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For students, learning the ins and outs of finding a place off-campus can be a schooling in itself.

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Students living off-campus like to keep things flexible. Who knows, they may want to move in with friends halfway through the semester, or that summer internship abroad may come through.

The trouble is, landlords live in a less flexible world. They typically want first and last month's rent. They don't want to hear your happy story about getting that work-study grant in Nicaragua, which means having to break your lease.

So, learning the ins and outs of finding a place off-campus can be a schooling in itself, and the high cost of Vancouver and Toronto in particular can make finding good accommodation that much harder.

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Here are some tips for coping.

Start looking during off times of the school year

There are many more vacancies in the springtime, after exams and the school year have ended, rather than in the fall.

While it is not generally practical to look for next school year's accommodation in the spring, try starting the search as early as you can.

"The sooner in the summer it is, the easier it is to find something," says Tracey Mason-Innes, director of residence and housing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Also look early for roommates and sublets

Scouting around early for roommates or subletting an apartment from someone else can help lower costs in a tough rental market. Sublets are often cheaper than signing the lease yourself, and they tend to be commonly available come summertime.

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Most universities have an off-campus housing service, or offer information on where to find accommodation, along with tips. For instance, Simon Fraser directs students to a third-party listing site, Places4Students.com, for nearby off-campus apartments and roommate listings. The school also gives additional support to students, such as making sure they are aware of their rights as renters.

Also, look for homeowners who rent out rooms to students, which may or may not include meals.

Look for landlords who are student-friendly

Even with the most temporary setups, people "still want commitment. They don't want to be turning over students left, right and centre, but they do tend to be more sensitive and open to students' calendars," Dr. Mason-Innes says.

"It has to work both ways. It's not fair for students to leave a landlord, or for a landlord to change things for the student.

So we still recommend students sign a lease or sign some sort of contract to protect themselves, and the same goes with the landlord," she says.

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The University of Toronto, which is predominantly a commuter school, offers its own off-campus listings, set up to deter landlords less interested in students.

"Landlords pay to advertise with us, so they tend to be a little bit more serious and understand that this site is for students only. So they tend to be more student-friendly in terms of their rental rates, or their terms or length agreements, things like that," says Jennifer Radley, the university's manager of housing services.

The services require landlords to register with their full names and contact information, e-mail address and credit card information matching their names.

"So there's a little bit more of a secure check there," Ms. Radley said.

Landlords listing through the service "can include amenities and utilities, or [offer] an eight-month lease agreement, rather a full year in some cases," she adds.

Other concessions may include keeping rents low for students, which can depend on the relationship a student establishes with the landlord. A landlord may simply prefer to have a conscientious student paying rent than a less reliable tenant. "We've had landlords who have listed with us for years and years," Ms. Radley says.

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Typically, rental units are not all clustered immediately near the university, although most are at least within a 15-minute subway ride from the main U of T campus.

Rents for a very small, one-bedroom bachelor apartment downtown are still fairly cheap, starting at about $700 to $900 a month. A slightly bigger one, or even a two-bedroom place, is usually at least $1,000 to $1,200. Vancouver rents are comparable. A single room in a Vancouver house is about $600. Rents outside the centres of Canada's biggest cities vary, but are generally lower. For example, the University of Alberta housing website for international students says one-bedroom apartment rentals in Edmonton range upwards of $550 a month.

And bear in mind, on-campus may not even be an option

Simon Fraser has seen a dramatic rise in applications for on-campus housing. "We are noticing that applications are high and our wait lists have grown earlier than last year," says SFU's Dr. Mason-Innes.

"Two years ago, we used to be able to tell students they could still apply and get a room [in mid-spring]. That hasn't been the case this year and last year," she says. Prospective students have had to apply earlier.

This may put more pressure on off-campus demand, adding stress to the market and possibly raising rents. "Certainly housing isn't getting any cheaper," says the University of Toronto's Ms. Radley. But she doesn't see a dramatic change yet in affordable rentals for students.

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"One thing that the university tries to do is provide the students with some of this information in advance of them coming, so that they experience a little less of a culture shock."

Finally, if your sole reason to choose off-campus accommodation is that it may cost less than residence, be aware that it is hard to compare the two directly. "You have very different services and resources for on-campus housing," Dr. Mason-Innes says, such as utilities being included and easy access to a laundry room, which may not be the case in off-campus setups.

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