Apartment Hunting Tips for College Grads

Think of college as a way station on the road to “the real world.” Once you’ve got your diploma in hand, say hello to adulthood and goodbye to dorms and dining halls. It’s time to get your own digs and cook your own meals. Here are some things to keep in mind when looking for your first apartment.

Know your budget. It’s important to know exactly how much you can afford to spend. Tina Pestalozzi, author of Life Skills 101: A Practical Guide to Leaving Home and Living on Your Own (Stonewood Publications; $14.95), says this is the first thing new grads should do. “It used to be that I’d tell young people not to spend more than 18% to 20% of their income on housing,” she says. “But everything is so expensive now. Still, I would say no more than 33%.”

If you determine that you can afford to spend only $700 on an apartment, then stick to $700, not $750 or $775. Those few extra dollars could blow your budget. You should also watch out for hidden expenses, says Robin Raskin, author of Parents’ Guide to College Life (Princeton Review; $13.95) and communications director with The Princeton Review, a standardized test preparation company in New York. “You might have to pay for things like garbage removal, electricity, heating, and water. Make sure you find out.”

If you’re leaving school with a mountain of debt, think carefully about whether you can afford to live on your own. A college student graduates with an average of $20,000 in student loans and $2,000 in credit card debt. Consider living at home until you’ve paid off your bills. Living with roommates will also significantly cut your housing costs.

Get referrals. The level of difficulty of finding a place to live depends on location. Areas such as San Francisco and New York City are notoriously difficult. Know your market. Learning about a vacancy via word of mouth is often your best bet. That’s the plan for Amma Aboagye, a 21-year-old senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Aboagye will join the Teach for America corps this fall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she will teach middle-school math. But because she’ll be in the program’s summer institute in Phoenix for much of the summer, Aboagye won’t have a chance to hit the pavement to scout for rentals. Instead, she’ll e-mail program teachers who are now in Baton Rouge and those who are just completing their two-year stint to see about any vacancies. “I’ll be talking to the alumni network in Baton Rouge to get a sense of what’s a good area and what’s not a good area,” says the industrial and labor relations major. “I want to be scrupulous about making the right choice.”

Be prepared. Your prospective landlord will want to make sure that you can pay the rent by checking your credit and verifying employment. This isn’t the time to find out that you have poor credit, so check to see if there is anything