Beyond the Dorms

A guide to off-campus housing near MIT
MAY 2018
Sarah
B
Biology

When I committed to attending MIT for graduate school, I was ecstatic. I immediately began planning out my courses, researching clubs on campus, and looking up potential advisers. But wait, I’d need a place to live, too. Boston’s a city- but how bad could housing be, really?

Ah the naiveté!

As anyone who has tried to live in the Boston area can tell you, housing here is expensive. And complicated. Hopefully, this guide can help you better navigate the snarl of possibilities that is off-campus housing!

However, if you’re about to begin your first year, especially if this will be your first time in the Boston area, I strongly encourage you to consider on-campus housing at MIT. That’s what I did my first year, and it was a good experience overall. Here’s a great guide to that process!

But there are also some distinct downsides to living on campus.

  • One big one for me was this: no pets. My mental health is vastly better if I have a furry (or scaly) friend to share my space with!
  • Also, the housing process is lottery-based- you’re in no way guaranteed housing after your first year, and often not even then. The only way to guarantee your spot is to become part of the leadership of your dorm (see a description here).
  • Although this is not as big a deal anymore due to recent changes, when I started grad school you couldn’t choose your roommates.
  • It’s dorm life, for better or worse. Although the grad dorms are wonderful, they are just that- dorms. If you want the experience of having your ‘own place,’ you won’t really get it living there.

So let’s say you’ve made the decision to live off-campus. What next?

Finding a roommate
Well, first you have to answer an important question- who do you want to live with?

I do recommend answering this first question first. When you find the perfect apartment, you’ll need to sign that day most of the time, or you’ll miss your chance and it’ll be grabbed by someone else. The Boston housing market moves fast. You won’t have time to scramble for a roommate, so unless you’re comfortable (and able) to sign for a multi-bedroom apartment on your own that’s just not a feasible course of action.

TIP: I’ll note here is that finding a roommate as a first- or second-year grad student is all but essential. One-bedrooms in the Boston area are expensive, running around $1900 per month (admittedly, this price estimate is based solely on my personal experience). Studios are a bit less, but still can be well over $1500 per month. Two-bedrooms are much less per person, with prices closer to $2400 per month (so $1200 per person) or even less (again from personal experience). And of course the price goes down as you add more roommates.

So how do you go about finding a roommate?

At MIT, there’s this wonderful website where you can look for roommates who are part of the MIT community! Beyond that, another great option is to poke your social media communities on sites like facebook. There are groups on these sites designed to help people find housing, often geared towards specific communities. For example, if you identify as part of the LGBTQ community, the Queer Housing facebook group is a great option. And, of course, there is always Craigslist housing, which is sort of a catch-all for available housing options.

Determining details
So, once you have your potential roommate(s), you can move to discussions of what you want your apartment to look and feel like. You should really have concrete answers to all of the following:

  • How much are you willing to pay?
  • What parts of Boston are you willing to consider?
  • How close to public transportation do you need to be?
  • Do you have a car? If so, does the place need to have off-street parking?
  • Does the place need to allow pets? If so, what kinds and how many?
  • Is on-site laundry a priority? Importantly, if there is no on-site laundry how close is the nearest laundromat?
  • How much space do you need to feel comfortable? Is having a common area essential, or optional?
  • If moving in with a significant other- what happens if you break up? Is subletting possible?
  • When people come to visit you (especially if you have family in the area), will they need to have space to park? If so, how much visitor parking should be available?

Browsing for apartments
Now, you’re ready to start seriously looking for a place. I recommend doing this around March-May for a September 1st move-in. You can look closer to the deadline, but then you risk scrambling and grabbing the first acceptable place that pops up. The earlier you start looking, the more you can optimize what you’re looking for.

Essentially, the preceding questions will help you narrow down your search parameters, typically by applying search filters on various housing websites. One great website to check out is Padmapper, which lets you apply a variety of filters and then lists places based on location. There are other websites that let you do this as well, such as Zillow. And, again, Craigslist has a fairly infamous housing section.

You can go through a real estate agent, and I have done this as well. But then your apartment will be subject to a half or full month’s rent worth of fees. Sometimes this is worthwhile - and often the apartments you find on the sites I listed will note whether a fee is applicable to a given apartment.

Also, note the most apartments will require more than just the first month’s rent as an upfront payment - you typically need to pay a security deposit (which can vary from as little as $250 up to a full month’s rent) and often need to pay the last month’s rent as well. So keep in mind that you’ll need to shell out several thousand dollars just to move in to your new place.

TIP: Another option to consider is looking at apartment communities. These tend to be slightly more expensive options, but honestly they’re not too bad if you have two or more people going in on a two-bedroom apartment. They have a number of benefits, including cleanliness, good maintenance, professional landlords, on-site services (like laundry), parking, and sometimes amenities (like a gym or pool). For example, for the past two years I’ve lived in Brandywyne Village in East Boston. You kind of need a car to live there, but if you have one it’s a wonderful place to live! I’ve also toured Walden Park Apartments in Porter Square and Eaves North Quincy, which were both beautiful as well.

TIP: I’ll note here is that if you and your roommate are both MIT grad students, you have the option of living a bit farther out and getting an MIT student carpool parking pass! It’s much cheaper per person than getting an individual parking pass at MIT.

Visiting apartments
Choosing an apartment is a rather large decision, so you want to make sure you visit the place before you sign, ideally with all roommates in tow. Ask about all the things that matter to you. If there is current construction, look elsewhere. Doesn’t matter when they say it’ll end- it’s in their best interest to say it’ll end soon. If something is run down and they say they’ll update it before you move in, that’s another red flag. It’ll never get updated.

In general - just be thorough. Turn on the hot water, make sure the stove works, listen for street noise, be sure to physically view the laundry setup, poke in the closets, etc. Double-check any details of the online listing - mistakes can be made! This is especially important if you are bringing pets.  

TIP: If you like the people who show you the place, don’t be afraid to ask them to send you a message if they have similar places you might be interested in! This can be a great way to find a realtor without having to look for one.

Signing the lease
Finally! You’ve found it! The place you want to call home is calling to you. The last step is to sign a legally binding stack of paper that will cost you a large fraction of your income for the next year. Gulp.

Take a deep breath, relax, and be sure to read the fine print.

Don’t be afraid to ask them to correct any mistakes. Ask which utilities are included in the rent, and make sure that information is specified explicitly in the lease. Don’t let them tell you “oh, the lease just says that - you can ignore it.” Red flag. This is most common with regards to pets. I do admit I’ve signed leases that didn’t explicitly allow for animals when the agent said something to this effect - but then I spent the next year being worried that they’d inexplicably decide my animals weren’t allowed and kick me out. Legally, they were allowed to.

Also, make sure you get a copy of the lease. They should give this to you when you sign, but in case they don’t make sure you ask.

A few swipes of a pen and a big check later - and you’re done! (Well, except for the move itself.) Enjoy your new home - I hope you like living in the Boston area as much as I have!