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College Apartment Hunting

How to tell if that cute, cheap apartment is actually a dump

Looking for a low-priced apartment near campus? Sometimes renting an older, privately-owned unit can be easier on your wallet than renting from a new conglomerate. While these older buildings will always show some signs of age, we have compiled a list of important flaws to look for that may affect your renting experience:

Water pressure – Check all the toilets, showers and sinks to make sure they get good water pressure. For most people, this means more than a gentle mist and less than a thousand tiny missiles.

Hot water heater – Everyone hates running out of hot water, so check out the size (and condition) of the hot water heater. A 60-75 gallon water heater should last long enough for 3-4 normal-length showers, so make sure that the size of the tank is enough for the amount of people you will be living with.

Plumbing – Check behind the toilets and look for water damage to tile, linoleum or walls. Check the dishwasher line under the kitchen sink for leaks. Make sure all the water valves work. Turn on the shower to a comfortable temperature, and then flush the toilet. Does the water turn scalding hot or freezing cold? Does water pressure disappear?

Caulking – Inspect the caulk around the bathtub and shower tiles. If it is peeling, cracking, discolored or missing, this could mean that water has been leaking into the walls and floor, rotting wooden beams behind the drywall. Over time, this minor water damage can make the whole unit structurally unsafe.

Thermostat – Compare what the thermostat is set to, what it is actually reading, and how it feels inside the apartment. If the temperatures don’t match, you could be looking at a broken or undersized unit. Even if the temperature doesn’t feel like an issue at the time of your walk-through, it can become one during the hot summer or cold winter.

Electrical breakers – If you are looking at an older apartment that has newer appliances installed, there is a chance that the new lines are pulled off of old runs, which can overwhelm the breakers. Check the breaker by turning on all the kitchen appliances at once. If all four electric stove tops, the oven and the microwave can all run at once, then everything should be fine.

Electrical outlets – Bring along a small electrical device, like a cell phone charger, to test all of the electrical outlets.

Foundation flooding – You probably won’t be walking through the apartment during a rain storm, but you can still check for water damage. If the apartment has a natural stone foundation, look for any mold or discoloration of the concrete. Both of these things can indicate a major pooling of water which can lead to mold and, eventually, health problems for renters.

Badly repaired damage – Previous damage to a unit is basically unavoidable. However, you should look to make sure that all damaged areas have been repaired properly. This means checking for areas of overspray and cracking where walls have been badly repainted, damage to blinds and carpet, and spackled areas that have not been properly sanded down.

Floors – Any creaky, noisy or soft spots in the floor can be a sign of structural damage. If one of these spots is under or near a bathtub, it can be a sign of long-term water damage that has weakened floor beams.

Crime statistics – Don’t stereotype an apartment based on location, but check the crime database and the sex offender’s registry on your county’s web site, especially if you are female, living alone or living with young children.

Cell phone reception – Make a call on your cell phone and walk around the unit – does it stop working in the bathroom? Can you only get service in a doorway or under a window?

Don’t feel silly about checking all these details – it’s better to spend a bit of time and effort on your walk-through than to find out later that the “historical building” where you’ve locked into a lease is actually falling apart.


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