First Digs

The Quasi-Adult's Guide to Decorating with Style---Without Blowing Your Budget

Yee-Fan Sun

St. Martin's Griffin

First Digs
chapter one
choose your own (living) adventure
it was so easy back in the college dorm days. Fill out some forms, submit them to the random gods of housing assignment, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. In the post-dorm phase of life, however, finding a roof over your head involves just a little more work. Sure, your parents dropped hints aplenty about how you're always welcome to move back into your old bedroom--and hey, maybe you've even taken them up on the offer, bunking down in your twin bed and biding time while you wait for some sign regarding what to do next. But when you get tired of sneaking your significant other out of your bedroom each morning, when Mom tells you one too many times to drive carefully as you leave to meet your friends in the city, when the Pearl Jam poster that you tacked above your bed back in eighth grade comes tumbling down atop your head one night, you'll know: It's time to strike out on your own and get your first real apartment.
But before you start packing up that moving van, there are just a few things you'll need to consider. Should you throw in your lot with some roommates, brave it solo, or maybe move in with your sweetie? How much rent is too much? And how do you know when you've found the right apartment, anyway? With questions aplenty dancing in your head, a tinyknot of panic begins to build. But quit hyperventilating: We're here to help you find your way.
share and share alike: living with roomies
When you've lived your whole life thus far in the hivelike coziness of a dorm or the family nest, the outside world can seem like a big, lonely place. lumping straight into your own digs seems particularly intimidating when a quick glance through the newspaper rental ads reveals that for an alarmingly large chunk of your rather modest monthly salary, you can live in a closet, in a basement, or in a part of town you'd be scared to drive through in broad daylight. The solution to your predicament? Get thee some roommates.
Sharing digs with other folks means you can get a much bigger, much nicer place than you would likely be able to afford all by your lonesome. Other costs of living become cheaper as well; running utilities for two costs about the same for one, and with other people around to potentially split kitchen duties, you might find you're a whole lot more likely to actually cook in-house rather than resort to overpriced takeout.
Even if the quirks of your college housing lottery have made you leery of having to deal with roommates ever again, living with roommates in the postschool years really can be a good thing for more than just your economic state. Yeah, so that nice girl you bunked with freshmen year turned out to be a raging klepto and pathological liar, and the former friend you lived with the following year drove you bonkers with her tendency to pilfer your Ring Dings, but these days, you're older, wiser, and most of all, more experienced: You know a little something about what you are really looking for in a roommate.
Now if you haven't already experienced the problems of living with good friends, you might think your safest bet is to move in with someone you know and love. But think long and hard before you leap into a lease with your oldest, best friend. Fuming when your buddy takes fifty minutes in the bathroom each morning, getting passive-aggressive about the ever-presentstack of someone else's dirty dishes, getting nagged when you forget (okay, again) that it's your turn to take out the trash: This is the stuff that's ruined many a fine friendship. There's way too much that can go awry when folks who have a great time hanging out together decide to share a roof ... without taking that all-important step of considering each person's actual living style first.
Some of my very favorite people in the world are a little wacky. They keep strange hours, voluntarily getting up to tap away on their laptops in the wee hours of the night, doing a three-hour nap/three-hour wake schedule, or going days on end without any bedtime at all. They have bizarre hobbies that make their homes look like little museums of their personal obsessions. They're always finding themselves in some crazy situation with some new guy, or new girl, or every once in a blue moon, both. They're full of marvelous little quirks that make them endless sources of fascinating stories, and I always look forward to spending time with them. And a big part of the reason this is possible is because I don't have to live with their nuttiness day in and day out. And they don't have to put up with mine.
Seriously, the qualities that you look for in a friend (fun, funny, always up to something interesting) aren't necessarily the same ones you should seek in a roommate (of the same cleanliness level as you, able to pay all bills on time and willing to do so of their own volition). Yes, sometimes good friends can make great roommates, particularly if both you and the friend-cum-potential-roomie are the sort of adaptable, low-maintenance individuals who are blessed with the amazing ability not to let other people's weirdnesses bug you. But unless you're fully confident that you and your pals genuinely share similar views on such mundane matters as washing dishes, vacuuming, noise levels, and fiscal responsibility, it's often safer to keep your friends as friends and look elsewhere for someone to share your abode.
When you're moving in with a stranger, it's a beautiful clean slate: No one is bringing any baggage into the situation, allowing you all to be much more open from the very beginning about what you expect. You don't have to feel like a total jerk when you tell your stranger-roomie that you're not real keen on significant others becoming nonpaying tenants, the way youmight feel if this were your good friend instead and you were talking about her boyfriend who you already knew and liked. Money issues are also way less uncomfortable to broach with people with whom you share no history. And additionally, there's the fun factor of simply getting to know a new person--who might eventually turn into as great a friend as she is a roommate, if you're lucky.
where to find 'em ...
Once you've decided to get yourself into the roommate market, it's time to start putting out the feelers. Good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth is still the best place to start, as it's 100 percent free and involves almost no extra effort on your part. After all, you talk to people on a regular basis, don't you? Casually mention to any and everyone who'll listen that you're looking for a roommate. Your officemate might have a sister who's looking to share a pad; your mom might have a friend whose son is freaking because his roommate just bailed mid-lease. The waitress accidentally eavesdropping on your lunchtime conversation might overhear your plight and tell you that she and her roommates just happen to have an extra room in their group house that they've been trying to rent out for ages. You never know who might know someone that might just be your perfect future roommate.
While you're doing your networking, you'll also want to take more active steps to find someone to room with. When you're looking to move into your first apartment, this will likely mean finding someone who already has a specific place and is looking for someone to split the costs. The classifieds section in your local paper is the obvious place to look; you'll also want to try out online resources like craigslist.org or roommates.com, your favorite message board, and roommate matching Web sites. Neighborhood bulletin boards--in the cafe, bookstore, used CD shop, wherever--are another good potential lead. And hey, if you spy an ad at your favorite coffee hangout, you at least know that you and your potential roomie share similar tastes in java joints. Last but not least, if all else fails, you can always look to a roommate referral service for a little help from the pros.
the interview
So you've spotted a promising ad and are all geared up to take the next step. Before you reach for that telephone or shoot off an e-mail inquiry, think a little about what questions you'll need to ask. This first point of contact will be a sort of prescreening interview in which you'll want to cover the basics regarding the potential living situation, to make sure this is something that actually fits both your needs. How much is the rent? How big is the apartment or house and how many people will be living there? How old are they? (If that's important to you.) What do they do? (Likewise.) Where is the apartment located? If you have any deal-breaking issues, like smoking or pets, bring those up at the beginning as well to avoid wasting too much of your time and theirs.
If the initial phone conversation or e-mail exchange goes well, it's time to meet up in person. Anxious as you are to get your living situation settled, you might think it easiest to just get together with your prospective roomie at the apartment. And in an ideal world, where there were no potential stalkers or otherwise scary folk to contend with, you might be right. But while the vast majority of people you will encounter on your roommate search will be perfectly nice, more or less law-abiding citizens, it's better to be cautious. Set up that meeting in a public place, and let a friend know where you'll be. If all goes well and you feel comfortable with the prospective roommates, you can then move on to the actual apartment viewing.
As you progress on the decision-making front, you'll need to start talking seriously about the nitty-gritty of day-to-day rooming. Be direct about what you're looking for and answer any of their questions as forthrightly as possible. If you're a total slob, fess up now, and likewise if you're a controlling neat-freak who demands daily vacuuming and semiweekly dusting. Other general issues that you might want to bring up in the course of your gabbing include:
What kind of hours do they keep? If you're a light sleeper, this will be an issue. If you demand regular beauty rest between ten and six, and yourpotential roomie is nocturnal, it's probably not going to work out for you two.
 
Do they work fairly regular hours? Will their work take them out of town much? Depending upon what you're looking for in a roommate, these can be important factors. If you want a roomie to keep you from getting lonely, you'll need someone who's going to be around during the same hours that you are. If, on the other hand, you're just looking for someone to help split the costs, then opposite schedules can be dandy, as you'll often have the pad all to your sweet self.
 
How do they feel about dealing with one another's overnight guests? Do either of you have a significant other that will be spending time over on a regular basis? Will that significant other be contributing to the rent and other shared living costs?
 
What are their thoughts on how to split chores and bills?
Ultimately, you'll be paying as much attention to the overall feel of your interactions as any of the actual questions and answers exchanged. You want your roommate to be someone you can easily talk to--because if you're finding it hard talking about just the preliminary, getting-to-know-you type fluff, you're going to have a hell of a time bringing up the tough issues once you're actually living together.
Whatever happens, don't make a choice out of desperation. No matter how grim the roommate prospects might seem at the beginning, wait it out till you find someone with whom you can really click--not necessarily as soul mates but on the fundamental issues of sharing a roof.
make it a single: living solo
If you're the sort of person who wants things the way you want them, there's no doubt about it: Solo living's the way to go. No one to monopolize the bathroom when you really, really need to go; no one to clutter up your coffee table with periodicals you have no interest in reading; no one to give you the evil eye when you don't do the dishes immediately after using them. You can crank up the stereo at one in the morning and dance in the kitchen, in your undies, in the dark--and that's a-okay, because there's no one around for you to answer to except your little old self. You're the only one living under that there roof.
And that's the part that can be a little scary, too.
There are many circumstances under which you might find yourself facing the prospect of living all on your own--and let's be honest now, not all of them are strictly voluntary. Maybe you've moved to a new city where you don't know a soul, and the idea of sharing digs with potential psychopath strangers seems an even bigger risk than setting out solo. Maybe you've been hunting for roommates, but just haven't had any luck. Maybe a brief experience with shared housing has made you realize that you're way too neurotic for anyone else to have to put up with your many, many issues. For whatever the reason, living alone seems to make sense, but you can't quite shake the fear that living with roommates somehow seems easier.
To some extent, you're right: For all that communal living can be a gargantuan pain in the behind, there's something kind of reassuring about knowing that if anything goes wrong in the apartment, you don't have to deal with it alone. Think you hear a noise outside the door? Wake up the roomie and get him to reassure you that you're just imagining things. Toilet's flooding and you don't know what to do while you wait for the superintendent to take his sweet ol' time getting up there to take a look? Run to the roomie for advice ... or at least commiserate. Even ordinary everyday issues, like making sure the trash gets taken out on time and keeping the house from degenerating into a total slum, become a whole lot more manageable when there's another human or two around to keep your less positive living habits in check. When you're living solo, you have no one to rely on except yourself.
Still, if that's the only thing that's stopping you from stepping into solo life, take the jump. Because the greatest thing about living on your own isn't the decorating freedom or the lack of nagging, but the big self-confidenceboost that you get when you realize that you really are fully capable of taking care of yourself.
Money matters are perhaps the biggest factor in determining whether you're really ready to go it solo. Bear in mind that in addition to rent, you'll be shouldering the full burden of telephone, gas, electricity, and water, as well as acting as sole investor in any and all furnishings. Depending on your financial situation, you might find you have to settle for a studio apartment or live farther out from the excitement than you had intended in order to make living alone a feasible reality.
safety first
When you're looking for new digs in a place you plan to live in alone, safety issues become an even bigger priority than usual. Making do with a more modest apartment is fine, but if it means having to live in a very sketchy neighborhood, you might want to rethink your solo living plans and wait till your money situation permits you to live in a place where you don't fear for your life each time you peek out the door.
As you make the rounds on your apartment hunt, pay special attention to how comfortable you'll feel coming home alone, sometimes late at night, to those digs. Visit the neighborhood well after the sun goes down before you commit to calling it home; check to make sure there's good street lighting and take note of how many people seem to be roaming about. Make sure that the entryway, front door, and windows all look secure; ask the landlord or property manager whether it would be possible to get new locks put in before you move in, just to make extra certain that if any old tenants made extra keys, they won't work on your new abode.
For the most part, however, safety precautions are a good idea whether you live alone, or with a bevy of other people. There's no need to get yourself too freaked out about all the things that could go wrong when you're home all by yourself; be smart, be safe, but don't let your paranoia prevent you from enjoying the many pluses of solo life.
the loneliness factor
Of course, some of us just aren't very good at being alone. If you think you'll positively wither away and die if you don't have anyone to talk to after you come home from a long day at work; if you hate reading quietly, watching movies alone, and cooking for no one but yourself; if you can't figure out what to do with yourself during those moments when there's nothing planned for you to do, then being alone probably isn't something that comes naturally to you. But even if you're the deeply social sort who would much rather be hanging with throngs than boring yourself silly sitting at home all by yourself, choosing to live alone might be the best thing ever to happen to you. Learn to enjoy your own company and you'll never find yourself bored again.
Besides, there's nothing to stop you from having people over or getting out there in the great big world whenever you start feeling like too much the recluse, cooped up in your own personal nest. Living alone isn't the same as being alone--except when you want it that way.
shacking up: living with a significant other
So it's been eight months or one year or three and a half or whatever, since you and a certain someone first met in chem lab, at the dining hall, in a bar, wherever, and became a happy twosome. You've seen each other with bed head and kissed each other with morning breath; you've long since stopped keeping track of who pays for what when you go out for dinner or check out a movie; when friends invite one of you over for a party, it's pretty much expected the other one will come along as well. You're madly, head-over-heels in love, and back in college, you pretty much spent every night together at one or the other of your dorm rooms anyway. The financial genius in you starts realizing that you'd be throwing away a lot of money each month paying for two separate places when you'd really only be making full use of one. Maybe, you think, it's time to shack up. Savings incentive aside, there's just one big question looming.
are you really ready?
Unless you're aware that you have commitment issues that have less to do with reality than with your own personal neuroses--and are well on the way to working these out--don't move in with someone until your gut instinct tells you it's right. Moving in together is a big, big step in a relationship, and jumping into it before you're ready is a fabulous way to wreck an otherwise promising thing you've got going.
Yes, there are a multitude of practical reasons why living together might seem sensible. You and your honey might be in the market for new digs at the same time, and it just seems easier to look for one apartment together than to deal with two separate searches. Your current roommate mightdecide to move in with his girlfriend, leaving you with a spare room to fill, and a significant other who's willing to do so. Still, choosing to live together should be a decision that's based on something more than pure convenience. You might think it a major hassle to kick out a roommate that ends up not working out, but it's nowhere near as excruciating as having to continue to share an apartment with a person you've just broken up with while you wait for one or the other of you to find new digs. Besides, feeling too lazy to put out an ad for a different roommate is not, in and of itself, the strongest basis on which to move your relationship to the next level of commitment. Even if you've spent every night falling asleep in the same bed at one or the other of your places for the past ten months, trust me: It's not the same as actually setting up house as a couple.
For one thing, sharing house means sharing bills--and that means becoming financially tied together in a way that you don't have to when you maintain your own separate residences. Your sweetie's tendency to spend lavish sums might have seemed romantic back in the days when you were just enjoying all the swanky restaurants and pricey gifts, but when you realize that it sometimes means there's not enough money for little things like, oh, rent, you suddenly find yourself turning into the annoying nag who is always chiding about money.
There's also the privacy factor: When you're living together, neither one of you has an obvious place to go during those times when you just want to be alone. Because no matter how crazy about each other you lovebirds are, there will be times when you want to have the freedom to do your own thing, in your own space, with your own friends, on your own time. And that's a healthy thing: The happiest, strongest couples I know are the ones where each half has a solid sense of who they are as individuals, and feels comfortable enough with themselves, and their relationship, to let each other continue to grow. If this is your first grown-up relationship, if neither of you has ever spent any real time apart from each other, if you've only been dating a few months, you might be so wrapped up in the thrill of couplehood that you forget to allow yourselves to explore outside interests, friendships, and adventures. And while that might feel cozy and safe at the beginning, eventually one or the other of you is going to startfeeling stifled--all the more so if you're stuck in a cramped one-bedroom apartment where it feels impossible to let out a breath without the other person taking note. Still, as long as you go into the move with a clear understanding that sharing a roof doesn't have to mean losing your individual selves, that good communication is critical, and that compromises will occasionally be necessary, making the transition to living together can make a good relationship even better.
living in sin: dealing with disapproving parents
Sometimes, despite the fact that every fiber in your body tells you that moving in together is the best idea in the world, external forces insist on informing you that you're wrong. When the boy and I first shacked up, we wrote a nice little letter to his grandmother in which we told her about our new two-bedroom apartment. Grammy's reply opened with the following comment: "I was so very glad to hear about your two bedroom apartment!" I think she meant it as a joke--or anyway, that's how we chose to interpret it.
Fortunately, Grammy aside perhaps, everybody else in our families seemed to be just fine with the idea of us living in sin. His parents probably would have thought we were crazy to do things any other way. My own parents almost certainly would have felt more comfortable with us doing the wedding thing first, but as immigrants, they'd long since come to terms with the fact that things just worked a little differently in America. But for a lot of people that I've known, family pressures make premarriage cohabitation a whole lot more complicated.
A friend of mine once had a roommate who didn't actually live there. Literally. Each month, this roommate shelled out rent for a space in which she never actually slept. This was just dandy for my friend, as it meant that he had a beautiful and spacious Boston apartment all to himself, at half the cost. Personally, I always thought the roommate was pretty silly--rather than come clean with her parents about the fact that she was living with her boyfriend, she was throwing away a thousand bucks or so a month on an apartment she didn't live in.
Avoidance might seem easier, but ultimately, if you're grown-up enough to be contemplating moving in with a significant other, you're grown-up enough to quit sneaking around behind your parents' backs. Suck up the courage to tell your folks the truth. It's possible they might not be as horrified as you've always imagined and that they'll realize that despite the fact that it's not what they would have chosen for you, you've clearly thought things through and are happy with your decision. And yes, there's also the chance that they'll freak out. At which point, you just have to ask yourself: Can you live with your parents' disapproval, or will it torment you so much that you won't be able to enjoy building your little love nest with the sweets?
If you get the sense that your family cares more about appearances than about you being damned to a fiery afterlife because you're sharing a bed with your significant other, one option is to go for a group housing situation. When there are other roommates around, it's a whole lot easier for parents to delude themselves into believing that you and the sweets are just roommates; certainly, it makes the situation a whole lot easier for them to explain to all the other potentially disapproving aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends. You get to live with your honey without flaunting that fact in your parents' faces--and everyone's happy.
laying down the ground rules
As with any shared rooming situation, communicating clearly from the very beginning about what you both expect out of the living arrangement is key to making sure that you don't end up wanting to throttle one another six months down the line. First and foremost of the issues that you should lay on the table: money. Some of the main financial questions you'll need to discuss up front include:
Will you be splitting all bills fifty-fifty, or will it be based upon your individual incomes?
Will one person choose to take care of the electricity and the water, another the telephone and the gas?
What about shopping for groceries and paying for new furnishings for your digs?
Will you maintain separate bank accounts, or set up a joint bank account with which to pay for the apartment expenses?
If you're setting up a joint account, how much will you each contribute from your monthly paycheck, and will you discuss things before buying anything using money from the shared account?
There's no one right answer for how to deal with the financial situation; the thing that's important is to get on the same page.
Of course, making the decision to live together can have some serious implications for the status of your relationship, too. Do you know where you both stand regarding what living together means in terms of commitment? Is this a step on the way to marriage, or is marriage not something you believe in? Don't get all coy about addressing what living together really means for both of you--now is not the time to worry about whether you're going to freak out your partner if you start talking about a long-term shared future.
When you move in together, any final facades have to come down: You see each other exactly as you really are because it's just way too exhausting to be on your best behavior twenty-four/seven. And that's both the good and the bad of it. Because if you're still happy to wake up next to each other every morning despite the fact that his dirty socks piled on the floor drive you crazy or her detached hairs forming an unintentional new rug in your bedroom gross you out, then you know: This relationship is a keeper.
the great apartment search
So you've given it some good serious thought and figured out what you envision for your ideal living situation. If you've decided to go the roommate route and scoured through those Roommate Wanted ads, you may have scored a new pad and a roomie all in one go. For those flying solo or searching for a love nest, it's time to get started on your next living adventure: the hunt for the perfect pad.
As I write this, I am in dire, dire need of just two simple things: a good pedicure and a livable apartment. For a couple of weeks now, I've been trekking all over the city in search of that ever-elusive perfect apartment for me and the boy, and, as a consequence of all that walking, my feet are a blistered mess.
Way back when, I think I was actually excited about the prospect of scoping out new digs. This was before I actually saw some of the options. See, our hunt for the right pad didn't get off to the most auspicious start. The first place we looked at? It had fossilized pizza chunks adhered to the hallway walls. The ad had boasted hardwood floors, which may or may not have existed under the solid layer of detritus. "We'll get it cleaned up before you move in," the realtor called out hopefully, even as I was trying to inch my way out of the filth without actually touching anything. The one good thing about the experience was that every apartment thereafter looked all right by comparison. Problem was, none seemed exactly right. If it was a nice space, it was in a sketchy neighborhood, or too far from the city center, or located right above a bar; if the location was prime, the apartment was too small, or too dark, or too dingy, or all of the above.
Yeah, apartment hunting can be a massive pain in the behind. Still, as I'm reminding myself every day, all the work's worth it when you finally find a place you love. In the meantime planning, patience, and an open attitude make the whole process just a little bit easier.
when to start looking
Give yourself plenty of time, fellow procrastinators. Finding the right apartment can take a good long while, and remember that ideally, you want your next digs lined up before it's time to clear out of your current space. Two months ahead is not too early.
Or course, timing the apartment search gets a little trickier if you're moving to a new city, as you'll have the whole long-distance thing tocontend with. The fuzzy digital photos you might see in an online listing can only tell you so much; even a good picture can be misleading. And it's next to impossible to know where in a city you want to live without actually getting your butt out there and exploring. If possible, try to schedule a trip to your soon-to-be new home city before your intended move. Spend some quality time actually getting to know a little about your new town before you commit to a one-year lease. Take a couple days (or more if you have the luxury) just to explore different potential neighborhoods, taking note of how convenient it is to work, whether there are decent grocery shops and other amenities nearby, and whether you'd feel comfortable walking around the area alone at night. Once you've narrowed down potential areas to focus your search, you can start looking at ads. Ideally, of course, you'll want to be able to view apartments while you're in town. But if there is absolutely no way you can get out there and see a place in person, at least try to see whether you can con a friend or family member in the area into doing some scouting for you. Don't think you know anyone in your future home city? Ask around; it's a small, small, world, and you just might discover that your friend has a friend who can help you out. Even if asking a perfect stranger to check out an apartment for you is just a bit too ballsy, you can at least get a local's opinion on what the general area is like.
how much apartment can you afford?
Unless you're lucky enough to have access to unlimited funds, chances are good that the biggest factor in determining what you'll be looking for in an apartment is budget. The basic rule of thumb for determining how much rent you can afford is to take your monthly salary and divide by three to get your rent. Now, if you're living in a big city, it's entirely possible that the number you get then will be far too puny to secure you anything resembling an actual abode. If you're willing to live very, very frugally in other aspects of your life, and if you don't have a whole lot in the way of loans hanging over your head, you can probably get away with devoting 35-40 percent of your take-home paycheck to housing. If that's still too low to land you a decent pad, you have a few options: 1. Look for apartmentsthat are a little farther away from things. 2. Look for a smaller apartment. 3. Get yourself a roommate.
 
Where to find out what's for rent. So you kinda have a sense of what you're looking for in your new digs and are ready to begin the hunt. When it comes to actually tracking down apartments that are available for rent, here are a few good places to check out:
Online and newspapers. Local newspapers (and their online incarnations) as well as nationwide apartment listing Web sites (like rent.com, rentnet.com, and apartments.com) are probably the first places you'll look when you begin your apartment search. You might also want to try your local Craigslist.
 
Brokers. In really tight housing markets, you might find yourself having to turn to the pros for help. A broker basically does the legwork of hunting down potential apartments for you; the small catch is that you have to pay them a substantial fee for their hard labor.
getting prepped to land your apartment
Good things to have when you go apartment hunting:
A notebook and pen
A good map
A checkbook (so you can make the deposit if you decide for certain you want the place)
Enough money in your bank account to cover a deposit and first month's rent
Credit report
Names of references (if you've never rented an apartment before, get character references and a pay stub/tax return/something that proves you have money coming in)
University housing listings. Even if you're not actually a student, universities can be a good source for finding apartments. These days, many university housing offices have online lists as well as information on other resources for finding housing in the area. You can also mosey down onto campus to see if you see any apartment rentals posted on the bulletin boards.
 
Neighborhood bulletin boards. Coffeeshops, bookstores, record stores, and the like often have handy bulletin boards where people can post their ads; you'll often find "apartment for rent" signs pinned up amid the car-for-sale and massage-therapy ads.
 
Ride-through/walk-through. If you're dead-set on living in a specific neighborhood, take a morning to explore the area. Grab a notebook and a pen and go on bicycle/foot so you don't have to worry about holding up traffic. Head up and down each and every street of the area in which you're interested as you hunt down FOR RENT signs.
 
Word of mouth. Tell everyone you know that you're on the hunt for new digs. You never know who might have a lead on a great place that's about to be vacated.
viewing apartments
When you see an ad that looks promising, don't dawdle: Pick up the phone and set up a viewing as soon as possible. In a competitive housing market, apartments go fast. Trust me, there's nothing more disheartening than spending a whole day circling newspaper rental ads, only to find that when you start making calls a day or two later, all the apartments have already been snatched up by folks way more on the ball than you. My boy still occasionally moans about the fabulous river-view apartment we missed out on when we were living in Australia. We let the three Malaysian girls who were at the university housing office at the same time as us use the phone first--which is how they were able to lay claim to the apartment that the boy continues to feel rightfully belonged to us.
The apartment viewing is an interview of sorts--both for you and for your prospective landlord. Show up on time and make an effort not to look like too much of a slob/freak/miscreant. At the same time, bring a notebook and paper along and take the opportunity to ask the landlord whatever questions you might have. A few things you might want to throw out there: How long is the lease for? Is there the option to renew? Are there any additional housing-associated fees besides the rent that you should know about? Are utilities included, and if so, which ones (water, gas, electric)? Does the apartment building have laundry facilities? What's the parking situation? Take note of all the answers, and also get a feel for how well you get along with the landlord and how well they seem like they'd respond to any issues that might come up if you moved into their property.
If a place looks at all like it has potential, take your time to really look it over carefully. Take stock of the closet space and make sure that the door and windows don't look like an easy break-in target. Peek out the windows and check out the views; note the direction they face to get a sense of how much sunlight they're likely to let in (if the windows all face north, for instance, you will pretty much be living in a cave). Make sure that you aren't situated over a bar or a club or anything else that might result in long, sleepless nights spent cursing the noise. If your viewing is during the day, come back to check out the neighborhood at night. Most of all, think about what this apartment would be like if it were filled with your stuff, and how you'd feel coming home to it every day.
Unless you're truly one of the blessed, chances are good that you'll see many, many hideously wrong apartments before you finally stumble across your new home. Try not to get too discouraged as you find yourself traipsing through one dingy place after another, and don't let impatience rush you into settling for something you don't genuinely like. Unless it's obvious that you've been thoroughly unrealistic about the sort of apartment you can get on your budget, it's worth it to hold out for a place you're sure you really like.
FIRST DIGS. Copyright © 2006 by The Philip Lief Group, Inc., and Yee-Fan Sun. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.