This article is part of an occasional series called “Big Decisions.” On Tuesday, October 8, from 5:30 to 7 pm, at the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, George Sherman Union lower level, join a conversation about moving off campus with a panel of students, housing experts, and administrators: Kim Santo, assistant director of Judicial Affairs, Michael Lantvet, assistant director of the Educational Resource Center, and Damon Musso (COM’20), a Howard Thurman Center student ambassador.
It’s one of the many big decisions that sophomores, juniors, and seniors face at Boston University. Should I live on campus throughout my undergraduate years or at some point move off campus and get my own place?
“I always wanted to live off campus,” says Allston resident Cameron Cooper (CAS’20, SPH’20). “Just for the freedom.”
“The benefits of possibly living off campus seemed not to outweigh the negatives,” counters Ryan Cully (ENG’20), who lives in Myles Standish Hall.
Allston resident Damon Musso (COM’20) relates to both sides of the decision. He moved off campus at the start of junior year, but it’s been hard. “It’s been really stressful for me,” he says, despite a number of benefits. “I was 30 minutes late for my PR lab meeting this morning.”
Many undergraduates wonder if the time is right for them to move off campus after the (mostly) mandatory freshman year in the dorms. A sense of independence is one big draw: no more RAs enforcing residence hall rules—instead, the feeling of taking the first steps into your future. Living on your own can also be cheaper if you have enough roommates splitting the rent.
But there’s plenty of downside potential, too: substandard or even dangerous apartments, landlords who may or may not get back to you quickly about that broken light fixture or faulty toilet, late nights and long commutes to and from campus that result in missed classes or homework assignments. And then there’s the pile of cash needed for first and last months’ rent, a security deposit, and often, a broker’s fee.
“I think it’s a good thing that they’re thinking about doing it, because it shows they are looking for a more independent way of living, which I would say we provide on campus as well,” says Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), associate provost and dean of students. “But do it when you’re ready—that’s the important piece. When you’re ready to manage a household, because in essence that’s what you’ve got to do a little bit more of. It’s about planning. It’s about managing your life.”
Off-campus housing can be costly
On-campus room and board for a full academic year currently ranges from $16,160 for a standard double, triple, or quad dorm room to $20,380 for a room in a suite at StuVi II at 33 Agganis Way. In theory, with roommates and frugal grocery shopping, a student could spend less for a year in a multi-bedroom apartment, even in Boston’s expensive housing market, although the differential was clearer a decade or more ago.
Nearly all of the 3,146 members of the current freshman class are required to live on campus (fewer than 15 are taking advantage of an exemption for students whose parents or guardians live within 20 miles of campus). In the succeeding three years, approximately 25 percent of the overall undergraduate population chooses to move off campus.
Cooper made the same calculations a lot of students make: moving off campus would save her parents money and let her live with her friends. When it came time to start looking for an apartment last winter, however, the BU psychology major, then a junior, was studying abroad in Spain, and the friend she wanted to room with was doing the same in Paris. A third potential roommate, introduced by a mutual friend, was willing to look for an apartment for the three of them, keeping them in the loop via WhatsApp and an occasional Facetime session. Not easy, but finally, around April, they nailed down a place on Egmont Street, off St. Paul Street.
They paid first and last months’ rent—($3,350 a month for the three-bedroom, one-bath apartment)—plus a security deposit and a broker’s fee. The trouble started when they moved in at the beginning of September.
“It was a disaster,” Cooper says. “So much work needed to be done. It looked like the landlord hadn’t been there in ages.”
Problems included holes where the walls met the ceiling, a bathroom shower covered in mildew, exposed insulation in a closet, and windows that didn’t lock in the basement-level apartment. The students’ parents (who were paying) had to get involved and start talking lawsuits before the landlord got to work. And they’ve scheduled an inspection by the Brookline Health Department.
- Housing provided
- Safety and security assured
- Meal plan provided
- Roommate selection process
- Handy to classes
- RAs, dorm rules
- Find your own apartment
- Dealing with landlords, housing codes
- Buy and cook your own groceries
- Find your own roommates
- Commute from off campus
- Freedom to make your own rules
Start looking early
Nearly everyone says if you’re going to move, start the process as early as possible. If you want to have a place for September, start looking at the end of fall semester the previous year, and you should definitely be looking hard come January and February. The University runs an off-campus housing fair each February.
Kim Santo, assistant director of BU’s Judicial Affairs, says students thinking of moving off campus can log on to the University’s off-campus services website for the first steps toward finding a place and for resources that range from tenant rights and responsibilities to renter’s insurance. Most features require a secure login and password, including the roommate profile section. The website is managed by Off Campus Partners and is utilized by a number of area universities.
For undergraduates moving off campus, usually into the first apartment of their own, there’s a lot they need to think about, says Santo, who oversees some off-campus housing issues. “I usually try to warn them about getting locked into a 12-month lease, because most students are only going to be here for 9 months,” she says. “Before they sign the lease, they should have a conversation with the realtor or the landlord and ask, ‘Do you permit me to sublet the place?’ Most do, but get it in writing.”
A lot of students ask her if they can be charged additional fees beyond first and last months’ rent, security deposit, and a broker’s fee—pet fee, cleaning fee, credit check fee, an application fee. “Absolutely not,” she says. And a broker’s fee is only for licensed brokers, so if the landlord is asking for that, he or she had better be able to produce a license.
“If you’re not getting a good vibe from the property owner or the landlord, and if they keep pushing, ‘Oh, you have to pay this fee,’ I would say, walk away from that,” she says.
To stay in campus housing, or not to stay, that is the question.🤔— When thinking about where to live next year, what are you leaning toward?— Boston University (@BU_Tweets) October 2, 2019
When it comes to reporting safety matters, from missing or not functioning smoke detectors to possibly illegal apartments, Santo advises students to take advantage of various Boston services, such as RentSmart Boston and the Boston 311 app. “They respond pretty much immediately,” Santo says.
Students should not think just about who they will get a place with, Elmore says, but what kind of building they want and what neighborhood makes sense. “And they should be thinking about fire safety, their own personal safety, so that means thinking about basement apartments, apartments where there are bars on windows—getting a sense of how safe the environment might be. Make sure there’s good upkeep and maintenance, check for vermin, things like that. And think about the neighborhood too.”
Fire safety should be a critical concern for anyone exploring off-campus housing. In 2013, BU marine science major Binland Lee (CAS’13) died in a fire on Linden Street in Allston when she was trapped in an upstairs apartment missing the required second exit. Plans listed the house as having 6 bedrooms, according to the Boston Globe, but it actually had 12 bedrooms housing 14 residents, including 3 in basement spaces that city inspectors had cited as illegal in 2001. But prosecutors did not charge the landlord.
Thinking about issues like these is important in another way, Santo adds. She says she gets calls from landlords who say, “‘I have some BU students as tenants; they’re either trashing the apartment or they’re throwing parties. I might be looking to evict them.’ Or it might be a neighbor in the building who says, ‘I think I have some BU students living next to me. I’ve complained to the management company, and they don’t seem to be doing anything. Can you do anything?’”
Judicial affairs won’t get involved unless it’s a police matter, Santo says, “but being a good neighbor is important.”
You’re in charge of your own life
All students moving off campus have to adjust to newfound freedom. “You’ve got to make sure how you’re eating and sleeping and paying your bills and just managing your life,” Elmore says. “It takes a bit more independence, a bit more forethought.”
Musso lived in Myles Standish sophomore year and moved to Mission Hill for junior year, in part to be nearer to a girlfriend who attended Northeastern and helped him find a room. The cheap rent and the convenience of being right next to the Green Line helped make up for the peeling paint and the noise of being, well, right next to the Green Line. “Sometimes I just need to be alone and not talk and be by myself,” he says. “Just to be alone in the quiet is a pleasure I didn’t even know I needed until I started living in Myles.”
But the relationship and the living arrangement both ended, and he needed a new place for this fall, but he got busy working at the Thurman Center and lived in a University apartment over the summer. “I was scrambling, I was on every Facebook group you could possibly be on, I was talking to a friend about finding a place with him, but that became really stressful.” He ended up taking a furnished room in a shared Allston house in August, and found a few pieces of furniture during Allston Christmas.
I still have to deal with my own procrastination. If I don’t shop on Sunday, then I’m not going to have groceries in the fridge, because with school and stuff, I’m not going to be able to get to Trader Joe’s and get all my commitments and schoolwork done.
For all the upsides that he’s enjoyed, Musso has also found living off-campus affecting his routines and his academics.
“The house is about a five-minute walk from the 57 bus, but that becomes an issue too, because the 57 is not the most reliable bus,” he says. “When it is coming on time in the morning, it’s always crowded, and sometimes I think I’m just better off walking.” The 30-minute hoof to class is beginning to get old already, he says, “and that’s just one of the issues with living on your own.”
Making an 8 am class was hard, especially with a 9:15 pm class the night before, so he dropped it and picked up a later morning class. And then there are the petty annoyances, like getting quarters for laundry or refilling his T pass when there’s no station nearby.
“I’m still figuring it out,” he says with a laugh. “I still have to deal with my own procrastination. If I don’t shop on Sunday, then I’m not going to have groceries in the fridge, because with school and stuff, I’m not going to be able to get to Trader Joe’s and get all my commitments and schoolwork done. So sometimes I’m just asking friends to swipe me into the dining hall.”
“It is busy,” Musso says. “It’s been really stressful for me actually. I’m usually a person that likes to be relaxed and doesn’t like to be constantly moving. But now I look at my schedule and see that I have a full day planned out.”
Oh, won’t you stay
As Musso is learning, staying on campus has its advantages. “We do a lot to help you manage circumstances in your life,” Elmore says. “I think we have a pretty good quality of housing. We’ve got safety here, that’s an important piece—a police force that’s really responsive. And we’ve got resources like resident assistants and Residential Life people who are here to help you out.”
Cully is among students who have decided to stay on campus for four years. He thought about moving off campus after spending a semester abroad sophomore year, living with a host family in Grenoble, France. “I got a different feeling, what it was like to live in a house, to have a home, instead of in a dorm,” he says. “I felt like I was actually living my life. Of course there’s some sense of community on campus, being around other students, but being able to go home at the end of the day, and live wherever you’re living, it’s a different experience.”
But ultimately he decided to remain in a BU residence for his last year, currently a four-person suite in Myles. Off-campus living comes with a lot of logistical issues and family and financial questions. Cully has a partial housing stipend, which would be lost if he moved off campus. Family concerns were a huge factor.
His parents, he says, are fairly traditional. “Even though I live on campus, they’re worried about me going home at night, they’re worried about me doing this and that.” Safety was going to be increasingly concerning for them if he moved, and that was by no means guaranteed. On-campus living offered certainty about living conditions and security. Moving would be a hard sell.
“Another thing was rush hour,” he says. “Getting stuck on the Green Line. And the weather, even walking. If I didn’t bring a sweater one day, that can be the most terrible walk of my life. And if you leave one thing at home, you can’t do anything about it. There’s almost no way you’re going to run home during the day. I’m a bit forgetful when it comes to objects. I might leave my charger at home—I have a Surface [tablet], and not many people have that computer, so I’d be out of luck.”
The most important consideration, though, was academics. He decided that his mechanical engineering studies were simply too demanding to add the additional responsibilities and time demands of living off campus.
“Long story short, it felt like a complex process, and adding to the complexity of my workload,” he says, didn’t seem like a good idea.
And in the end, University housing came through for him. Random roommate selection gave him a friend from the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers as one of his roommates.