11 Tips for the First-Time Apartment Seeker

When you toil over something for 6 days and seven nights, the hope is that you learn enough useful information to share a thing or two. Hunting for an apartment in the Houston River Oaks community on the most popular date to move anywhere – June 1st – and with my mother, no less, turned into the adventure of a lifetime. From my experiences, I not only signed a lease to the perfect place for me, but I inched closer to that elusive concept of ‘adulthood,’ or so I would like to think.

In this blog post I want to do 2 things: pay tribute to the late great TV/Film apartments that have influenced me and dole out some tips and tricks for finding and securing the best possible apartment in Houston, Texas (or anywhere, really).

Sprinkled throughout this post will be images of films and tv shows featuring some amazing or iconic apartments. Here’s what to do when looking for an apartment for the first time:

1. Go with a parent, or someone who has your back

Big, 1988

You are going to be overwhelmed with processing information about utilities, insurance, application fees, and seemingly unimportant details like trash pick-up, that having an extra brain present to ask all the questions you may forget will do you a great service. I say a parent because I know of no one else willing to put up with me for 6 days straight.

2. Try to move in after September and before June

Friends, Monica and Rachel’s apartment in Greenwich Village, 1994-2004

The summer months are the worst time to sign a long-term lease because the market is flooded with vying renters, newly graduated, and desperate to sign a lease before their first day of work. This was me! I had to move in by June 1 to start work the following week, therefore, I suffered the inflated rent. If you have some wiggle room, travel or live at home for a few months before moving in and starting work. Your wallet will thank you.

3. Don’t trust everything you read on apartmentratings.com

Hey Arnold!, 1996-2004

If you read closely, the site reveals itself to be quite petty. Either employees of the apartment would plug false reviews under pseudonyms to beef up their score, or jaded tenants would share painstakingly personal matters that would affect few others in reality. They are devilishly entertaining, however.

My favorite line from one review: “…so, in conclusion, Greystar employees, broken appliances, obnoxious neighbors, and snakes.” Yikes.

4. Keep an active short-list of qualities  you want in a place

I Love Lucy, 1951-1957

As a working woman, but a first-time renter, I knew what kind of place I wanted only through daydreams, at first, about my girlfriends coming over for Sunday brunch. I wanted to find a comfortable, social space for one. Aesthetically, I knew exactly what I wanted: wood and soft carpet, granite counters, white or cream-colored walls, and 9-foot ceilings. A pool and a gym became a must.I arrived at this short-list of expectations, not immediately, but when I learned that the average price for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Houston is akin to the rent I paid living on the upper west side in New York City last summer. In short, you pay significantly more if you live alone (and if you are renting when there is maximum demand for an apartment).

Oh, and price. Know your upper limit (they say, no more than 30% of your net income) and stick to it.

5. Mom was right: find a safe place.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly’s apartment, 1961

My mother had an additional quality I had overlooked: safety. She refused to look anywhere that wasn’t gated, which at first I thought was slightly pretentious of her, that is until I read a few too many gate-less community break-in stories on apartmentratings.com. I followed suit.

BUY RENTER’S INSURANCE! More on that later…

6. Don’t do what I did and…

Sex and the City, Carrie’s apartment, 1998-2004

…juggle apartment hunting with other heady tasks like graduating and moving your things into storage. Set aside time to devote yourself entirely to the search process so you can preserve your sanity as best you can!

7. Don’t forget to break for all meals and treat the kind soul who has agreed to help you search because they must really love you. 

Down with Love, Barbara Novak’s 1962 apartment, 2003

For me, this was my mother. We even searched for apartments together on Mother’s Day. On this occasion, I surprised her with a huge pink flower and dinner at Central Market (she had never been and I knew she would adore it). The next night we celebrated the end of a long search day at Chuy’s happy hour for frozen margaritas and queso. I made sure to thank her often throughout the day and especially after I signed the lease. I will never forget the time we spent together because of its rarity. How often is it that a mother and grown daughter spend such concentrated time together? She helped me get closer to my dream of independence.

The winner, my new place, “Apartment G,”

8. Don’t jump the gun

Leasing office employees are going to apply pressure to get you to agree to lease an available apartment asap. They will remind you how competitive apartment hunting is “at this point in the season.” They will waive certain fees if you sign your lease within 24 hours of seeing the place for the first time. They will try to make you feel desperate. Don’t listen to them! True, the city may be flooded with new graduates looking for apartments, but you’re not looking for your soul mate. You are going to find several winners, each with a different set of pros and cons. But if one is taken, that doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. You search harder.

I woke up on day 5 ready to sign the lease to Apartment G. Apartment G was the most expensive option, but the closest to my work, and the nicest. That morning, before we had finished our coffee at the hotel, my mother looked at me and said, “honey, if it’s meant to be, it will happen. If not, it wasn’t in God’s plan for you, kid.” I took this to heart and didn’t lament much when told fifteen minutes later that they had just leased the apartment to someone else.

Well, I thought, here we go again. Then I found Apartment X, recommended by a good friend’s mother who also works as a realtor. Next door to Highland Village and Central Market, I couldn’t have found a better location. It also fit the criterion I had determined for optimal living conditions and the price was right. Additionally, the space sparked a deep desire to decorate, akin to nesting, I imagine.

Whatever initial hesitation I felt that prevented me from getting that first place, Apartment G, was probably just my gut telling me to hold off because I wanted to find someplace else. I am glad I took the time I needed to get it right, instead of rush into something to avoid a possible feeling of loss.

9. Ask the following questions when looking at a place:

The Courtyard (not the original model space I was shown)

Is renters insurance required? Even if it isn’t, make sure you get it. For about $10 a month, you protect your (limited, but still costly) assets like electronics in case someone breaks in and steals them. Better to be safe than sorry!

Is parking included in the rent? Are there any other expenses I should know about besides utilities like trash pick-up?

What floor would my place be on and may I see it now? Sometimes, you will be shown a model of the place you may rent and not the actual place. You may not want the actual place once you see where it is located in the building. The first floor has some pros and cons. It’s less safe, but it’s easier to move in and the cost to heat the apartment will be lower than on higher floors because heat rises.

How many guests may I invite to the pool at one time? 2 pool guests are common at a complex where the pool is relatively popular on the weekends.

Is the washer and dryer included?

10. Celebrate the signing of your lease and prepare to move-in

The Kitchen: the most important room of the entire apartment

Let your friends know, plan a house-warming, and start shopping to fill the place with beautiful and comforting items.

11. On move-in day, document everything.

Photograph the walls, the floors, the ceiling. You’ll want to know and be able to prove the state of the space on move-in day so that later on you don’t have to take responsibility for any slight  scrapes or stains that were there before you ever moved in.

So, there it is, my recollections and (hopefully) wisdom from those intense few days when my mom and I took to the Houston city streets to find the space where I will begin the next stage of my life. There is still so much I have to learn, you know, as I have yet to pay my first bill or meet my first neighbor. I equate the first year out of college to toddler-hood, like I am learning to walk again. I am bound to make mistakes, but I am determined to do so in “Coco” style, with my chin up, my heart in the right place, and my wits about me. I have so much to learn and discover. Writing is the best way for me to account for certain lessons I hope to never forget, like how to live in New York City or drive through the great state of Texas.

Here’s to the first year out of college! Here’s to bundling all important experiences, people and knowledge into a kind of ongoing fuel to take me full-steam ahead. I couldn’t have asked for more. Here’s to move-in day, June 1st.