Peer Advising: Housing

The single biggest issue for every incoming student is finding a place to live in Boston. In this section you will find several suggestions I have to help you with your search. I am also happy to provide you with general advice related to the housing market. However, remember that as a graduate student, it is ultimately your responsibility to find a place to live.

I have also included some basic information below on what to do if you have issues with your housing situation or your landlord. Although most people will not experience any problems, you have important rights as a tenant, and it's important to know them in the event that something goes wrong.

How should I start looking for housing? What resources do I have?

The Department Google Group

As a housing coordinator I can collect the names of people who have or know of rooms available for rent. So if you have a room available for rent or would like to rent and apartment with another student from the department, let me know. I will then post this information about available housing in the Google group. However, I also encourage people who are looking to rent out a room or a place to post this information in the group themselves as this is the easiest and fastest way to get the information out there to fellow students. This also means, that if you are looking for a place to stay, I highly recommend that you post in the Google group yourself.

If for any reason you cannot access the group (this should be possible for everyone who can access Google) you can send me an email and I can post your advertisement for you. I would then forward you any replies you get. Please don’t ask me to do this if you can in fact access the group.

The BU Off-Campus Listings

The BU housing community does have an internal website, that a lot of people don't know about. On this site, all BU students can place an ad looking for an apartment or a roommate. Access to the site is restricted, so you can only enter if you already have a BU email address. To some people this way feels like a safer environment for putting an ad out. At least I can tell you that when I was looking here I always got a response, this way they know you are definitely a BU student. Plus it can be fun to live with a student in another department as it gives some variety to your life!

You can access this site through the off campus website here.

Or go directly to the listings here. Notice that they will ask you to sign in.

Other Useful Resources

Finding a room through someone in the department is great. However, it won't work for everyone, and you should not rely on finding a room through someone in the department, or even the broader university. In fact, most people find a room or an apartment through other means. Therefore, you should be actively looking for a room or an apartment yourself.

First, I have put together some basic information below that will help you begin to learn about renting in Boston. In a number of ways, Boston is a unique housing market, so it's worthwhile for you to take your time and invest in understanding the market a little bit. I highly recommend that you read this material! Hopefully, this will help you end up with an apartment you like more at a better price!

Next, you may wish to read the housing section of the Graduate Survival Guide. That will give you an idea about housing market in Boston. Study the map of Boston (see links below) so that you know where different neighborhoods are. Study the MBTA maps to find out where there is public transportation.

Once you are familiar with the basics of the Boston, I recommend that you begin looking at Craigslist. This will help you to refine your understanding of the market, and to begin finding apartments and/or roommates. Keep in mind that while Craigslist can be a huge resource to you, it has its own quirks, and it can even be home to scammers. The more informed that you are going in, the better you will fare and the happier you will be. I have included some tips on using Craigslist below.


University Apartments

The simplest way to find your own apartment is just to check in with BU Property Rental Management. They have a big building on campus with many small studios which are decently sized but also a bit pricey. The location on the other hand is extremely convenient. The building 580 Commonwealth Ave has an online application form. It is the only Building of BU Property management that you can rent unseen! They have more apartments but for those you have to get in touch with them either by email rental@bu.edu or by phone at 617-353-4101.

Non-University Apartments

Other than the BU Off-Campus Listings, there are two basic ways to find a non-university apartment. The first is to contact a realtor and work directly through that person to look at apartments that suit your requirements. The second option, which is much more popular in my experience, is to use Craigslist. As you will discover, realtors are usually (though not always) involved in the rental process in Boston. Contacting a realtor directly means that someone else is doing much of the looking at apartments for you, which can save you time and aggravation. However, most realtors in Boston post their apartments for rent to Craigslist anyway, so you will probably end up seeing many of the same places as long as you are diligent.

Below I will give an overview of the Boston housing market, and then describe issues that are specific to using Craigslist to find an apartment. This is mostly based on my own experience, and you may wish to consult other resources such as the Graduate Survival Guide. However, I think this is a great starting point in looking for an apartment you really like.


The Boston Housing Market

Overview

Boston has a relatively unusual rental market by US standards. Its peculiarities are driven by two basic factors:

  1. Boston has a lot of (highly-mobile) students, and;
  2. A high proportion of the city's apartment are in small buildings or standalone houses that are owned by private individuals or small firms.

If you're used to the apartment market in other cities, then you may find Boston to be a challenge at first. However, the peculiarities of the market can be to your advantage if you know what you are doing.

In most student-heavy parts of Boston, the vast majority of leases start on September 1st. Most students are looking for a place to live for the academic year, and this suits them well. It also solves the coordination issues surrounding the large number of students who want to switch apartments each year. Accordingly, the market for leases that begin in months other than September tends to be much smaller. If you are arriving long before September 1st and need a place to stay, I encourage you to consider subletting an apartment until September 1st. Summer sublets are plentiful, as most students are out of town at that time anyway.

On the other hand, there are a couple of downsides to the September market. Because many existing students know who they will be living with far in advance, the market for September apartments begins quite early, generally in the Spring. Many of the best apartments will be taken by the time that a new graduate student goes apartment shopping. Because so many apartments are privately owned, the quality and pricing of apartments can be highly variable. For this reason, you may need to look at more apartments than you would otherwise expect. Allot yourself plenty of time to shop for a good apartment that suits your needs and is a good value. When you see something you like, move fast!

Secondly, the fact that so many students leave Boston in the summer means that landlords are often worried that students will abandon their apartments without paying. Therefore, it is common for private landlords to ask you to pay your last month's rent at the time of lease signing in addition to paying your first month's rent, your security deposit, and often a realtor fee (see below). Sadly, upfront costs for Boston apartments are simply very high. However, many landlords consider graduate students to be better tenants than undergraduates, so you be able to use this fact to negotiate down some of these upfront costs.

Realtors

If you've rented an apartment in another US city, you may not be used to dealing with a realtor. Most private owners of apartments in Boston prefer not to deal with the chaotic rental process themselves, so they hire realtors to do it for them. The realtor is paid a fee for this service, most commonly consisting of one month's rent. In most instances, the private owner will ask that the new tenants pay the fee to the realtor directly. This increases your up-front cost. There are "no-fee" apartments on Craigslist, which you should feel free to consider. You may also ask for if the fee to you can be waived or reduced. But remember, anytime a realtor is showing you an apartment, a realtor will get paid when you rent that apartment. If you ask for the fee to be waived, landlords will generally accommodate that by raising your rent to pay for the realtor fee that they must then pay. This may make sense if you only plan to stay in an apartment for one year, but it can be a very expensive proposition if you expect to stay in the apartment for multiple years, as your monthly rent is unlikely to go down when the lease is renewed.

That said, sometimes realtors do have the ability to bargain down fees with landlords without simply passing the cost on to you, at least somewhat. Small landlords rely on realtors to find them reliable and responsible tenants, and sometimes (though not always) they have longstanding relationships with each other. They will discount fees because they're interested in preserving these relationships. You're a graduate student, and that helps to signal that you are likely to be a good tenant, which can earn you some savings. It never hurts to ask, so ask. Also, present yourself well and be friendly and courteous, it can only help you!

Here are 2 realtors who have offered to give discounts on fees to BU graduate economics students, ask for it when you decide to rent a place with them. I will update this information as I get in touch with more realtors.

Kenmore Properties
www.kenmoreproperties.com
info@kenmoreproperties.com
617-236-8550
Kenmore Properties is offering 10% off finder's fees for 1 bedrooms/studios and 20% off fees for 2 bedrooms and up. You can mention that you were referred through me as your peer adviser.

Marc Roos
www.marcroosrealty.com
info@marcroosrealty.com
617-236-8600
Marc Roos is offering 10% off finder's fees for 1 bedrooms/studios and 20% off fees for 2 bedrooms and up. You can mention "graddiscount" and that you were referred through me as your peer adviser.

Greenline Realty
www.greenlinerealty.net
contact@greenlinerealty.net
or contact the manager directly at alex@greenlinerealty.net
617-731-5434
and Alex's direct phone (manager) 617-922-3511
They have offered a fixed $150 finder's fee for 1 bedrooms/studio and $200 fixed fee for 2 bedrooms and up. You can mention me and that you were referred through this website.

Rental Costs

Boston has some of the highest housing costs in the country. Moreover, the recent strength of the Boston economy in recent years has pushed rents even higher. For a wide variety of reasons, the supply of housing in Boston has increased only slowly in recent years, and that is likely to continue. In my opinion, it is now hard to get a room in a shared apartment for under $850-900 a month if you are looking for something "very close" to school (such as Allston, Coolidge Corner, the closer parts of Cambridge, etc.). In the more popular parts of those neighborhoods, you will easily pay over $1000 for a room in an apartment, even with roommates. If you're willing to commute further you might be able to find something around $650-750 a month, assuming 2-3 other roommates in a location such as Brighton. However, if you want to live by yourself, expect to pay at least $1000 to $1500, depending on location.

Because a high proportion of landlords in the Boston area are private, they often do not keep close track of trends in rental prices. They also tend to value good tenants highly and want to keep them. For this reason, you will often find that prices on apartments in small buildings or houses are somewhat lower to begin with, and that they do not increase over time in proportion with the broader market. For this reason, if you expect to stay in Boston for multiple years, I highly recommend taking the time to find an apartment you really like. That way you will not have to deal with moving, and you will be doing your best to keep your rent expenses in check.


Using Craigslist

Craigslist is great! It's a great way to find an apartment! Yet, Craigslist can often be frustrating and confusing. I want to help make your search as straightforward as possible, so here is some helpful advice on using Craigslist to find an apartment.

Searching for an apartment

If you're looking for an apartment on Craigslist, the first thing that you will be asked is whether you want to pay a realtor fee or not. Yet, as I described above in the section on realtors, this isn't really the most logical way to think about the true cost of an apartment. I recommend looking at all apartments, and simply being mindful of whether or not you will be paying a realtor fee when you compare prices.

You may also find that you will see the same apartment listed numerous times, often with the names of different realtors attached. This is because realtors who have been hired by landlords often list their properties on a private computer system called an MLS. Other realtors see these listings and show them to the potential tenants, and then the two realtors split the fees once an apartment is rented. Of course, this intermediate step is largely unnecessary in the era of Craigslist. Yet, much of the market still works this way, and so Craigslist is full of realtors competing for the opportunity to show you the same apartments. When there are multiple listings for the same apartment, I recommend just picking one at random, or picking several and choosing the one that is the most responsive to your emails. If you meet one and find them helpful, feel free to let them show you additional apartments. However, don't feel the need to stick with a given realtor. They have many clients and are ultimately less dedicated to finding you a good apartment than you are.

Finding a roommate

Getting your own apartment is great, but it can be challenging, especially if you need to save money by living with other people. Also, if you're moving from far away, you probably don't have furniture, or you may want to live with others to acclimate to your new city. So, rather than rent an apartment, find a roommate!

The Department Google Group and the BU listings are always a good starting point in looking for roommates. However, Craigslist can be great for this too. Place an ad in the section “Roommates needed”. In the ad explain that you are looking for roommates with whom you can go apartment hunting together. Be clear that you do not have a place yet. Leave your phone number and/or email address in the ad. Meet people who are interested in a coffee shop somewhere. If you like them, find an apartment together. This method works. It also gives you more flexibility. It does require more time, so allow several weeks to find a place using this method. It is faster to find a room is the rooms / shared section if you’re willing to share an apartment. For example, some people will look to replace current roommates who are leaving the Boston area, or to find additional roommates to fill a larger apartment. There are also many houses in the area that serve as group quarters for a rotating mix of students and young professionals. Places like this will almost certainly want to meet you. Some of them may have a somewhat more involved "interview" process, but they can be a lot of fun and a great way to save money.

Making Contacts

So you've found an apartment or a roommate situation that looks promising, now what? One thing that you will probably find, is that it can sometimes be difficult to get people to answer your emails if you send a request through a general website like Craigslist. This is especially true if you are asking detailed questions, or trying to get general information about the market. Craigslist adverstisements often get hundreds of responses! Much of the time, people who put their ad there are overwhelmed with the number of replies that they get, and they may not answer your emails at all, or they will be slow to respond. This is especially true if you have not moved to Boston yet, as people will often choose not to respond to people unless they know that they can meet you before you decide to rent with them.

To some extent, there is little that you can do about this. You need to cast a wide net, since not every opportunity will pan out. If you have the opportunity to visit for several days to find an apartment before you move permanently to Boston, I highly recommend that you do so! But, most importantly, you need to be vigilant! Check regularly for good apartment opportunities, and follow up on them as quickly as you can. Being the first person or one of the first people to respond to an advertisement makes it much more likely that you will get a response, and much more likely that you'll end up with the apartment that you like! I suggest having an email template in place that explains who you are, what you'll be doing in Boston, and some general words about why this apartment looks great for you. When you see something you like, just customize it slightly and hit send.

If you need help understanding the market, you're much better off asking someone who understands your specific situation a little bit better, such as a fellow BU graduate student (in any program). Some realtors can also be very helpful, but they vary substantially in quality. Or, you can ask me, I'm always happy to try to answer your questions to the best of my ability.

If all of this is just too much hassle, then you may wish to consider using BU's listings (see above). The selection will be much more limited, but you will probably find people to be much more responsive and helpful in your search. After all, they understand what it's like to go to BU!


Issues with Housing

Hopefully, the vast majority of you will experience no serious issues with your housing. Most landlords and management companies in Boston are reputable, and they deal with issues promptly. However, some are not, and your status as a student can make it easier for those individuals to ignore serious issues and defer maintenance, unless you know your rights. Here are some examples of the types of issues that sometimes arise:

Do you have no heat or inadequate heat in the winter? You have a right to maintain your apartment to a reasonable temperature, and it is important that your landlord addresses any issues with heating right away. Specific guidelines on this can be found here.

Do you have problems with malfunctioning major appliances, electrical issues, plumbing issues, or serious structural issues? State law requires that landlords provide you with certain amenities, and that they keep them in good working order. You have a right to have these issues fixed in a timely manner, especially if they are potentially hazardous.

Do you have a problem with cockroaches, mice, or other pests? If you're renting in a building with multiple tenants, then your landlord is required to deal with any infestation issues.

Does your landlord want to terminate your lease and evict you? State law has extensive regulations on when your landlord is allowed to terminate your lease prematurely and/or evict you. Make sure that you know your rights before you are put in a difficult situation. Also, do yourself a favor beforehand: sign a lease so that you have clear written documentation to support your case, and so that your landlord cannot terminate your lease in the middle of the year without cause.

Is your former landlord withholding your security deposit or using portions of it to pay for wear and tear on the apartment? There are limitations on what a landlord can use your security deposit to cover, and landlords are generally required to refund your security deposit to you within 30 days of terminating your lease.

All of these rights, and more, are laid out in detail in this brochure from the Massachusetts Department of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. I strongly encourage you to read this material closely if you think that you have a legitimate complaint. In the event of a serious issue, you may need legal advice or other assistance which I am not qualified to give you as the peer advisor. However, I am happy to give you general advice on how to communicate with difficult landlords, or to give you suggestions on where to turn if you need further assistance. Once again, the more well-informed and persistent you are, the more likely that your issues will be resolved to your satisfaction.


Final Thoughts

As you can see, renting an apartment in Boston can be hectic and infuriating! Sometimes, you will luck into just the right opportunity, and other times, you will feel like every good option is falling through. It's important to find a place where you will be comfortable and content. However, if you're patient, vigilant, and well-informed, you will almost certainly end up happy with your living situation. Don't be afraid to consider all your options, and remember that sometimes convenience is worth paying for!