My first time apartment hunting was blissfully easy. Wide-eyed and eager, I made two simple trips to the city with my parents, decided which place I liked best, signed the lease and got the keys that day. That. Day.
My second time apartment hunting? Well let’s just say I wanted to crawl in a cave and cry. Or maybe pull out all my hair. It felt like an unusual form of torture (I would liken it to being forced to listen to “Call Me Maybe” on repeat for hours, or watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians for a whole day). There were shady relators, a few gross apartments, some tears, frustration and a LOT of necessary wine. But somehow, almost inexplicably, we ended up with another pretty perfect (for us) apartment.
So, lessons learned? Well, to start, the first time was definitely a fluke. The more I talk to people about their experiences, the more I realize: apartment hunting is hard, especially in a major city. It’s exhausting and stressful, but it can also be fun. I’d like to believe that New York City real estate has toughened me up a bit and taught me a few things–and I’m sharing them here. First up is finding your first (or second, or third) apartment–what you need to look for, what questions you need to ask and how to come out the other end with the keys to a place you love. Keep your eye out for a second installment later this week, all leading up to (drumroll please)…our apartment tour! Wohhooo!! Let’s do this:
Unless you’re Ke$ha, the dollar symbol probably makes you cringe (especially if you’re a sometimes-sorta-broke twenty-something like me). Like it or not, though, money is probably the biggest consideration you need to take into account when moving. Whether you’ve been calling your parent’s house home for the past few years, or are looking to leave roommate-ville and move in on your own, you need to get serious about what you can afford–after all, what’s the point of moving to a new city if your maxed-out budge doesn’t let you do anything fun while you’re living there? You need to come up with a monthly budget that will help you understand what you can reasonably afford.
Typically, you should expect that about 30 percent of your yearly income will go to rent–but keep in mind, if you’re hunting in a big city (think Chicago, NYC, LA, etc.) that number will, predictably, increase. And of course, you can’t forget about the other expenses that come with life: utilities, transportation fees (subway cards, metro cards, parking, etc.), food, entertainment, student loans and health insurance. It all sounds super overwhelming (trust me, I know), but sites like Mint offer an easy, visual ways to track your monthly budget (if you’re looking for more budget talk, check out this post). With a little number crunching and staring at Excel sheets, you’ll be able to figure out a price-point that is realistic for your budget and lifestyle. Onward!
Chances are, you probably have something that’s rooting your somewhere: a job in a certain city, family in a certain state, etc. But where to live within that area is an important decision–neighborhoods have personalities, and you want to make sure you choose accordingly!
For me, Astoria is the perfect mix of city life, with a touch of suburbia–it was important for me to have that little dose of small-town, because that’s how I grew up. My advice: find a few neighborhoods that intrigue you, then explore them! Go to the local coffee shop, grab a bite to eat at a cafe, walk through the grocery store, sketch out your commute. The more ways you “audition” a neighborhood, the more likely it will be that you’ll settle on a place you love.
Also, talk, talk, talk! Ask anyone and everyone how they like it there–are there markets on the weekend? Do they keep the streets clean? What type of people live there? When I was apartment hunting (and car hunting, and college hunting), my Mom had this wack-o habit of going up to strangers and asking them 20-zillion questions about the area. And most of the time, they were more than willing to spill–people enjoy talking about what makes them love their neighborhood. And if they don’t, or if they’re mean–well, that tells you something too.
Apartment hunting is all about compromise. Just like you have a list of relationship deal-breakers (Wait, you don’t? Get on that.), you should have a list of things that are apartment must-haves, and things you can live without (not that you’d want to live without them, just that you could if you needed to). Decide what’s top-priority to you, and search accordingly. Need to be a block away from the subway? Well, then your price range might need to be a bit flexible. Have a pup that’s coming with? You might need to settle for a place with a pet fee. Love natural light and hardwood floors? Plan on being flexible when it comes to kitchen appliances in order to stay within your budget. You get the gist–it’s a give and a take.
Our must-have list:
- Proximity to the subway station. One of my roommates and I take the subway to work, and walk home–sometimes later in the evening. The walk had to be relatively short (it’s 6 minutes) and feel safe (it does, Mom!).
- Street parking. My other roommate drives to work, so a relatively quiet street where she can easily find parking was another priority.
- A centralized location. We love Astoria, so we wanted to stay close to the action. We’re literally a block away from the waterfront, and three minutes away from the best sushi, Greek, pizza and Italian around.
- Quality finishings. We take a lot of pride in our apartment, so we wanted it to be well-made. Hardwood floors, a nice kitchen, lots of light and updated bathrooms were important to us.
Our not-so-must-have list:
- Pet friendly. While we want a dog, we don’t have one yet, so this wasn’t high on the list.
- Absentee landlord. People flip flop on this–basically, do you want your landlord living in the building with you, or not? We didn’t really care–however, we did shy away from one place that had the creepy landlord living upstairs.
- Two bathrooms. Three girls (and lots of weekend house guests) means major primping time. We wanted two bathrooms, but weren’t looking exclusively for that (bonus: we got it anyways!).
- Building size. Again, not a huge consideration. Our first apartment was in a small house, so we knew we wanted to shoot for that again–but we would have absolutely considered units in larger buildings. We ended up in a two-unit space…and we love it!
In our Craigslist/Twitter/Facebook era, it’s totally possible that you can apartment hunt completely independent of a realtor. Would I suggest it? Well, that depends. While it’s definitely a personal decision, I’ve found that working with a realtor–especially in a larger, overwhelming city–is beneficial.
If you decide to work with an agent, you’ll reap all sorts of benefits: top-priority (and usually higher quality) listings, as well as someone to do the leg work for you…all you have to do is show up. But be warned: especially in major cities, there are a few things you should always look out for.
1) Typically, you’ll be working with more than one realtor, and they’ll all have a different idea of what they should be paid–some charge two month’s rent, some one month’s rent, and some less. Ask up-front how much of a commission rate you can expect once the papers are signed. If it’s too high for you, look elsewhere.
2) You need them more than they need you. In large cities like New York, renters are a dime a dozen–there’s always someone to fill empty apartments, sometimes within hours, so some realtors aren’t totally concerned about hustling for you (unless, of course, they’re making the big bucks off your million dollar purchase). If your realtor is flighty, unresponsive or uninterested in your search, choose another. In the end, you’re going to have to pay this person–don’t you want your money going to someone who put in the effort for you?
3) Don’t be pressured. A good rule of thumb is to keep your “reacting” to a minimum when looking at spaces. Watch the “ohhhh-ing” and “ahhh-ing”–you don’t want to seem overly committed to a space before you get all the deets, and your over-zealous reaction may make a realtor pressure you into a commitment.
If you’re interested in hunting on your own, simply educate yourself. Find out what apartments around you are going for, or ask people in the building what they pay, and make sure you get the low-down on lease length, what’s including in the monthly price and renters insurance . Some great resources:
This is scary, but definitely something you need to remember: nothing, I repeat, nothing is “yours” until the papers have been filed. We had two apartments fall out from underneath us, and let me tell you–it sucks. Don’t start planning for your space until both you and your future landlord and your realtor have signed the necessary documents (this should include at the very least a rental agreement, if not other contracts depending on where you’re moving into). Now’s the time to negotiate for a longer lease if you want–saying you’ll sign for 15, or even 24 months is alluring to landlords–and it ensures that your rent won’t increase for that period of time. Finally, make sure you’re both agreed upon a move in date!
So you found a place you love–congrats! As amazing as that is, there are a couple things you need to tackle before you head to IKEA (but seriously, go to IKEA. It’s amazing) and send out those “we’ve moved!” cards. Here’s the short list:
- Arrange with your landlord to have the locks changed. This is especially important if you’re moving into a new build or remodel, and there have been a lot of workers in and out.
- Arrange to have the apartment sprayed. I mean, let’s be honest–you’re going to have cockroaches in any big city. But you’re much more likely to keep them at bay if you get sprayed!
- Take down the room dimensions. You’re going to need them when you go shopping–that vintage bar cart won’t fit just anywhere!
- Do any painting or wall papering before you move in (but make sure it’s OK with your landlord first!).
- Turn on the utilities! Whether the apartment was in your landlord’s name, or the previous tenants, make sure it’s switched over to your name with all companies (gas, electric, cable, heat and hot water, etc.).
- Find the nearest: subway stop, coffee shop, grocery store, laundry mat and ER/walk-in clinic (you know, for those moving day bumps and bruises).
- Prep the place: drape rags or old sheets over any surface you don’t want damaged while moving in furniture. Optional: tape butchers paper to high-traffic areas of the floor to avoid scuffing.
Phew–so that’s it, the first installment in this apartment trio. Up later this week is a little decor chat about how to make your space feel like home–even if both your budget and space are small.