Budgeting Finding Off-Campus Housing as a Highly-Aided Student

November 15, 2023
By Cesar Lainez

Moving off campus can be an exciting opportunity but can be challenging if you’re not prepared. As a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student, the chance to continue building my independence and life experience by moving into an apartment seemed like a no-brainer for my senior year. However, I didn’t feel equipped with the right information to start my search. I’d like to walk through the process I went through, which included my initial search, understanding what I could afford, searching for roommates, and understanding the lease. In sharing my experience, I hope that I can help others feel more informed and empowered to consider moving off-campus and understand where to start exploring options. Above all else, being patient and prepared paid off the most for me, giving me a sweet spot I’m happy in!

My off-campus housing search began relatively late compared to typical Penn students because I was too lazy to look in the fall. I came into the spring semester with the goal of finding a spot by March, which felt reasonable. My first task was to get a sense of the off-campus scene. I did this in January by utilizing the Penn Off-Campus Services website, which provides a handy search tool for available places. You can filter locations by price range, building types, and even draw on the map around the areas you’d like to live in. I knew I didn’t want to go past 44th street to the west and wanted to be between Market St to the north and Pine St to the south. Initially, I also thought I wanted a place to myself, until I saw those prices...

Pricing will probably be a crucial factor for many students. I estimated my allowance for rent by looking at the current year’s housing allowance for off-campus students and dividing that amount by 12, since I was expecting to receive that amount as part of my financial aid. Leases are typically for 12 months, so that provided a base number for what I could afford. I gave myself some wiggle room and aimed for paying around $1,000 a month in rent. This helped narrow down the search, and unfortunately began to eliminate the idea of living alone, since the cost of living alone would’ve exceeded my budgeted amount. I used the Penn Off-Campus Services website and its housing search tool to begin looking at my options. The price filter and area selection helped narrow it down to realistic options.

My roommate search was another challenging aspect. Initially, I had the idea of rooming with a friend of mine. This somehow turned into looking into a 6-bedroom house and potentially having 5 other roommates. Ultimately, everyone had different ideas about the place and that plan fell through. I also came to learn that my friend and I had slightly different price points and goals for living off-campus. I then started talking to another friend of mine and was able to get him on board to look at some places together. I learned you have to be patient with finding potential roommates. I’m glad I didn’t rush this process and didn’t pick a place that I wasn’t comfortable with just because of my roommates. At the end of the day, you have to do what’s right for you.

In February we sent out emails to a few different places for tours. I looked at two spots that I was feeling good about, and I ultimately ended up choosing the Eleanor on Chestnut with my friend in March. Though it was a modest walk away from campus and we had to find a third roommate later on (which turned out great!), I felt very comfortable with my decision.

Reading the lease for the first time seemed daunting and confusing. However, what it really comes down to is understanding your financial obligations and how maintenance would work at your desired place. In terms of financial obligations, I had to get a co-signer to sign the lease in case I needed financial support. I also had to put down a security deposit, understand when rent would be due, and get renter’s insurance. Thankfully, I had savings for the security deposit, but be aware that this number could be equal to your first and last months’ rent, so be prepared for high up-front costs. In terms of maintenance, I understood what would happen if things broke down around the place, who to call, and what I would be responsible for. It’s important that you take the time to read the lease, and Penn Off-Campus Services is available to support you in making sure the contract is appropriate.

I love being in my off-campus apartment! Though it took some time and patience, the lessons learned from this experience will help me in future housing searches. I would encourage everyone to plan in advance, take time to identify what you want, and be patient for the right opportunity. Happy searching!