For college students, the thought of living off-campus can be exciting and terrifying. You want to find a place that’s close to campus, well within your budget, and—above all—safe. While it would be nice to be around the corner from your favorite coffee shop, after an all-nighter at the library or a night out, it’s important to be able to get home without fear and sleep without feeling you have to keep one eye open.
Locating an apartment or house can be especially daunting if you’re unfamiliar with the area (we’re talking about you, freshmen!), but it certainly isn’t impossible—you just need to know what to look for. That’s why we tapped safety and security experts for their tips on finding a safe place to live and how to make sure your college home is as secure as possible.
Do your research
Before you start pulling up apartment listings, narrow your search area by finding the neighborhoods with low crime ratings. According to David Hall, emergency manager at Missouri State University, your first stop should be the local police department. They can give you up-to-date info on what areas to avoid, as well as locations of any registered sex offenders in the area.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to go for a drive. Maybe a few of them, at different times of the day or night.
“Take a ride through the neighborhoods and surrounding streets to get a gut feeling,” says Steve Kardian, a law enforcement officer from Westchester County, New York. “If you feel the area may be unsafe, it likely is.”
Find the right building
According to Sadie Cornelius with Safe Smart Living in Washington, DC, some building types are safer than others. She says you should look for apartment buildings with interior hallways and, if possible, a front desk.
“Ideally, a unit on the second floor or higher is better, as they are less prone to break-ins,” she says. “But also near a stairwell, for an easy escape in case of fire.”
You’ll also want to consider the routes to school from each potential location, says Hall.
“Will you have to cross any major highways, cut through yards, or pass through any areas that aren’t well lit?” he asks.
Take a good look outside
It’s probably the interior of the apartment you’re more interested in, but Hall says to take a good look at the outside of the house or building as well.
Check out the landscaping first. Hall says there should be no shrubs higher than 2 feet against the building or in front of windows, and all trees should be trimmed to at least 5 feet high.
“This helps eliminate places people can hide,” he explains.
He says you’ll also want a well-lit path to the main entrance, and a well-lit parking area.
Make sure the grounds are well-maintained
A lot of off-campus housing tends to be older homes and buildings—which is fine, as long as they’ve been taken care of over the years.
“You need to know if it’s being well-maintained,” says Hall. “You want to check things like the electric, plumbing, and HVAC systems, because those are all common sources of fires and other health concerns.”
If you’re not savvy in those areas, consider bringing along a friend or family member who is, or asking the landlord to provide any inspection reports from recent years.
Check the safety features
Make sure the building you’re looking to rent in has solid doors and deadbolts. Hall says you should also check that all windows have working locks, especially if you’re on the first floor.
The best case scenario, of course, an affordable spot with a security system. In that case, check what it includes.
“Look for someplace with cameras, gate access or a premises guard, interconnected smoke alarms, and sprinklers,” Hall says.
Easy safety upgrades
Hall says there are some easy and inexpensive upgrades you can do to make your off-campus housing even safer.
If your landlord doesn’t already do so, you should change the locks.
“You don’t know who’s had those keys. You should specify in the lease that you want new locks installed,” says Hall.
He also advises that you make sure your entryway is well-lit by swapping the ordinary bulbs in any porch or outside light fixtures with LED bulbs in the highest wattage approved for that fixture.
Smoke detectors are generally required in all residences, although some states do not mandate it—check your state and community’s laws. Check your detectors and have your landlord replace any that are broken or missing—or, if necessary, replace them yourself.
“You can get them cheaply, and they more than double your chances of surviving in a fire,” Hall says.
Hall also strongly recommends installing a motion-detector light near the main entrance.
“Not only do they help you see intruders, but they will turn on for you and help you find your keys so you can get in the door quickly,” he says.
Other inexpensive fixes Hall recommends are video doorbells and low-cost home security systems: “You can take these with you to anywhere you move, so they’re a good investment.”