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There are abundant housing types in the U.S., and costs and the standard of living depend on the area. It is therefore important to research the city where you’ll be living, as well as the commute distance since rental markets vary quite a lot. Still, in general, it is not hard finding accommodation in the U.S.

Types of accommodation

In cities, smaller housing options such as apartments and condominiums are the norm. As you venture into the suburbs, homes with yards are more common and become larger as you move into rural areas. Below are some typical housing categories.

Apartments are self-contained units in a larger building. Single room apartments are called studios or efficiency apartments.

Condominiums are similar to apartments but can also be small homes. These are grouped in communities that share common areas such as a pool or gym.

Houses are stand-alone structures on a small plot of land. Smaller homes on a shared plot are sometimes also called a bungalow or granny-flat.

Duplexes and townhouses are a type of single-family dwelling that shares a wall with other homes. Duplexes are single level, and townhouses have multiple floors. This type of accommodation doesn’t have upstairs or downstairs neighbours, which is appealing to many as it means less noise.

Corporate housing is a term for fully furnished, short-term housing. This can be a good option for expats on short stays who do not wish to sign a lease.

 Good to know: Accommodations are listed by size in square feet (1 square foot equals 0,0929 square meters). Ads list the number of bed and bathrooms but a living room and kitchen or kitchenette are implied unless otherwise stated.

Leased accommodations can be either furnished, semi-furnished, or unfurnished. Furnished units can include only the bedroom, dining room and common area furniture up to all the fixtures for immediate living such as linens and towels, cookware and cutlery. Whether you choose a furnished or unfurnished accommodation, be sure to check your rental agreement for what is included and take inventory if relevant. Most unfurnished rentals in the U.S. include heating and major kitchen appliances like a refrigerator and stove/oven combo. Occasionally a microwave, washer and dryer, and air conditioning are included as well.

Choosing a place to live

The rental price is most likely the biggest deciding factor when considering a place to live. As a general rule, the cost and competition for housing will increase along with the size and density of a city. In big cities, it is quite common and acceptable to simply rent a room or share a home to save on costs. Other important factors include the safety of a neighborhood and its proximity to the workplace or convenient transportation.

 Good to know: When determining your housing budget, it’s recommended that you aim to spend only 30% of your salary on accommodation, though in some markets it may be necessary to spend up to 50%. This is an important factor because a property owner will use these figures to determine if you have the financial means to afford a rental property and therefore if you’re a good rental candidate.

Finding an apartment and signing a lease

Once you’ve determined your needs based on the considerations above, there are many ways to go about home-hunting. If you’d like to do your own search, there are many websites such as Craigslist that is popular for housing listings, and you may even search in local newspapers. Another good option is to drive or walk through appealing neighborhoods — owners will often hang “for rent” signs with the owner’s name and contact information. Visit as many houses or apartments as you can and try to picture your life in your future neighborhood. Check services, facilities, and shops nearby. Another option is to use a rental agency, who will search for homes according to your needs and arrange viewings. Note that these services are subject to fees, usually a month’s rent’s worth.

All rental housing requires an application and lease. In general, leases range from six months to two years and rents are payable monthly. There is no set list of required documents to provide to a landlord when renting, though it is customary to ask for a credit history, proof of employment, rental history, and sometimes references from previous landlords or flatmates. Some landlords require an application fee to cover the cost of a criminal history and credit check. Check what the rent includes (water, gas, electricity, etc.) and make sure everything is clearly noted on the lease agreement before signing anything. Take an inventory of the items if the house is fully furnished with cutlery, linens, and other daily amenities.

When you’re approved as a renter you’ll need to pay a deposit. Usually, renters are required to pay the first and last months’ rent as well as a security deposit (generally equal to one month’s rent). The security deposit ensures that a landlord is protected in case you damage the home, and will be returned upon inspection when you move out. When you move in, both you and the property owner or manager will review the state of the unit and sign a document agreeing to its current condition.

 Important: All people living in the U.S. are protected by equal housing laws. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has information on renter’s rights by the individual state.

Buying property in the United States

Buying a home in the United States has its benefits. Purchasing land or property provides tax benefits, is a good investment, and will improve your credit rating. Whether this is possible for expats is based heavily on residency status as well as income.

Technically, there is no visa requirement for foreign nationals who’d like to buy a home in the U.S.. The United States welcomes foreign investment as long as it can be proven that funds are from legitimate sources (not the product of illegal activity). An EB-5 investor visa may be granted in some cases but generally, buying property does not guarantee a visa or permission to work in the country. Additionally, if you need a loan from a U.S. bank to purchase a property you will not be able to do so without proof of your residency and employment status, a Social Security or Tax Identification Number, and an established credit history.

 Good to know: Homes can be purchased directly from the owner or through third parties called realtors. Searching for a home is much like searching for an apartment and can be done through online listings, ads in newspapers, driving through desired neighborhoods, or contacting an agent (realtor) to help facilitate your search.

 Important: A social security number (SSN) is used to track individuals for tax purposes and is a common U.S. ID. Another option for expats is the Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). These IDs are issued based on your visa type. Permanent and temporary residents should request a SSN or ITIN as soon as they are granted a visa.

 Useful links:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Buyers’ guide to property in the USA
SSN/ITIN for noncitizens
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services - Information on EB-5 Visas
Craigslist
Apartments.com

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