5 How-To’s Every First Time Apartment Hunter Should Know

1. How to Research a Neighborhood

Neighborhoods are important, but choosing the best one has a lot to do with your personality and finances, and it’s hard to truly know until you move whether you’ve made the right choice. Growing to love a city takes nine months to a year, so as long as you make a decent neighborhood choice, you’ll be okay, and you can always adjust later, if you’re planning to stay long-term.

That said, some research is definitely in order. If the new city is within a few hours’ drive of where you currently live, going there is best. Also, if you have friends who already live there, you can ask their advice and/or hang out with them when you visit the city. That’s a great start.

If you’re worried about crime, most cities’ police departments have statistics on their website, and if you do even cursory research, it’s unlikely that you’d wind up in a truly dangerous neighborhood, particularly if you’re wary of renting red flags (see below).

Online research of neighborhoods can also be helpful.  Start by checking out all the local magazine and newspaper websites.  They often do an annual review of the various neighborhoods, including rent levels and all kinds of other useful information.  However, aside from the very biggest of cities (like New York City, where we have a listing of good sites), there’s often not all that much evocative reporting on each neighborhood’s atmospherics. For that you have to simply go and see for yourself.

2. How to Spot Red Flags About an Apartment

Having a bad landlord is a huge headache and can make or break a living experience. So, always vet the management company. Larger companies will have listings on Yelp (and other ratings sites), as well as with the Better Business Bureau. Not every entry needs to be positive, but if you see nothing but complaints, and the BBB gives them a poor rating, stay away. Also, some major cities have listings of absentee management companies, as well as statistics for the number of complaints filed against each management company. Check those lists, too. And read up on our brief guide on how to avoid getting scammed.  All told, your interactions with the management company/landlord, should be easy, smooth and congenial. Therefore, if something seems off, it probably is.

If you’re thinking of renting from an individual landlord, who only has a few units – i.e., a person, rather than a company – make sure you are comfortable with him or her. If he or she seems too intrusive or controlling, has strange demands, or demands regular access to your apartment when you aren’t there, stay away. As I always say, trust your instinct and keep looking.

If you’re shown an apartment and there are things that are wrong with it, and you’re told will be fixed “later,” don’t trust that. In such a case, “later” usually means “never,” unless you got the promise in writing.

If possible, try to talk with people who already live in the building (and talk with them when the landlord isn’t around). They’ll usually give you an inkling of what it’s really like, but keep in mind that people will often be polite and positive about where they live, so a guarded, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a few complaints usually means their experience is more negative than neutral.

Finally, be wary of construction nearby. This has nothing to do with the management company, but you don’t want to live across the street from a building site. Trust me. A jackhammer will wake you up at 7:00 am every morning.

3. How to Furnish the Apartment (And Whether to Do It On the Cheap or to Splurge)

First, consider how often you expect to move and will it cost more to move your stuff than it’s worth.  If you are furnishing a college apartment knowing that you’ll move in nine months, you’ll probably go the cheap and disposable route.

Even if you’re starting out in a more permanent apartment, you don’t necessarily need to splurge on anything. Furniture is one of those things where, if you’re diligent, you can get almost any piece fairly cheaply by scrounging resale shops, asking friends, and picking up pieces via Craiglist. One of our writers, Katherine, was able to get all her furnishings for under $1000, so you may want to check out what she has to say. Keep in mind that a nice set of furniture is something that you gradually accumulate over many years, so if you start out with little that’s lasting, that’s okay. You’ll get there as your income increases, and as opportunities to upgrade arise.

There is one piece that you may want to splurge on, your bed. If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, nothing else will seem right. So make sure you have a nice sleeping arrangement, but don’t pay full price. Most mattress places have sticker prices almost double what you’ll end up paying if you negotiate. So comparison shop and bargain, and you’ll get a better price. (Note: mattress price match guarantees are often worthless because each store uses different naming system.  The Super Plush in one place is Dream Sleep in another so you don’t even know it’s the same product.) In this vein, My First Apartment has an article all about different types of beds that you may want to check out.

Otherwise, splurging for certain things may make sense, based on your personality. For example, if you love watching television on a huge HD screen, and you watch TV over ten hours a week, it’s probably worth getting a nice telly. But, even in this situation, do your research and look for sales.

People ask about tips of where to find these deals, but there’s no magic bullets. Sales, bargaining, and second-hand are all great solutions. With furnishing and décor, patience and doing things gradually is the way to eventually get what you need. Remember, you don’t need to furnish your entire apartment in one weekend.

Also, be realistic. The old trick of making a bookshelf out of a few boards and cinderblocks might be fine for a few years – do you really need a new bookshelf?

Or, to take myself as an example, the first three years out of college, I slept on a futon mattress on the floor of my bedroom. It was extremely comfortable, cost-efficient, and my bedroom was large enough that I didn’t need the space under the mattress for storage. Aside from some people thinking I was a bit of a weirdo, there was no downside. Had I kowtowed to convention and bought a “real” bed, I would have probably dropped $600 for something that, at the time, I didn’t really need.

4. How to Get Along with Roommates, Particularly After Transitioning from College

In many respects, living arrangements off campus are easier. At least when I was in college, I was expected to share a single room with another person, which meant we both slept, hung-out and did our homework in one 18’ x 12’ space. Which meant that, if I wanted to go to bed, and my roommate needed to stay up to study, we needed to figure out how that was going to happen.

When you’re living in an apartment, you’re likely to have your own bedroom, which gives you far more privacy and control and allows you to retreat if need be. That said, just because everyone has their own room, that doesn’t mean that one roommate should dominate the living room, kitchen and other common areas. The key is respect and communication. Everyone in the apartment needs to feel comfortable using all of the common spaces. Going along with this, a certain agreed-upon level of cleanliness should be maintained.

Therefore, talking out expectations is important, as is openly discussing small problems right away, before they become full-blown, emotionally-laden issues, at which point they become much harder to solve. Also, listening to roommates. Even if a problem doesn’t seem important to you, it may be very important to your roomie, so it’s wise to take the complaint seriously.

5. How to Meet People in Your New Community

If you’re religious, joining the local church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship is a great way to get a foothold in a new community.

For others there are recreational, social sports leagues that can be a great way to get out-of-doors, and meet new people. There are also websites like MeetUp, which let you find people with similar interests.  Taking a class or two may help – for example, when I moved to Chicago, I started taking Improv classes, which was great because I enjoyed it, and met plenty of like-minded folks.

Finally, if you want to meet new people, go to everything! Even if you don’t know the person who invited you very well, even if it’s not something you would normally do, try it out. Just putting yourself out there and talking to people can get you invested in the city, teach you some local geography, and help you make some new friends.

Ed. comment: This recap of first apartment hunting advice was suggested to us by our friend Grace from Sweet Careers Consulting. Check out her site for advice on transitioning from college to career.

Author My First Apartment

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Alex has rented in Minneapolis, Queens, Brooklyn, and now Chicago. He can kill rodents and roaches when required, and loves picture-hanging projects. If you're ever in town, give him a shout.

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Comments (3)

  1. delilahhen3

    Great article! I’ve been looking around for apartments in Austin. And I’ve definitely considered the management. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Senior Living Massachusetts

    Maybe one of the most important thing to know when you are getting your first apartment is how to budget your money. Being in college does not give you the liberty to splurge all your money on the first week of your apartment life. Make sure that you are able to stretch your budget. Cut back as much as possible to test first how you will get along in the first weeks.

  3. Megan Yancey

    Awesome post. These are some really helpful tips when searching for a new apartment, especially to research the management company on Yelp, or another similar site. I had a nightmare landlord situation, and it definitely could have been avoided by a little extra research and effort on my part. Great tips.