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Housing Hacks for Students and Expats

By Sandhya Ramachandran

                                                                                                                                Let's get that straight.

                                                                                                                                Let's get that straight.

International students unanimously agree that the most nerve wracking part of moving abroad is finding a decent place to live. A good place to stay is important. Living in the library isn't a good long term solution. It's tempting to dismiss this as just a place to throw your things and take a nap but trust me, having a good living situation goes a long way in this chaotic time. 

This is the expectation, whether you admit it out loud or not:

Now let's lower them so that we can handle ourselves when we look at listings like this:

Click here for more horrors

Click here for more horrors


NOT that you will land up in a literal bedroom! There's diamonds in the rough. You know this because you have a positive mindset. RIGHT? Good.

Cliched horrors of house hunting aside, lets take a quick look at the process:

As a student, it comes down to ON campus vs. OFF campus housing.

The advantages with on campus housing -

  • There's 24hr security 
  • It's usually inside the campus or really close-by. Multiple Snooze button jabs is all you have to blame if you're late for class.
  • You don't have to buy furniture and a ton of supplies as most accommodations will come with a bed  + mattress, closet, a chair & table.
  • Less on your mind when you get here. No worries about hoaxes and flaky roomies

The biggest con is that it is usually morbidly expensive. Like, 4 times more expensive than what you can find if you are living off campus.  Besides off campus living gives you the option of having a roommate who isn't in the same school or isn't even in school (you'll appreciate this if you're a grad student). And pets! 

Most university housing pages also an Off Campus Listings page so that's a great place to start. The biggest bottlenecks usually are:

  • Checking the place out - demand a Skype/FaceTime tour along with good quality, well lit pictures!
  • Estimating if the rent is a rip off - a question to ask the graduate affairs office or that one friend or acquaintance who's already abroad. 
  • Accessibility - Google Maps lets you do that virtual tour yourself, so you can check if there's supermarkets, bus stops and a laundromat nearby . But all postings will usually have those details and that's something to directly ask the landlord/prospective roommate.

Try to stay with a host family. That's what I did and it was the shiniest silver lining to my grad school life! You get an actual intercultural experience, less rent + responsibility and they’ll respect your privacy more than roommates ever will. There is an element of stars aligning but families letting out a portion of their house usually know what they are in for and are seeking to help a struggling student.  

Neighborhood vs. House Interiors

It just so happens that places with reasonable rent are in dumpy neighborhoods and apartments (not flats anymore!) in swank spots have matchbox dimensions. Choose wisely. Bare minimum for a good neighborhood is one that is safe, has regular garbage collection and clean streets. You know you really struck gold when it's a street that also has courteous neighbors and bloc parties. Proximity to supermarkets and other services is an aspect that might not feel as important when you are house hunting as a working professional, because by this time you probably have a car. Students obviously have to take that into account. If your nearest supermarket is more than 25min away by walk, it's inconvenient. But this means really organized food shopping once a week and could even be a good thing that comes in the way of snack cravings. 

Some tried and tested services to hunt for a spot - student or working professional - are good ol' Craigslist, RadPad, FB Housing Groups in whichever city, and most underrated: walk around! Pick a neighborhood you like and explore on foot with an eye for 'FOR RENT' signs. You could look up the neighborhood online to check out scores that tell you if it is low on crime and walking friendly. 

But now school's over and for whatever reason, you need to move.

In this time if you don't have a credit score and haven't gotten a car, you have the same problems of a new student. You are geographically limited to bustling 24hr neighborhoods or that one sad building near the supermarket if you live in a small town. Moreover, to the outside world & prospective landlords, you seem like a risky tenant. This was my situation when I moved from Boston to L.A.

My building's property manager Edith Barajas agreed to answer a few questions (and she included some tips!) that will help other folks in a similar predicament - renting an apartment as an expat in a new country. Note: Sentences in italics are MY COMMENTS.

A lot of international students have courses that only last a year or two and in that time, they don't always manage to get a credit card/credit score. In this case, what are the alternatives?

First begin 2 months in advance searching via internet for the apartment or do walk ins around the desired locations and look into for rent or leasing signs. Every applicant's situation may vary. Many renters and property managements require proof of income, employment verification letter, and some accept cosigners if credit scores have not been established. Please ask the renters, property managements if they are willing to take cosigners, guarantors who happen to have credit scores and are willing to help in the application process. 
Bank statements from the past few months for credit score and an offer letter of some sort to show that you will be earning will do for proof of income. 

Could you briefly explain renter's insurance and if it's very important?

Renters Insurance is important, because it covers any damages that might unexpectedly affect any unit. It also covers a fire or theft. When these incidents occur, property managements request for these forms of documents in order to compensate the tenant.
Remember that bit about nice neighborhood, not subject to poor construction & mini disasters?

Pls. explain the concept of rent control.

Rent control keeps property owners or management companies from raising the rent prices however amount they want and filing for evictions, which is part of LA housing regulations. Some cities varies in these laws.

What does a landlord mean by the term background check?

Background checks are useful to understanding who they rent the apartments too, especially for the safety or protection of current residents.
You can get criminal background reports done online for $25 but showing your i20 and explaining your extension student status should help avoid that extra expense. Your social security number might not even generate a report since you are on student status.

What are some important questions to ask your landlord before moving in? (Besides the rent, laundry facilities, number of tenants allowed to stay in the apartment)

Feel free to ask about pest problems, conditions or issues inside the units that are visible while viewing a unit. Some questions are against HACLA (Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles) that may not be answered due to regulations.
Some apps that help with moving: BuddyTruk, LetGo, SellIt.

Can you ask for a short term lease or is annual lease a given when you move into an apartment?

Short term lease must be asked before moving into the apartment. Some renters might ask for an additional fee or may offer month to month. After the year lease is up, occupants have the choice to renew lease without rent increase or choose month to month lease but expect an additional rent increase after the year ends.
The price you pay for wanting to live solo!


1. Look around the building, inspect conditions, be observant, ask yourself if you want to live in a property where noise level might be too much to tolerate. Some buildings are pet friendly. If barking or allergic to animals, please verify before moving in.

2.     Living in the city expect to tolerate many things in your surrounding area either you want to live in a big apartment complex or small.

3.     Be picky. Make sure you take before and after pictures when you move into the apartment and after you move out. This helps save money from your security deposit.

4.     Take care of the units or you will be charged if you decide to move out for any damages.

5.     Ask landlords to provide all the contact information to help provide you with any questions or concerns you may have on the conditions you might come across within your unit or building.

6.     Sometimes international students may be in a rush to find a place.  Be careful and aware that some webpages including craigslist may contain deals that are too good to be true where they don’t ask for much documentation. For your protection, never turn in money upfront unless legal documents have been signed and you have researched the property that is leasing you an apartment. No cash transactions!

7.     Let landlords know after turning in any form of identifications that contains your personal information to be disposed of afterwards to protect your personal information.

Further reading on FastWeb