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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Singlutionary's Guide to Finding an Apartment

It is Tuesday! And on this first Tuesday of 2010, I am excited to introduce another weekly series: Singlutionary's Guide to Whatever. This is where I'll answer questions (so please ask them) and just offer up advice on various aspects of life-on-your-own. Last year, I pronounced myself an expert at being single and began this blog. I have been single almost all of my life (save a few months here and there) so I have quite a bit of experience with figuring things out on my own and I thought I'd share it. If you're an experienced Singlutionary with wisdom to share on this topic, please continue to build the conversation in the comments!

Building on this month's theme, (Moving-- as a single person on a Singlutionary adventure). I thought I'd write about the first step when you get to you new city: Finding an apartment (I'll write about buying a home and finding roommates later this month). I'm also a former realtor and I'm looking for a job in Apartment Management so I thought this is a great way to share my knowledge.

Finding a new apartment varies city-by-city and I'm not sure what differences exist country-by-country so I will try and stick to some basic principles. If you have a more specific question, please ask and if I can not answer it, maybe another reader can!

Singlutionary's Guide to Finding an Apartment (in a new city, as a single):

Before You Get There
You're excited to be moving to a new city, starting over and beginning whatever adventure lies ahead! But where do you begin? Even experienced renters might feel a little intimidated and/or overwhelmed.

1. Know Your Budget-- But Keep it Flexible
There are a lot of unknowns in moving to a new city. Sometimes you don't have a job there and sometimes you do. Ideally, if you don't have a job, you'll have six months of rent in the bank or a friend or relative who will Guarantee your lease (this means that they are willing to use their income to qualify you for your lease and be on the hook if you don't pay your rent). If you don't have a job in your new city, you'll need to figure out what you can afford once you do get a job. Because getting a job can be harder in a new city where you don't have the personal connections and where your job experience and references are from someplace else and because job markets and pay vary from city to city, it is best to make a low estimate of what you'll be able to afford. Most apartments require that your income is 3 times the rent. So take the worst case monthly income you'd make (if you don't already have a job offer) and divide it by 3. This is about what you can pay in rent. You don't have to live in a palace the first year in your new city! It is better to land on the frugal side because you'll want more money free to dine out and meet people and explore instead of sitting around broke in your expensive apartment.
2. Talk to Everyone You Can -- But Consider the Source
My sister was flying home and overheard a conversation between two couples on the airplane. One couple was relocating to my city and the other couple was offering up advice. The local couple's advice was to move to the Southern Suburbs and to avoid my sister's neighborhood because they'll "get shot there". My sister laughed out loud when she heard that one. She walks and bikes to work, as do her 2 roommates, and has never been afraid of being shot. So, talk to everyone you can about the city. Gather as much information as you can and listen to everything they have to tell you. But always consider who is offering this information. You can learn a lot from listening to BAD information just by considering the source. For example, a yuppie family with kids MIGHT tell you that a certain part of town is unsafe. It might be true. It might also be just the right mix of culture and urban grittiness and affordability for your single self. And a Frat Boy might tell you that the best place to live is in West Campus. Well, yeah. If you want to wake up to the sound of said frat dude barfing on your car. So listen to the advice people are giving you but also ask them questions about who they are and what they like. And don't get any fixed notions . . . just collect that data without making too many judgements . . . yet.

3. Search Online -- But Keep it General
It is possible to rent an apartment online, sight unseen. This is definitely more convenient if you are moving with a ton of stuff--which I don't advocate for (I think you have more of an adventure when you don't bring all your baggage with you-- literally). I advocate for moving 1st and staying in a hotel or with a friend for a week and finding a place -- or, if you're moving to a city with a tight rental market, making an exploratory trip ahead of time (about one to two months out) to find the right apartment-- sometimes you can make a mini vacation of it and bring a friend or your mom or whomever. You can begin to piece together a pretty good concept of your new city online. You can see, generally, how much a studio vs 1 bedroom apartment is, which neighborhoods have apartments within your budget, where your job is in relationship to the rest of the city, what parts of town are walkable/bikeable, etc. Don't look for your specific apartment (it very well might be gone when you get there) or your specific job (unless you are applying ahead of time) or your specific neighborhood. Once again, it is best to just collect as much information as you can about the city. Often times apartments will look cleaner and more spacious or better maintained in pictures than they do in real life. Sometimes the vibe of an area online sounds cool but when you get there, it doesn't feel right for YOU. So just collect data.

Once You're There
You finally did it. You landed in a new city and you're staying someplace and now you need to find a place to live for the next year. Holy freaking crap. This is so exciting!

1. Explore the City
If you have a few days to find an apartment, I suggest that all you do on your first day is explore. You'll already know which areas excite you or which ones seem affordable. Just drive around. Or walk around. Or bike around. Or bus around. Or lightrail around. It is ideal to use whichever mode of transportation you'll be using for your daily life once you settle in. If you live in a walkable, public transity city, do that. If you live in a car laden city, do that. If you see an apartment complex that looks appealing, just walk around it on your own. This is also a great way to discover under-advertised places with "For Rent" signs in the yard. Visit the neighborhoods that you were so excited about when you were sitting on your sofa reading about your new city. By the end of the day you'll be exhausted, you still won't have an apartment and you'll feel like you accomplished nothing. This is an EXCELLENT start.

2. Look, But Don't Commit
Lots of cities have apartment locators. These locators write ads for a specific apartment and when you call about that apartment, it has already been leased but they offer to show you others. This is OK. Locators are legit and they are FREE (they are paid by the apartments). Some locators are better than others and some are stupid and creepy while others are friggin' awesome. Also, locators will only show you apartments that pay them and pay them well. So, even if you meet up with a locator, don't feel suck with them. Continue to look on your own and don't be afraid to view properties with another locator if your first one was creepy (just tell your new locator what your 1st locator showed you). Lots of people will try to sell you and get you to commit to one thing or another. Unless you're in an incredibly tight market at an incredibly tight time of the year, don't commit the first day unless you are 100% sure. Just feel things out. You'll learn a lot about what you don't want. This is exactly what you should be doing.

3. Ask Questions But Listen to What They're Not Saying
There are lots of questions to ask and I'll list them out in a bit. But when you ask the question listen for how the question is answered. If you're going to live in an apartment complex, it is important that you have good management. Often times the person leasing the apartment is just there to lease and they don't participate as much in the actual management. Sometimes they'll avoid telling you something negative by not quite answering your question. Sometimes they will be really frank with you too--which is awesome. Feel the vibe of the people you interact with and their interaction with each other. Also scope out the people you encounter who live in the complex (if you're looking in a complex) or in the neighborhood. Does it look like a community where you would find friends? It is against the law for realtors and apartment management to answer questions about the demographics of their area (how many people are single, how many people are students, what age they are, etc) but you can make your own judgements by looking around the area and by listening to what the leasing folks are NOT telling you.

Some Questions to Ask:
What utilities, if any, are paid?
What bills will I be responsible for?
What portion of my deposit is refundable?
Do you accept pets? What are the restrictions? What are the deposits? How much is refundable?
Do you have lots of complaints about noise?
What lease lengths do you offer? 12 month? 6 month? Is there a difference in price?
Where is the nearest bus stop? Laundry facility? Gym? Grocery store? Cafe? Gas station? Bar? Dog Park?
Do you live here? Do other employees live here?
What happens if my neighbor is having a loud party at 4am?
If something were to break, how soon would you fix it?
What is your favorite restaurant in the area? Where do you like to go out to?
Is there a fee for parking? Is there a fee for using the gym/clubhouse facility?
Who are the providers for electric, gas, water, cable, internet?
I don't have a job yet. Will you accept a guarantor or a co-signer or evidence of savings of 6 months rent or some other option?
What is your criteria for approving applicants?
How long will it take to process my application?
When can I move into this apartment? Is that time frame flexible/negotiable?
Does the management sponsor any community events? Are there any community events nearby?
What happens if I need to break my lease? What will is cost? (This amount can be really big so be sure to ask just so that you know if you do have a problem.)

4. Commit!
Decide on your top choice apartment and on a few second choices. Take an application back to your top choice and check to make sure that the specific apartment you wanted is still available (you should be applying for a specific apartment and that apartment, along with the dates of the proposed lease, should be written on the application). Often times the apartment complex will require a deposit in addition to the application fee with the application. When you turn in that application, you are committing to that apartment. As long as you're approved, that apartment is yours. Be excited! Ask for a copy of the floorplan or if you can take measurements of the apartment (this will SO come in handy when you are at Ikea in a half-brain-dead -overly-stimulated-state later in the day). Ask when you'll be hearing back from them about your approval and if there is any reason they see that you won't be approved (they usually can't answer this latter part, but ask anyway just to see what they say).

When you sign your lease, make sure to ask for a copy. Sometimes the management won't offer it but you'll want it to refer to later on. Be empowered by having a copy of this contract so you know what you signed up for!

Once you're in your lease and living in your apartment, commit to being there. There will be things that suck. (If you're young and single and live in a complex, expect to get hit on.) But the great thing is that you're only there for a year or however long you signed up for. Spend the year enjoying your new city and making new friends! And if after a year you realize that you moved to the wrong part of town you can move again (another reason not to bring too much stuff with you when you move). Or maybe you'll love it there and live there for the next 10 years. Who knows. But you're there, so commit to the experience!


The Peach Tart said...

great post. I'm passing along to my daughter who is apt. hunting.

Stevi said...

I will be referencing this when I move to a new city this summer. THANKS!!

Mikki said...

good post, the only thing i might suggest is to ask to view multiple apartments in the complex. I have found that they always show you the best one but when you do decide to rent suddenly that one is no longer available. If you view two or even three apartments in the same complex you get a good view of what the property is really like.

The Singlutionary said...

Peach Tart and Stevi: YAY. I hope it is helpful.

Mikki: Thank you for your comment. Yes! This is a great suggestion. While the EXACT apartment might not be available to view yet, ask to see several and ask to see the location of the one you would be moving into. Sometimes leasing agents will limit the number of apartments they show you because they want to "sell" a particular one. Keep asking questions like: Are these the only apartments available in this complex in my time frame? Are there any other units available in this building or with windows facing the street? Etc.

And make sure to see an actual "made ready" unit, not just the model (which is always gorgeous).

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