7 Rules For Apartment Hunting

apartment hunting tips
7 Rules For Apartment Hunting
Your first place is an adventure – make sure it’s a good one.

Everyone moving out on their own for the first time believes they have to prove themselves. Perhaps that’s truer of this generation, dogged by accusations of entitlement and laziness, more than any other. I know it was true for me.

I emerged from college a little over a year ago with two degrees under my belt and a mountain of debt on my back. When I finally managed to get hired after months of searching, I was browsing the internet for an apartment the very same hour. I moved in last February and now, nearly a year later, I'm ready to move out. The difference this time is I'll be catching all my old mistakes. I'd like to make sure you can too.

Visit the Apartment, Then Visit it at Night

I swore, when I was looking for my first place, that I wasn’t going to get fooled. I asked for not only the full tour of the apartment complex, but I made sure I got to see the actual apartment as well.

…And then I quickly found out after my first month there that how an apartment complex looks at 2:00ish on a Wednesday afternoon is not the best way to judge how it’ll be anytime else. You’re definitely going to want to see the place with daylight on your side (especially if the apartment doesn’t have electricity hooked up yet), but it’s just as important to see what the place is like when all your neighbors get back from work and/or school. I soon discovered that eleven at night was the generally favored time by the folks across the way to have scream-fights with each other, and that anyone within range of a trash bin will try to throw their bags of garbage from their windows without worrying too much if they miss. Mid to late evening is when you’re going to be able to see what the place is really like.

Don’t Research the Apartment, Research the Management Company

For the most part, the apartment’s leasing office is going to be helpful and patient with you. For all the stories out there about nightmare landlords or impossible to get ahold of property managers, there’s a high chance that the staff who you’ll be dealing with will be living in the same complex as you. Your problems are their problems; but that said, you need to understand that they’re not the ones who call the shots.

Whether your apartment has its own security team on patrol every night or whether the police swing by once on the weekend for a courtesy drive-through; whether the maintenance team is comprised solely of Scruffy-the-Janitor or a whole crew of veteran handymen– these are all decided by the property management company. You can plead or howl with the folks down at the leasing office, and while they’re going to sympathize, they’re being honest when they tell you that their hands are tied. You’re going to need to check out reviews not of the apartment you’re looking at (there’s a good chance it’s changed hands since any reviews were written), but of the management company who owns and runs the place.

If your research is producing complaint after complaint about them, then no matter how nice the complex looks or how friendly the staff are, it’s just a matter of time before it goes downhill.

Stop By On The First of the Month

The first of the month is typically the day apartments will have set for rent. With everyone crowding in to hand over their checks, this is probably the best time to get a feel for the place. You’ll get to see how the staff holds up under pressure and who your potential neighbors are. That’s not to say you can judge a book by its cover, but I’ve never had anything neighborly done for me by the guy in a grease-stained wifebeater small enough to showcase his ex-girlfriend’s portrait tattooed on his belly.

When you’re committing to spending the next six to twelve months in a place, any information you can get on the people who are going to be around you is always helpful. Best yet, it gives you an opportunity strike up a conversation with a lot of people and get a consensus on what it’s like to live there.

Look at the Grounds

Don’t make the mistake of just looking at the apartment when you’re thinking of getting your first place; be sure to check out the area around it as well. You can tell a lot about the place you’re going to be living in by the stuff that gets left lying around. In my case, it was cigarette butts and enough dog excrement to build an island in the Pacific. The simple truth of the matter is that if your neighbors don’t care about their own living situation, you’d better believe they’re going to care even less about yours. Graffiti or a lone, abandoned shopping cart that’s somehow migrated into your parking lot are generally indicative of a lack of security.

A yellow shopping cart next to a wall

Ask When the Apartments Were Built

Last summer was the hottest on record for where I live, and the old AC units that had been installed in our flats (probably sometime in the last years of the Carter administration) were completely fried.  The maintenance crew was suddenly swamped with work orders and if you had any problem other than with your AC, you could forget about it getting fixed any time that month.

Older houses are prone to heating problems, as well as wiring and plumbing issues. Bugs can be another major negative; you can spray all the poison you want, but if the walls, floor, or ceiling of your place aren’t sealed right, or have gotten warped or cracked with time, they’re just going to keep coming back. Getting cable or wi-fi installed is another nightmare for any house built over 30 years ago. Unless you’re a master handyman, always try to go for the more recently built place.

Smaller is Better

When you’re first moving out on your own, chances are that your options are going to be fairly limited in terms of what kind of place you can get. A general rule to follow, though, is to always opt for the smallest of the complexes in your price range. Not only do large complexes mean that you’re less likely to get help when you need it (when you’re living with 400 other people, you’re probably not the only tenant with a broken stove), but it means that the leasing office is going to be less able to enforce any of the rules. If you complain about your parking space being taken, they’ll tell you they’ll get to it when they can, but with the continual stream of major problems they’ll be dealing with (from tenants not paying rent to crime issues), any non-emergency grievance on your part probably isn’t going to be deemed worth their limited time and resources. It’s not that they don’t care – they do – it’s simply the fact that you’re just one out of a few hundred voices and they don’t need your business to get along.

Alternatively, a smaller complex is going to both mean that your complaints have less competition (both in being heard and resolved) and that your suggestions and feelings are going to have more sway with the management.

Spend the Money

When you’re trying to make it on your own for the first time, your instinct is going to be to save money wherever you can. Fifty bucks here, a hundred dollars there – you might figure that you can stockpile enough to get by for a while if you ever lose your job. “I’m young,” you might be thinking, “I’m tough – I can handle a nasty apartment for a few years.” Let me tell you right now, it’s just not worth it. You’ve got enough to stress out about without worrying every day if your place is getting broken into, or if you’re going to have to wage another epic battle with the cockroaches when you get home. A hundred dollars or so is not a lot to pay for peace of mind and the knowledge that your water heater will be fixed within a a day or two of it exploding and flooding the apartment below.

In your first years out, your apartment isn’t just the place where you live, it’s your castle. For many of us, the contents of our homes are worth far more than the contents of our bank account. I know that if I had been burglarized anytime in the first few months of me living in my own place, I wouldn’t have been able to replace what little I had and still keep ahead on my student loan payments and savings. Paying a little extra for a nicer, safer, or better maintained place does make a difference, and if you can’t spare that, at least get yourself some decent rental insurance (make sure that it covers property loss).

Perhaps what makes so many of us (myself included) mess up when it comes to first moving out is that we think of it as all being temporary. “I’ll take a reduced standard of living for now and build up for down the road.” And while that’s a great rule, what you need to remember is that an apartment is an investment. How’s that possible? Well, it’s not the apartment that you’re investing in – it’s yourself. That’s the fundamental principle behind all of this.

Your security, your health, and your stability: these are the things which truly determine whether or not you make it and they’re what are going to be tried and tested out in the world more than anything else. Sacrificing your general well-being to protect your wallet is like skimping on ship repairs to keep your cargo secure. So whether you’re a first time renter, or bouncing from place to place, always be keeping in mind what’s really important.

Good luck and good (apartment) hunting.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.