Ahhh, Los Angeles county: land of smog-filtered sunsets and perpetual traffic. And perfect weather. And casual celebrity run-ins. And lots and lots of hungry renters (literally and figuratively – it’s not cheap here and many people live on $5 pizza .) In some sub-markets, this means hungry for blood.
Kidding. But barely.
It’s a tough, tough world out there for anyone planning to move or in the throes of doing so, regardless of location. But having moved from Arizona to California last summer and being in the process of moving from Bluff Heights in Long Beach to downtown Long Beach as I write this, I can say that there is something uniquely painful about finding a place to live in or near LA specifically. With the help of my previous job’s generous salary and some parental help, I was fortunate to make last year work after looking at only one – yes, one – place and getting extraordinarily lucky with the timing of when I turned in my application. This was, however, a glaring exception rather than the norm.
Since I’m a single-renter looking at one bedrooms and studios, the odds are not stacked in my favor; this is where most of the competition lies. Even with great credit, a steady job, and wonderful references, my advantage over other renters is only so high. At the end of the day, timing is absolutely vital to landing a place as a single-renter, especially when dealing with an often-impatient, profit-focused property management company vs. other humans who are willing to give it time to find the best personality “fit” for their multi-person abode. It’s too bad that I want to associate with absolutely nobody at the end of the day (well…except for my snake), but I suppose my needs are ultimately worth the torture I put myself through.
Anyway, I was again quite lucky with my search this time around, taking only 3 weeks to land an amazing apartment in downtown that will serve as my (only *vaguely* IKEA-clad) Scandinavian modern haven. See pics below:
Yes, I ate a victory bag of popcorn, and yes, I’m incredibly relieved that it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. But be advised – when I say it took three weeks to find a place, it meant three weeks of countless e-mails and calls, constant and paranoid refreshing of several different apartment-hunting websites, and hundreds of dollars spent on the application process, often to no avail.
While every moment and dollar spent was worth it for me in the end, I learned a surprising amount of lessons along the way. Use this as a guide to finding your next awesome studio or one-bedroom place without making the same mistakes that I did.
Actually, scratch that. You will make mistakes, but you might make fewer if you heed my advice.
Ready? Let’s gooooooooo!
(Note: This guide is written from my perspective as a studio/one bedroom apartment hunter in Long Beach, CA. While I think this guide can apply to many different locations and scenarios, please keep this in mind when reading. Things are a little different when roommates or kids are involved and every location has its own unique struggles. If you find any glaring inaccuracies or missing pieces here, let me know I will gladly fix them.)
Step 1: Narrowing down your Location
Before you jettison yourself into the field, you first need to get a firm grasp of where you want to move exactly. Consider things like:
- Proximity to work/school – Commutes suck. Set a firm limit for yourself on how far you’re willing to drive/bike/walk to your daily grind. Since this is probably the place you go most often, it’s probably the first thing you want to consider.
- Proximity to friends, family, or a significant other (if you don’t live together) – As we get older, we get busier and busier and it gets harder and harder to see each other. And for those who live in cities like LA or New York, traffic is not going to get any better. How important is being close to your loved ones to you? If you live apart from a partner, how often do you need to see them? How far are you willing to commute each time you do?
- Proximity to weekly places of attendance like an exercise class, church, or the animal shelter you volunteer at – Some places can be replaced – and if you’re moving, they obviously need to be. But if you’re just skipping over a few zip codes, you still need to consider the distance from your current places of interest.
- Walkability of the area – meaning, how many errands and activities can you do on foot? WalkScore is an absolutely fabulous resource for figuring out what neighborhoods work best for this. I believe the site works in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, so most of my readers should be able to use the service.
- Safety of the area – CrimeMapping will give you a report of crimes that occurred within a one or more mile radius within any time frame you specify. Family Watchdog is a great site for checking out the stock of sex offenders in your area, though your heart might sink when you find out how many nearby. I don’t want to be alarmist, though, so do some research on the area by Googling safety of zip codes/cross streets to get a bigger picture.
- Overall “feel” of the city/region – This is pretty tricky. Obviously, it’s best to verify this by both visiting the place in person and talking to people who live there, but this isn’t always super feasible to do, especially if you’re moving cross country. However, I had pretty good luck utilizing the CityData forum, which serves as a cornucopia of information for movers/relocators. I personally used this thread to narrow down areas in Long Beach I was willing to live. I was able to substantiate my conclusions with some neighborhood driving and it made my search a lot more refined.
- Cost of the region – It is possible to find affordable places in extremely nice areas, so don’t eliminate anything completely if you’re absolutely determined the live there. Just be realistic. For instance, no – you are not going to find an $800/month penthouse suite in Beverley Hills, I’m sorry to say. But if the Hills are your destination, keep them on the map – for now – and figure out how you can make your budget work.
Fortunately, most of the above can be done whether you’re moving cross-country or five feet away, so that’s the good news. Once you consider the above, you will have narrowed down your search from an ostensibly unlimited number of places to perhaps 30 or so places in your region. Obviously, this number will be higher if you’re okay with a bigger commute, but let’s assume that you want to be no further than 10 or so miles from work.
Alright, got a location? Good. Now let’s figure out what you want with your life.
Step 2: Figuring Out what you Need/Want
After narrowing your geographic scope, drum up an initial list of “requirements” for your prospective place so as to further narrow down your choices and make your search easier. It may be helpful to create two separate categories: “Wants” and “Needs”. For instance, I needed a place to be less than $1,200 for rent, utilities, and parking, but I only wanted a one bedroom vs. a studio. These requirements will be dynamic and will probably change slightly over time as you keep searching, but here are some things to consider:
- Budget – Budget should include the amount you’re willing to spend on rent, utilities, internet, and all other lodging-related expenses in total. The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t spend more than 35% of your pre-tax monthly income on all of these expenses, but this is a significant challenge in LA, San Francisco, NYC, and many other major cities. As of right now, I pay more than 50% as I occupy my current place. This will go significantly down after my current lease expires and I’m fully settled in the new place, though. At the end of the day, you are more than welcome to spend as much money as you’re willing on your place – just be prepared for the consequences of spending more (like, waiting for that new iPhone instead of buying it now and fewer shoe shopping sprees).
- Check out if utilities are included in the rent payment. It’s nice if they are, but bear in mind that whenever utilities are paid for, there is potential to have an angry landlord coming to your door to ask why the electricity bill was so damn high this month.
- Parking is another amenity in many places (again, LA/NYC/SF especially) that often comes at a premium. If having a paid parking spot is an option, you’ll need to add that to the total amount you’ll be paying each month.
- Number of bedrooms – I limited my search to studios and one bedrooms because a) that’s all I honestly need and b) I knew there was no way I could afford more than that in the areas I was looking. However, once again, you should totally go for as many rooms as you can if you so choose and you can afford it.
- Specific layout – Some people are picky about this. For instance, the bedroom in my apartment in Arizona was literally triangular, which drove some of the potential renters I showed it to nuts. Other people hate first-floor apartments, or can’t stand houses that sit behind other houses. You may or may not care about these things.
- Amenities included – Perhaps you need an easy-access gym, a pool, or a grill. If the place is at an apartment complex, you might have a better chance at getting access to these things. I absolutely needed on-site laundry, so I chose a place that had that.
- Appliances included – Ahhh, here’s where they can get ya. A ton of places in LA do not have air conditioning, especially if you’re near the coast. Others don’t even have fridges, ovens, stoves, or dishwashers. You may think that you can live without one or more of these things, but think very carefully about that before going for a place that doesn’t have one.
- Length of the lease – Are you a commitment-phobe or a long-term settler? Make sure the time you can/must occupy the unit matches what you need. Most leases are a year long and many places in California go month-to-month after that year, which is extremely nice. It’s good to know this information for future planning purposes.
- When the place is available for move-in – If you needed a place yesterday but the apartment/house in question isn’t available for another month, don’t go for it unless you can truly stretch out that time.
- Property Management company reviews – If you’re using a property management company, make sure you’re not dealing with slumlords or money stealers. Most PM companies can be easily looked up on Yelp, which is nice.
- Neighbor interaction – Do you want to live in a super-friendly, everyone-in-your-business type place, or do you need your privacy? This is a tricky one to measure until you move in, but can be roughly gauged when you see the place in person.
- Guest policy – Does your complex/house police guests? Yes, apparently some complexes/landlords still operate convent-style. This is hard to check on before you get to the actual lease, but some places will make you pay rent if someone stays over for more than four consecutive nights. Some particularly crazy ones might even bitch if you have a recurring guest every so often. Crazy!
- Maintenance – Is there an on-site or nearby maintenance person? Is there a 24-hour hotline? No matter how nice a place is, maintenance is important. Make sure that there’s some type of formal maintenance policy.
- As narrowed down in Step 1, the walkability and distance from school/work/people/places/things should be criteria, too.
I’ve personally developed a spreadsheet outlining basic stats of the places I saw. The template for it can be found and downloaded here. Feel free to customize it as you wish.
Alright, so you know what area you want to live in and roughly what type of place you want to dwell in. Now bring on the pain.
Step 3: The Search Itself
I liken this part of moving to the dating game. You put your feelers out there, often signing up for a bevy of online services not unlike OKCupid or Match.com, hoping to find a wonderful place and make the best impression on your potential new landlord so that you can actually obtain said place. Except instead of trying to pick you based on your personality or looks, your potential landlord is more like a sugar baby who’ll just be happy with the first person who hands over the dough. If someone sees the listing and comes to them first with everything lined up – proof of income, credit score, references, deposit – too bad for you. Daddy Warbucks has swept in and you’re too late.
I hate to put it this way, but in a competitive market that’s essentially what happens. To be most competitive with everyone else, you really have to have your ish in order, first of all. Make sure you can substantiate your income for at least several months back; most only ask for three but if you haven’t been at your current job that long, they might ask for more. Have your credit score in the “good” section at minimum (say, 600?). Make sure you have decent people to provide employment and personal references if needed (most people don’t ask for personal references anymore, but I had a couple who did this time around). Have enough money on hand for application fees, credit checks, deposits, and your first rent payment. Getting your personal affairs in order should probably be step 0, but I am dearly hoping that you have these things in order anyway if you’re looking to move.
Assuming you do, I feel the need to reiterate this statement again: timing is everything when it comes to snatching up these properties. Yes, sometimes the PM company will drop the ball or the landlord will ignore your application because they are outspokenly ageist (true story), but for the most part, people want to rent out their places as soon as possible to good people who can pay the rent.
That said, start signing up for every online apartment-searching tool imaginable. Here are the biggies:
- PadMapper (free) – A great tool that uses Google maps to narrow down for places. It also searches across other sites (ForRent, Kijiji, PadLister) and lets you add “Places” so you can calculate commute times from prospective apartments/homes to your school, work, and other places of interest.
- RadPad (free; can pay for monthly membership to get faster access to places) – This is actually how I found my current place! It looks almost identical to the AirBnb site and is fairly easy to use.
- HotPads (free) – I’ve used this one a lot. It’s also great and probably provides the most information per listing (including a walk score!) It’s a bit buggy when it comes to accessing your own profile and saving Favorites, but it’s a wonderful tool otherwise.
- Lovely (free) – A favorite of my friends that also looks quite similar to AirBnb. I don’t think I ended up using it, but it’s the most visually appealing option for sure!
- Craiglist (free) – Ahhhh, good ol’ CL. I actually found my current/soon-to-be-ex apartment on Craigslist so I can’t hate on it, though I definitely found some crafty scams on there. A $950 one bedroom in Naples? Yeah, not surprised that they never e-mailed me back and the listing was taken down. Don’t let this deter you – the ‘List is fab – just be careful.
There are some other paid services out there like West Side Rentals for us Angelenos as well as independent real estate agents. However, most of the people I know who’ve found apartments, especially studios/one bedrooms, have either found them through word-of-mouth referrals or through the above websites. If you’re having a ton of trouble and it’s been months since you’ve been diligently looking, I would definitely advocate taking things to the next level with a real estate agent, however.
Anyway, once you’ve signed up for as many of the free services as you wish, make sure you take at least a couple hours a day to be on your computer searching and refreshing the pages. Since I work all day on a computer, it was not uncommon for me to have 4-5 windows open (Usually HotPads, RadPad, PadMapper, Craigslist, and my e-mail). I would refresh the page every so often so that I could immediately pick up on any newly-added listings. Most sites allow you to set alerts for new places that are listed, which is great, especially if you are not at liberty to be on the computer 10 hours a day continuously refreshing the page.
Once you find places, initiate contact as soon as is feasible (remember: timing is everything). After asking all necessary questions via phone and e-mail, the next step is to schedule your viewings.
(Pro tip: If you feel extremely passionate about a place before seeing it, apply and turn everything in before you see it. It sounds risky, but it’s what I did a couple times and I ended up being the first person in line for consideration. Remember: if you see it and you end up not liking it, it’s not like you have to sign a lease. Worst case scenario is that you are out $10-40 on an application fee and whatever time you spent looking at it.)
So you’ve got a few favorites now – what are you waiting for? Let’s go check out some digs!
Step 4: The Viewing Process
You’ve narrowed down a place, you’ve made a list of what you want/need, and you’ve got some leads. If you’re just overflowing with zeal, you might have even turned in some apps already for those especially desirable places. Now comes the fun part.
You may be viewing an apartment under a variety of circumstances, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Most likely, you will be touring an empty apartment either by yourself, with a property manager, or occasionally with other prospective tenants who happen to be borrowing another set of keys from the PM office. Occasionally, you may be checking out a place that is still occupied by the current tenant.
If you’re viewing the place alone, yay! You get to be extra picky as you look through everything to make sure it’s up to your standards. To aid you, I’ve created my own checklist which you can either check out below or here. Feel free to commandeer mine and customize it to make it your own!
If you’re alone, nobody is going to look at you strangely as you open every cabinet, check off the presence of certain appliances, and flush the toilet for no reason, so go crazy (while being respectful, of course). If you’re with a property manager, the best thing to do is just ask to take pictures. I’ve never had someone to say no to this. If you’re visiting a current tenant who still occupies the place, ask them as many questions as you can and take as many pictures as they’ll allow. If you find any traces of pests anywhere, DO NOT go for it, no matter how much you love it. Pests are a nightmare to get rid of and signing a lease in such a place may end up with you burning all of your furniture.
In addition to these unit-related things, you can also check out the neighborhood to get a sense of what it’s really like to live there. The advantage of talking to a tenant still occupying the unit is that they’ll probably give you a relatively good, honest idea of what it’s like. A property manager might be a bit rosier. Again, go with your gut and what you personally see. Ask yourself, “Could I see myself living here?”
As you’re visiting, make sure you get any additional questions answered and update your needs and wants list if needed. If you haven’t already, start flying those apps in!
Now you play the waiting game.
Step 5: The Close
At this point, you’ve hopefully gotten a chance to check out at least 3-5 places, if not more. You’ve won some, you’ve lost some, but the ones you’ve won are calling you back and asking you if you’re ready to sign the lease. Yay! Perhaps it’s your favorite one – or perhaps it’s not. Still, this decision is a big one. How do you make the final call?
It’s time to revisit your checklist and make sure that you hit all of your “needs” as many “wants” as you possibly can. Does it fit the bill here? If so, think back to your interaction with the PM company/landlord/realtor throughout the process. Were they pleasant? Are they going to make things easy for me? Finally, ask yourself the pivotal question just one more time: could I see myself living here?
If the answer to these above questions is “Yes”, you know what to do.
Sign that lease and pay that deposit*, baybay! This harrowing process has finally almost come to an end. And when you finally get those keys, it’ll feel oh so good.
(*Pro tip: There are some pretty crazy scams out there that will have you pay a deposit or prorated rent amount online, only for you to find out that the place was already rented by someone else. You can avoid this by making sure you’ve met the landlord/PM company in person, verified that the PM company has a website that includes the listing, speaking to the existing tenant, and delivering your first payment in person. For more information about how to avoid rental scams, go here or peruse Google for a few.)
A Glorious Conclusion
Whether you’ve been looking for three weeks or six months, it feels good to land a pad.
Apartment hunting will probably always suck, but the nice thing about it nowadays is that there are a number of tools you can utilize to streamline your approach. Through diligent use of online apps, flexibility with your timing, and honesty with yourself regarding what you truly need, apartment-hunting can be made a lot easier and suck a lot less.
Just brace yourself for the second installment in the Book of Moving…designing the inside!
This is gonna be a doozy.