As the fall semester progresses, many Penn State students are tasked with making housing decisions for the upcoming academic year, and the cost of living is a prominent factor for many, who are torn between on- or off-campus housing options.
Ranked as the 64th best place to live in Pennsylvania, State College fairs slightly below the national average for its median rental prices, according to Niche.com.
According to Libby Jones, the assistant director for Off-Campus Student Support, the State College area is currently experiencing a “surplus of housing” options following the completion of several new apartment buildings.
Jones said the “demand for downtown housing remains high and the market is brisk,” despite the “expanded capacity and increased availability for downtown units” in recent years.
When searching for off-campus housing, Jones said students should consider the cost of rent, utilities, transportation and food — along with any additional expenses some apartment complexes have.
Some off-campus living options include additional fees on top of the traditional ones, like application fees, charges for amenities, redecoration fees and costly cleaning requirements, Jones said.
“Take your time and do your research,” Jones said. “Searching for your first apartment is such an exciting time, but it’s important to have a clear picture of your budget and a solid understanding of the terms of your lease.
If students want help configuring a budget or finding their total cost of living, Jones said they can request a one-on-one meeting at the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center.
Vanshika Madaan said this is her first year living in downtown State College after living in Penn State’s South Halls in previous years.
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Due to the diverse and wide-ranging housing options, Madaan (senior-community environment and development) said prospective renters should consult with their friends and connections — along with online reviews — before settling on a property or rental.
“You just have to dig through it because there are hidden gems all around,” Madaan said. “If you want to find an affordable and cheap place, you can find it — it’s just a lot of work to try to find it.”
For Madaan, university Housing Fairs helped acquaint her with different venues around town and kickstarted her research into local rental agencies and property listings.
This fall, Penn State will hold two Housing Fairs — one in person and one online — for students to learn about the off-campus housing options available.
The in-person Housing Fair will be Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Alumni Hall.
Then, the virtual Housing Fair will be Oct. 14 from 2-4 p.m.
When searching through off-campus listings, Madaan said she made a list of priorities — aspects she needed in her living option — and a list of things she was willing to sacrifice.
By defining her priorities, Madaan said she refined her search better and found a living option optimal for her needs and wants.
Since location was her “No. 1 priority,” Madaan said she was willing to sacrifice other factors to be near campus and eliminate transportation hassles.
For instance, Madaan found a roommate to lower the monthly rent and compromised with the lack of laundry units in the building.
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When finding roommates to further distribute monthly rent between tenants, Madaan said it’s important to meet the prospective roommates beforehand to make sure the living situation will work optimally.
“You’re stuck with the person for the entire lease period, so you just want to make sure that you know the person, that they’re good and that you’ll get along,” Madaan said.
Compared to living on campus, Madaan said she spends less money on housing costs by living off campus this year — making it an “efficient option” for students.
However, she said she spends more money on food compared to when she had a meal plan because it’s easier and less time consuming to order takeout compared to cooking each night.
According to Jones, one of the “biggest potential financial pitfalls” for students in off-campus living options is failure to purchase renter’s insurance, which minimizes the risk of having to replace personal possessions or pay for damaged property.
Jones said some students sign their lease agreeing to be responsible for “more than just their share of the lease agreement,” which she said is called joint and several liability.
Before signing a lease, Jones said students should feel comfortable with all the terms and conditions.
For clarification about one’s lease, Jones said students can utilize Student Legal Services, an organization that provides free lease reviews for students.
When students sign off-campus leases, Jones said the contracts “tend to be less flexible” than on-campus ones.
According to Jones, if students decide to study abroad, transfer colleges or move to a new housing location, they may have difficulty getting out of their lease obligations.
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At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many students were similarly surprised to still maintain financial responsibility for their off-campus lease despite classes shifting to remote formats, Jones said.
Some students’ living preferences have shifted due to the pandemic, but deciding on housing remains “a very personal decision” that needs careful evaluation, Jones said.
Besides leasing issues, the pandemic also impacted how students have considered prospective housing options, because rather than touring the locations in person, most had to rely on virtual tours.
As the time nears for 2022-23 housing decisions, Jones said students should be cautious and evaluate their options thoroughly.
“Trust your instincts,” Jones said. “If it feels a little off, investigate before sending money.”
Some students, like Ciaran Costello, decided to live on campus this year since the pandemic complicated his housing search last fall.
Costello (sophomore-division of undergraduate studies) said he decided to live in North Halls this year because he was looking for a suite-style living option and found virtual house hunting to be “challenging.”
Despite living on campus this year, Costello said he plans to find an off-campus apartment in the coming years.
He said his first experience participating in the off-campus housing search will likely be this fall, and he said the most important factors in his search will be location and price.
Student Carianne Lovas said finding off-campus housing has been a “very stressful [experience] — a lot of times unnecessarily stressful” since the market is highly competitive.
Lovas (senior-biomedical and mechanical engineering) said she was unable to view her apartment before signing the contract last year due to the pandemic, which was less than ideal and worsened the situation.
One of the challenges with finding off-campus housing in State College is the expected time frame to do so, Lovas said.
“Things fill up quicker than you’d expect, and it’s a stressful process if you wait until the last minute,” Lovas said. “A lot of times, you need to pick the location and put money down [during] the fall in order to get everything you want [in an apartment].”
Lovas said the price for off-campus housing is overly expensive for the amenities received in return, and a main influence in the price is the competitiveness of the State College housing market.
“It’s definitely overpriced because my friends who [attend] other schools all have prime locations, their own bedrooms and pretty nice apartments,” Lovas said. “Yet, they pay half of what we pay here for decent housing — housing where we still share rooms and have old furniture.”
Evan Bender said the experience of finding off-campus housing “sucks” and entails a learning curve where people improve from their previous years’ “mess ups.”
Bender (junior-corporate innovation and entrepreneurship) said students should experience both on- and off-campus housing if they have the chance.
“You have to live on-campus freshman year, so that gives you a good experience,” Bender said. “But I think in your four years [at Penn State], you should definitely try to live off-campus at least once to see what that’s like, too.”
Bender said his experience with off-campus housing at University Terrace Apartments was comparable in cost to on-campus housing.
Bender said he believes there’s off-campus housing options for everyone — regardless of budget limitations.
He said there are some off-campus options that are more expensive — like The Standard at State College Apartments at State College and the RISE at State College — while others are reasonable.
The Standard, which is an off-campus living option 0.2 miles off campus, costs between $780 and $2,080 per person for two- to five-bed complexes, according to Penn State’s Off-Campus Student Support.
James Shryock held a similar viewpoint to Bender and said “there’s a pretty wide range in rental prices” depending on people’s preferences, desires and budgets.
According to Shryock (senior-finance), living both on and off campus has its advantages and disadvantages, so students have to self-reflect and find the option that works best for them.
He said he prefers off-campus housing due to his apartment’s increased living space, which allows him to have his own room.
Shryock said living off campus tends to be “a little more expensive” since there’s additional costs — like groceries and utility bills — to consider. However, he said the experience is worth it.
“Be prepared,” Shyrock said. “I now have a lot of [additional] costs I have to cover, compared to [when I lived on campus where it] was simpler and easier [to understand] the price of everything.”
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