Off-Campus Housing at BU – Things to Consider

in Parent Advice
November 25th, 2019


By Liz Yokubison, writer, author and mother of Alex, ENG’21

Believe it or not, it’s already time to start thinking about off-campus housing for next year. Since BU is in the heart of Boston, this statement likely incites a shiver of anxiety in some parents or guardians. In addition to safety concerns about students living off-campus, there are a myriad of other logistics to consider, not the least of which is how to find a clean, comfortable house or apartment that doesn’t cost a fortune. To help parents and guardians understand the ins and outs of off-campus housing, I spoke with Kim Santo, Assistant Director of Judicial Affairs/Off-Campus Services at Boston University.

Why Live Off-Campus?
Some BU students choose to live off-campus because of the independence it provides in an environment that feels less sterile than the dorms. It also gives them the chance to cook their own meals, if they have dietary restrictions, or simply prefer not to eat in a dining hall. “But the over-arching reason that many students move off-campus is “It gives them a grown-up feel while still getting a college education,” according to Kim Santo. They know what it’s like to live on their own with more freedom and without the watchful eye of a Resident Assistant (“RA”).

Challenges to Living Off-Campus
The biggest challenge for BU students considering off-campus housing is affordability. Spoiler alert – it’s not necessarily cheaper to live in an apartment or a house than it is to live on campus. “Once upon a time if you lived off-campus you’d be saving money, but now the costs are about the same, considering that grocery shopping is expensive and students are living in a very cosmopolitan city,” warns Kim.

The inconvenience of being farther away from campus, especially for students on a very tight budget, can often be the deal breaker of living off-campus. To find a house or apartment in their price range, some students move so far off-campus that they must take a bus to the T and then often have to transfer from the red or orange line to the green line. At which point they need to factor in the cost of public transportation in addition to their rent.

Another very real challenge to living off-campus is how parents react when they first see the house or apartment that their student has rented. When my son moved off-campus, he wisely offered to move himself in, so that I wouldn’t see the house until later in the semester after it was cleaned. While I appreciated his thoughtfulness, I was pretty sure he was overreacting. Until one of his friends’ moms cried when she walked into the house that her son was renting. And it was a much nicer house than the one my son rented!

Kim says it’s not uncommon for parents to freak out at the condition of an off-campus house or apartment. One thing she suggests to put minds at ease is to report problems to Inspectional Services as soon as possible. Even if the issue isn’t deemed a health concern, then parents/guardians still get peace of mind. If the issue is identified as a health concern, an inspector will fine the property owner to get it fixed quickly. Tenants always have the right to seek help if they feel their living situation is unsafe or unhealthy. To find contact information for the top five areas where students live go to Select the Resources tab and scroll down to Tenants’ Legal Rights and City/Town Specific Information.

Apartment vs. House
One thing to keep in mind when choosing to live off-campus in an apartment or a house is that apartments aren’t necessarily less expensive than houses. According to Kim, “It depends on location, amenities of the building (such as elevators), if it has it been renovated, and walking distance to public transportation or a supermarket. All of that is factored into the cost of an apartment.

It’s also important for your student to determine how many people they want to live with. Typically, apartment living results in a smaller number of roommates than houses. And remember the student’s perceived advantage of living off-campus as being freedom from an RA? Well that can backfire if a student prefers a quieter environment to sleep or study, since no quiet hours exist off-campus. Something to consider when looking at houses which tend to be in noisier neighborhoods than apartments.

For students who choose to rent a house the advantages are that there is often a washer and dryer onsite, access to a front yard or backyard and sometimes off-street parking. Keep in mind, however, that BU discourages students from bringing a car to campus and encourages them to use public transportation and the BU shuttle bus instead.

Historically, several athletic teams and students in Greek life have retained leases to the same house, passing it down to underclassmen. This gives students, who are members of certain teams, fraternities or sororities, the chance to move off-campus and live in the same house for multiple years. Since my son is a member of the BU Swim and Dive Team, he was able to move into the same house for his junior and senior year. Which means that since he is staying in Boston for the summer, he doesn’t have to move again until he graduates.

One thing that Kim cautions parents and guardians about when their student is considering off-campus housing. “A lot of students will take an apartment and try to make it into a house situation to cut down on costs, but it comes at a price.” Specifically, some students will attempt to make a one-bedroom apartment into a two-bedroom by turning the living room into a bedroom. The result is no privacy and no common space.

A general rule of thumb for the cost of renting off-campus, whether it be in an apartment or a house, is that a four-bedroom typically costs a minimum of $1000/month per person, not including utilities or fees. “The sticker shock with people not familiar with the Boston area is the biggest challenge,” observes Kim.

Add to that the required down payment of first month’s rent, last month’s rent, a security deposit and possibly a brokerage fee, and the numbers add up fast. If your student uses a realtor to find their off-campus house or apartment, there will be broker fees. However, keep in mind that property owners who are not licensed realtors are not allowed to charge a broker’s fee by law. Kim suggests that students only pay a broker fee if the person can produce a valid realtor’s license.

Another added expense of off-campus housing is that most leases are not just limited to the school year. As a rule, leases generally start on September 1 and are for 12 months. Many students simply assume that they can sublet their apartment, or room in a house, should they not stay in Boston for the summer. However, many landlords don’t want to sublet to tenants they don’t know. Kim advises that upfront, before students ever sign a lease, they ask the landlord if subletting is allowed. If so, it is critical to get a sublet clause built into the lease agreement.

Considerations When Selecting Off-Campus Housing

As a rule, safety is the first thing that parents ask about. Some things to consider include if the neighborhood is well lit and if there are locks on all the doors and windows. Fire safety is equally important. All smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors should be in working order and it is required by law that there be two ways of egress out of every bedroom.

According to Kim, “With a lot of safety issues the ownership is on the students themselves.” For example, if a student is wandering around a neighborhood late at night with earbuds in, then they are making themselves a target. Similarly, living in a house or apartment with doors unlocked sets them up for burglary or something much worse. Parents and guardians, it’s our job to remind our college students that they are not invincible and living off-campus in a major city requires some non-negotiables.

Age and History of Building
Another consideration that Kim advises when selecting off-campus housing is the age and history of the building. “You inherit the history of that apartment or house,” she warns. If a house has a reputation in the neighborhood of being a party house, then the neighbors may already be on alert. Many rental houses are situated between non-college neighbors who will call the police even if a bunch of guys are simply watching a TV show and laughing out loud with the windows open.

Responsiveness of Property Owner
The last thing to consider when renting off-campus is the responsiveness of the property owner or landlord. Do they live on site? How soon will they respond to repair requests or emergencies? One year during winter training, the pipes in the house where my son was staying burst because one of the tenants had turned off the heat when they went home for the holidays. Things happen. It’s important that your student have a name and phone number of the person to call for repairs and emergencies. It should be posted in a common space on the ground floor, whether it’s a high-rise apartment, brownstone or house.

Now is the time for parents to start having conversations with their student about housing plans for next year. Take time to discuss the pros and cons of off-campus and on-campus housing. Don’t be surprised if your student brings up the idea of living off-campus at Thanksgiving dinner. Be prepared for the discussion.

BU hosts an off-campus housing fair in February for undergrads who are questioning if they should stay on campus or move off-campus. The fair gives students a chance to talk to realtors, inspectional services, and learn the advantages and disadvantages of living off-campus. It’s also a good chance to get information and set up apartment viewings. The fair is also open to graduate students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

That said, Kim suggests that students start researching options as soon as they possibly can. Her rule of thumb for timing is that they should get serious about looking for off-campus housing by the end of February or March, at the very latest. Looking for housing in the summer becomes a do or die situation; and some property owners will prey upon that and tack on another $200 or $300 in rent a month.

If students miss the deadline to submit a Residence License Agreement and nonrefundable housing guarantee payment in February to secure on-campus housing, they are officially taken out of the system. “It is very, very hard, virtually impossible, to get back into the system once you’re out,” cautions Kim. “Students have to be really, really sure they want to live off campus.”