A house isn’t a home just because you pay the rent. It takes research, a disciplined budget and a strong sense of your priorities to find a place where you can feel like yourself.
The process can be time-consuming, expensive and draining. Here are tips if you’re planning a thorough search.
Make a wish list
Make a list of all the tangible and intangible things you want in a home.
Home means something different to all of us, so this list can be pretty personal, says Ronda Kaysen, Ask Real Estate columnist for The New York Times.
“If you have a disability, it might be really, really important that you have a building with an elevator,” says Kaysen. “If you are living alone, you may feel more comfortable in a neighborhood where there’s more foot traffic at night.”
Whatever it is, circle the things that are most important to you so you know what’s truly non-negotiable.
Schedule a tour
Check out a listing in-person before committing to it. Channel the pickiest person you know and ask the property manager about everything. Checking out properties takes time, so give yourself time to make a thoughtful decision. Kaysen says two months is a great head start. Below is a checklist to keep in mind as you view places. Here’s a friendly PDF version that you can print out to take along on your housing hunt.
Rent & Finances
- Rent (Any deals?)
- Utilities (If they aren’t included in rent, what is their average monthly cost?)
- Security deposit (How much is owed/is it being held in an interest bearing account?)
- Application fee
- Move-in fee
- Pet fee
- Extra fee for amenities? (Do you have to pay more for gym or pool access?)
Utilities & Amenities
- Water (How is the water pressure? How long does it take for hot water to flow?)
- Electricity/Gas (How are your appliances powered?)
- Heating/Cooling (How well will your unit retain warm or cool air?)
- Cable/Internet (Which providers service your unit?)
- Trash (How often is trash picked up? Is recycling included?)
- Laundry (If not in-unit, how do you pay for it?)
- Package delivery (Is there a package receiving system?)
- Does the kitchen have essential appliances? Fridge, stove, oven, microwave
- Does your building have storage options?
- Are pets allowed?
Security & Safety
- How many secure/unsecure entrances are there to the building or home? (If you enter a code to access your building, how often is it updated?)
- Is there a history of pests?
- Working smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers?
- How close is the trash room? How close is the elevator?
- Is parking included? If not, what are your options for street parking?
- How close are you to public transit?
- If you work outside the home, how long is your commute?
- Do the windows open easily? Do they lock properly? Are the screens in good condition?
- Is the paint chipped or peeling?
- Are there cracks, stains or bubbles on the wall or ceiling?
- Do the lights work?
- How many outlets are there and where are they located?
- Do the drawers open and close? Are the hinges to cabinets and doors fastened properly?
- Is the carpet clean?
- Any strange smells?
If you can’t see a place in-person, Kaysen suggests doing the tour with a property manager over video call. You can also enlist a friend to check out a place for you in-person and do a call with them.
“Have them show you everything,” she says. “Don’t just look at the [online] pictures or the prerecorded video.”
Mind your budget
In addition to rent, there’s utilities and rental insurance to factor in each month. There are also one-time fees like the security deposit, as well as application and move-in fees.
You can offset these costs by living with roommates or negotiating certain deals. If you negotiate, do your homework and come to the table with facts about the market. Landlords may be more or less open to cutting you a deal depending on what’s important to them.
Read the fine print
Don’t just eyeball and sign your lease – read it! A lease is a contract between a tenant and landlord and “the guiding principle when you rent an apartment or rent a house,” says Johanna Shreve, chief tenant advocate for Washington, D.C.
Keep an eye out for hidden fees. Is there a penalty for breaking your lease early or paying your rent late?
If you’re lost in the legalese, Shreve says you should “seek out legal counsel through legal aid or through the bar association in the state that you live in in order to ensure that you understand what you’re getting yourself into.”
Above all: know your rights as a tenant and understand what you’re committing to.
Investigate your landlord and know who to call if things go wrong
Search a landlord online before you sign with them. You can run their name through public search engines or city databases to assess whether their operation is legal and if they have a reputation for fair management.
“You might also want to read reviews online, especially for really big landlord companies,” says Kaysen. “You could be a little stalkerish and stand outside the building and find [a current tenant for their opinion].”
“Find out how the maintenance is handled. Like, if something breaks, who do you call? How do they fix it? Asking these questions will give you a lot of information about how they respond and what kind of landlord you’re getting,” says Kaysen.
If you think your landlord is trying to take advantage of you, or if they’re not making repairs fast enough or responding to an emergency, your city may have a housing department or tenant advocacy group that can help.
Be considerate and communicative
If you live with or near other people, they can make the difference between whether your house feels like a home.
Don’t be loud! Don’t assume common space is your personal storage space. Introduce yourself to your neighbors and invite them over to your new place.
“Basic kindness toward other people goes a long way,” says Kaysen.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.
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