paper lease for you to sign. Either way, you'll see a lot of fine print and rules outlined in the lease.

A couple of things you'll want to look for when reviewing the lease agreement:

1. What are the lease stipulations for a rent increase?

Rent for college students is typically not rent-controlled, because those usually reward longevity, while students move from place to place far too often. That said, some municipalities may provide some sort of restriction on how much rent can increase each year. Your lease may provide indications on how much the rent might increase from year to year, which is helpful for budgeting.

2. What is the security deposit?

The purpose of a security deposit is to protect the landlord in the case of a renter destroying the apartment. The security deposit covers damage beyond normal wear and tear on the building and appliances.

Often, the security deposit will be equivalent to one or two months of rent and sometimes, the deposit applies to the last payment of rent prior to moving out. For first-time renters or renters with poor credit, the security deposits are higher and run into thousands of dollars. If you've taken care of your apartment and your landlord is trustworthy, you should get your entire deposit back after you move out.

Some landlords may offer the option of a bond in lieu of a security deposit. In these cases, you can pay a few hundred dollars as a non-refundable “bond" through a bonding company that covers your deposit for you. You won't get your bond refunded, but on the other hand, you won't have to worry about raising a few thousand dollars in order to move in. You also won't have to worry about the landlord withholding the deposit after the lease is up.

Some apartment complexes that allow pets also require an additional security deposit for each animal or certain types of animals.

Moving out of college apartment

Moving in and out of student apartments for rent

There are a couple of things to plan when you're transitioning from dorm to apartment or from apartment to apartment. One, you'll want to make sure that your lease for your old place overlaps with the move-in date of your new place so you have at least a couple of days to move your stuff and settle in.

It will make things very difficult for you if you're supposed to move out of your dorm room by the 12th but your new lease doesn't start until the 15th.

Sometimes, you may have no choice, but try to negotiate something with your landlord and/or the previous tenant. It's that the tenant who is moving out won't mind if you move in a few days early.

Moving troubles

Then there's the issue of moving your “stuff."

When you first move in and out of your college dorm room, you're likely getting help from family and friends. As you “graduate" to your first off-campus apartment, you'll start to collect your own furniture. This makes moving a bit more involved and complicated. First, you'll need to plan your move so that, ideally, your furniture will get there in time, so you don't end up sleeping on the floor.

Many students rely on friends with a truck to move their stuff from apartment to apartment, but this isn't necessarily the best option. Consider hiring local movers to help. Rent. has a free moving center to help you move your stuff quickly and efficiently.

Subletting student apartments

Many apartments for college students are sublets. The word “sublet" basically means “sublease," where you rent from another renter. Subletting is a good option if you want a short-term rental and don't want a long lease term.

This is especially true in the summer when many students go back home but still have their current lease. At this time, you can take over their lease for just the summer months and not the entire year, moving out to your own place after the original renter comes back from their summer vacation.

Subletting your first apartment

For a first-time renter, a sublet can sometimes be a good way to get an apartment if you're having trouble meeting the requirements of a business landlord. Students who are subletting are less picky about their personal credit and are possibly more inclined to rent to you because you're a friend of a friend or they like you.

The downside of a sublet is that you're sometimes at the mercy of the renter you're renting from. They could change their mind at the last minute, leaving you in the lurch.

Illegally subletting

Also, be wary of people offering you a sublet if they aren't being on the “up-and-up" with their landlord. If they're telling you not to communicate with the landlord or property manager, then they are likely subletting to you despite this not being allowed in their lease agreement.

This could lead to problems, the least of which is that you can't ask the landlord directly for help if the apartment has a problem, such as a water leak. The worst-case scenario is that the landlord finds out and you end up getting evicted through no fault of your own.

Subletting your apartment to other students

You can also potentially sublet your apartment to another student, provided your rental lease allows it. This option might be something to discuss with your potential landlord when you're looking to rent a place. For example, if you're going to return home for the summer or go on a foreign exchange program for a semester but would like to keep your apartment all year round, you could potentially sublet the apartment while you're gone.

The challenges of subletting are finding a trustworthy tenant to rent your apartment out to. Will you be keeping your personal items in the apartment while gone? Is the sub-tenant able to pay their rent on time? Will they take care of the place?

Dangers of subletting

You also need to be careful — you'll hear horror stories of subtenants refusing to leave when you return and abusing local laws to remain in the apartment. Thus, you'll want to screen your subtenants carefully, including their rental history and a credit check, and get references to try to find someone considerate and honest.

You'll also really want to make sure to have renters insurance if you're subletting out your place. Your insurance will cover your stuff being damaged by the subtenant, or your liability for what happens while they're living there. It won't prevent problems but will help if they arise.

Additional resources for the first time renter

If you're ready to search for student apartments, Rent. has many resources for you. You'll find many helpful articles on the Rent. blog, as well as a City Guide to some of the popular urban hotspots.

You can also potentially get help from your university. Call the student union or central office and ask them to direct you to the department that can help. Also, some local cities have tenant unions that offer renters education, counseling and low-cost or free legal assistance.

With the right legwork and persistence, you can find a fabulous student apartment for rent.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.