Did you know that I’m oddly passionate about …. renting?
Such a sexy, hot-button topic, right? I’m also Pretty Serious about refugee resettlement and climate change but if you want me to get really excited? Let’s talk about mortgage rates or how to make your apartment look great on a budget.
Of course, there are many reasons to buy and maybe homeownership is totally, totally right for you. But when you own, housing-related costs are usually the biggest expenses in your budget. Homeowners have less free time due to the upkeep that houses require. If something in your life changes – you get divorced or married, you get an amazing job offer, your family grows or shrinks – it could take years to sell your home and find a new space that fits your new life.
If you want to buy a home, you should do it!
If you want the freedom of renting, come sit next to me and let’s talk about how to find your dream rental – something in a cool neighborhood, with affordable rent, and an awesome landlord.
After 13 rentals in 17 years, I’ve got this ish DOWN. Here are all the questions you should ask yourself before you sign a lease, plus some handy tricks to find the best places!
How’s the location?
A conveniently-located apartment will save you money, time, and maybe even your sanity. I don’t know about you, but location is the single most important factor when I’m looking at apartments. Of course, apartment in well-situated spots are often more expensive than places in the suburbs but have a big think about the location before you commit. It might be worth it to live in a studio in a great Neighborhood rather than a two-bedroom in a suburb that’s 40 minutes from your office.
Consider the old real estate tip: rent the cheapest place in the nicest neighborhood!
Is it near the bus line/highway/subway?
If you don’t have a car, is your new place near a public transportation hub? Or are are you going to have to walk for seven blocks and take three buses to work? If you’re not sure, simply type the address of your potential rental into Google maps and look for the little bus and train icons.
Is it near your job?
You’ll save time and money if you’re living near your workplace. In fact, reducing or removing your commute is the happiness equivalent of getting a $40,000 raise! Use Padmapper to search rentals near your work or near bus routes and train stations that can take you directly to your office.
Is it near your friends?
Awesome for parties, cat-sitting and spontaneous Glee watching. If you live alone, recently went through a breakup, or you need buddies to keep you motivated to work out, it’s nice to live near your friends. It is, perhaps, less awesome, if you are writing your thesis and your perpetually unemployed stoner friend lives around the corner and always wants to play Guitar Hero. Something to think about!
Is it near stuff you like to do? Will it support the life you want?
One of the sad realities of Adult Life is that work, commuting, and errands take up a lot of time and hobbies sometimes get left behind. This is much less likely to happen if you live near the climbing gym, park, boat launch or studio space.
If you’re really serious about your hobby and afraid that it’ll get eaten up, choose to live in a neighborhood that supports your activities. If you want to work out more, rent in a building with a gym. If you want to cook more, rent an apartment that’s across the street from a co-op. You get the idea!
Is it safe?
This is particularly important is you’re a lady, living by herself. If you’re not sure about a neighborhood, check out its crime map or just ask your friends if they’ve heard anything about that area. Drive through the neighborhood, not just once, but several times. Drive through your neighborhood of choice when the weather’s nice and people are outside, on a weekend after dark, and in the middle of a work day. If your neighborhood has a little commercial area, walk poke around it. Does anybody yell at you? How bad is the street harassment?
Every neighborhood is bound to have a bit of crime, but you want to be particularly careful to avoid neighborhoods with lots of violent crime or crimes against women.
How are the neighbors?
One person’s dream neighbor is another person’s nightmare. If you have a dog, you might want to live next to fellow dog owners (so you won’t feel guilty when your dog barks). If you have kids, it’d be nice to live somewhere filled with young families so you’ve got built-in play date partners.
There are laws about what building managers and real estate agents can tell you about other tenants. While you can’t ask “How many screaming infants live on this floor?” you can ask “What are the other tenants like?” If you’re super strategic, you can schedule your viewing for dinner time hours or the weekend, when the other tenants are around. This will give a good idea of a normal noise and activity level.
How is it heated and cooled? And is the price of the heating and cooling included in the rent? Who is in charge of the temperature?
If you live someplace with extreme weather, the price of heating and cooling can be in the hundreds of dollars each month. Before you sign a lease, double check that your landlord is paying for the heat or air conditioning. If heat/ac are included, who is in charge of the thermostat?
In Minnesota, heat is usually included in rent and landlords are in charge of the thermostat. Some landlords like to keep their buildings around 65 degrees in the winter – which means you’ll probably run up your electricity bill using space heaters. If you find yourself paying for heat and your bills are completely unmanageable, check out your state’s Heating Assistance programs.
How’s the closet space?
Contrary to what Carrie Bradshaw would have us believe, limited closet space is not the end of the world. That’s what IKEA wardrobes are for. But if you’re living with a pack rat or you’ve got 35 vintage coats, this is something to consider. If you find the apartment of your dreams and the bedroom is tiny or lacks storage, try these clever storage tips.
Is there parking? And if you live in a snowy area, is the parking on a Snow Emergency Route?
I once lived in a neighborhood that required 20 minutes of block-circling to find a parking space. And every time it snowed, I had to wade out into the blizzard and move my car. Sure wish I had thought about that before I signed the lease!
Are there any repairs that need to be done before you move in?
If an apartment is immediately available – meaning that there’s no one currently living in it – there might be a reason. Maybe the last tenants did a runner. Maybe the landlord just spent a month repainting and remodeling it. Or maybe it’s shitty and broken and nobody wants to live there.
Give everything a really thorough going-over before you sign a lease. Make sure your landlord is aware of any damage, knows you didn’t cause it and has a time frame within which to repair them.
How present is the landlord?
Does your landlord winter in Phoenix? Is she a traveling saleswoman? And if she’s not always around, is there someone else you can call in case of emergencies? Absentee landlords aren’t necessarily bad, but if your heat goes out in the middle of the winter, you’ll want to call a local number – not exchange a million emails while they’re in Hawaii.
How’s the water pressure?
This seems like it’s not a big deal, BUT IT TOTALLY IS. I once lived in a house with such bad water pressure, showering was impossible. Getting ready in the morning, in a house of four girls, when we’re all taking baths? Not awesome.
How much natural light does it get?
This is particularly important if you live someplace cold, rainy, or frequently overcast. If you live in Seattle where there are only seventy days of sunshine a year, you’re going to want to get a bit of that in your living room window, right?
Tricks for getting the best apartment ever
- Start looking 1-2 months before you actually need to move
Obviously, right? Starting your search early means you’ll have a better idea what to expect, how much you’ll pay, and you won’t end up just taking the first available place because you need to be out by the 31st.
- Tell your friends and social media that you’re looking
Many of my best, most favorite apartments came via friends and friends-of-friends. In fact, several times I swooped in and scooped up a great place before the owners even listed it!
- Dress nicely and show up on time when you go to an apartment viewing
In a perfect world, people would not judge us by our appearances, but in this deeply imperfect world, they do. Like, a lot. If you live in a city with a tight real estate market and owners have their pick of renters, they’ll probably choose the person who showed up on time, dressed in something clean and pressed. It’s annoying, but it’s true.
- Set up an IFTTT recipe for Craigslist listings
What? That sounds complicated, but it just means that you’re setting up notifications for any new listing that meets your criteria. Every time a $800 2-bedroom in Cathedral Hill is posted, I’ll immediately get an email and I can schedule a showing 20 minutes after the owners posted about it.
- Don’t be dissuaded by lackluster photos
If something is in the right neighborhood and price range, it’s worth a look. A lot of building managers are too busy to take decent photos, so they’ll upload poorly lit phone photos that they haven’t even bothered to rotate. I snapped up a wildly underpriced apartment in a swanky neighborhood because no one else replied to the ad with its two terrible photos!
- Know what you can change (and can’t)
You can’t change the amount of light a place gets, the distance from work, or the layout. But you can divide that cavernous room, fake an entry way, and replace the terrible light fixtures. You can work with the tiny, galley kitchen and the less-than-awesome cupboards. But you can’t make an unsafe neighborhood safe and you can’t make a skeezy building manager un-skeezy.
Whew! I’ve just written a small novel for you guys! But I want to know: do you rent or own? And if you’re a fellow renter, please share all your best tips + tricks in the comments!
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