Sausage: West- and South-facing windows will get a lot more light, barring interruptions (like other buildings right next door). East-facing bedroom windows will get morning sun, probably before you want it in your face. If you want plants, North-facing windows are good for violets and other non-sunlight-intensive plants, but try to think ahead of time which windows you will probably keep the blinds/curtains closed on (because of people looking in, light at the wrong times, etc.) and factor that in - the apartment won't look as bright and sunny when you actually have your stuff in it and some of the windows covered.
We had great windows in the top part of the vaulted ceilings, which made our living room really sunny, even when you wanted to watch TV and couldn't see because of the glare. And we couldn't put blinds up, so we just had to refrain from TV and PS2 before noon.
Dan: Windows lose a lot of heat. Particularly the three very large windows in my room. The foot of the bed has been noticeably warmer than the head of the bed at times.
Sausage: A flight or two of stairs can be a very good thing - you only carry most of your stuff up to your apartment once, and in addition to not having everyone look in your windows, you are far less likely to have your apartment broken into, kids on skateboards going through your windows by mistake, idiots banging on your door at 3 AM, etc. Depending on the layout of your apartment building or complex, you will probably also have a lot less traffic going past your door, therefore less noisy.
Dan: If you're in an old building, having somebody above you can be very noisy. The top floor is nice for that reason.
Some problems to think about for basement apartments: Flooding? Mildew or other problems with less fresh air? Natural light? On the upside, it can be really cheap.
Seraphim: Basement apartments will have more bugs. The tradeoff is that my apartment is a bit cooler in the summer and I don't have to worry about noise as much as someone on the second floor.
Sausage: Apartment laundry is different from college laundry in that yes, you really do have to sit and watch it, and no, you can't be sure that the next person to wander in isn't a lecherous drunk 60-year-old homeless guy.
Dan: I have a friend who used to do dorm laundry wearing only a towel so she could wash all her clothing at once. You might not want to do that if you're in a less-than-well-lit apartment basement.
Free laundry is another huge thing. A washer/dryer load at the closest laundromat costs approximately $4. If I do six of these a month, that comes out to $24 a month. (Keep in mind you should wash sheets, towels, and whatever other linens you have at least every once in a while, even if you're a guy.)
Marco: If your building doesn't offer free laundry, try to get one that allows you to buy your own washer and dryer (and provide the necessary hookups, of course). You can find a great washer and dryer set for under $800, and they usually last a decade or more. And while you'll have to pay for the water and electricity to put into them, it's far cheaper than what you'll pay at a laundromat, and you have them right there available for use (without needing to monitor them constantly) whenever you want.
Carrying sheets and towels to a laundromat sucks. You'll wash them more often if it's as easy as bringing them to the next room. And when you only want to wash one thing (i.e. you just stained your favorite shirt and need to wash it before the stain sets), it's pretty nice.
Sausage: Look at the counter space in the kitchen and the pantry or wherever you would be putting your groceries - would you feel safe putting food there? Would you get weird things coming through those holes chewed in the wood? Even if you don't currently see any bugs (and you really shouldn't!), be aware of the places that may be problems later. Ask if there's a history of a seasonal problem with ants, ladybugs, moths, etc.
Tiffany: Turn on the water to check the pressure and how long it takes to get hot. Flush the toilet to see how long it takes to refill. That toilet sound can be really annoying when it lasts an hour.
Marco: See how much prep-surface area you have in the kitchen. I forgot to do this, and my kitchen doesn't contain a single countertop. Oops. Cupboards and shelves are also nice to have.
Sausage: Check where the electrical outlets, phone jacks, and cable connections are. If the only phone jack is in the kitchen, you'll either be stringing an Ethernet cable across doorways and hanging a modem on the wall, or getting cable internet access. Ditto with the cable hookup in the bathroom (or bedroom, if you'd rather your TV be in the living room), on a wall that will have to be devoid of furniture if you want to get around your apartment without bruised shins, or in a weird corner where you wouldn't have space for a couch/desk chair in front of it. The layout of my prior apartment was a pain in the neck - my roommate and I shared a DSL subscription, with the only useful telephone jack on the wall in the kitchen, which meant we had to run cords along the kitchen ceiling to his room and along the contour of the wall to the bathroom and back to get to my room.
Marco: If you don't mind making a bunch of tiny holes, get a cable staple gun at Home Depot for about $30. Nothing in my apartment is in a convenient place, so instead, the landlord will have to deal with a few stapled wires along every wall and above every doorway. Oh well.
Dan: Is it somewhere you'll come back to during the day? What's within walking distance? Would you really walk it frequently enough to use it?
The going rate for a parking space here is significantly more than $100 a month. Some are advertised for as much as $200. This adds a lot to rent if you need a car. On the other hand, if your apartment comes with a parking space that you can rent out, it might subtract a lot from rent. (Of course, you may need to check on whether you'd be allowed to rent out the parking space.)
Marco: Check out the parking situation. If you have a week or two to decide, visit the place as often as possible during as many days and times as possible. Don't forget weekends or restricted-parking days (like street-cleaning days). Try to park. See how it goes.
(We argued for a while about the costs and benefits about commuting long distances to work or school in order to get a lower-rent place in the middle of nowhere.)
After college, prepare to spend a lot more for rent and get a less-nice place.
Commuting isn't very fun. Adding an hour or more to each end of the work day eats into your leisure time pretty heavily. Plus, nobody likes commuting at the same time that everyone else is commuting - and if you have a normal full-time job, that's what you'll have to do. Would you enjoy sitting in severe traffic first thing in the morning? How about after a full work day, when all you want to do is get home? Every day?
Dan: If you commute by car, you have to pay for parking. Every day. If you can find cheap parking, you may be able to get away with it for under $10 a day. So you're looking at $300 per month in addition to the time lost. Then you have to pay for gas. That hour and a half in the car could easily burn $10 in gas. The higher price for location is starting to look a lot more appealing.
Andy: If I worked in a city, I would commute 20 minutes each way.
Marco: The problem is that all commuters want a 20-minute commute. In smaller, less-dense cities like Columbus and most midwestern cities, this might be reasonable. But for the bigger cities like New York, especially those with physical constraints on space like water or mountains, there simply isn't much savings in taking a 20-minute commute. The rents and land values out there are astronomical too.
And 20 minutes in rush hour won't get you very far in most cities. You won't be going 65 MPH the whole way. You can probably go 5 miles, at most. To go from outside the dense city to inside the dense city, you're looking at 45 to 90 minutes. That's a big difference.
Marco: Never sign a lease for longer than 1 year unless you've already lived there for a year and are really sure about it.
Try to get a place where the heat is included in the rent (whether it's gas or electric). It's nice to pay as few utilities yourself as possible, but heat is the most expensive in the winter by far if you live anywhere cold.
You probably won't get your security deposit back, no matter how nice the landlord is or how well you treated the place. Security deposits are like free money for landlords, and they can very easily find reasons to keep them. If they want to charge you $75 because the kitchen sink wasn't spotless, that's too bad for you. Treat security deposits as part of the cost of moving, and assume that you will never see that money again. If you actually get it back, consider yourself lucky and put it toward the next security deposit.
Dan: Ask who you are renting from. Are you essentially renting a portion of somebody's house, or are you renting one unit of one building from a landlord that owns about half of the neighborhood? Do you have to pay a month's rent to a realtor? (If so, divide that by 12 and add it to your monthly rent to see how much you're really paying.) If you're renting from the single-home owner, you'll have a much more personal relationship with the landlord. Or in my case, a landlady. This might increase your chances of getting your security deposit back. However, your landlord might not have enough of a reputation for you to know who you're dealing with.