When I was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin in 2013, I was happy, mostly because I’d received blunt rejection letters from all of the other grad schools to which I’d applied. Soon after I accepted my admissions offer, it occurred to me that I would need to find a place to live, and probably a roommate to live with. Apartment hunting, then, needed to commence.
Austin is not a cheap city, especially when you’re trying to live conveniently close to campus. Having never searched for my own apartment before, let alone in a city over 15 hours from home, I was at a loss for what to do. I’d only been to Austin once, for two days, to visit the campus. As August drew closer, my parents really started to panic, asking me every day whether I’d found a new home in a foreign city. I was anxious too, but I didn’t want to let them know that. Obviously, a roommate and a nice apartment were just going to fall into my lap without me actually having to work for it. (Here’s a hint: This is not the way things work, no matter how much you wish it were.)
So I turned to Craigslist.
It wasn’t my first choice, but I’d already been on the school’s website, and there wasn’t much available, so I was quickly running out of options. The housing market is tough for the school’s undergraduate students, so I didn’t want to waste my time competing for housing that’s really meant for them. To be honest, as a grad student, I didn’t really want to live on campus anyway. I preferred to explore the town and hang out with students my own age.
My parents weren’t thrilled that I’d started delving into Craigslist to find a house and roommate, especially since Craigslist horror stories really do exist. Turns out, my (long and tedious) search resulted in a girl as normal as I could’ve expected, and a small, but cute, apartment. We lived together for a year with her obese cat, before I rescued a dog and had to find another place.
Before I signed a lease, gave up personal information, or sent money, we exchanged a series of emails. We also met remotely so that we could get to know each other and visually see that neither of us was an old man masquerading as a twenty-something woman. Our meeting, and the first few weeks of living together, were super awkward, but we’re still friends today, and she still has the (very fat) cat.
Things to Try Before Turning to Craigslist:
Even though Craigslist worked for me in the end, it shouldn’t be the first place you go about finding an apartment in college.
- Check with your school. Check out your school’s website first, particularly if you’re going to a large university. Many institutions have a housing section online where professors and students can list their own places for rent (say, if they’re going on sabbatical or taking a study abroad trip). It’s like a miniature, localized Craigslist where you can be sure that you won’t get scammed. There may be forums or message boards in which you can interact with other students and meet potential roommates.
- Don’t forget about Facebook. When I was accepted to the University of Texas, the graduate student coordinator added me to a Facebook group specifically for geosciences graduate students. Your school may also have a Facebook page, whether its for incoming freshmen or for students who are members of a certain department. This is a safe place where you can post publicly and ask for housing advice, potential roommates, or rooms for rent.
Tips for Apartment Hunting on Craigslist:
When you do run out of other ideas and you’re in a housing bind, take some precautions as you search the bottomless pit that is Craigslist.
- Use filters. When you’re searching for places to live, use Craigslist’s filters to narrow down your options. You can put in a price range or input the maximum amount of money that you’d be willing to pay in rent. You can search by availability, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and square footage. If you’re interested in an apartment, you can specify that you only want to see results in apartment buildings. If you are more interested in a house, there’s an option for that too. Play around with the filters so that you are only seeing options that work for you. It will save a lot of time in the long run.
- Don’t wire money to a stranger. It’s a scam! Even the Craigslist website mentions that you should never wire money to people you haven’t met. When you send a wire transfer, you are essentially sending cash. You will never see that money again. You will eventually need to put down a deposit (usually the same amount as a month of rent and a little extra if you have pets), but it should never be asked for upfront. Take your time to feel out the situation before you throw money at an apartment that may be too good to be true.
- Google names and places. If there is a name in the ad, look it up. Many homes are listed online with the street address and name of the current owner (you want to make sure that the name from the ad corresponds with the current owner’s). This may not work for an apartment, but if you’re after a room in a house or a shared condo, check the public record. If your contact claims to be a realtor, look them up! They’re bound to be mentioned on a website somewhere. Be wary of people whose existence you cannot verify online. Once you have a street address, since it may not be listed in the initial ad, you’ll also want to get on Google Maps and check out the location. What’s nearby? How’s the public transit? Is it walkable or will you need a car? After you’ve explored the basics, consider searching for neighborhood crime rates too. You don’t want to end up in a seedy area just because you haven’t done your research.
- See the place in person, and bring a friend. You’re going to have to live there, so visit the apartment. Bring a friend for safety. If your contact refuses to let you see the apartment before you fill out a rental agreement, drop them like they’re hot. Not only do you want to see that the apartment looks like the pictures on Craigslist, but this gives you a chance to meet the landlord and/or person with whom you will be living. Once you’ve seen the place and had a conversation with the realtor, owner, or fellow roommate, then you can proceed with the rental agreements and money. If you’re from out of town and can’t just travel halfway across the country to find a place to live, set up a meeting on Skype, Google Hangout, or Facetime. A scammer won’t let you proceed, but a normal person is going to want to meet you too.
If I can manage to find an apartment and a roommate in Austin, TX from Louisville, KY using Craigslist, then you can too, especially if you’re going to have a chance to visit your new city ahead of time. Remember, always let someone know where you are going, particularly if you’re planning to meet with a potential roommate or check out a listing. Don’t let anyone rush you into signing a lease, especially if you haven’t seen the property. Check out Student Caffé’s off-campus housing section for more information. Stay safe and enjoy the search!