Apartment-Hunting Deal-Breakers

When you’re apartment-hunting, sometimes the warning signs are obvious. A crumbling building overlooking the town dump? Stay away. The next-door neighbor plays “Who Let The Dogs Out” at maximum volume at all hours, while his real-life Dobermans prowl the hallways? RUN away. As fast as you can.

Other times, you’re willing to overlook seemingly small things because of other factors–you’re enamored with the neighborhood, it’s close to your job, and the rent is absurdly low. But some of those seemingly small things are actually pretty big. If you’re looking for a new place to live, there are some things that you should just consider deal-breakers, plain and simple.

They break down into three general categories: life safety, crime, and general well-being. An apartment can be spotless but not safe because of the surroundings, or it can be in Charmville but still be a danger to your health.


warranty problem concept with torn wireBe on the lookout for major hazards or problems with the building’s basic systems. If there’s a circuit breaker or electrical box in the apartment, open it up and take a look. If it appears old or shoddy, ask the landlord about the state of the wiring. While you’re at it, ask how old the furnace is, and how well it’s maintained. What you’re looking for, essentially, is any indication that the landlord isn’t keeping up the basic systems of the building (and bear in mind that things can be old but still in tip-top shape). If you get the brush-off without any firm reassurance, that’s a deal-breaker. You need to be able to trust the furnace not to have problems–like, say, a carbon monoxide leak that could kill you.

Similarly, look at the plumbing. Does the shower work–and does it have not just running water but reliable, HOT running water? The toilet. Does it work? Flush it. You need to have a fully functional bathroom–there’s not halfway here. It has to work. Same goes for the kitchen, for that matter. Do you get a faint smell of gas when you turn on the oven and you’re only getting fishy reassurances from the landlord? Deal-breaker. Run.

This is more discreet, but also look around the ceilings and walls for dampness and discoloring, which may indicate water infiltration. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker IF the problem has been fixed. But it sure is if there’s even a tiny bit of mold. Mold is a huge, huge deal-breaker.


Decayed Door LockThis goes for the building and the neighborhood. Trust your instincts, but verify by asking around and meeting some of your neighbors (because it’s possible that your initial gut reaction is wrong).

Look at the mailbox area. Are the mailboxes all locked (with, you know, locks that still work)? Are all entries to the building locked as a matter of course? Broken exterior doors or locks are deal-breaker. Check out other spaces you might use, such as the laundry room or parking area. If you feel unsafe in any of those areas, that’s going to be a problem–and, yep, it’s a deal-breaker.

Walk around the neighborhood, going to the places you’d visit on a regular basis–the store, the park, the bus stop. Do you feel safe walking to and from each place? Even at night? If not, that should be a deal-breaker.

Feeling safe and secure in your own apartment is so important. Without that, you won’t feel at ease; it won’t feel like home.


I used to live next to a guy who yelled a lot. At all hours. Several times a week. He wasn’t dangerous, as far as I could tell from interacting with him–he just liked to yell. A few times, I called the police. I told the landlord. The yelling persisted, along with my sleepless nights. I’ve always wished that I’d talked to some of the other neighbors before moving in. Because, honestly, that really would have been a deal-breaker.

Deal-breakers in this category are more abstract and more prone to personal preference, but they’re still important. Again: you need to feel comfortable in your apartment.

Think long and hard about all the circumstances you’ll be dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and see if any of them are deal-breakers for you. For example, if you need lots of natural light but the apartment only has one tiny window, well, that’s something you should take into account.

Draw up your own list of must-haves and deal-breakers before you start looking at apartments. And always remember that there are many, many apartments out there. You probably won’t find your perfect, ideal, affordable spot, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for something that makes your genuinely uncomfortable.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at www.douglasmack.net or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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