GRAD GUIDE


Finding Housing

I'm broke. Should I move back home with Mom and Dad?

What questions should I ask when apartment hunting?

Help! I can't decipher the lingo in the housing ads.

Where can I find cheap housing?

Where can I find free housing?

How can I find a roommate?

What's the secret to getting along with a roommate?

Do I need a co-signer to rent an apartment?

What is the true cost of renting an apartment?

How much will utilities cost me, and how do I turn them on?

How can I save on moving expenses?

What are the best cities for young people just starting out?

How can I furnish my place cheaply but chicly?

Do I really need renters insurance?

Should I buy or rent?

What's the best way to save for a down payment?

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Finding Housing
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Q. I'm broke. Should I move back home with Mom and Dad?

A. The prospect of low- or zero-rent living, home cooked meals and a live-in housekeeper is enough to lure about half of all college seniors back home after graduation each year. Whether you join the throng, however, will largely be up your parents -- and your own pride. But if they're cool with it -- and you're cool with curfews, chores and other household rules -- moving back home can be a good way to get your financial bearings after school while you look for a job or try to save up enough cash for a security deposit on your own apartment.

But before you pack your bags, you need to sit down with your parents to work out a contract. This is as much for your protection as it is theirs. To avoid disagreements, your contract should address how long you'll stay, how much you'll pay and what the house rules will be. Learn more about so-called "boomerang kid contracts" and how to make a move-home experience work.

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Also, take note: Moving back home to get your finances on track only works if you're disciplined. If you're saving on rent but you're spending more money on other things like entertainment, new tech toys or a brand-spankin' new SUV, you're not really saving much. In that case, grow up! Moving out could be just the impetus you need to finally take your finances seriously.

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Q. What questions should I ask when apartment hunting?

A. First, before you even start looking, you should know how much rent you can afford and zero in on a location. (Is it close to your job? Public transportation? Shopping? Nightlife?) You should check out crime rates in the neighborhood through the local police department. Then, you're ready to focus on finding the right apartment. Check out Apartmentratings.com to get tenant reviews of buildings in your city. Then, ask these questions upon visiting specific places to make sure your new apartment is a good fit:

Is there an onsite manager?
How long is the lease?
Is there 24-hour maintenance?
Does the building have parking?
What is the policy for guest parking?
Is there air conditioning?
Is the heat gas, electric or oil?
How much do utilities usually cost here?
Are utilities included in the rent?
Is there an on-site laundry?
Are there enough washers and dryers to go around?
How much is the security deposit?
What's the pet policy?

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Q. Help! I can't decipher the lingo in the housing ads.

A. Reading the classifieds can be like reading in a foreign language. Don't panic. We've decoded some of the abbreviations to get you started:a/c = air conditioning; ba/bth = bathroom; br = bedroom; c/o w/d = coin-operated washer and dryer; dr = dining room; dw = dishwasher; eik = eat-in kitchen (it's big enough for a table); fp = fireplace; hw fl = hardwood floors; incl ht/hw = rent includes heat and hot water; ldry = laundry, lr = living room; off st pkg = off-street parking (parking lot or driveway); stu = studio (no bedrooms); w&d hkup = washer and dryer hookups; wic = walk-in closet; w/w = wall to wall carpeting.

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Q. Where can I find cheap housing?

A. Start by asking if your new employer has any apartment or real estate services. Some companies may have helpful contacts in the rental market to help you find a place. Then, go online to head up a search yourself. You can scan big listing sites such as Move.com or Apartments.com. Local newspaper classifieds -- both print and online -- are another good source, as is your local Craigslist site. You also should drive around prospective neighborhoods to spot "for rent" signs that may not have been advertised elsewhere.

Another great way to save on housing, is to get a roommate. If you go it alone, you may find the only places that fit your budget are the size of a refrigerator box, a bit run-down or in a bad part of town. Team up with a roommie, however, and you can live it up in a much nicer place for the same price -- or just a tad more -- than you'd spend to live alone.

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Q. Where can I find free housing?

A. This isn't a trick question. There really are ways to enjoy rent-free living, and many of them will land you a much nicer place than you could afford to live in on your own. One option is housesitting. Whether homeowners have multiple properties, or they're taking an extended vacation, they may be looking for someone to watch and maintain their home while they're away and offer a free place to stay in exchange. You can search for housesitting opportunities at HouseCarers.com and through the Caretaker Gazette. Before entering an arrangement, make sure you get the terms in writing, including the length of your stay and specific instructions for the care of the property and any pets (see a sample agreement).

A similar arrangement is the role of live-in housekeeper. Increasingly, single working adults and empty nesters are taking on rent-free roommates in exchange for their services cooking meals, cleaning the house and maintaining the yard. You can arrange such "barter roommate" positions through popular roommate sites such as RoommateExpress.com and Craigslist.

You also might consider apartment management. In exchange for maintaining an apartment building and handling residents, you could get discounted or free rent. This could be a lot of responsibility, so make sure you are up to the task before signing up. You can usually find apartment management opportunities in job listings.

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Q. How can I find a roommate?

A. Laverne and Shirley, Joey and Chandler, Bert and Ernie. They all found roommates they could get along with and you can, too, with a little help from the Internet. There are plenty of places on the Web to post roommate want-ads. Some of the most popular are Craigslist and Roommatelocator.com. You can post and browse listings for free, though some such as Roommates.com and RoommateNation.com may charge you a few bucks to send and receive messages to potential matches.

In either case, you'll have to take due diligence to sort out the "Friends" from the "Single White Females." Run a credit check, call references and arrange a face-to-face interview to see if your lifestyles and personalities mesh. You also can hire the services of a specialized roommate finder, such as Roommate Express. It'll pull credit reports, call references and try to match personalities and preferences to yours. Monthly fees run about $20 to $30 depending on your location (credit checks cost $15 to $20 extra). Or check referral services that cater to your specific location, such as Roommatefinders.com in New York City or Chicago Apartment Finders.

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Q. What's the secret to getting along with a roommate?

A. No matter how diligent your search, choosing a roommate is a bit of a gamble. But there are ways to increase your chances of winning roommate roulette. Start by drawing up a roommate prenup. This is an agreement that spells out the conditions of your living arrangement to protect yourself in case things don't work. Each roommate should sign the contract and then get it notarized. This can help you resolve disputes and give you legal recourse to recover your money from an irresponsible roommate in small-claims court if necessary. your prenup should include these topics: How you'll split bills and expenses; chores, food and space-sharing arrangements; and guest and noise policies. Also, a big peace-keeper is to have your own phone lines. You may want to rely on your cell phone and forgo a landline altogether. Get more tips on how to get along with your roommate.

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Q. Do I need a co-signer to rent an apartment?

A. Maybe. Call 'em crazy, but landlords like to make sure they'll get paid. So they often set income requirements for prospective renters. For example, they may require that you make, say, 2.5 times the amount of your rent each month, and they'll require proof, such as your most recent pay stub or a letter from your new employer stating your salary. If you fall short, you may need to persuade your parents to co-sign. Don't be surprised if Mom and Dad turn you down, though. Because a co-signer essentially promises to pay the bill should you default, they may opt out to protect their own assets. In that case, you may need to find a roommate with income to carry some of the rent burden -- or a cheaper place to live. If Mom and Dad do agree to co-sign, however, you'll need to give your landlord proof of their income too.

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Q. What is the true cost of renting an apartment?

A. While looking for a place to live, you're probably focusing on the monthly rent. But when you first move into a new place, don't forget to budget for your "start-up" expenses. For example, you may need to pay an application fee for the apartment (say, $50), a security deposit (usually equal to one-month's rent), your first month's rent, a deposit to turn on the electricity (maybe $75), a deposit to turn on the gas (another $75), fees to get your cable and telephone turned on, a deposit for any pets you may have, and maybe even a fee for a parking space. And let's not forget the cost of furnishing your new pad and stocking it with life's essentials (yes, you really do need soap). All in all, it can cost you upwards of $4,000 in your first month at your new apartment, according to research firm Twentysomething Inc. See Only the Beginning to learn what costs to anticipate and to come up with a plan to cover them.

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Q. How much will utilities cost me, and how do I turn them on?

A. You may have spent the last four years living in campus housing where utilities came magically in place. But now, unless you specifically rent an apartment with "utilities included," you'll have to make arrangements yourself to get them turned on. Find out what utilities you need to set up. Many apartment buildings will provide the garbage and water service as part of your rent but leave you to arrange your own gas and electric service. Others may require you to handle everything. Once you know what you need, find out whom to call. Your landlord should be able to provide you with the names and numbers of the local utility companies. Or, you can just hit the phone book for the information. You'll want to call the utility companies at least one week before you move in and arrange to have your service turned on the day before your arrival. You don't want to be moving in in the dark.

As for how much they'll cost, that'll depend largely on your location, the type of utility and how much you use it. (If you live in Las Vegas, for example, and are running an air conditioner constantly, you'll spend more than someone living in a more temperate climate.) But, for a ballpark figure in a one- to two-bedroom apartment, we'd suggest budgeting at least $75 to $100 a month for gas and electricy. It may cost more some months and less others. And don't forget, you'll have to spring for a security deposit for each of your services when you first set them up. See our Cost-Of-Living Realtiy Check for more info on life's expenses.

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Q. How can I save on moving expenses?

A. Generally speaking, moving yourself is less expensive than hiring full-service movers. The trade-off, however, is that moving yourself can be a royal pain, so make sure you're up to the adventure. Start by recruiting some cash-strapped students for help. Post ads around campus soliciting help, and be sure you list the details: FREE PIZZA AND DRINKS for anyone willing to help haul out your stuff and pack your truck. You may choose to drive your belongings to your new home via UHaul, Penske or Budget rental trucks. Or, you can rent a Pods container, pack it yourself and someone else will drive it for you.

But be pragmatic. If you don't own much of value, it may be cheaper for you to sell off your bigger items and buy new ones at your destination than to pay hundreds of dollars to ship that $50 thrift-store couch cross country.

And if you're moving more than 50 miles away, save all your receipts from your move. On your next tax return, you can write off the cost of moving yourself and your household to your new location, as long as the move is job related. (You don't even have to have the job lined up before you move. You only have to start your job within one year of your arrival for it to count.) You can include the cost of storage, movers, truck rental, plane tickets, hotels and gas. See Write off Moving Expenses for more information.

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Q. What are the best cities for young people just starting out?

A. Tempting as it may be to launch your career in Boston, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, you may find it just as rewarding -- and a heck of a lot cheaper -- to look beyond the bright lights and high rents of those meccas for twentysomethings. Instead, consider places like Atlanta, a hotbed of wireless hot spots; Denver, with its pub-and-club packed downtown; or Minneapolis, with its diverse cultural offerings. Check out the rest of our list of seven cool cities that have good-sized populations under age 30, improving job markets and low costs of living.

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Q. How can I furnish my place cheaply but chicly?

A. Think versatile. If a piece of furniture can work double duty, you get twice your money's worth. For example, Tammy Schoppet, founder of Rental Decorating Digest, is a fan of storage ottomans, which can serve as footrests, tables or extra seating while concealing blankets or magazines inside. You also can look for a coffee table or side table with drawers to organize clutter. You can save money and still serve your guests in style by forgoing a formal dining set in favor of outdoor furniture that can be shifted to a deck or patio in future years.

Furniture is essential, but the extra touches are what make an apartment homey and more personal -- especially rugs, paint and window treatments. See How to Outfit Well-Dressed Digs for more ideas. You also can shop for bargains at Craigslist, eBay and local consignment shops.

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Q. Do I really need renters' insurance?

A. Nearly two-thirds of renters don't have any protection for their belongings in case of theft, fire or other disaster. Unless you have enough money saved to replace everything you own -- clothes, furniture, computer, entertainment system, microwave, etc. -- renters' insurance is definitely worth the cost. Besides, some landlords may require renter's insurance before you move in. No matter how pathetic your entry-level salary, you probably can scrape enough together to buy a policy. Expect to pay $150 to $250 a year, or $12 to $21 a month. You may pay more or less depending on your neighborhood and level of coverage. You can get quotes from several companies online at InsWeb.com or NetQuote.com, but check with your auto insurer first to see if you can get a discount for having more than one policy with the company.

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Q. Should I buy a home or rent?

A. First, you need to ask yourself how long you plan to stay put. You typically need to stay in a home at least three to five years to recoup your costs. So if you aren't 100% sure you want to stay in town, if there's a chance you could get transferred at work or you think you may want to go to gradschool, renting is probably best. But if you're ready to settle down, check out housing prices in your area then use our calculator to see if renting or buying makes the best financial sense for you. See Should You Buy or Rent? for more information to make your decision. Then find out how to know when you're ready to buy.

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Q. What's the best way to save for a down payment?

A. Even if you can't afford to buy a place now -- or you simply aren't ready -- it's a good idea to start saving for the day you decide to put down roots. Take a look at your budget to see where you can find some extra cash to put away each month into a high-yield money market account like ones at ING Direct or Emigrant Direct. Then, once you build up a solid stash, consider putting a chunk of it into CDs (certificates of deposit), which will net you an even bigger return on your savings. See Should You Buy or Rent? for more ideas of where to put your savings.

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Next: Ultimate Grad Guide to GETTING AROUND


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