The first lesson college students need to learn: Off-campus housing costs may be far more than what their schools estimate on their websites.

In a year, the class of 2020 — current high school seniors — will head to college. Many will live on their own for the first time in either an on-campus dorm or an off-campus apartment, both of which will likely cost a pretty penny. So as students and their parents crunch the numbers on financial aid and student loans, they should also factor in cost of housing from the get go. As a first step, many will look to the school’s website for information — but how reliable are their cost estimates?

To find out, Trulia handpicked 20 universities across the country with sizable student populations, both private and public, many of which were located in higher-cost rental markets. We then looked up the estimated costs on each school’s website. Using Trulia’s rental listings, we calculated the median rent for apartments in the nearest ZIP codes surrounding each campus.

The schools we looked at didn’t specify, on their website, whether they based off-campus housing costs on a one or two bedroom apartment living situation, or some other configuration. That’s why we looked at housing configurations from a studio with no bedrooms up to a four-bedroom apartment. To calculate the monthly rent per person, we assumed that there would be as many students living in a dwelling as there are bedrooms in the dwelling. For example, a two-bedroom apartment would have two occupants.

Students Need To Do their Own Homework on Housing Costs

In looking at the school’s estimated housing costs versus the actual rental listings near 20 colleges nationwide, Trulia found that schools often underestimate the cost of off-campus housing, sometimes by thousands of dollars for the school term. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that it would cost a student $7,184 to live off campus. Trulia’s rental data shows that it would cost $12,375, assuming two people shared a two bedroom apartment for nine months.

The George Washington University in Washington D.C. estimated off-campus housing cost at $12,050 when students would each pay more than $14,000 to share a two bedroom for nine months. Checkbook toting parents may have gotten a nicer surprise in Austin, Texas. The University of Texas, Austin, estimated $11,456 in off campus costs. Trulia’s rental data indicates students would pay about $7,200 each if two students shared a two-bedroom apartment.

In general, we found that schools are not updating their estimated housing costs frequently enough, especially for neighborhoods with fast-rising housing costs. That means the costs listed on their websites do not accurately represent the local rental markets, and students and parents better do their own housing homework to avoid big budget-busting surprises. Likewise, if schools overestimate off-campus housing costs, they could needlessly drive students and parents to opt for on-campus housing.

Here’s how far off some schools are in advertising what off-campus housing costs versus what Trulia’s data shows as being the per person rent for a shared 2-bedroom for nine months

Trulia_OffCampusTruth_Sept2015

Nasty or Welcome Surprises: The True Cost of Off-Campus Housing
School College Town How Much Schools Estimate Off-Campus Housing Costs vs. Reality (%)
University of Texas, Austin Austin, TX 59%
University of Florida Gainesville, FL 46%
University of Washington Seattle, WA 33%
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 22%
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Las Vegas, NV 18%
DePaul University Chicago, IL 11%
Boston College Boston, MA 2%
The George Washington University Washington, DC -15%
University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA -33%
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley, CA -42%
University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA -53%
Note: The University of Texas estimates the cost of off-campus housing to be 59% more expensive than the actual rent for living off-campus in a 2-bedroom apartment with a roommate for 9-months. Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara estimates the cost of off-campus housing to be 53% cheaper.

The biggest disparities in estimated off-campus rents versus Trulia’s calculations occurred at coastal California schools, which call some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets home. The University of California in Los Angeles estimated off-campus costs at $10,239. Trulia calculated the actual rent to be around $15,300 per student for a shared two bedroom for nine months and almost $20,000 for nine months if a student lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment. At the University of California in Santa Barbara, the school estimated the off-campus cost at $6,345. A shared two-bedroom near that school would cost $13,478 per student, our data shows.

Some schools, including Stanford University, don’t provide an estimated cost of off-campus housing at all. That is also true for Columbia University, Boston University, Emory University in Atlanta and University of Chicago. A few schools did a better job with estimating off-campus housing costs. Boston College advertised off-campus housing costs at $9,450, in line with the actual rental cost per person for of a two-bedroom apartment of $9,225.

Want the Rent as Listed on the School’s Website? Get More Roommates

In many of the rental markets around the universities that we looked at in this study, students would need to cram an extra person, or two, into their off-campus dwelling to pay a monthly rent cheaper than the cost being estimated by the school. By this, we mean they’d have two people sharing the cost of a one bedroom apartment, or three people splitting the cost of a two-bedroom apartment, and so on.

Remember that off-campus housing estimate of $7,184 from the University of California, Berkeley? To come even close to paying that amount, three people would have to share a two-bedroom apartment, Trulia’s rental listing data shows. Even then, the nine-month cost would be $8,250. The same scenario is true for the University of California, Los Angeles. To pay the estimated cost of $10,239, three students would have to share a two bedroom, and they’d each pay $10,200. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, students could only achieve the estimated nine month cost of $6,345 renting off-campus if two students shared a studio—with no bedrooms at all. A student in that town would even pay more than the estimated cost if five students lived in a place with four bedrooms.

Trulia_OffCampusRoommate_Sept2015

Apartment Living Often Cheaper

Even though colleges don’t do a good job assessing off-campus housing costs, Trulia did find that it is often cheaper to rent an apartment off-campus than in university housing. In 15 of the 20 examples, on-campus housing was more expensive than if a student shared a two bedroom off-campus. In some cases, on-campus was way more expensive.

For instance, a student at the University of New Mexico would pay $8,690 to live on-campus and $3, 825 to share a two bedroom off campus for nine months. At the University of Texas in Austin, on-campus costs run $11,456 while a shared two bedroom off campus costs $7,200. At the University of Washington in Seattle, on-campus housing runs $11,310 vs. $8,528 per person for a shared two bedroom for nine months. However, in some cases, off-campus may not pay off if students have to pay for a 12-month lease and the extra three months of rent makes on-campus housing more affordable. In this case, they’d need to consider whether they are going to stick around for summer school or get a sublease.

Trulia_OffCampusCheaper_Sept2015

Cheaper to Live Off-Campus
School College Town Advertised Cost of On-Campus Housing (As reported by each school) Estimated Cost of Renting 2-Bedroom Apartment Off Campus with a roommate for 9 months (Trulia) Percentage Cheaper to Live Off-Campus
Purdue University West Lafayette, IN $10,030** $3,071 69%
University of Chicago Chicago, IL $14,772** $5,085 66%
University of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM $8,690** $3,825 56%
Brigham Young University Provo, UT $7,330** $3,488 52%
Loyola University Chicago, IL $10,330** $6,525 37%
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Las Vegas, NV $6,420 $4,028 37%
University of Texas, Austin Austin, TX $11,456** $7,200 37%
Boston College Chestnut Hill, MA $13,496** $9,225 32%
University of Florida Gainsville, FL $5,420 $3,713 31%
DePaul University Chicago, IL $14,772** $10,575 28%
University of Washington Seattle, WA $11,310** $8,528 25%
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA $9,060 $7,425 18%
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley, CA $14,388** $12,375 14%
Emory University Atlanta, GA $7,720 $6,750 13%
University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA $14,192** $13,478 5%
**Housing cost estimate includes room and board

In Pricey College Towns, On-Campus Living Is A Deal

Living on-campus is cheaper at schools in some of the highest-priced rental markets. When comparing the advertised on-campus costs to those that a student would pay to share a two-bedroom, it is:

  • 50% cheaper at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, to live on campus.
  • 29% cheaper at Boston University in Boston, MA to live on campus.
  • 15% cheaper at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. to live on campus.

A Columbia student would pay more than $17,000 for nine months in a shared two-bedroom off campus. Campus costs there range from $7,418 to $9,470. The savings add up to thousands of dollars at Stanford, too. To live on campus there would run less than $9,000. To live off campus would cost more than $16,000 per student for nine months.

Trulia_OnCampusCheaper_Sept2015

Cheaper to Live On-Campus
School College Town Advertised Cost of On-Campus Housing Estimated Cost of Renting 2-Bedroom Apartment Off Campus with a roommate for 9 months (Trulia) Percentage Cheaper to Live On-Campus
Stanford University Palo Alto, CA $8,301* $16,650 50%
Columbia University New York, NY $8,572* $17,098 50%
Boston University Boston, MA $9,570 $13,478 29%
The George Washington University Washington, DC $12,050** $14,175 15%
University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA $14,904** $15,300 3%
*Housing costs listed as range; average used in study
**Housing cost include room and board

While not every college campus is located in a pricey rental market, students and parents must factor in housing costs into their budgets. Such planning will enable them to know exactly how much they will need in student loans and financial aid in order to obtain their degree. We recommend gathering as much info as possible on the current rate for on-campus room and board from school websites. Also, we recommend that students and parents manually search for off-campus apartments using tools like Trulia to better gauge what rents are in neighborhoods near the school.

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