I’ve mentioned before that I’ve moved quite a bit, and a while back I wrote up some guidelines to moving efficiently—guidelines that I’ve since consulted myself, twice. And before you can move, of course, you need to find a place to move to.
Picking an apartment can be tough, and frankly, it gets harder when you’ve got more time to think about it: the easiest moves I’ve done where the ones where I had to find a new place within a very short window, because it forced me to just act. And you know what: it always worked out pretty OK. The reality is that every apartment is going to disappoint or irritate you, one way or another: the people above you will spend their days marching in high heels, or the communal washers will be completely broken on weekends, or the landlord will be utterly unreachable. In apartment hunting, I’ve always found myself fighting the last battle, to find an apartment that didn’t suffer the deficiencies that defined the one I was already living in.
Inevitably, though, each new apartment just comes with its own new problems. So, set your expectations a little lower, and consider the following:
- Timing sucks. Several places I’ve lived have required 60-day notice before moving out, even if it was just the end of the current lease. But, very few available apartments are listed that far out (probably because the landlords are waiting for the 60-day notice from their own tenants. It’s a Catch-22). There’s really no good way around this: you just need to give notice that you’ll be moving out of your current place, and trust that you’ll find a new one. Start looking for a place as soon as you know you want to move, but don’t be discouraged if there doesn’t seem to be much available.
- Searches will vary by city. In DC, I found everything through Craigslist. In Chicago, everything is run by these apartment finding services, so you’ll see listings in Craigslist, but the actual listed apartment isn’t always available; as often as not, you’ll get a response from an apartment finder asking what you’re looking for, so they can direct you to other apartments they’re trying to fill. It might take some time and aggravation to figure out how your local market works, especially if you’re moving to a new city.
- Location, location, location. It’s a cliche for a reason, and matters more for people like me who want to live without a car. Where’s the closest public transit? How about a grocery store and pharmacy? Can you get to work easily? Speaking of which:
- Commute times matter. A lot. This is not news: it’s easy to find articles about studies showing that longer commute times make us miserable. One such article stuck with me when the writer pointed out how people think that a larger home will make them happier—so much space for activities!—but the increased commute necessary to get out to the suburbs (where such a home is affordable) fully negates any benefit of extra space. Your mileage will vary, of course, but I’ve embraced the short commute over extra space.
- Rent a condo if you can. Most of my apartments have just been one of many rental units in a large building, but a few times, I’ve rented a condo from the owner. If you find this option, take it! People who own their place care a whole lot more about the building and the other people in it, which means your neighbors will be far more considerate.
- The inside of the apartment doesn’t matter much. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an empty apartment and been underwhelmed, but moved in anyway because it was the best option available. Know what? A few weeks later, it really didn’t matter. Once your stuff is there, and the place scrubbed down (if necessary), and you’re settled in and used to the noises it makes, it doesn’t really matter that much: the layout, the fixtures, the counter top, the closets—they’ll become the new normal in no time.
- Check the water pressure. OK, most of the inside of an apartment doesn’t matter, but taking a weak-ass shower every morning is no way to be your best self.
- Square footage is a ballpark. I’ve seen “500 square foot” apartments that were considerably smaller than “700 square foot” apartments. Apartment listings here in Chicago don’t often include the measurement anyway, but always take them with a grain of salt. As much as the inside of the apartment doesn’t matter (see above), you want to make sure it’s going to be big enough for your stuff, and potentially your pet and/or partner.
- Visit the neighborhood at night. Typically, apartment-seekers see the place during the day, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you what it’s like to live there. If you saw Adams Morgan (DC) or Wrigleyville (Chicago) at 4 on a Wednesday, you might think it’s a quiet little neighborhood with lots of restaurants. Unless you’re just moving to one of those cities, you would know those two examples, but make sure you know if your potential new neighborhood is swarmed with drunken college kids every weekend.
- Consider foot traffic flow. Is there a bar next door? Or maybe right around the corner? Does one have pass your place to get from the barto the train station? Then you might have a bunch of drunks wandering past your place late at night, with the singing and/or fighting that sometimes comes with it. I lucked out at a place in DC: we were right around the corner from a strip of bars, but on a side street that only went one block, uphill, before T-boning the next street over. There was no reason for anyone to leave a bar and walk down our block, because it didn’t go anywhere: we were close to all the fun without the side effects.
- Make sure you know what’s outside the windows. I keep my blinds shut almost all the time, because I don’t like the idea of people outside looking at me. If this is a concern for you, it might be good to know that the living room is right next to the front entry to the building, or facing directly into someone else’s living room across a narrow courtyard. Or, if you’re concerned about security, it would be good to know if the back window is at ground-level in a dark alley. You might also want to notice if a second-floor apartment has a street light right by the bedroom window.
- Other things I look for. These are some highlights I keep an eye out for. They’re not deal-breakers if not available, but certainly improve the appeal of a potential apartment.
- Laundry in the unit: the holy grail of renting.
- Poured concrete construction: you can’t hear the people above you walking around when there’s a few solid inches of concrete to protect you.
- Gas range: I don’t cook much, but I know what I like, and what I like ain’t electric burners.
- No Comcast: it’s not a deciding factor, but the ISP that serves a building is definitely a consideration.
- Dishwasher: obviously.
- Other things you might look for. These are things that don’t really matter to me, but might matter to you.
- Flooring: if you gotta have that hardwood.
- Closet space: or you could just get rid of stuff.
- Parking space: if you’ve got a car, make sure you’ll have somewhere to put it.
- Bike storage: some places have bike racks in the basement or parking garage, or even a separate room for them.
- Garbage disposal: you forget how convenient they are until you don’t have one any more.
- Built-in lighting: could go either way, depending.