Finding the Perfect Apartment
Finding an apartment can be just as difficult as finding a job, in some cases even tougher.
Chances are, the apartment of your dreams won't have a reasonable price attached to it, so you'll simply have to compromise (in other words, settle for what you can afford). Before throwing in the towel and taking an apartment that's hardly livable (and I'm speaking from experience here), consider the following ten questions:
What can I really afford?
The simple answer to this question is about 25% to 30% of your take home income. However, depending on the region and the city, this figure might not work for you. (If you can find an apartment in New York City for less than $700 per month, you should consider yourself very lucky to have inherited an apartment - your percentage may be closer to 50%.) So, decide on a figure that's appropriate for your budget and circumstances and stick with it.
Can I find a place on my own?
The simple answer to this one - maybe. Ask around to find out what your best path is, be it newspapers, Internet searches, friends and family connections or real estate agents. Depending on where you're moving, a real estate agent, along with his/her fees might be necessary. On the topic of real estate agents, they can charge anywhere from half a month's rent to over 15% of your yearly rent. If you get really lucky, you might find a building (or employer) that picks up the realtor's fee for you.
Can I live with roommates?
You've probably done it for four years already and wouldn't mind a place of your own, but remember that housing expenses for one are a lot more costly than for two or more. Decide which is more stressful to you - extra financial burdens or roommate idiosyncrasies. If you decide to take the roommate route, remember to choose your roommates well. Consider criteria like whether a potential roommate keeps the same hours as you, has the same idea as to what constitutes a clean apartment and does his/her fair share of the household duties.
This is a simple question that generally has a simple, but important answer, so ask. Potential bills that may or may not be included are gas, electric, cable, water, fitness center membership and Internet access. There may also be additional fees that usually fall under the heading of "maintenance fees". Just because your building has a pool, tennis courts and gym doesn't necessarily mean that you get to use them free of charge. Just ask.
How far will my commute to work be?
Whatever you do, DO NOT overlook this one. Most people just starting out work rather long hours. A long drive or train ride home when you've been working for the past 10-12+ hours is not particularly pleasant. If that doesn't convince you, consider my uncle, who's been working - and commuting - for 30 years. He was recently lamenting the fact that he'd spent over 2 1/2 years of his life in his car. You can watch a lot of Survivor and play a lot of pick-up basketball in 2 1/2 years.
Does size matter?
Unless you've managed to accumulate endless amounts of stuff, the size of your apartment is not all that important. Think about the shower, the kitchen appliances, the noise levels and the cleanliness of the apartment first. Plus, there are lots of little tricks to make your apartment look bigger - like keeping walls light and furniture at a minimum.
What about my pooch?
Be sure to ask about pets, if you have one or if you have severe allergies to them (Fluffy could have been the previous owner). You might also want to consider how friendly the building is to smokers. Your hallways and lobby just might be havens for Philip Morris lovers - which could be good or bad, depending on your view.
How quickly do I need to act?
In most places, the answer is very quickly. Apartments are in high demand throughout the country right now, especially in hot cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. In almost every case, it's not a sales gimmick when you are told that you need to act soon or the apartment will be gone. (Once, when looking for an apartment, I had forgotten that I might need to have my checkbook in hand. When I returned with it one hour later, the apartment was taken.)
Should I sub-lease?
Sub-leasing usually works out well, but you need to be sure that it meets your needs. If you're unfamiliar with a city and want to get a feel for it before deciding on where to plant your roots, sub-leasing for a few months is probably a good idea. A word of caution before sub-leasing: sometimes it is not within the terms of a lease agreement that someone is able to lease out their own apartment, so check out the rules of the lease agreement beforehand. If not, you could wind up on the street with very little notice.
Won't you be my neighbor?
Check out your neighbors before signing on the dotted line. Are you OK with the homeless shelter across the street and the fire station that's two doors down? Do your neighbors include families with small children (think crying baby), seniors who go to sleep at 8pm, or college students who still don't have to wake up at the crack of dawn to go to work? If your walls are thick enough, the crying baby might not matter all that much, but do consider how commercial your potential neighborhood is. Why, you might ask? Garbage trucks - they're loud (able to penetrate the thickest of walls) and they can come every night, sometimes five times on any given night.
Apartment hunting is something of a job, so stay organized, allow yourself ample time and keep your spirits up - you'll find something eventually, even if you have to spend a few extra nights on your friend's couch.
Also of interest: Leases and Landlords, Avoiding Renter's Remorse, Roommate Roulette, Broke and Back Home.