Ah, the college life. Fond, fond memories of those two a.m. prank runs, the late night bull sessions, the sort of crazy antics that come anytime you put six teenage guys in a small space with no direct supervision.
One way or another, college housing dynamics make or break a college experience. It probably goes without saying, but you will spend more time with your roommates than your profs and more time around your living space than in any classroom. Getting this right matters quite a bit to the college experience. You will have a lot more considerations to the situation than purely financial ones. Roommate selection, amenities, décor, proximities and so forth impact everything you do in college.
That said, there are ways to save money. Some may make sense to your situation and others may overly cramp your style. Let’s explore some ways to get a roof over your head while saving some nickels.
College dormitories don’t tend to come cheap. But they provide quite a bit for the student in terms of location, the ability to rent without undue hassle, great social interactions and a fair bit of activity that wouldn’t happen otherwise. If you want to stay on campus, and I would suggest you do for at least your first year or two, there are two predominant ways to save money while you do so.
First of all, nearly every college loves to advertise its new gleaming dorm facilities with all the amenities. But off the radar are those eyesores that inevitably get left off the campus tours… the old army barracks from WWII, the outmoded historical building too precious to destroy, the one out at the edge of the older section of campus. In order to entice students to rent these, colleges will quite often offer discounts to students who can forego some amenities that may not even rank all that high on most students’ list of wants. If you value the social interactions and the place to lay your head higher than the individual thermostat or the big, shiny ground floor lobby you may save some money by not paying for the extras.
Secondly, students in dorms do require some in-house supervision at times. To ensure some semblance of sanity in their residential buildings, schools will place Resident Advisors (RAs) in each dorm. These positions are held by more responsible students who answer to a more permanent school employee, the Resident Director. RAs are primarily accountable to keep order in their section of the dorm and usually fill several roles, including disciplinarian, peer counselor, conflict mediator, security officer and social planner. It is a job all in itself. In return for the time and duties involved the college will often, at the least, waive the rent fees of an RA for their dorm room. If you are a responsible upperclassman with the respect of your peers the RA position can be a great money saver and resume builder.
Traditional Off Campus Shelter
Students, of course, also have the option of residing off-campus per rent arrangements with private landlords. Doing so, particularly with roommates in the mix, can save a student substantial sums of money each month in comparison to dorm rents. Obviously, this depends largely on the quality and location of the property in question. It certainly is worth a look around each year to see what one’s options are when it comes to housing and to even call dibs on places you like before places become available.
While off-campus housing certainly has its economic and lifestyle benefits, students must consider that other costs may go up as a result. One cannot compare dorm fees and rents on an apples-to-apples basis until the student has also factored in the cost of utilities, transportation to and from campus, parking fees, routine maintenance supplies and duties and insurance.
If off-campus housing seems right for your situation, prior to signing lease documents you should do your due diligence to ensure everything is on the up and up and to avoid unnecessary headaches. Such practices include ensuring the lessor actually holds title to the property or has the authority to sub-let, getting all promised repairs and modifications in writing, knowing your privacy laws, checking the landlord’s references and the experiences of previous tenants and obtaining a written agreement as to the modifications you can perform without loss of your security deposit. Likewise, if you split rents with friends you need to have a firm understanding who will mediate with the landlord, how the rents get handled, what happens if someone reneges and how the other shared expenses like utilities get handled.
On the flip side, I have encountered many families who scoffed at the idea of paying rent altogether. They have run analyses of the cost of rentals for four years and found the purchase of a home more economical in the long run, especially in light of the business and resale potential such homes bring. If your family has the financing, perhaps they may want to consider buying a home for you and a few roommates to lodge in. Home purchases do tend to make more sense as a long-term holding, so it works best if the plan is to remain living in the place after college or to continue renting it out.
Done right, parents or students can often procure housing at virtually no personal out of pocket expense and maintain much more control over the property than any tenant could. Given the rental rates per student such properties can command, I’ve often seen the owner/student live for free during the college years because the four or five roommates brought into the deal more than cover the costs of home ownership. Owning a rental in a college town can be a great headache, but with the proper tenants and some local or in-house supervision of the facility in place, it can also be a great investment.
Tip: For those parents who are tempted to cash out retirement savings in order to finance a kid’s college, this can be your ticket to help out and retain assets within the IRA format. Investment properties can be bought with qualified retirement funds under special arrangements, so if this interests you seek out a professional advisor to ensure the cash flow gets handled properly per IRS regulations.
Less Traditional Student Housing
The truly value-minded student working on a shoestring budget may want to look beyond the traditional dorm-versus-housing dilemma as usually spelled out around campus. Typically students tend to think of accommodation in terms of dorms, apartments and multi-tenant house rentals. Look around, though, at how workaday adults make ends meet and you will notice several other housing arrangements beyond these norms. Not having an actual house to your name doesn’t make one homeless. Those looking for cheap quarters also have the options of boarding rooms, guest quarter rentals, trailers/mobile homes and even RVs/fifth wheels. I’ve known working adults and students alike to live in such arrangements without difficulty or complaint. Recently a student by the name of Ken Ilgunas made headlines for living out of a slightly retrofitted $1500 van parked on campus in order to attend his preferred grad school, Duke, without incurring debt. At first embarrassed, he’s since written a book and become a celebrity of sorts for educated vagabonds everywhere.
While you might get funny looks for living in a RV behind some farmer’s barn you may find the lifestyle suitable enough and cheap enough to justify foregoing the typical college track once more. As a side bonus, many of the above options can be had cheaply enough to purchase instead of rent and may help you transition into your new life and career with that base covered while you tie up other, more important loose ends.