How to find your dream apartment

Want to find your dream apartment? Don't we all! I've rented 13 apartments in 17 years - all my best tips are here! //
Did you know that I’m oddly passionate about …. renting?

Such a sexy, hot-button topic, right? I’m also Pretty Serious about refugee resettlement and climate change but if you want me to get really excited? Let’s talk about mortgage rates or how to make your apartment look great on a budget.

Of course, there are many reasons to buy and maybe homeownership is totally, totally right for you. But when you own, housing-related costs are usually the biggest expenses in your budget. Homeowners have less free time due to the upkeep that houses require. If something in your life changes – you get divorced or married, you get an amazing job offer, your family grows or shrinks – it could take years to sell your home and find a new space that fits your new life.

If you want to buy a home, you should do it!

If you want the freedom of renting, come sit next to me and let’s talk about how to find your dream rental – something in a cool neighborhood, with affordable rent, and an awesome landlord.

After 13 rentals in 17 years, I’ve got this ish DOWN. Here are all the questions you should ask yourself before you sign a lease, plus some handy tricks to find the best places!

How’s the location?

A conveniently-located apartment will save you money, time, and maybe even your sanity.  I don’t know about you, but location is the single most important factor when I’m looking at apartments. 

Of course, apartment in well-situated spots are often more expensive than places in the suburbs but have a big think about the location before you commit. It might be worth it to live in a studio in a great neighborhood rather than a two-bedroom in a suburb that’s 40 minutes from your office.

Consider the old real estate tip: rent the cheapest place in the nicest neighborhood!

Is it near the bus line/highway/subway?

If you don’t have a car, is your new place near a public transportation hub?  Or are are you going to have to walk for seven blocks and take three buses to work? If you’re not sure, simply type the address of your potential rental into Google maps and look for the little bus and train icons.

how to find your dream apartment

Is it near your job?

You’ll save time and money if you’re living near your workplace.  In fact, reducing or removing your commute is the happiness equivalent of getting a $40,000 raise!  Use Padmapper to search rentals near your work or near bus routes and train stations that can take you directly to your office. 

Is it near your friends?

Awesome for parties, cat-sitting and spontaneous Glee watching. If you live alone, recently went through a breakup, or you need buddies to keep you motivated to work out, it’s nice to live near your friends.

It is, perhaps, less awesome, if you are writing your thesis and your perpetually unemployed stoner friend lives around the corner and always wants to play Guitar Hero. Something to think about!

Is it near stuff you like to do? Will it support the life you want?

One of the sad realities of Adult Life is that work, commuting, and errands take up a lot of time and hobbies sometimes get left behind.  This is much less likely to happen if you live near the climbing gym, park, boat launch or studio space.

If you’re really serious about your hobby and afraid that it’ll get eaten up, choose to live in a neighborhood that supports your activities. If you want to work out more, rent in a building with a gym. If you want to cook more, rent an apartment that’s across the street from a co-op. You get the idea!

find your dream apartment tricks

Is it safe?

This is particularly important is you’re a lady, living by herself.  If you’re not sure about a neighborhood, check out its crime map or just ask your friends if they’ve heard anything about that area.

Drive through the neighborhood, not just once, but several times. Drive through your neighborhood of choice when the weather’s nice and people are outside, on a weekend after dark, and in the middle of a work day. If your neighborhood has a little commercial area, walk poke around it. Does anybody yell at you? How bad is the street harassment?

Every neighborhood is bound to have a bit of crime, but you want to be particularly careful to avoid neighborhoods with lots of violent crime or crimes against women.

How are the neighbors?  

One person’s dream neighbor is another person’s nightmare. If you have a dog, you might want to live next to fellow dog owners (so you won’t feel guilty when your dog barks). If you have kids, it’d be nice to live somewhere filled with young families so you’ve got built-in play date partners.

There are laws about what building managers and real estate agents can tell you about other tenants. While you can’t ask “How many screaming infants live on this floor?” you can ask  “What are the other tenants like?”

If you’re super strategic, you can schedule your viewing for dinner time hours or the weekend, when the other tenants are around. This will give a good idea of a normal noise and activity level.

How is it heated and cooled?  And is the price of the heating and cooling included in the rent?  Who is in charge of the temperature?

If you live someplace with extreme weather, the price of heating and cooling can be in the hundreds of dollars each month. Before you sign a lease, double check that your landlord is paying for the heat or air conditioning.  If heat/ac are included, who is in charge of the thermostat?

In Minnesota, heat is usually included in rent and landlords are in charge of the thermostat. Some landlords like to keep their buildings around 65 degrees in the winter – which means you’ll probably run up your electricity bill using space heaters.  If you find yourself paying for heat and your bills are completely unmanageable, check out your state’s Heating Assistance programs.

How’s the closet space?

Contrary to what Carrie Bradshaw would have us believe, limited closet space is not the end of the world.  That’s what IKEA wardrobes are for.  But if you’re living with a pack rat or you’ve got 35 vintage coats, this is something to consider. If you find the apartment of your dreams and the bedroom is tiny or lacks storage, try these clever storage tips

Is there parking?  And if you live in a snowy area, is the parking on a Snow Emergency Route?

I once lived in a neighborhood that required 20 minutes of block-circling to find a parking space. And  every time it snowed, I had to wade out into the blizzard and move my car.  Sure wish I had thought about that before I signed the lease!

find your dream apartment

Are there any repairs that need to be done before you move in?

If an apartment is immediately available – meaning that there’s no one currently living in it – there might be a reason. Maybe the last tenants did a runner.  Maybe the landlord just spent a month repainting and remodeling it.  Or maybe it’s shitty and broken and nobody wants to live there.

Give everything a really thorough going-over before you sign a lease.  Make sure your landlord is aware of any damage, knows you didn’t cause it and has a time frame within which to repair them.

How present is the landlord?

Does your landlord winter in Phoenix?  Is she a traveling saleswoman?  And if she’s not always around, is there someone else you can call in case of emergencies?  Absentee landlords aren’t necessarily bad, but if your heat goes out in the middle of the winter, you’ll want to call a local number – not exchange a million emails while they’re in Hawaii.

How’s the water pressure?

This seems like it’s not a big deal, BUT IT TOTALLY IS.  I once lived in a house with such bad water pressure, showering was impossible.  Getting ready in the morning, in a house of four girls, when we’re all taking baths? Not awesome.

How much natural light does it get?

This is particularly important if you live someplace cold, rainy, or frequently overcast.  If you live in Seattle where there are only seventy days of sunshine a year, you’re going to want to get a bit of that in your living room window, right?

Tricks for getting the best apartment ever

    • Start looking 1-2 months before you actually need to move
      Obviously, right? Starting your search early means you’ll have a better idea what to expect, how much you’ll pay, and you won’t end up just taking the first available place because you need to be out by the 31st.
    • Tell your friends and social media that you’re looking
      Many of my best, most favorite apartments came via friends and friends-of-friends. In fact, several times I swooped in and scooped up a great place before the owners even listed it!
    • Dress nicely and show up on time when you go to an apartment viewing
      In a perfect world, people would not judge us by our appearances, but in this deeply imperfect world, they do. Like, a lot. If you live in a city with a tight real estate market and owners have their pick of renters, they’ll probably choose the person who showed up on time, dressed in something clean and pressed. It’s annoying, but it’s true.find your dream apartment craigslist
    • Set up an IFTTT recipe for Craigslist listings
      What? That sounds complicated, but it just means that you’re setting up notifications for any new listing that meets your criteria. Every time a $800 2-bedroom in Cathedral Hill is posted, I’ll immediately get an email and I can schedule a showing 20 minutes after the owners posted about it.
    • Don’t be dissuaded by lackluster photos
      If something is in the right neighborhood and price range, it’s worth a look. A lot of building managers are too busy to take decent photos, so they’ll upload poorly lit phone photos that they haven’t even bothered to rotate.I snapped up a wildly under-priced apartment in a swanky neighborhood because no one else replied to the ad with its two terrible photos!

Whew! I’ve just written a small novel for you guys! But I want to know: do you rent or own? And if you’re a fellow renter, please share all your best tips + tricks in the comments!

P.S. 11 ways to make your home feel happier + more like you

Photo by Orlova Maria on Unsplash

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  1. zoe

    +1 to not being dissuaded by bad photos – I live in a place that I nearly didn’t check out because it looked dark and dingy in the photos. Actually, the walls that looked dark are cheery bright colours, and the living room gets amazing sunlight in winter (like, people who come over comment on how nice the sunlight is).

  2. Katie

    Full support for all of this! Now to complete the battle of the heat with my landlord….She’d “prefer” no space heaters, but with the setting she has, there is no way I’m not getting one.

  3. Leah

    When I lived in a place with poor water pressure, I also lived within a mile from my gym. There is nothing more motivating for going to the gym than desperately needing to take a shower. I think I took perhaps 6 showers in my own place all year (and a handful of baths).

    Also, check your state laws about heating. When I lived in Michigan, we had to have 68F as a minimum temp in the winter. My apartment was always colder due to our building’s heating system, and turning up the whole building made some apartments too hot. Therefore, my landlord comped us $5 each month to help with the electricity cost of the space heaters we used. We used the oil filled electric radiators, and they were awesome and safe.

    Finally, read that lease carefully. Make sure you know the details! And make sure you are having your landlord enforce the details.

  4. Erin

    Thank you so much for this! I’m graduating college in May and starting my first ever job later this year. It’s a rotational program that will require me to move four times in two years, and I’m responsible for finding my own housing. I’ll definitely be consulting this article again when the time comes.

  5. MS

    This could not come at a better time!! I’m less than two months away from finishing my degree.. I might continue studying some more or moving across the country for a job.. Won’t know which one till mid February… Either way.. There’s gonna be moving/renting involved! Even tho I wont be following your advise about the time, I will keep all of this in mind when I start looking for a place. My last apartment was great and I got it just two weeks prior to moving in!! We were definitely in a hurry for all the reasons you’ve mentioned so we did not pay attention to some issues with our lease that could had been better.. Another thing we did and the reason we ended up gerring the place was talk to the people in the complex building (the segurity guards), let them know you’re interested in renting there and give them their number so if something appears to come up they can let you know.. We got the place before it was listed because of that!! And we were in good terms with the building staff and always look out for us because of that 😉
    Sorry for the long post, but the article is just great!

  6. Maura

    I owned a couple rental properties and I can tell you that showing up late to a viewing is a sign to me that you are not super reliable. You may be the best person ever, but since I’ve just met you, I’ve only got a couple of data points to go on. One of the best renters I ever had showed up early to his appointment and had his rental application filled out, ready to go. I was super impressed and rented it to him (after checking his references).

  7. marie

    Hear hear! I too love renting! However I’m getting fed up of others telling me “oh you don’t have a mortgage? Don’t you know you are throwing your money are way every month?”… I tell them I see housing as a commodity like a mobile phone… I pay monthly to have a warm, safe house and if I don’t like it I can go elsewhere! Then I have extra savings not needed for a deposit and not really bothered about owning a house to pass on to children seeing as 1.inheritance tax (uk) and 2. I don’t plan on having them. I also feel tied down by having bricks and mortar, like I can’t move away if I went bankrupt or for a job. Finally, in continental Europe they think nothing of having 10 or 20 year leases as many people rent long term, and can decorate their places too.

  8. Becky

    Great tips! Water pressure is so underrated, nothing more frustrating & miserable than spending what feels like forever just trying to wash shampoo out of your hair!

  9. Mike @ Tip Yourself

    Heck yeah RENTING! I’m a big fan too. Home Ownership has it’s Pros, but personally I’m all about renting! cheers!

  10. landlord

    It isn’t annoying to judge someone by how they present themselves (and peeking at the inside of the car if you can) while looking at an apartment. It says a lot about how they maintain themselves and their vehicle… and how they’d treat your property. Think of it as an interview for a job. Present your best self.

  11. Laura

    Kelly Williams Brown of Adulting also has crazy good suggestions! She advises bringing along your phone charger to check the outlets and check out the stove burners. Also she described the super low water pressure shower as ” like having an 80 year old man pee on you” aughhhhh

    I love your location tips! I live across the street from work and it’s awesome.

  12. Sarah Maus

    As someone who has worked as a property manager and leasing agent (now a realtor), I can also add a tip about how just SHOWING UP to your scheduled viewing is a huge indicator of how responsible you are. (You’d be amazed at the number of no-shows.) If you flake on your first viewing without notifying the manager, forget about getting a second chance if you change your mind. They need to take time out of their day to drive over in the snow and let you in, so don’t get offended when they call you an hour before your viewing to make sure you’re still going.

    Also, if you want to be taken seriously when replying to a craigslist ad, use proper punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Give as much information as you feel comfortable with (full name, phone #, desired lease terms, whether you have roommates/pets). Treat it like you’re sending someone your resume. A warm, respectful, information-filled email will get a hearty reply right away, whereas a terse “still available? when can i see it” email (yes, I’ve received those), will either get deleted or will be the last to be replied to.

    Sorry for the long rant/post! Just thought I’d share tips from a property manager’s perspective on how to land an apartment. While I fully support homeownership (duh, I’m an agent!), I do love working with renters and landlords too! No need to buy if you don’t want/need to! Great article, Sarah!

  13. Mandy

    Sarah this is all great advice! I’m currently sitting in my new apartment found with the help of an Ifttt recipe notification. With where I live, I’m sure this place would have been snatched up if I hadn’t called the property manager minutes after they posted.

    And I second checking the water pressure. So important!

  14. Judy Wilson

    Thanks for posting these tricks to finding my dream apartment. I need a new place in town that’s close to work, so I’m hoping that knowing a few of these tips will help to increase my chances of finding the right apartment that I will be happy to live in. I liked what you said about dressing nicely and being punctual for meetings with landlords. You’re right about how giving a good first impression can increase my chances of being chosen by a landlord as a tenant. It seems as though my options for spaces that are in town are pretty limited, so I should keep this in mind to increase my chances.

  15. Gary

    Very informative and detailed topic. Thank you for that. And maybe I’m going ahead of time, but I would like to emphasize on importance of renters insurance. Some of tenants manage to find the right apartment, but they don’t even realize the necessity of renters insurance. It provides liability coverage if someone is injured while in the property. Thus, if renters want to protect assets, they need to buy this insurance. The article states the same.

  16. Max Jones

    My wife and I have been looking for apartments for rent, and I think that having some tips on what to look for would be helpful for us. I’m glad that you talked about looking into closet space when you’re looking at apartments for rent! My wife needs her closet space, and I think that being able to check into that while we’re shopping around for downtown apartments for rent would be a good thing for us! Thanks for the tips!

  17. Maria

    You are using my work.
    Please add credits or delete photo that you have no rights to use.
    The top photos is mine and it can be used only with full credits or not at all.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Hi Maria,

      You are clearly credited at the bottom of the post.

  18. Roxane

    Hello! Thank you for this article. Really helpful! 😉

  19. annieyu

    Real estate is “property consisting of land and the buildings on it. The guide that you mention in the article choosing the best estate is really helpful for me. I want to thanks for this informative information.markham homes for sale

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