Except for colleges and universities operating on the trimester system, the school year is well underway, and even the most "last-minute" students found places to live ages ago.
Since the rules governing living arrangements loosened in the turbulent 1960s, more and more students are off-campus -- sometimes in single-family homes and condos purchased by their well-to-do parents -- but typically in rental apartments.
In fact, off-campus student housing is one of the apartment industry's most important niche markets, according to the National Multifamily Council in Washington.
To help apartment developers better understand this market's needs, the council has published a report based on research gathered from focus groups made up of students from nine universities.
The 48-page report, titled "What Do Students Want?," explores what students look for when selecting an off-campus apartment. It covers such topics as why students prefer off-campus housing, the ideal apartment, desired amenities, what students are willing to pay extra for, and the "alumni perspective."
"Today's students prefer off-campus student housing to dorm life for a variety of reasons, such as cost, freedom and more space," said NMHC senior vice president Jim Arbury, "but they appear to be most interested in the social opportunities these properties enable and encourage and the opportunity to be on their own for the first time."
According to NMHC's research, one of the key factors students use to rate a property is how lively it is. They are particularly drawn to properties where the layout includes a "central space" that combines the clubhouse and recreation amenities (pool, volleyball courts, and picnic areas) and promotes the social interaction they want.
Not surprisingly, the report shows recreational amenities, such as fitness centers, pools and volleyball courts, rated as more valuable than academically oriented amenities, such as computer labs.
While some property owners may hear cash-register bells ringing when students arrive, veteran Philadelphia developer Carl Dranoff cautions that undergrads can be more trouble than they are worth.
"Undergrads focus on partying," he said, "and that can result in costly damage that isn't covered by security deposits. Grad students are a much better bet, and they look for apartments that are quiet to allow long hours of studying, away from public transit to keep noise at a minimum.
In general, however, students were more interested in the apartment layout than the property's amenities.
Contrary to the stereotype of students living on pizza, the number one request from the students was for larger kitchens with more counter and cabinet space.
Second to the kitchen in importance was the bedroom. Overall the students said they would sacrifice space in the living room for larger bedrooms and abundant storage space.
Students were nearly unanimous in their preference to rent by the bed (as opposed to sharing a lease with their roommates). They also prefer all-inclusive rents with as few extra fees as possible to make life simpler, although they encourage properties that offer bundled rents to also publish a "base rent" to allow fair comparisons with competitors.
"While we went into this research project primarily looking to identify the 'must-have' amenities for off-campus student housing, we ended up hearing as much, if not more, about how student renters want to be treated," said Arbury.
Ultimately, the priority that emerged in most of the focus groups was not the amenities they wanted at their properties or in their apartments, but how they want to be treated. Moving into an off-campus property is a rite of passage for most students. They approach it with trepidation and assume that they will not be treated with the same respect as older renters. They are quick to see failures in the leasing and management process as confirmation of their pre-conceived notions.
Apartment firms that understand that and can ease the transition by providing model questions to ask leasing agents, plain-English summaries of leases, and "how-to" guides on caring for an apartment will stand out in the market.
"If the industry hopes to create a positive impression of rental housing in the minds of these customers, who are by definition tomorrow's renters, excellent customer service may be more important in this sector than in any other," said Arbury. "The good news is that firms that get it right can win long-term customers. Students repeatedly said that if they could find a property with the right amenities, affordable rent, and a management staff that treats them honestly and with respect, they would stay for two or three years."