How to Look for an Apartment in a New City
Whether you’ve just graduated and are looking for a place in your new town, you’re relocating for work, or you just want a change of scenery, apartment hunting in a new city can be overwhelming. Where do you even start? And what do you do once you’ve found the apartment?
In another life, before I went to work in the freedom movement, I spent some time working as a leasing consultant at a property management company. I helped a lot of first-time renters navigate the leasing world and picked up on what first-time lessees tend to overlook when apartment hunting. I could write a book on this (maybe a blog post series will do?), but here are my top tips for looking for an apartment, specifically in a new city.
1. Dial in on your focus-area
Why are you moving to this city? Is it for work? For family? For fun? What is going to be your biggest life priority over the next year? Where will you spend most of your time? Pinpoint that physical location (your office, your family’s home, the beach, whatever), and start your search from that point, circling outward. If you could spend less time commuting to and from your focus-area, and more time actually focusing on it, that would be ideal, right? So start there. Put that address into Google Maps and search “apartments” in the nearby option, and start with those results. It might be that you can’t afford an apartment within a five minute walk from work. That’s okay, just start circling outwards and looking farther away. Once you’ve found a place or two that are within reason. Move to step #2.
So you’ve found an affordable neighborhood, yay! But is it a neighborhood that you vibe with? Every neighborhood has a different personality, and you’ll want to make sure your own personality meshes with it. If you’re a homebody who’s ideal night is take out and Netflix, you probably don’t want to live in that trendy nightlife neighborhood with all of the bar and restaurant noise until 2:00 am. It might seem quiet at 3:00 pm when you walked around, but come back at 11:30 pm on a Friday night to see what it’s like. Trust me, walls and windows are not that thick. Vice versa, if you like being in the thick of it, don’t look for a place that’s 30 minutes from anywhere. You can usually get a pretty good read on a neighborhood from just walking around it for awhile.
Also, make sure you do walk around the neighborhood in person to see where your essentials are (or if they’re missing), like the grocery store, coffee shop, go-to take out place, public transit, etc. This is a “must” particularly if you don’t have a car.
3. Tour, tour, tour
Okay, now you’ve found the best neighborhood you can afford, and you have a couple of apartments in the running. Now comes the fun part: touring. Set up tours to look at apartments within the complexes. Don’t limit yourself too much by giving a super specific list of needs, but also be honest about how much you can really afford. For example, if you’d ideally want a two bedroom, but you know you can’t afford it, ask if they have any one bedroom with den floor plans. Or ask if they have additional storage space options.
Some pro-tips to keep in mind here:
-An apartment on a higher floor is likely to be more expensive. Leasing agents usually get paid commission, so they will naturally show you the most expensive option in your budget. If you like a floorplan, ask if they have any on the second floor, not the 12th.
-Ask about extra costs, like if utilities are included, amenity fees, trash, etc. These can rack up another couple hundred from your base-rent if they’re not included.
-If your timing is flexible, ask about options that are opening up in another month or two. Management is usually working with a 90-day notice policy and has a pretty good idea of what’s going to be open in 2-3 months. If you don’t need an apartment right now, there may be cheaper options coming up.
4. Work out your must-haves and don’t get caught up in extras
New apartment complexes have some swanky amenities these days. And while you’re touring, it can be easy to get caught up in the awesome theater room you can rent out, the rooftop pool, and the gym with an entire wall of live plants that give off oxygen as you work out and think “this totally outweighs the fact that the grocery store is a mile away.” But before signing on the dotted line, think seriously about how often you’ll actually use those amenities. I can say from personal experience–I once lived in a complex that had all of these–you won’t use them as often as you think you will. You won’t really be feeling the gym after lugging your groceries back all that way, and if you sunburn within 20 minutes of being outside (hand raised 🙋🏼♀️), you definitely won’t be spending your days burning away on the roof. It might be worth compromising on an apartment without all the bells and whistles but being in a better location.
5. Don’t get locked in to something you don’t understand
Leasing includes a bunch of legalese and can be really confusing. Make sure you take the time to read through your lease before signing it–not like the “skim” you give the terms of service before accepting on Spotify–actually read it. Know what your lease term is; know if you need to set up the utilities or if they do it; know what you’re responsible for doing when you move out. Is there a chance you may need to leave before your lease term is up? Check to see if there’s a break-lease clause that will allow you to leave early. It’ll cost you extra, but usually not as much as paying rent for six months in an apartment you don’t live in. Most importantly, don’t forget that this lease is a legal contract. If you fail to hold up your end because you didn’t read or understand it, they can and will evict you (and you’ll have trouble leasing an apartment forever if that happens). So just ask questions! If the leasing agent can’t answer them, doesn’t offer for you to ask to the manager, or if God-forbid, the manager can’t answer them, do not, I repeat, do NOT sign that lease. Bad management makes for a bad apartment experience, even in the nicest of apartments.
One last pro-tip. If you’re very uncertain about the apartment, or the neighborhood, ask about shorter lease terms. One year is standard, but some offer nine or six month options (at a higher rent). But sometimes, you just need to experience a place for a while to know if it works for you. At the end of the day, don’t overthink. Even if the place doesn’t turn out to be your dream apartment, a year is not that long in the long run. A year will give you time to explore your new town, do more research, or save up more to allow you to rent the perfect pad next year.