The must haves and must dos when renting your first apartment.

Okay, so for this month’s post we are gonna take a break from the deep, introspective topics that I usually write about, and instead focus on something more light-hearted…sound good? Good.

I want to talk about apartment hunting! And of course I’m still going to share what I’ve learned from my own experiences, because, well that’s the whole point of this blog—but here’s hoping I provide some tangible tips that you can take with you when the time comes for you to find your first apartment.

Now I know the physical act of moving out and moving in is completely exhausting, I’m not sure that’s ever going to change; but the process of actually searching for apartments can be exciting and fun! If it’s your first time doing it on your own, however, it can also be pretty intimidating and a little scary.

When my college roommate and I started looking at apartments in Boston right after graduation, we hired a broker to help us along the way, and let me tell you it was the best decision we ever made. For those of you who may not know what a broker is, think of it as a real estate agent for apartments. Granted, a lot of 22 years olds can’t afford to use a broker as they definitely don’t come cheap, but I had a unique situation regarding timing. You see, I got hired for my first job in Boston one week after my college graduation and had two weeks to find a place to live if I didn’t want to commute every day from Southern Rhode Island (and I definitely did not). Luckily, I already had someone to live with, but the two of us didn’t have a clue how to go about finding affordable apartments in good neighborhoods of an unfamiliar city (never mind how to do it quickly), so using a broker took the pressure off of us. We got very lucky that the time of our move coincided with the second of the two most popular leasing months in Boston—September taking the majority, and then June taking most of the rest, which was our target date. This meant we had a decent number of choices available for our search, but we also had less competition, which definitely worked to our favor since we were slightly late to the game.

So I guess this leads me to my first two helpful tips when starting an apartment search—BUT these particular ones definitely pertain more to those of you moving to big cities like Boston or New York. (We will get to the more universal stuff soon!)

#1. Depending on your situation, if you can schedule your move around the popular months for lease terms in your area, you’ll be in a better spot for finding a place you love, as you’ll have more options available to you.

So I recommend finding out what those months are when you’re in the beginning phases of planning for a move (or maybe they are the same everywhere, idk). Remember to start your search a few months in advance though! In Boston, for example, 80% of leases begin and end on September 1, but tenants are required to give their landlords or property managers advanced notice, so listings will start to be promoted around May, give or take a month. Now you won’t be able to actually move into the place until their current tenant moves out on 9/1, but it’s important to plan ahead if you can.

#2. If you have the means to do so and are moving to a major city where the market is very competitive, consider hiring a professional to help you in your search.

Apartment brokers sometimes have avenues prospective tenants don’t, and can take the leg work off of you if you don’t have a lot of time to be spending on search sites. Now the caveat for this is that finding the right broker takes some research, so if you can find one from word of mouth or a friend of a friend, that might be your best option. It’s also worth noting that some brokers or broker agencies only cover specific neighborhoods of a city (or just know certain locations better), so make sure you have an idea in your head of where you want to live and use that in your search criteria.

Okay, this feels like a perfect transition into that universal stuff I mentioned earlier. No matter where you are moving, whether you are working with a broker or handling the search all on your own, here is my biggest piece of advice that everyone should do when researching apartments:

#3. Make a list of “must haves”, “nice to haves” and “deal breakers” (Yes, it’s a lot like HGTV).

Now your deal breakers can totally be the same as your must haves, meaning if an apartment doesn’t have X,Y and Z, that’s a deal breaker. But it could also be things like “I don’t want to share a washer and dryer with someone else in the building”, or maybe you hate that it’s coin operated laundry (been there). Or perhaps your deal breaker is that the next door tenants have a newborn baby and the walls are very thin (currently there). It’s important to think about those things ahead of time; although you may come across some of them during your tours that you hadn’t thought about before and are the reason you say no after you’ve seen it. In that case, you simply add it to your current list and keep moving forward based on what you’ve learned along the way.

So what are some examples of must haves? Well my friends, here is the good stuff!

Over the years both touring and living in apartments, I have gathered what I think is a really helpful list of things to look for in a place you are renting—some that are obvious, and others that you may have not thought about or considered unless you’ve lived without it.

  • Convenient location [to what is important for you]. Obviously this list of “what’s important” will be different for everyone. Do you work remote? Then living somewhere close to work or public transportation wouldn’t be on your list. But for a lot of us it is, and mapping out what your commute would look like should absolutely be on your to-do list when finding an apartment you want to look at. For my first place, I knew I didn’t want to drive to work being an anxious driver new to the city, but I was steps away from a bus stop and a 10 minute walk to a train stop that both took me directly to my office building within 30-45 minutes. I also got lucky that my first place was right off a main street with tons of different restaurants, shops, and even a CVS and liquor store—OH and an ice cream store that I became a very frequent visitor of. So for me, having things like that close by to where I live were and still are a definite must. That place was also walking distance to two different parks where I could go for runs or picnics and enjoy the outdoors, so maybe that would be on your list too! The one thing I knew I wouldn’t be super close to when I rented my place was downtown Boston, where all the exciting stuff happens. And I was okay with that because I couldn’t afford to live directly in the city as a new college grad (or really ever), but it did make for some expensive Uber rides or inconvenient train rides when we wanted to go out and have some fun. So maybe for your must haves you would add “close proximity to entertainment”, and that’s great too.
  • Extras included in the rent price. I recently wrote a blog post about managing money where I talk a little bit about calculating your living expenses vs. income when figuring out your rent budget. But something important to consider when searching for apartments is what extras are included in the rent price for a certain listing you are looking at. For example, is it just water or does the rent price include all utilities? Or maybe it only covers gas, but they also take care of snow/trash removal, there’s free in unit laundry, and it also includes two designated parking spaces (which if you are living in a city, “winner winner chicken dinner!”) There’s also the matter of upfront costs. Does your apartment require first and last months rent, plus a security deposit and a broker’s fee? (Even if you didn’t hire one, a lot of landlords will.) Maybe you find a place that waives the security deposit and that’s less money you have to put down right away, which can make a huge difference. Bottom line: there are a lot of factors to consider, and every listing is different, so make sure to really pay attention to the fine print.
  • Storage! Please, please, please look for your storage options when touring an apartment. I’m talking about closets people!! Does it have a coat closet, or a linen closet, or a tall closet that can fit vacuums and brooms? Does it have the proper amount of kitchen cabinets and drawers to avoid counter space clutter? And better yet, does it have an attic or basement space for all of the extra things you don’t use everyday? My first apartment really lacked the proper amount of storage for my roommate and I, and while we loved that place, it was top of my must have list when moving into my new place three years later. Trust me, you don’t know you need it until you realize you don’t have it.

Now your “must have” list will probably look different from mine, but hopefully this gave you a good idea of what to pay attention to. And in the end, when you actually visit a potential apartment, ultimately trust your intuition. I was lucky enough to get “the feeling” when I toured my first apartment. My roommate and I had seen about five other options, and as soon as we stepped inside we just knew. So if you can, look out for that feeling of assurance during your searchyou’ll know it when it happens. But it doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay too. Just remember that your first apartment does not have to be your forever apartment (it rarely is), and if you find a place that fits your budget and ideal location, but maybe doesn’t have the exact look or layout you imagined, don’t get too hung up on it. And on that note, if it doesn’t have a few of the checkboxes on your “must have” list, don’t stress because there are ways to get creative! Not enough storage? Buy some cute bins or a bookshelf and add your own in the empty corners of your apartment (“Yes hello, Pinterest? I need some DIY inspiration, thanks.”) Just stand firm on what really matters to you and what you could bend a little on if you have to, and you’ll be fine. Trust me, there is so much more that makes a house a home, so be sure to give yourself a little bit of time to settle in and add your own personal touches. You’d be surprised how beautiful something can be when you give it a little extra TLC.

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