Student Survival Guide: A place of your own

A landlady tells you how to live (off-campus)
By VIKKI WARNER  |  January 22, 2014


You’ll always remember your first apartment, and it will probably go something like this: the exhilarating sense of freedom; the unpredictable hygienic idiosyncrasies of roommates; the dinner parties consisting of ramen, candy, coffee, and beer; the sink teeming with dirty dishes.

If you’re looking for your first off-campus place, or have just moved in, you still have some control over whether you will look back with nostalgia or still-fresh anger. I’m here to help.

I’m a landlady — I own a three-family house on the West Side of Providence — and I’m also a former renter, so this isn’t my first rent check, dudes. Some basic guidelines are in order if you want to get through this with your finances, your friendships, and your capability for rational thought intact.


In all things apartment hunting, word-of-mouth still works. Ask your friends — in person and on Facebook — if they know of any good people who have apartments for rent. When you meet someone new, work it into the conversation. The best places are often unadvertised, so you have to do some social groundwork to find them.

Working off of sheer networking charm can take time, so use online resources for all they’re worth, too. You can look up your zip code at and for free, comprehensive maps of available apartments in the area, complete with landlord contact info. Steer clear of Craigslist — it’s full of dead ends and creeps. And, meanwhile, look for flyers at coffee shops, grocery stores, etc.

Providence has an attractive stock of quirky, old houses, but they’re generally not terribly luxurious. Be realistic with yourself about what you need in a place to live. Keep your expectations basic, and start at the lower end of the market in the neighborhood you want to live in. If you find those places to be truly uninhabitable — rodent crises, broken appliances, horrible smells, tangible evidence the place is a crack house — inch your search upward in terms of monthly rent.

The accepted rule is to plan on spending about 25- to 35 percent of your monthly funds on rent, but in this age of rising housing costs, that figure is rapidly becoming quaint. Most students and others just starting out are forced to spend more.


Most houses in town are drafty, so heating is a big expense. Natural gas heat is currently cheaper than oil heat — plus, you don’t have to call someone to refill the tank. So, when you’re on the hunt, make “What heating type?” one of your stock questions. Also ask about storage space, parking (free, costly, or nonexistent?), laundry (private, shared, or a walk-in-the-cold-with-overflowing-garbage-bags-of-clothes?), who pays for water/electricity/heat/internet, and whether there are any additional costs. Ask to look at the basement. Many Providence basements are demented-looking, decomposing, and not fit for storage of valuables.

Don’t jump at anything. Yelling out “I’LL TAKE IT!” in the first five minutes is a total amateur move. Unless you’ve got competition, keep that poker face on and give yourself at least a couple of hours to think it over. Can you truly live with the neighborhood, layout/size, parking options, financial commitment, and neighbors at this place?

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    You’ll always remember your first apartment . . . .
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