A House is Not a Home (If You Can't Afford It)

September 30, 2020
By Matthew Sheeler

As naive first years frantically searching to secure housing for our sophomore year, my friends and I had a rather stressful experience in our off-campus housing search. We made some impulsive decisions along the way that had unanticipated consequences down the line. Here's what I learned. 

We had decided amongst ourselves that we did not want to stay in on-campus housing for many reasons. Living off-campus is relatively cheaper, and there are so many more options than the selection of on-campus housing. Additionally, my friends and I are part of the last class of sophomores that have the option of living off-campus. So while you may not be in this exact scenario because of the sophomore housing policy, any student who is moving off-campus for the first time can learn from my mistakes. Regardless, contrary to our preconception, come early winter, we were having trouble finding a suitable place to sign off-campus. The stress this brought on evidently clouded our judgment, as we practically signed a lease for the first four-bedroom place we could find. We signed a lease, which I’ll call Lease #1, in a rather expensive apartment complex, but we were all excited and ready to make it work. 

In the month following our signing, we stumbled across an open lease, which I’ll call Lease #2, for a cute townhouse with five bedrooms, a porch, a balcony, a basement — all things you don’t exactly get in a cookie-cutter apartment complex. We decided to recruit an extra friend, connect with the landlord, and begin looking into the house. The more we learned about Lease #2, the more we knew how badly we wanted to stay there, and the more Lease #1 haunted us. Pretty literally. I reached out to a friend who had experience getting out of a lease, which started one of the most stressful processes of my life, because just as we began trying to transfer Lease #1, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the U.S. 

Trying to find a group of people willing to take Lease #1 for the upcoming academic year during a pandemic was not easy at all. We were in contact with the apartment company, who said they would try their best to assist us in the process, but as we approached the summer, no one had any luck. My friends and I were really reluctant to give up on the chance of living in the much cheaper, spacious Lease #2 for our sophomore year, so we decided to strike a deal with the landlord. We were able to work out short term leases for the summer so that the landlord of Lease #2 wouldn’t sign it to other tenants while we continued the search for new tenants for Lease #1. In simpler terms though, we technically had two leases signed at the same time.  

Thankfully, over the summer, the apartment company found a group of tenants to take Lease #1, and we were able to sign Lease #2 for the townhouse for the remainder of the year. It was such a weight lifted off our shoulders knowing that we wouldn’t be struggling to make ends meet just to live in a place we no longer wanted to live in.  

Since then, I have taken a lot of time to unpack the financial lessons at hand here. A striking lesson I think everyone should know is: don't sign a lease for the first place you find. Contrary to my prior belief, you don't have to find a place in October or November for the following year in order to have a good place to live. You should take your time and find a place you love. Additionally, it is vital that you set an expectation of what you can pay for rent before you decide to live off-campus. Assess your own income, talk with your family, talk with your financial aid counselor, and consult Financial Wellness @ Penn about expected living costs!. The other lesson that my story teaches is: if you want to try to break a lease, know the terms and what's expected of you and plan accordingly. Remember, this is a legal contract! 

Following this experience, I have been taking much more initiative than ever before to keep an accurate budget spreadsheet and put a lot of effort into each financial decision I make, because now more than ever, I recognize the significance of financial literacy. If I could tell myself a year ago as a naive first year, to not sign that lease, I would. I simply did not do enough research. But I signed it and I adapted. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the process became even more difficult and complex, but I adapted and carefully analyzed each financial decision I was making, and that’s what I recommend others do as well.