When I began my first search for a big girl apartment the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college I was completely clueless! I had no idea what I was doing (though I thought I did) and in hindsight I should have reached out to an older friend or family member for help. Rather I scoured Craigslist hoping to find a space for myself, my boyfriend (at the time) and my 50lb dog. If you’re like me and find yourself searching for your first apartment in a major city you’re in for a cruel awakening! I was shocked by how difficult it was to find a place to live and the price I had to pay to live in the city. Over the past few years I’ve moved numerous times and enjoyed a handful of apartments in Seattle. I’ve made quite a few mistakes but learned a lot along the way. I thought I would share a few tips I learned for any other newbies hunting for their first place.
1. Know your ABSOLUTE (I CANNOT GO ABOVE THIS NUMBER) maximum budget.
It’s easy when you’re hunting for an apartment to feel tempted to grab an apartment that maxes out your budget (at least for me). When you find a great place with wood floors, granite countertops, high ceilings and the gym it seems like a race to sign the lease before any other potential tenant can. The problem is you’re often paying for more than you realize (especially as a first time renter). When I began searching for my first apartment a couple of years ago I had a certain limit I was willing to spend each month. When I fell in love with an apartment at the top of my budget I rushed into the decision without fully realizing I would be shilling out an additional $150 per month for parking, $50 per month in “pet rent” and $100 for utilities. These extra fees weren’t exactly hidden but didn’t occur to me until I was already in love with a place and practically willing to give up my first born child to live there. Now I set a budget and include parking costs and additional charges into my big number.
2. Know ahead of time whether you will need a Co-signer or you will be able to apply alone.
Most young people and students don’t have sufficient credit history to apply for an apartment alone (if you do I completely applaud you). As one of those people I try to go into apartment hunting knowing I will need a co-signer which means I let my co-signers know ahead of time what I will need from them and when. Some apartment complexes won’t want to rent to students or people who need co-signers which can feel pretty deflating, however, most buildings will understand and will still rent to you provided you are timely with your co-signer’s application and the signer’s credit and income are sufficient.
3. Look at multiple properties/units even if you LOVE the first one you view.
Searching for a new place (especially your first place) is super exciting! You may walk into your first apartment tour and immediately envision your fabulous new life in your chic new spot. While it’s fun to mentally plan out your throw pillows and gallery wall before you even leave the building remind yourself to take a deep breath and let it all soak in! Though apartments do go fast (especially in major metropolitan areas) keep in mind there are always more opening up as well. By jumping into a lease at the first apartment you check out you may be missing out on other places with better amenities or more affordable accommodations. I’ve found making a “Pros” and “Cons” list complete with the unit’s price/location/square footage is helpful for comparing places. You may find a great new home after just a couple tours or it may take upwards of 12 (my last move). Don’t over-think it but don’t rush yourself either!
4. Ask about the average utility cost and if it is included in the monthly rent price.
As referenced in my first point utilities are an extra expense most units will require you pay separately each month. In my experience utility costs vary greatly based on a variety of factors. Some landlords offer to pay water/sewage/gas and only require the tenant to cover electricity. Some modern apartment buildings are up to date with newest green technology resulting in extremely low utility costs, some older houses (unfortunately) may shock you with OUTRAGEOUS utility bills due to out of date heat retention and methods. Ask about the average utility cost so you know what to expect when your first bill arrives. No one likes running back to Nordstrom to return their new Tory Burch flats when an outlandish electric bill shows up in your mailbox!
5. If you have a pet critically consider how the space will work for them.
A small space may work for a pet if the property has a communal yard, rooftop dog park or park within walking distance. However it is important to be honest with yourself about the needs of your furry friend and the time you are willing to dedicate satisfying them. It won’t matter that there is a great dog park across the street if you never walk your dog over there because it’s too cold or your too busy. A bored or neglected pet is more likely to act out and damage your apartment meaning a large chunk of security deposit money you won’t get back later.
6. Don’t discount older apartments right away.
While brand new places with wood floors and granite countertops have more “curb appeal” so to speak, they’re often more expensive and offer less space for your money. It is important to live in a space you find aesthetically pleasing (or at least aesthetically “do-able”) but many older places can be spruced up with the right decorations, lighting and a two hour dedication to temporary wallpaper.
7. Drive through the neighborhood during the day and especially at night.
Safety has always been a primary concern for me when it comes to choosing my next home, however, I haven’t always effectively evaluated the safety of my new neighborhood. Research your apartment building and neighborhood thoroughly before making a final decision. Drive by during the day and at night. Check it out on a week day and on a weekend. Take notice of the facilities across the street and on the other side of the block. My first apartment was across the street from a drug rehab center and down the block from a homeless shelter. I don’t have a problem with either of these facilities but they speak to the vibe of the neighborhood and honestly made walking around as a young woman a little too sketchy for after dark! For my next two apartments I really evaluated the neighborhoods prior and was thankful I did. My second apartment was also in a busy community but was close to restaurants and vintage shops as opposed to the epicenter of the city’s crime. On the other end of the spectrum my apartment now is in a quiet family neighborhood which I don’t mind but would bother many other twenty-somethings looking for a more lively city vibe. Do your research!
8. Make a list of “MUST HAVES” & a list of “It Would be Nice to Haves”.
Everyone has specific qualities they’re searching for when they begin their hunt for their picture perfect, Pinterest-worthy apartment however most of us also have a budget! You may want new hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, stainless steel appliances, underground parking, a rooftop pool, balcony attached to the unit and electric fireplace but may be living on a “this carpet hasn’t been replaced since the 1970s” budget. Know which qualities you really truly need (a unit with a washer and dryer? a reserved parking spot? a safe neighborhood?) and which would be nice to have if the opportunity arises (crown molding? a clawfoot bathtub? a walk in closet?).
9. Consider the amenities and whether or not they’re worth it.
The new, expensive state of the art apartment complex downtown may offer a hot tub, two gyms and a rooftop deck (which is all very exciting) but may not be worth the premium cost. My first apartment downtown was small but packed with amenities. I paid more per month than I would have for a larger place without a dog park on the roof, gym and community areas. Though the gym was definitely a perk and the dog park convenient looking back it wasn’t worth the extra money. I could have had a larger apartment and paid for 3 gym memberships with the money I would have saved in a less trendy building and location. I’m definitely not saying the amenities aren’t worth it just advocating you really consider what you’re paying for!
10. Think critically about who you are living with.
My first apartment was a small studio with a dog and (ex) boyfriend. The space became cramped very quickly and now (due to my bad experience) you couldn’t convince me to live in a studio EVER again. Plenty of people happily live in small studios with a roommate or significant other however it is important to be honest about your needs as an individual and your compatibility with your roommate. 1000 sq. ft. can feel too small if you’re living with the wrong person! When living with a roommate discuss living arrangements prior to move in (even if it feels awkward at the time). It’s important to come to an understanding regarding living standards (how often will we clean the bathroom, is eating on the fancy couch acceptable, is my pet allowed in your room, etc) as well as the other person’s general lifestyle and financial agreements. There will be small misunderstandings even with the most heavenly roommate (Why doesn’t your BFF ever remember to take out the recycling?) but most problems can be avoided by being proactive rather than reactive. It is important to be honest with yourself about your roommate situation. If your Bestie is a party-animal and you’re SO not you might be perfect roomies (because she heads downtown to get her dance on) or it might cause too much relationship stress (when she hosts a “Frat Style Rager” the night before your big presentation). Just because someone makes a great friend doesn’t make them a compatible roommate sadly!
When all else fails don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion from a friend or family member! I am occasionally independent to a fault (& stubborn too) which means I miss out on the valuable opinions of others. You don’t need to act on the advice your friends and family give you but it certainly doesn’t hurt to consider it!
Good luck with your apartment hunts now and in the future! Searching for a new place can be overwhelming but it is also a lot of fun, there’s nothing like creating a comfortable new oasis for yourself and a reflection of your life!
Do you have any apartment hunting tips & tricks? Please share!