Note: This document is an informal document containing personal views of the author. It does not in any way constitute an official position of Carnegie Mellon University. I wrote it for free and out of my own incentive. It might contain errors - use at your own risk.
Note: Please bear in mind that I am of course not under any obligation to provide any further assistance. This guide was just a short distraction from my otherwise very busy schedule, so please understand if I can't help you individually with your specific problem or concern.
Note: This document is copyright protected (by the author). Explicit written permission from the author is required to reproduce any part of this document.
Note: In this document, I am only discussing department stores, businesses, neighborhoods, with which I had personal experience. Of course, there are many other quality businesses in the Pittsburgh Area. I encourage you to explore, and not limit yourself just to the ones mentioned in this guide. You can use websites such as Better Business Bureau or Yelp to inform yourself about general consumer feedback on a business.
First, congratulations on your acceptance to CMU, one of the best universities in the world. This is a great opportunity for you to further your career and grow personally. I have found the entire CMU and Pittsburgh experience invaluable and would do it all again if I could go back in time. In this document, I am listing some of my observations on the practical matters on settling into your life at CMU. While in general my experience was very positive, perhaps some of my mistakes can be avoided in the future. In this guide, I was able to express my personal views and also be critical in some of my assessments (after all, I am an academic). However, having experienced similar settings also at other US universities, my opinion is that the living situation of CMU students is in general very good. Many of the issues described below are generic and not specific to CMU or Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is diverse, affordable and complete. Don't listen to those that say Pittsburgh is not interesting. Follow the steps of Andrew Carnegie and other great Americans. Pittsburgh is a place like no other, a place with history, a meaning and a purpose.
CMU is located within the city of Pittsburgh, on the eastern end of the neighborhood of Oakland. It takes about 15 minutes to reach CMU by city bus from downtown Pittsburgh, traveling in the east direction. The most popular neighborhoods with CMU students are Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland, but CMU students also live in Bloomfield, Point Breeze, Regent Square, Greenfield, and in other neighborhoods even as far out as Monroeville. If you are new to town and unsure what neighborhood to choose, Squirrel Hill and Shadyside are generally considered "good places to live" by CMU grad students, and you can always explore other areas later.
Just like Shadyside, this neighborhood is very popular with CMU students. On average, it is slightly less expensive than Shadyside (about $50-$100 lower cost for a 1-bdrm apt). The walking distance to CMU is about 20-40 minutes, depending on where in Squirrel Hill you live. The majority of students commute to CMU by bus, or by car if they have a parking permit (which is not a common case among grad students due to the parking permit shortage on campus). Some people bike to school, or sometimes walk. There are convenient direct bus lines between central parts of Squirrel Hill and CMU (61A, 61B, 61C, 501, etc.) that will drop you off in the middle of the campus (Forbes & Morewood). The bus ride takes 5-10 minutes, and buses come every 10-15 minutes during the week and less often during the weekends (and stop running late at night, but you can always use the CMU Escort, see below). You can find everything you need to live in Squirrel Hill: grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters.
This neighborhood is attractive because it is very close to campus and because it is relatively inexpensive. Some CMU grad students see it as a less safe neighborhood (this is especially true for South Oakland). I lived in South Oakland for about 1 year as a grad student. I never ran into any safety problems, but crime statistics are higher here, and I always felt uncomfortable walking around at night. Oakland is more of a University of Pittsburgh neighborhood than a CMU neighborhood. UPitt students have a reputation for throwing loud parties (this mostly applies to undergrads), and police might tolerate higher levels of noise than in other neighborhoods. Of course, it all depends on your particular location, but bear this in mind if you like quiet apartments.
I am mentioning this neighborhood because it is often overlooked by CMU students, but it is in my opinion actually a good choice. It is a good family neighborhood, and just as safe as Squirrel Hill. It is also close to campus, and housing tends to be inexpensive there, mostly because Greenfield doesn't have fancy stores or popular bars. It's not as convenient if you don't have a car (but you can still catch a 61C on Murray Ave for a ride through Squirrel Hill). Especially if you are looking to rent a house, this might be a very good option. I am friends with a CMU grad student couple who bought a house in Greenfield. They are happy with their choice, and here is what my friend wrote on their experience:
In some cases this is possible: for example, if you know (well enough that you can be roommates) some CMU grad students who are renting a house or a large apartment and one of their roommates just moved out. But in general, this is difficult and often pretty much impossible, especially for international students. It's more practical to come to Pittsburgh first, then go see a couple of apartments until you find one that you like. Otherwise, you risk the apartment not being what you expected it to be. Also, in most cases you will have to sign a lease to secure the apartment to yourself, and landlords often prefer not to do this remotely.
Do not expect to live in a luxury apartment, as often seen in American movies (saying this especially for the new international students - I have seen several who were at first disappointed with apartments here). As a grad student, you can afford a clean modest apartment. It most likely won't have a pool, gym, or your own private washing machine. Usually there will be a shared washer and dryer somewhere in the basement of the apartment building. Apartments having a dishwasher, central A/C or even your own private parking spot are on the higher end of CMU grad student apartments. Of course, there are luxury apartments in the Pittsburgh area, but the rent tends to be outside of reach for most CMU grad students.
In comparison to other larger American cities, Pittsburgh's housing is inexpensive. You will be likely able to afford good quality housing, as far as grad student housing goes. For example, graduate students living in major US metropolitan areas such as New York, San Francisco or Boston typically face very high housing costs, whereas Pittsburgh is much more affordable.
The Fall semester starts the last week of August, so most grad student leases start Sept 1, Aug 15 or Aug 1.
I recommend starting to look for an apartment about one month and a half before the start of the lease term. If you move to Pittsburgh from another country, consider coming here as soon as you can (but visa regulations might prevent you from doing so). If you are arriving from within US, one good option is to visit Pittsburgh for a couple of days in mid or early July to perform the housing search, then go back home and come back to Pittsburgh when school starts. If you arrive just in time for international student orientation (early August) you can still find a place to live, but it puts you at a certain disadvantage, because some good apartments will already be rented out by the time you arrive. Keep the spirits up and be persistent: in my first year, I started looking for an apartment upon my arrival, which was Aug 6, and I eventually found it only very late (Aug 21). Actually, I came very close to packing my suitcases and returning home to Europe because my apartment search wasn't going anywhere and was at times looking pretty much desperate. But I did find an apartment eventually, and it turned out to be fine.
Another option worth considering if you are new in town and from another country is hiring an agent to help you with your apartment search. If you find a good agent, this can save you a lot of trouble.
Rent obviously varies a lot depending on the condition of the apartment and the specific location within the neighborhood. In Squirrel Hill, 1-bdrm apartments start at $550-$600. My 1-bdrm apt in Squirrel Hill has a convenient location, a relatively new rug, no roaches, a good bathroom and an ok kitchen, central A/C, and the rent is $590/month + elect. In Shadyside, expect to pay $50-$100 more, and in Oakland, about $50-$100 less. A lot of CMU grad students live with roommates or spouses in 2-bdrm, 3-bdrm apts, or houses. This can significantly reduce your rent: my rent was $425/month + 1/2 water + 1/2 elect when I was sharing a 2-bdrm apt in Squirrel Hill with another grad student.
In addition to the rent, you also have to pay the utilities: water, electricity (Duquesne Light), gas, phone (most common provider is Verizon). In most cases, water (and sometimes gas) is already included in the rent. The most expensive utility is gas: a gas bill can be over $100 in a winter month, if heating runs on gas. Electricity bills range $25-$60 for a 1-bdrm apartment (and can be more for larger apartments), depending on apartment size, whether heating runs on electricity or not, and the presence of A/C. All of these are just estimates of course.
If a certain utility is the responsibility of the tenant, you will have to contact the appropriate utility company to get the utility connected. The previous tenant will schedule her/his utilities to be disconnected, typically on the last day of her/his stay or the day immediately after that. Most people can connect the utility over the Internet or phone, but if your credit history is non-existent (or bad), the utility company might require you to come to their office/service center in person. I had to go downtown Pittsburgh to connect my electricity in my first year since my credit history was non-existent (I was a new person in US at the time). It takes about 1 week (or even more) for the utility company to connect the utility, so do it early enough to avoid having no electricity, no phone (or similar) during the first few days in your apartment. I recommend doing it immediately after signing the lease - however, you won't be able to do so until the previous tenant places her/his disconnection order.
When comparing apartment prices, you should always take into account what utilities are already included, and not just the base rent. Ask the landlord how much the utilities will be in the summer and in the winter. Heating season is October-March (which is 6 months). Some landlords will advertise a cheap apartment rent, where the gas price is not included in the rent, so that the price seems lower. If the gas bill is your responsibility, ask for an estimate of the gas costs during the winter.
Some larger management companies will sign up for your utilities under their name, and you then pay the utilities to the management company directly. In this case, you won't deal with the utility companies directly yourself, which can relieve you of some paperwork. However, it can sometimes also be tricky as you lose control over your utilities, and can run into disagreements over how much utilities should be paid.
For the purposes of credit history, it is advantageous for you to get the utilities signed up under your name, especially if you are new to the US. If you are sharing an apartment, you can ask your roommates to let you sign up for a certain utility (for example, electricity). This might be more tricky if you are just moving in as a new roommate, because the utilities are already connected under somebody else's name. If everybody is moving in into a brand new place, a good strategy is for each student to take on one utility (of course all utility costs are typically still shared equally, no matter who officially signed up for the utility). The reason for this being important is that if you pay your utilities in a timely manner (and if they are under your name), your credit score will slowly increase, and you might be eligible for a credit card in about a year. Once you get a credit card, your credit score will increase much faster, assuming of course that you are financially responsible.
People typically see several apartments before deciding to sign the lease. It's common to see five or even more than ten apartments before finding one that you like. Of course, if you find one that you like, you might consider taking it, or else somebody else will take it before you.
This is not impossible, but I rarely run into a CMU grad student who lives closer than 10 minutes walking distance to CMU. Most people live within 20-40 minutes walking distance away, and commute to campus by bus or by car, or take a longer walk. So, when looking for an apartment, I recommend not getting stuck too much on trying to find an apartment immediately next to campus - because there are very few such apartments available.
Try a bookstore, such as Barnes and Noble on Murray Ave in Squirrel Hill. Also, you can use online maps such as Yahoo Maps, Google maps (click on "Maps"), or Mapquest. These online maps enable you to type in the address and give you the location and directions. This can be very useful with your apartment search.
Consider getting a laminated map of Pgh (such as at Barnes and Noble): it doesn't crumble, it's portable.
Summers in Pittsburgh are very hot and the presence of some sort of A/C typically makes a big difference for most people. Especially top floor apartments/rooms (just below the roof) can get very hot in the summer. Apartments either come with central A/C, or there are A/C units installed in windows of some rooms, or there is no A/C. If there is no A/C, you can somewhat cool a small part of your apartment by buying a fan (but A/C is much better).
This depends on who you ask and where you walk. I personally rarely walk alone anywhere in Pittsburgh at night. There are people who regularly walk alone at night from CMU to Squirrel Hill, and there are people who will tell you this is not safe. The police generally advise against it. Of course, Pittsburgh is generally safer than large American cities.
You are responsible for your rent for the entire duration of the lease. Sometimes, you need to leave Pittsburgh before the lease term expires, or you might decide to go for a summer internship to another city. Subletting means finding another person to take over your lease for the remainder of the lease term. Not all landlords allow subletting, and those that do, will impose restrictions and reserve the right to deny any such subletter. The policy on sublets is usually outlined in the lease.
For example, my landlord in Squirrel Hill only allowed me a sublet for my summer internship under the condition that the subletter is "not a student" (CMU grad students were disallowed subletters too - apparently my landlord ran into a bad case with some student at some point and decided to not allow any student subletters). I eventually found a visiting post-doc with a PhD and landlord then accepted that person. I know of landlords that are much more flexible than this, and others that don't allow any sublets whatsoever. Especially the big management companies tend to not allow any subletting.
When I came to Pittsburgh, I tried to find an apartment where subletting would not be a priori prohibited, and this made my housing search much more difficult. I was doing so since many students in my program take summer internships and I didn't want to be deprived of that option. In hindsight, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble by simply giving up on subletting in my first year.
No. In the academic year 2006/07, all grad students live off-campus in apartments rented on the regular Pittsburgh housing market. CMU used to provide some accommodation for grad students, but that has been discontinued with the academic year 2006/07 (however, check with the housing office in the future years, as these policies might change). There are dorms on CMU campus, but they only house undegrads.
CMU has a housing office that provides information for undergrads (such as related to university dorms) and also useful information related to off-campus accommodation which applies to grad students. Their website is a good resource. It contains a database of off-campus apartments/houses available for rent in areas close to CMU. In order for an apartment/house to appear in the database, the landlord has to submit an entry to the CMU housing office, and also notify the CMU housing office after the apartment/house has been rented out. There are usually many entries in the database, but obviously not all Pittsburgh apartments/houses get advertised there. The database generally has good entries, but unless you find an apartment very quickly, I recommend not to rely only on this source of information.
The CMU housing office maintains the "landlord book", containing feedback (by past CMU students, both grad and undergrad) on various landlords in the area. You can find both positive and negative entries. The book is a physical book (not online). You may view it upon request in the housing office. I recommend checking it out before signing the lease. Also, I recommend leaving feedback on your landlord after you move of your place and collect your security deposit.
This is of course a personal preference and also a matter of your finances, as living alone is usually more expensive. I have done both. Living with roommates is a great experience if you get along with your roommates. You can make yourself lots of fond grad school memories this way, and also get emotional support when/if grad school gets tough. Not everybody is a good match for everybody else, and from time to time I hear of CMU grad students running into roommate problems. People have individual differences in how often dishes should be done, who should pay utilities and how much, some roommates won't be able to resist your food in the fridge, or have loud visitors or be too loud themselves (or too quiet, depending on the perspective); in the extreme cases some roommates will stop paying the rent. In most cases, if everybody is flexible and follows common sense, the issues can be resolved.
One very good resource (and very up-to-date) is the CMU electronic housing newsgroup: cmu.misc.market.apartments. Another newsgroup worth checking out is pgh.apartments. Setup your newsgroup account and start reading these, as they are a very good resource. I found two of my apartments there.
Also, you can use the CMU off-campus apartment/house database, maintained by the CMU housing office, and accessible from the housing office webpages. When I was using this resource in 2001, I relied too much just on this resource. You can find a good apartment there, but several of the listings were already taken by the time I contacted them.
One great resource is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper (the main daily Pittsburgh newspaper). The Sunday edition has lots of housing classifieds, but you don't have to wait for a Sunday: classifieds are also always available in the online edition: click on Classifieds/Real Estate in the left column on their webpage, then "Homes for Rent" and then search for "Apartments for Rent-East" or "Houses for Rent-East", or whatever other category you are interested in.
Another very popular resource (year 2006) is the craigslist. Other resources include looking for "Apartment for rent" signs in neighborhoods, reading housing ads on CMU's physical boards (such as in the UC), or walking into an office of a large management company and asking for any vacancies. You can also look into "For Rent" magazines and similar - but those often list apartments too expensive for CMU grad students.
Almost all CMU grad students leases are 12-month leases, and they typically run Sept 1-Aug 31, Aug 1-July 31, or June 1-May 31. If you need to stay for less than a year, you need to find an apartment that allows subletting, and then find a subletter to cover the remainder of your lease when you move out. If you arrive to CMU in the middle of the year (such as in January), you typically need to do the opposite: find a person who is leaving their apartment before the end of their lease term and become their subletter.
Leases are written by landlords, and as a tenant you typically have to sign them as-is. Technically speaking, you can negotiate the clauses of your lease, but in my experience, there is little or no room for bargain in areas close to CMU. If you don't agree with the lease and don't want to sign it, the landlord can usually easily find somebody else who will. Leases are long complicated legal documents often not written in plain English, and most students don't have the time or knowledge to really understand all the legal details. You should know that no matter what the landlord says when signing the lease, the lease is a binding contract and it will be strictly enforced in case you run into a disagreement with the landlord. In most cases, the landlord has no bad intentions; they are simply trying to protect themselves from bad tenants, and might be using the same lease template that everybody else is using.
You should know that the deal is not closed until you have paid the security deposit and both parties have signed the lease. Until then, either party can still walk away from it - but of course, simply disappearing from Earth after you already told your prospective landlord that you are willing to take the apartment (and they are preparing the lease) is probably not very courteous.
It's a good idea to ask your landlord to give you a copy of the lease a day or two before you have to sign it. This is a common standard request by a new tenant, and I always do so when renting a new apartment. This way, you can at least read the lease without being rushed at the landlord's office.
Before signing the lease, the landlord will almost always ask you to pay a security deposit, which is a one-time (partially) refundable fee meant to protect the landlord in case you damage the apartment. In case of only normal tear and wear, the deposit should be returned to you fully within a few weeks of moving out of the apartment (at the end of the lease term of course). Typical security deposits in areas close to CMU equal one month's rent. It is unusual to see higher security deposits, such as two month's rent.
When signing the lease, you will have to pay the security deposit. This is commonly done by writing your landlord a check, which means that you have to open up a bank account before you can do so. With some landlords you will also have to pay the first month's rent when signing the lease.
During the year, the rent is typically due the last day of a month, for the next month. Sometimes it's also due the 5th day of the month, for the current month (this should be specified in the lease). There will often be a clause in the lease that penalizes you for being late. You can pay the rent by writing your landlord a check (you get the checks when opening the account at your bank). Depending on your landlord, you will either give the check to the landlord in person, drop it into her/his office, or mail it to a specified address.
For the utilities, you typically need to pay them separately from the rent. Each of your utility companies will send you a separate bill once per month. The bill lists your monthly charges, and typically also includes the return envelope addressed to the company. It is common for the first month bill to be higher than the bills in subsequent months (due to account setup costs). Typically you need to fill out the form provided in the bill, write a check in the appropriate amount, and timely mail it all back to the utility company. There are ways to set this payment up automatically from your bank account (typically for free). However, to get started and keep things simple, you might initially want to pay the bills by mailing a check.
Before signing the lease, the landlord will in most cases run a credit check on you (and charge you for it, for example, $40). This is to make sure that you are a financially responsible person who will be regularly paying the rent. If your parents live in the US, you can ask your parent to co-sign your lease, which means that their credit history will also vouch for you. If you are a new international student, you don't have any US credit history - which can work against you in some cases because some landlords will assume absence of information implies negative information. This kind of "presumed guilty until proven innocent" logic might leave you in dismay, but the best strategy is simply to keep on trying - there exist reasonable landlords who will take you despite your non-existent credit history, especially if you make a good personal impression, and mention that you are a CMU (graduate) student. When I found my first apartment, I moved in with a roommate from Canada who had lived in the States before, and landlord was happy with his security check. The landlord then apparently also felt safe with me, despite me not having any US credit history.
Almost all apartments in Pittsburgh come unfurnished (the tenant before you will take their furniture with them). It is possible to find furnished apartments if you specifically look for them, but they are not common and your rent will be higher.
So, where can you get furniture? You can buy new furniture from IKEA, Walmart, or other stores. IKEA is located in the Robinson Town Center close to the airport: 28X stops right in front of IKEA on its way to the airport. Both IKEA and Walmart have items worth checking out: you can browse their catalogues online. IKEA will deliver furniture for a certain fee, and Walmart will ship it to your address using standard postal service (such as UPS).
A substantially cheaper alternative is to buy used furniture from other students. A good place to look for used furniture is the cmu.misc.market.furniture newsgroup. Also, look for physical ads in the UC, at your department, and similar. People also buy furniture at garage sales (also sometimes called yard sales), or at thrift stores such as Goodwill Industries: the idea here is that good people donate old furniture to Goodwill, which then sells it very inexpensively in their stores; you can locate their Pittsburgh stores on their website. Another option is to rent furniture from a furniture rental company: they will deliver the furniture, and pick it up when you move out of your apartment, for a certain monthly furniture rent. This option, however, will cost you at least $100-$200 per month. You can locate a furniture rental company in the Pittsburgh Phone Book (Yellow Pages).
For small items such as kitchen utensils, pots and pans, plates, lamps, shower curtains, bed sheets, pillows, blankets, and similar, one good store is Target (there are others as well, of course). One Target is in the Waterfront shopping center, just next to the Giant Eagle and Dick's sporting goods. Note: At the register, they might offer you a discount if you sign up for the Target credit card. In my case I agreed since they were friendly and convincing. However, the computer then denied me (after running the credit check) because I had no US credit history at the time. Denials are not terrible, but when applying for other credit cards, it's a minus if you already recently tried elsewhere and were denied.
My experience with furniture has been as follows: I moved to Pittsburgh from Slovenia and had no furniture when I arrived to start grad school five years ago. A CMU professor gave me a bed and a rudimentary mattress, and I bought a $40 used couch from a Chinese family that lived nearby. Two other grad students helped me manually transport the couch 4 blocks across town. The landlord let me use his desk as a study desk, and also let me and my roommate use his table as a kitchen table. My roommate found a used comfort living room chair, and transported it on his hands from halfway across town. I bought a cheap $20 used semi-malfunctioning microwave and a phone for $5 through classifieds from other students (I bought a new microwave at Target a couple of months later). In my first year, the living room was lacking furniture, there was a lot of improvisation and cutting corners everywhere. I kept on slowly buying furniture during my first, second and third year, busy with school and unable to transport anything that didn't fit my car (which I only bought at the end of my first year anyway). By year three, I was comfortable, and by year four, I had bought everything that I ever needed. I bought a new IKEA bed a couple of months into my first year, and then also a used mattress from Goodwill Industries. During the winter break in my first year, I bought more furniture from other grad students: chairs, dressers, a kitchen table. In my second year, I sold the couch and bought a new couch from IKEA, a study desk, chair and a living room chair from Walmart. If I had to do this all over again, I would buy new furniture online right away (it is expensive, but a good investment if you plan to stay in Pittsburgh for several years). You might be worried that it will be difficult to transport the furniture in case you move in the future, which is a valid concern; however, by renting moving help (for example, using the U-Haul's website) you should be able to hire somebody to move your furniture within Pittsburgh for about $200-$300, assuming you rent the moving truck yourself.
There are many good landlords in areas around CMU - but every now and then, I hear of some bad story. One place where it can go wrong is heating in the winter: some apartments are too cold or poorly insulated. The problem is usually not a complete absence of heating, but rather too little heating and your inability to control it. It is much better if your apartment has a thermostat so that you can control the temperature during the winter. To some extent, you can fix this by buying your own electrical heater at a store like Target (be careful not to accidentally start a fire with one of those).
Another common story is the landlord withholding a large part (or all) of the security deposit after you move out, calling it "cleaning charges". I heard of cases where the landlord simply kept everything, or cases where the landlord initially issued a check to refund the security deposit, but cancelled it before the student could cash it (after a lot of hassle, the student was able to recover a part of the deposit). Landlords almost always win such cases. There is little that you can do, landlord already has your money and you probably don't have the time or resources for legal battles. It is quite common for landlords in areas around CMU to perceive the security deposit as something that they can partially keep after you move out. I had a landlord who was playing it very nice, even stopped for a little chat into the apartment now and then when I was a tenant, but when I moved out of the apartment, he took away half of the security deposit for "cleaning", despite me having very thoroughly cleaned the apartment (for 8 hours straight) before moving out. He also found small little things to charge for, many of which were broken before moving in (such as refrigerator shelves), and which I didn't bother reporting upon moving in because he was being so nice and I deemed it not necessary. After moving out, I simply received a letter listing everything he had to "fix", together with a statement that he has taken pictures of everything. This came both as a shock and a surprise to me, as I previously had excellent relations with this landlord - I never complained about anything, never broke or damaged anything, followed all of his rules, never had any disagreements, and always paid my rent on time. Later, I heard of similar stories from other tenants.
No matter how nice your landlord, I recommend that you also take pictures of your apartment before moving out. One coping strategy taken by some CMU students is to hope for the best while anticipating to lose some money on the deposit. It's not pleasant to lose money this way, but your studies are probably more important than landlord-related stress.
Especially if you are a new international student, you are somewhat vulnerable as far as leases and landlords go: you probably don't know your rights very well, you are in a new country and haven't made friends yet, and your parents can't help you with legal protection. Most landlords, however, are not out there to take advantage of you. They are simply running a business and trying to make money. If you run into a housing problem, you should always try to resolve it with the landlord first, using clear wordings and open communication. If this is not possible and you decide to see a lawyer, you might win if the violation is blatant, well-documented, easy to prove, and in direct obvious violation of the lease. Otherwise, don't be surprised if the lawyer tells you that your case is too small, that you are technically speaking right, but that many judges aren't "good guys" and tend to favor landlords in your area, and that you should just move on.
In my opinion, the best approach to housing for a CMU grad student is simply to find a good landlord, accept the lease as is, pay your rent on time and be reasonable in your expectations about apartment repair. In most cases, you will be fine, just like many generations of CMU grad students have been before you. A very good option is to find other CMU grad students that you like and who already are renting a good place, and move in with them as a roommate.
There are several food options scattered all over the University Center (UC): the main food court on the 2nd floor of UC, the Skibo Coffeehouse, Shatz Dining Room, the Big 'O' and others. Also, there is the "Underground" cafeteria with the entrance just behind the CMU Health Services at Forbes & Morewood. Another very inexpensive option are the CMU trucks, a variety of food vendors located on Margaret Morrison street on the north side of the campus.
CMU offers meal plans to its students. In the year 2006/07, they are mandatory for undergrad first year students. I personally don't know many grad students who use those plans, but if you are interested, they might still be a good option. Learn more about the plans and dining campus options here.
Within walking distance, there are roughly two options: Craig Street and Forbes Ave in Oakland.
On Craig Street, there is the sandwich place Subway, where you might get confused by their food choice questions at first if you've never been to a Subway before, but they actually always ask just the same questions, and once you learn them, it's ok. Popular options on Craig St. are the Union Grill (American), Ali-Baba (Middle Eastern), Star of India (Indian), Lu-Lu's noodles (Asian), Craig St. Coffee (variety of sandwiches), and one of my favorite places, Crepes Parisiennes (French). Also, there is a cafeteria in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, just behind the water fountain at Craig and Forbes. And by the way, Carnegie Museum of Natural History is an awesome museum (dinosaurs, rare animals, good presentation and imagery).
On Forbes Ave in Oakland, you can try Panera's (sandwiches), QDoba (Mexican), Veracruz (inexpensive Mexican, quite authentic), Bruegger's Bagels, Spice Island Tea House (Thai) and others.
If you are new to USA: at many places the food vendor will ask you whether you want your food "for here or to go". This can be confusing at first, especially since they often say it very quickly. They are simply asking you whether you want to eat the food in their restaurant, or you want to have it wrapped and take it with you to enjoy elsewhere. The price is the same in either case.
In American restaurants, you are expected to tip the waiter/waitress at the end of your meal. Tips generally range 15%-20%, depending on how much you liked the service. Not tipping is considered very rude and is not recommended. IRS automatically taxes the waiter/waitress assuming they are receiving a 15% tip, so please tip. In some places, you don't have to tip, such as McDonalds, Subway, QDoba, Panera's, Bruegger's Bagels (of course they will still welcome any tips). Generally speaking, you need to tip whenever you sit down at a table and a waiter/waitress comes to you taking your order and bringing you food. The most common way to tip is to leave cash on the table. The bill itself is paid either at a register or to the waiter/waitress directly. If you don't have change for the tip, you can ask the waiter/waitress to make you some change. If you are paying with a credit card, you have the additional option to pay both the bill and the tip using the credit card: simply fill out the appropriate lines on the credit card receipt and give it to the waiter/waitress. Of course, you can still leave the cash on the table and just pay the bill itself with the credit card if you so desire.
I have so far been happy with CMU health insurance and most grad students I know are insured through CMU's health insurance plans. Another common situation is to be insured through your parents' health insurance policy, if your parents live in the US. CMU insurance is mandatory for international students unless you can prove that you already carry some other US-based insurance. It might be tricky to get insurance originating from outside of US to be recognized here, even if it covers you while in US.
CMU offers two or three different plan choices every year, and the choice often puzzles new students, especially those unfamiliar with the US health insurance system. I am not a health insurance expert, and information here is informal, could become inaccurate, and is not meant to be a complete description. There are a lot of details and they often change. The accurate and complete source of information are the insurance booklets, summaries, and other documents available at the CMU Health Services (use the "Insurance" menu on the left side of the screen).
Every doctor in the United States is either "in the network" or "out of the network", as defined by the particular medical insurance plan you are carrying. The directory is available on the website of the particular insurance company. A large number of doctors in the Pittsburgh area are in the network of the plan offered by CMU. The CMU network is the same no matter what particular CMU plan choice you take. In 6 years studying at CMU, I never had to see a provider out of network, because there was always one in the network available.
Each time you see a medical provider, somebody has to cover the bill. This is either you or your insurance company, or costs are shared. Medical bills in US are very high (easily several hundred dollars for routine examinations, and thousands if you are hospitalized), so carrying insurance is a very good idea, and mandatory too for international students. The insurance company will charge you less if you see a provider in the network - but the choice is ultimately yours, at least under CMU insurance plans. It makes little sense to see a provider outside of the network, unless you have some specific reason to do so.
At the beginning of every academic year, you need to select the medical plan for the next year. It is possible (info is from year 2006/07) to do this retroactively within a window of about 5-6 weeks: enrollment period extends to 8 Sept 2006, and covers you starting from Aug 1. The enrollment is separate for medical insurance, dental insurance and vision insurance. You need to either pay the full costs for the plan at the beginning of the academic year, or arrange to pay in several installments over the year.
If you go with the most expensive plan, you are covered 100% for most medical problems if you see a provider which is in the network, except you have to pay $10 of copayment per each visit. If you carry the most expensive plan, but see a provider not in the network, you are responsible for all the costs, up to a certain limit, called the deductible limit (it is currently (year 2006/07) $250 for individuals and $500 for families). The insurance company will keep track of the total amount of deductible you paid in a given year. Once you reach your deductible limit, the insurance company starts covering 80% of any subsequent costs. You are liable for the remaining 20% - this is called co-insurance. Now, if you need to stay in a hospital for several days, even when paying only 20% of the costs, your medical bills could easily reach several thousands of dollars, if it wasn't for the out-of-pocket maximum, which is a cap on how much co-insurance you are liable for in a given insurance year. The out-of-pocket maximum is typically set at a few thousand dollars. Once the amount of co-insurance you paid in a given year reaches the out-of-pocket maximum, the insurance company starts covering you 100% for the rest of the year. There is, however, a lifetime maximum of $1,000,000 dollars.
The standard CMU health plan is just like the scenario described above (seeing out-of-network providers under the enhanced plan), except with different values of deductibles, co-insurance percentages, and out-of-pocket maximums. You can find the actual values in the insurance booklets at the CMU Health Services. With the standard plan, both in and out-of-network variants use such system, with the in-network variant having more favorable deductibles. In contrast, with the enhanced plan, if you see an in-network provider, the deductibles, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximums don't apply, but the $10 charge per visit does.
If you choose the standard plan, you pay a lower premium for the plan (as compared to the enhanced plan), but then you have to pay deductibles and co-insurance, depending on how much you use the plan during the year. The enhanced plan gives you a certain piece of mind, and the standard plan is more of a gamble: it will cost you less if you won't need medical assistance, but might also cost you more, depending on how much medical assistance you will end up needing. But even with the standard plan, there is a cap to your maximum costs during the year (as described above), unless you exceed $1,000,000, which is not very likely for the vast majority of students. Some people under the standard plan delay seeing a doctor when first using a plan in a given year, because this would mean paying a full price of the visit until the deductible is met (which actually happens quite quickly) - but of course, it's all entirely up to you.
If you injure yourself and need immediate help, you can go to an emergency room (such as in one of the hospitals in the area), which costs $50 (assuming you carry insurance), and the fee is waived if your injury is serious enough that you are admitted into the hospital. If you are prescribed medications by a doctor, you can get those at most pharmacies in the area - and you have to pay for them, typically $10-$20 per bottle, depending on whether you ask for a generic or brand name medication; assuming you carry insurance of course. CMU health insurance includes such prescription drug coverage, and details depend on what particular plan you choose.
Dental and vision insurance plans are separate and optional. I personally never needed vision. For dental, I recommend taking the plan, finding a good dentist (there are several around CMU), and going for a regular check-up every 6 months.
I am not aware of a detailed system map, giving all the bus stops and routes in one map for all the Pittsburgh buses. Instead, each bus route has its own map (leaflet) which you can get in the University Center (on the corridor just behind Entropy and the Bookstore). They are also available online on the Port Authority of Allegheny County webpage. If you are not familiar with a certain bus route, you can ask friends, read the leaflet, look at signs at bus stops, or take the bus and see where it goes. Buses 61A,B,C,D,F all go to Squirrel Hill.
If you have a valid CMU ID, you can ride the buses for free. Otherwise, you need to pay the driver. Driver is unable to give any change back (which is pretty much universal for buses in the United States). Depending on which direction the bus is traveling, the day of the week and time of the day, you sometimes pay when you enter and sometimes when you leave the bus. If you have to pay when leaving, the driver will often hold his hand straight over the paying box when you board the bus (and they will say "pay when you leave").
You can make the CMU ID at the Hub (you don't need your own photo - they have a camera and will take a picture of you). Do so as soon as possible after arriving, as it will also enable you to access certain buildings on campus.
This might not be as obvious as it seems: in some cities in some countries, buses open all doors at a bus stop and people can enter/exit at all doors. In Pittsburgh, you can only enter the bus at the front door. To exit, you need to pull the yellow wire (located next to the windows along the entire length of the bus) to signal to the driver that you'd like to exit the bus. You do so in a timely manner before your stop comes up. In most cases you can only exit at the front door, but when buses get packed, the driver will open the back door, if you ask for it nicely and loud enough. For example, say, "Back door, please".
You can use bus 28X. The route starts at CMU on one end, and ends at the Pittsburgh International Airport on the other end. The travel time is about 50 minutes, and schedules are online at the Port Authority of Allegheny County webpage . Typically the bus runs every 20 minutes or 30 minutes (it doesn't run at night; info is from year 2006). The ride is free with a CMU ID. Note: Allegheny County is the name of the Pennsylvania county where the city of Pittsburgh is located.
You can also use this bus to get from the airport to CMU. Catch the 28X just outside of the terminal (follow the signs for Ground Transportation), in the same place where you can also catch a taxi or a parking shuttle. The bus will pass through downtown Pittsburgh and continue on to Oakland. CMU is the last stop. Remember to have exact change if you don't have the CMU ID (of course, you can always overpay). Without the CMU ID, the fare is currently (August 2006) $2.25. You can also use the taxi: the price for the taxi to Oakland is about $40.
This is of course not what "escort service" stands for under some other (completely unrelated) meaning of the word.
In the evening and at night, CMU runs small vans transporting students from CMU to their home locations. Service is free for CMU students. Generally, a 2-mile radius around CMU is covered: vans can take you to Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or Oakland. There are about five different pick-up locations on campus, and vans (they are white color and easy to spot) usually run every 30 minutes (e.g. 7:00pm, 7:30pm, 8:00pm and so on late into the night). This is a good option to get home late at night, when buses stop running. More information is available on CMU police's website.
The most popular grocery store chain in Pittsburgh is Giant Eagle. They have several super-markets all around Pittsburgh. There is one on Murray Ave in Squirrel Hill, one on Centre Ave in Shadyside, one on Murray Ave in Greenfield, one in the Waterfront (a shopping strip mall closest to CMU; about 4 miles from campus). As of August 2006, there isn't any in the neighborhood of Oakland. You can pay in cash, using an ATM card, or using a credit card. They sell most grocery items a common person would need in their daily life. The price tags in their stores can be a bit confusing at first, especially for those arriving from other countries. They will often list prices as, for example, 4/3.00, which means that the price is $3.00 for 4 items, or $0.75 if you choose to buy just one item (you're not obliged to buy 4 items).
Some items are offered at a reduced price if you have a "Giant Eagle Advantage Card". This card is available to everybody for free - you have to fill up a form at a customer desk in a Giant Eagle, and you will receive it in the mail. The reason why Giant Eagle offers this discount is that if you use your Giant Eagle Advantage Card to do the shopping, Giant Eagle knows what items you are buying, so they can do statistics on this data. This enables them to better market and sell their products. I recommend getting this card as soon as possible when you come to Pittsburgh. It is a free discount. Just about everybody I know has the card.
On campus, you can buy essential food items in the "Entropy" store in the UC. There is also a 7/11 on Forbes Ave in Oakland.
Another very popular destination for grocery shopping is the Strip District. There are several good stores there, selling fresh cheese, meat, bread, fish. There is also a good choice of international food items - I was pleasantly surprised to find sea sardines from my home country (Slovenia). Going to the Strip District requires a car or changing the buses downtown. Another option is to catch a 54C on Craig Stret which will then take you to the Strip District via Bloomfield. Strip District is packed on Saturday mornings, but you can of course go there any day of the week. Also note that at night, Strip District becomes a popular night-life destination, with several clubs and lots of young people everywhere. Other such popular night-life destinations are the South Side, Station Square, downtown Pittsburgh, and also Walnut St. and Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside.
The closest mall to CMU is the Waterfront mall. It's not really a mall in the sense that there is no covered space with many stores as in the usual sense of the mall. It's more of a large shopping center with several large stores and restaurants, including Giant Eagle, Target, Best Buy (for computers), and several others. There is also a large movie theatre (Loews at Waterfront). The mall is located in the neighborhood of Homestead, across the Monongahela river and about 4 miles south from CMU. If you don't have a car, you can get there by bus: catch the 59U or 61C on Forbes Ave at CMU. 59U will take you into the mall. With 61C, you have to get off downtown Homestead (first stop after the Monongahela river bridge), and walk two blocks to the mall (in the direction back to the river).
Another popular mall is the Monroeville mall (it takes a car), located in Monroeville. You can also go to the Robinson Town Center (close to the airport; use 28X), the Century III Mall and other malls.
To get you started on groceries, your local Giant Eagle will probably suffice.
Pittsburgh also has stores specializing in food of higher quality such as organic food. One such popular store is Whole Foods, located on Centre Ave just before you enter East Liberty. Expect to pay a higher price, but several food items there are of great quality. Another popular store for organic food is the East End Food Co-op, located close to Penn Ave and South Braddock in Regent Square. Also, some Giant Eagles have organic food sections, such as the Giant Eagle in the Waterfront.
Note that in general, not everybody cares about organic food; many people are perfectly fine just by going to their local Giant Eagle. It's a matter of personal choice... this is America. I shop at both Giant Eagle and Whole Foods.
During your first days at CMU, you will need to open a bank account, typically at one of the local banks. Popular choices are PNC Bank, Citizen's Bank, National City Bank, all of which have ATMs on campus (in the University Center) or immediately next to campus. There are also other bank options available. You will be charged a fee if you withdraw money at an ATM not belonging to your bank, so being close to your bank's ATM is convenient. Check out where each bank has ATMs (both on campus and in your neighborhood) before opening up an account.
Personally, I used PNC Bank. I was happy with them. I opened up my account a week or two after arriving to Pittsburgh (the branch at the corner of Craig St. and 5th Ave), and kept it until the end of my studies (6 years). Their online banking worked fine and was free. They have ATMs and a branch on campus. Also, their ATMs are common in Pittsburgh (also at the airport). I was able to pay my rent using their automatic check service (for free). This way, I didn't have to take the time to send the check to my landlord every month. This can come in handy when you are working towards a paper deadline and don't have the time to think about writing rent checks.
Each bank will give you a small starter set of personal checks which you can use to pay the rent, utility bills, car insurance bills and similar. To get more checks, you will need to order them from the bank. There will be a fee, such as $20, and you will receive them in the mail (typically not immediately).
Some banks offer the service of mailing a check (on a designated day of the month and in the designated amount) to your landlord for free, so you don't have to remember to write the rent check yourself (certain banks charge for this service). This is advanced material, however, and I think it's not necessary for you to worry about this at the beginning. You can always simply write/mail your landlord the check yourself.
Bear in mind that it might take a couple of days for the bank to setup your new account, and some account features might not be functioning properly during this time. I ran into the following difficulty when opening up my bank account: a significant part of the money I brought with me to Pittsburgh was in American Express traveler's checks. I also had some cash. When I opened the bank account, I deposited the cash into the account, and they also took my traveler's checks and "deposited" them into the account. However, the bank then treated the checks as if they were regular checks, and it took one week for the checks to "clear" and appear on my account. And this was 1 week after arriving to US when I needed this money to put down my apartment security deposit!!
Who knows why this happened. It could be that the bank didn't trust my traveller's checks because they were from a less known country (Slovenia). But they were official American Express traveller's checks, normal looking, with all the AE logos, counterfit protection measures in place. I bought them at the biggest bank in Slovenia (there was a fee) and I signed them before giving them to the bank in Pittsburgh. It could be some internal mistake of the bank in Pittsburgh. Standard practice perhaps. Anyway, I had no access to the traveller's check money during that week, only to my cash money - which was quite a problem as I had to put down the security deposit for my apartment. This incident temporarily disabled my access to a large chunk of my money just in a week when I was struglling with my transition to a new country. Traveler's checks are advertised "as good as cash", and I think the whole incident was a mistake of my bank, not American Express. The fact that I will have to wait for one week to get to my travelers check money wasn't clearly communicated to me. In hindsight, I should have first converted traveler's checks to cash, and then deposited cash into the account. I actually tried doing so, but the teller at the bank convinced me this is not necessary (I should have just left the bank and converted checks to cash somewhere else). But this was more than 5 years ago, and maybe things are better now.
If you are an international student, attend the international student orientation. I attended it in August 2001, and it was very well organized and very helpful. The orientation is organized by CMU's Office of International Education (OIE).
OIE also maintains very useful online settling in guides. These guides are much broader than my guide and contain a lot of information not mentioned by my guide. They should definitely be read by people new to CMU.
I recommend buying the Guide to living in Pittsburgh, written by Paul Bennett and Angela Demke Brown, both of which were PhD students at CMU's Computer Science Department (both graduated by now). You can get it in the bookstore in the UC. It is well written and contains lots of practical information on living in Pittsburgh.
I recommend getting a cell phone for your housing search - it makes everything much easier.
The construction site in the south-western part of campus (behind Hamburg Hall and the Purnell Center for the Arts) is the site of the new computer science department building, made possible by a large donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It will be completed in 2009.