9 Steps To Finding The Apartment Of Your Dreams
“When did you get so into decorating and home decor?” is a question I get asked quite a bit. Growing up, I used to draw out floor plans of my parents living room or our bedrooms and dream up the new color schemes or furniture arrangements I thought my mom should implement immediately based on the rough sketch of a 9 year old.
Since I graduated high school and left home, I’ve had over a dozen different bedrooms. That’s in less than 6 years, people. What’s worse is that I haven’t called any one of these places home for more than 9 months. This has a lot to do with moving, subleasing in other cities for the summer and moving back into my parents basement for a few months. However, in all these little apartments, I wanted to create some feeling of “home” and stability, even if that was far from my reality. So, I started getting more and more into decorating and design and learning how to make an empty room feel like my room before I packed up and headed to my next room.
By now, I’m a seasoned pro at moving - especially when it comes to packing all of my earthly belongings into my itty bitty Dodge Dart (he’s been with me from Florida to Minnesota and just about everywhere in between.) In addition to moving, I also like to think I’m a pro at apartment hunting.
I found my first place in Auburn from 900 miles away, a little downtown loft right across the street from campus with granite countertops, double closets and a questionable neighbor with a dog named Cheese. The apartment wasn’t actually listed on any big name rental site, I only found it after doing some serious Facebook digging and messaging a leasing company that was just starting up in Auburn.
Four apartments after that one, I was searching for my most recent apartment in Iowa City and, seriously strapped for cash, went with the cheapest one I could find. I want to say this was a huge mistake but I saved a ton of money and made it out relatively unscathed. However, I will definitely not be missing the constant police presence, my neighbors concert quality speaker system, the friendly neighborhood screaming matches, the physical altercations that took place on my front doorstep or the unsolicited comments my roommates and I endured on a weekly basis. Like, at all. Goodbye, 2438, I won’t miss you. (You had great water pressure though)
After that apartment, I went into full blown psycho apartment hunting mode. Not only did I feel I deserved the best apartment I could find, I knew that I would finally be living in this place for at least a couple years. Most importantly, this would be the first place I would share with Ryan, and I wanted it to be the absolute best home for us here in Des Moines.
So, let my neurotic obsession be your guide. Here are my top tips for scoring the perfect apartment.
1. Establish a Budget
After working in real estate, I can’t stress enough how important it is to first establish budget. If you start poking around different apartment sites with no financial perameters, of course you’re going to fall in love with the fancy, high end units. If those are in your price range, great. But if not, you’re only going to be disappointed once you see the ones that are.
Look at your monthly take home salary (or a safe estimate of what you think that might be if you’re a new graduate). Subtract your monthly student loan payments, car payments, Netflix/HBO subscriptions, gym memberships and any other fixed amounts you are paying each month. Now, estimate how much you want to budget for groceries, toiletries, gas, entertainment, clothing, etc and subtract these from your total. With what is left, establish an amount that you feel comfortable with spending for rent. DO NOT use ALL this “leftover money” on rent. For example, if you have $1,000 left over, you do not have a $1,000 rental budget. I would do a $500-$600 budget. (Don’t forget you’ll be paying for utilities, too.) You want to be able to put some money in savings, build up a cushion, etc. If you need to go back and reevaluate your budgeting to allow more rent money, so be it.
PS - Im not a financial advisor, just don’t want you to end up biting off more than you can chew. Another rule of thumb is to not let your rent exceed 30% of your monthly take home (before taxes).
2. Make a Needs/Wants List
Whoever will be living in the apartment should create their own list of Needs/Wants. I say “needs” first because these are the most important items that will make or break an apartment for you. Some examples of “need” are:
Pet Friendly if there is a dog or cat involved
Enough Closet Space (if two people are sharing one room)
Dependable parking available on site or nearby (if you will have a vehicle)
Then, establish your “wants”; things that you would really enjoy having but could probably get by without. Some examples of mine and Ryan’s were:
Updated kitchen appliances
Private outdoor space like balcony or patio
Hardwood or vinyl flooring (I am not a fan of gross, old carpet)
“Extra large” closet space (Ryan claims I have “so many clothes”, I really don’t)
Two bedrooms for guests and added storage
Washer/Dryer in the unit as opposed to shared
Ample natural light (I can’t take good pics for the blog without it)
Outdoor pool area
Dog Park area (for our future pup)
If it will be more than just you in the apartment, compare lists with your roommate(s). You should all agree on your “needs”. If you have several of the same “wants” it may be worth keeping those top of mind as you search. However, be prepared to compromise! Ryan and I definitely didn’t get all of our “wants”, and you probably won’t either.
3. Pick an area (or two)
Ryan and I were stuck between living in Downtown Des Moines or living farther out in West Des Moines, so we weighed the pros and cons of both. Our list looked a little like this:
Pros of living downtown were that we would both have way shorter commute times (save lots of gas $) and that we would be walking distance to just about everything.
Cons were that it was generally a higher cost, we wouldn’t be able to afford a two bedroom and parking would be an additional cost. Noise could also be a negative depending on location.
WEST DES MOINES
Pros: Most apartments had pools, free parking and attached dog parks. We would also be able to afford a two bedroom. Apartments were typically located in quiet areas. Close to Target, Aldis and shopping.
Cons: Much longer commutes, more gas money, high uber costs if we wanted to go downtown and drink.
We were pretty split between both locations, so decided to open our search to either.
4. Start Searching!
Here are my favorite sites, depending on the type of apartment you’re looking for:
Hotpads.com - great for private landlords who have rental houses or privately owned apartments or condos that are for lease.
Facebook Marketplace - can find people looking to sublease, also good for private homes and condos that are for rent.
Apartmentlist.com - if you don’t want to do all the research yourself, you can plug in your information and this site literally acts as a Tinder for apartments.
5. Compare your favorites
I even went so far as creating a spreadsheet that compared price, square footage, # of bedrooms, etc. Some important factors to keep in mind are:
What utilities are included?
Will you be commuting extra long? Will you be taking Ubers to socialize?
What is the parking situation?
How close is it to work? To grocery stores? Target/Walmart? Etc
Washer and dryer on site? Or in unit?
What is their pet rent policy? (if applicable)
6. Look/Ask for specials
I can’t tell you how many times I had looked at the listings for the apartment building we’re currently living in and thought “that’s just a little too far out of our price range”. I liked the look of the apartment so much I decided to reach out anyways and see what units they would have available in our time frame and made sure to ask if they were running any specials - they were! (Not every apartment will advertise their promotions, sometimes you have to ask!) The special knocked off a $100 each month, and our amazing landlord took off another $50 each month because during my drive from Iowa City to Des Moines, 2 of the 4 options she promised me had sold and she felt bad that I had made the trip. (She definitely did not have to do that, but I’m so glad she did!)
And so, at $150 a month cheaper ($1,800 less a year) we signed the dotted line!
I also have friends who have negotiated their rents by saying they weren’t willing to pay more than $X a month. Worth a try if you think they might be wiling to budge!
7. Consider safety
Don’t live somewhere just because it’s cheap. Yes, I saved a lot of money on my rent at my last place but I honestly dreaded driving home after work each day. I never knew who was going to be hanging out outside my door or if it was going to be one of those days where I awkwardly had to shuffle from my car to my front steps while people argued on the sidewalk. I also never slept there if all my roommates were gone. (Perks of having a boyfriend who lives in the same city)
At the time I just accepted it as my living situation but now, it feels so good to live in a building with actual security systems and no crazy neighbors.
On a related note, avoid ground level units if possible, especially in downtown areas.
7. Look up reviews
There were several apartments that I really liked online and added to my list of favorites, until I read the reviews and saw a lot of unhappy renters. Some complained of constant maintenance issues, getting scammed by the rental company, hidden fees, etc. Keep in mind that these should be taken with a grain of salt, but if you start to see a common theme popping up with negative experiences, be warned. Good places to look for these reviews are:
Search the apartment name on Google and read reviews there.
If the apartment has a Facebook page, read its reviews or wall posts.
Apartments.com has reviews on the bottom portion of each listing.
Ask friends if they know anyone who lives there that you can talk to – firsthand knowledge is better than taking a companies advertising as truth. My friend Andie knew a girl who lived in our building and gave me her contact info. She messaged me back raving about the place and answered some questions I had. It mad me feel so much more confident in securing our unit!
8. Identify your top choices, make plans to visit them
If there is more than just you that will be living there, identify your favorites together. There were places that I liked that Ryan didn’t, and we agreed to nix anything we didn’t both love. Your living situation won’t be very enjoyable if one of you feels slighted. Once you have these favorites, set up tours to see them in person. If you don’t currently live in the city you’re searching in, make a day or weekend out of it! And if you live too far away, try and have a trusted friend or family member who lives in the area tour it for you and FaceTime you in if possible.
Take pictures while you’re in the unit and be sure to get all your questions answered. Be prepared for them to ask you if you would like to sign, if you love the place and you’ve done your research, go ahead. However, have a response ready to go, like “We’re going to take the night/weekend to think about it and will get back to you”.
9. Make Your Choice!
This is the fun part! If you have a choice (or more than one choice) that fits in your budget, is in an ideal location and satisfies your needs as well as some of your wants, you’ve made it! Sign that line, pay your deposit and get packing!
I’m still waiting on a few things to get done in the new place before I share it all with you guys, but here are a few sneak peeks of the place :)
PS: I highly suggest popping some bubbly on your first night in your new home!