10 Ways to Survive Apartment Hunting
One of the most daunting parts of life is finding a place to live.
One of the most daunting parts of life is finding places to live. We’re looking pretty low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here. We all need food and shelter, after all. And that's why you need an apartment hunting survival guide.
For me, that challenge started pretty early in life, since I started working full time and got my first apartment when I was starting my junior year of college. Nevertheless, it’s not easy regardless of when you do it.
If you’re scoping out apartments for the first time, it’s a pretty daunting task. Even the first few times around, it can be pretty overwhelming. I’ve had a total of eight apartments in the last five years and while I've learned to hunt more strategically, it's always a huge investment of time.
Yeah…I’ve moved a lot.
Nevertheless, since I have been through this process so many times, I’ve got a few pearls of wisdom to make the hunting process a little bit less exhausting.
1. Decide the one feature that you cannot live without.
If you’re looking in an area with a lot of choices, your initial search could churn up 20, 50, or even 200 apartments. There’s no humanly possible way to visit that many apartments and you frankly wouldn’t want to.
That’s why you want to figure out what the most important search metric is for you.
This could be in-unit laundry, proximity to mass transit, or a balcony because you’re really into growing your own vegetables. Essentially, it can be anything, just decide what matters to you.
For me, call me spoiled if you will, but it’s in-unit laundry. I cannot stand laundry rooms or laundromats and I will happily work harder at my day job and my side hustles if that means affording in-unit laundry. My current apartment, unlucky #8, has communal laundry that charges an outlandish $2 to wash and another $2 to try. I was subsequently quite furious when my roof started leaking brownish water and I had to sully a ton of towels that ultimately cost $12 to clean.
2. Make a list of apartments you want to visit. Or if you’re hardcore, a spreadsheet.
Being organized is important, especially on the dreaded day of visits.
Personally, I love spreadsheets. I have an unhealthy love affair with organizing information in spreadsheets, even my literary journal submissions.
3. Start with 5 to 10 apartments to visit; not a million.
In past hunts, I would choose 20 apartments to visit. To me, 20 is way, way too much. I'd drive into communities and immediately decide I couldn't live in them because of traffic, terrible parking, or other things I probably should have realized from looking online.
When you’re scheduling visits and making all those phone calls that’ll make an introvert’s toes curl, it’s quantity over quality. Only visit the places you can actually see yourself living in.
When I made my ridiculous list of 20, there were some places I made appointments at but immediately realized I didn’t want to live there upon arriving. The reasons for that included the apartments being too close to stores, highways, or having nightmare parking garages and car lifts.
Do your research and make sure there are not any huge drawbacks that’ll make you genuinely not want to live there. It’s a waste of time and effort if there are any parts of an apartment that become a hard no for you.
If you don’t find anything perfect in your first list of 10, then start adding more, but start with 10 at most.
4. Search apartments on different websites.
It’s important not to just go to one website and assume it’s listing all the apartments in the area. Websites highlight different communities and some really fantastic apartments might not show up on your go-to search tool.
Using a mix of Apartments.com, ApartmentGuide, Zillow, Trulia, a dash of Craig’s List if you so choose, and simply scouring Google Maps will let you find everything an area truly has to offer.
5. Have a script of questions, it's very easy to forget something when you're getting an agent's sales pitch.
The leasing agents and landlords are largely operating on a script. Unfortunately, you probably should too. For me, my big questions are what’s the pet rent, are utilities included, if yes, which ones, is parking free, and what are the internet service providers?
A truly reliable high-speed data connection is important to me — since I’m actually quite a nerd — so if a complex has a provider I passionately hate, they’re going down on my mental favorites list.
Remember the key bits of information you need from each place. A lot of this information will be up on property websites, but not all of it. That’s why you want to make a script so that you don’t forget to ask about any details that are important to you.
6. Arrange your appointments geographically.
If you have several apartments to visit in Brooklyn and several in the Bronx, arrange your appointment times accordingly. Don’t make yourself hurry from apartment to apartment if they’re in different neighborhoods or towns.
I made this mistake when looking in Owings Mills and Towson, Maryland and I did a lot of unnecessary backtracking. Look closely at a map and figure out a sequence that saves you time and sanity.
7. Don’t be afraid to cancel appointments or cross apartments off your list.
Apartment hunting is not a game of “keep your options open.” More likely, it’s a battle of deciding what sacrifices you can make and which ones you can’t.
If you visit an area or town and discover that it’s not your cup of tea or that the traffic is a lot worse than you thought and your daily commute will be a hell ride, then that’s okay. Don’t waste your time visiting other apartments in the same area.
8. Be organized and have a plan, but leave a little room for spontaneity.
Let’s go back to point number four — not every website has every apartment community listed. If you happen to drive by something that looks perfect, pull over, look it up on Google, and don’t be afraid to stroll in there and ask if they do walk-in tours.
Even if you do your best research, there could be a fantastic apartment community with a terrible web presence. This is especially true for smaller apartment buildings or communities.
9. Avoid realtor fees like the plague they are.
I had no choice but to deal with a realtor for apartment #7. I had to pay a month's rent to a realtor who was rude, unhelpful, and tried to hustle my partner and me into a bidding war. For an apartment. Even in a competitive housing area, it's ridiculous. The worst part? The upstairs neighbors turned out to be vermin-infested alcoholics who caused our bathroom ceiling to cave in. We planned to live there for at least two or three years but ended up packing up after just a year.
If you think that realtor fee on an apartment might be worth it, think again. If you're looking in an area where almost every place requires a realtor's fee, a broker's fee, or any other nonsense like that, highly consider if there's another town where housing is less competitive that you might be able to settle for.
10. When you choose a place — read every last bit of fine print on that leasing contract. Every. Last. Word.
A lot of apartment communities are, unfortunately, out to get you.
My first apartment was an illegal rental from a very kind elderly woman who had converted her attic into a three-room apartment with a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. It was completely closed off from her house and it was a pretty great arrangement. I did sign an “official” leasing document with her, but I no problems there.
My second apartment was in a larger, corporation-owned apartment community. The facilities were lovely, but the staff and manager were absolute nightmares. The leasing agent assured me that water was an included utility and I made the mistake of only skimming the details of the lease.
Absolute stupidity on my part; you can imagine how crestfallen I was when I got my first $60 a month water bill. (Water is absurdly expensive in New Jersey for no good reason, in case you were wondering. But that’s a rant for another day.)
Some leasing agents will hand you the papers, sit there, smile, stare at you, and wait for you to sign. I don’t care how awkward it is for you to make them sit there for however long it takes you to read every last word of your five to ten-page lease.
More and more places let you do these forms electronically now or pick them off, fill them out at your leisure, and bring them back. These scenarios are great because it eliminates that awkwardness of someone waiting for you to read every last word.
With all that said, I wish you all the best of luck in your hunt and in your next apartment.