Renting 101: Look for an Affordable City That Matches Your Interests and Personality

For many recent grads, the first year after college is an exciting, but fraught time: you’ve achieved your educational goals, you’re at the top of the heap … and now you’re expected to join the so-called real world, doing entry-level work. The point is, you need to decide where you are going to start building a life. One option is to first find a job and go where that takes you. Another way is to choose a city that will offer you a lifestyle, not just a job and affordable rent.

What city will you choose? After all, if you’re still figuring out how to become a financial powerhouse, living in New York or San Francisco will be difficult – you’ll likely be living in cramped quarters in a mediocre (or worse) neighborhood. Sure, if you ride the train for half an hour, there will be a lot of cool bars, and tons of cultural opportunities, but if you can barely make your rent, how could you justify springing for $80 Knicks tickets, $12 mixed drinks, or a $40 cab ride? You probably can’t – and seeing others being able to enjoy a city, while you’re stuck on the sidelines can be frustrating.

Also, remember this: very, very cheap rental rates can be a sign that the place has little else to offer.  Even worse for a new grad,  places with extremely low rent usually also have an extremely depressed economy – which means it will be difficult to find a job there, and when you do, you won’t get paid much.

So, where should you look? Mid-size cities are a good place to start. Generally speaking, the Midwest is cheaper, and you don’t necessarily sacrifice on the culture front. That said, be careful. There are lots of lists of “most affordable cities,” and they don’t necessarily reflect what you want. For example, Time magazine rated Des Moines, Iowa, as the most affordable city for renters. Now, I’ve been to Des Moines. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but when your number one things-to-do talking point is a minor league baseball team, it might not be a good place for an artistic post-grad.

Some other cities from the list: Harrisburg, PA (#2), Ogden, UT (#3), Wichita, KS (#5), Seattle, WA (#9), and Pittsburgh, PA (#10). As you can see, there’s a wide range of city sizes and personalities. The problem with these lists is they don’t factor in what you want – they’re going very strongly by prices relative to the city’s overall cost of living. You don’t just want a good deal – you want a good deal in a place you’ll enjoy living.

So here’s my pick of  a few good first apartment cities that are both affordable and a good match to various types of personalities and interests:


Santa Fe, New Mexico: Georgia O’Keefe moved to New Mexico because she was struck by the landscape … in addition to the striking natural beauty, you’ll find tons of art galleries and museums, as well as artists honing their craft.

Minneapolis, Minnesota: For those who’ve not been there, the Twin Cities have a lot of artistic charm: The Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and the Frank-Geary-designed Weisman Art Gallery are all top-notch institutions. Throw in a handful of galleries scattered about the cities and a great literary scene, and you’ll have plenty to keep you busy.

Theater Lover:

Chicago, Illinois: I know it’s not a mid-size town, but it’s cheaper than many major cities on the coasts, and it is the place to be for theater. There’s the famous Steppenwolf  Theater, the well-known Goodman Theater – and there’s also the Second City comedy club, IO Theater (improv), and tons and tons of storefront theaters.

Louisville, Kentucky: In addition to the wonderful Actors Theater of Louisville (which has three distinct theaters under one roof), the city hosts the annual Humana Festival, which has had three of its entrants go on to with Pulitzer Prizes. There’s also several more theaters downtown, a festival of ten-minute plays held every January, and tons of energy from the University of Louisville.

Sports Enthusiast:

Indianapolis, Indiana: Not only does the town have the Colts and the Pacers, Indianapolis has also hosted two men’s basketball Final Fours, regularly hosts other rounds of the NCAA Tournament, has a contract to host the men’s Big 10 Championship through 2013, and hosted the Super Bowl last year. Need we say more? Because we could: the town also boasts a Triple-A baseball team and the Indy 500! And, you’re within easy driving distance of Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana University, if you want more college sports.

Outdoors Enthusiast:

Denver, Colorado: Colorado is justly famous for its great outdoors. Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, skiing in Vail, and whitewater rafting on the Colorado River are all possibilities when you live in Denver. Throw in a crunchy culture that values exercise, camping and wilderness, and you have an outdoors lover’s paradise.

Portland, Oregon: Often known as a hipster mecca, Portland is also one of the most bike-friendly towns in the nation. It’s surrounded by three national parks and near the ocean, so there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy the natural world.

These are just a few examples of the possibilities. Now, think of what’s important to you, whether it be engineering, photography, literature – whatever floats your boat, and start researching where you can go get it.

Once you’ve identified a few cities, get on craigslist and other rental boards and see how much rentals are going for in each place – if it seems you can afford it, move on to the next consideration: the local economy. Research average salaries in the areas, as well as the employment rates – this will tell you what you can expect in terms of finding a job, and whether you’ll be able to build a career. Finally, see if you’ll have any friends in the areas – moving someplace without knowing anyone there can be incredibly hard. If everything lines up: a city has your passion, you’ll know a few people, the prices are right, and there are jobs to be had, it might be time to take the plunge!

Finally, let us know how it goes! If you have any other recommendations for great cities to live in – and what they feature – post them in the comments section below.

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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. Avatar Tyler

    I sense that the best way to find the city that best suits your personality is through travel. Do a little research on the particular city,and if you can afford it, take a trip there. Stay for a week or so and see what it’s like,and then go from there.

  2. Sabrina Sabrina

    I was debating this topic for some time now, so I am grateful there is an article on it.

    Let’s see…LOUISVILLE is a theater town? I need to visit just to see it. This list makes me want to travel more.