Christmas decorations always give any apartment that extra homey factor that many of our starter (or 2nd or 3rd or 4th) apartments are generally lacking. I’m pretty proud of how cozy and “at-home” I felt with our home this holiday season – we thoroughly decorated and made merry with lots of friends of 3 different occasions, filling our home with not just holiday cheer but memories. Now that the decorations are down and our place seems to be lacking in that “je ne sais quoi”, it got me to thinking about what really makes a house (or apartment) a home.
Our current living room
I’ve lived in LA for 7.5 years now and I can honestly say that Jefe and my’s current apartment is the first one that really felt like home. When you live 3,000 miles from your nearest and dearest and are living on a limited budget, finding a place where you feel at home, especially in the urban sprawl that is the greater LA metropolis can be very difficult. It’s taken me 7 years. Now that’s not to say that it will take everyone that long, but it might. So how do you combat that nomadic feeling that your “domicile,” for lack of a better word, just feels temporary? That it’s not just a white box where you spend the hours you’re not in the office?
Our last place (aka – “The Big White Box”) on moving day
The first thing that is most important is the bare bones. The physical space itself. When home hunting, you need to think about:
a) Budget. This is obviously you’re starting point. What can you afford? And is that number really what you want to spend? Or would you rather go a little lower so you have extra cash for things like drinks with friends? (Or if you’re like me, for Sallie Mae….)
b) Location. Your neighborhood is a real contributing factor to your overall happiness. My first place in LA was near USC, just off-campus while I was in grad school. I quickly learned that I was on the WRONG SIDE of “off-campus”. I couldn’t go out after dark by myself, neighbors were not friendly, and nothing was walkable. It also lacked quite a few amenities both in the unit and nearby. No one wants to have to drive 45 minutes in LA traffic to get to a Target.
My former USC Hood – Its not too bad in the daylight…
c) Features. What’s important to you to have in your home? Do you despise dishes and absolutely must have a dishwasher? Or do you value a guaranteed parking spot at the end of a long day? Make a list of your absolute must-haves. And no, a girl (or guy) on a budget may NOT put “walk-in closet” as a must. They don’t exist on a budget. If you’re lucky enough to find one, you hold on to that unicorn because they are very few and far between.
Our Unicorn – The walk-in closet in our current place before we moved in
Now, make your list of “it’d be nice to have’s”. Things like a washer & dryer in-unit. Central AC. A fireplace. Once you have both of your lists and your budget, you’re ready to start your search.
The Search – I love looking at apartment listings as I’m always intrigued by architecture and design. But you may not be like Sledge so you’re not inclined to just ALWAYS be looking at places. But I do recommend that you start early. Months in advance. You never know what you’ll find and how long it will take. Example: last summer Jefe and I briefly discussed looking for a bigger apartment. We were outgrowing our 1 bedroom with open floor plan but we weren’t in any rush as our lease was month to month. So I casually started doing my research as to what was available within our budget in our desired area.
Doing your research will help you set realistic expectations and ensure that you get the most bang for your buck. In our case, I found a place rather quickly that from my research told me was a steal for the price with everything it had to offer. Although Jefe and I didn’t think we were quite ready to move as we had hoped to have some more time to save up, the apartment was too perfect of a fit for our needs to pass up. We had to rearrange a few things financially to make it work, but in the long run, we’re now in a place we can call home for the foreseeable future. It’s somewhere we can just BE for awhile and feel settled.
So how did I find it? Each city has it’s on idiosyncrasies when it comes to apartment hunting. For example, in LA, Craigslist is a fairly safe bet up to a certain price point. Once you start looking for nicer, better maintained units particularly on the westside, you may want to consider purchasing a monthly membership to Westside Rentals for the duration of your search. Certain landlords ONLY post on that site in an effort to attract the right type of tenants (reliable with a steady income above a certain threshold). I would only recommend this if you’ve gone the Craigslist route and have continually come up empty-handed. What’s $50 if it leads you to the right place that will save you money in the long run?
I can’t speak to other cities, but I do know what a BEAST apartment hunting can be in New York. I’ve never done it myself and from friends’ horror stories, I think I’m quickly aging out of my desire to move to the isle of Manhattan. It’s like the Hunger Games out there. And don’t even get me started on broker fees. So what’s a single gal in the city to do? I’ve only heard one success story of someone finding a place via Craigslist. It was in Harlem but I’m still skeptical it was as easy as a simple Craigslist search; there had to have been a catch, right?!
So do you just ask for a trusted friend’s broker info? That option gets pricey VERY quick. But word on the street is that there’s hope. Now I’ve never used the service myself, but for those of you longing for a shoebox to call your own in the concrete jungle of New York, there’s a new startup that I hear is doing wonders for the way Manhattanites apartment hunt. Urban Compass, recently profiled by Bloomberg and TechCrunch, is trying to change the game. I’ve played around with the search functions and have to say it’s definitely worth checking out if you find yourself searching in NYC. The best part is you can easily focus your search on specific neighborhoods.
In general though, apartment hunting can suck. But by doing your homework, you can hopefully find a place to call home sooner rather than later. Some things I looked for during this last round of hunting:
- Lots of natural light – I’ve lived in a cave-like space before. No fun.
- Original hardwood floors – They give a space character and add warmth.
- A more house-like layout – This is one of the biggest factors to making our current place feel less like an apartment and more like a private house.
- Architecture features – These are obviously not necessities, but really can give a place character. Archways, built-in bookshelves and fireplace mantles (regardless of whether you can actually light a fire) go a long way to making a place feel less like a cookie-cutter white box.
- Open mind – This isn’t so much something I looked for but something I tried to keep. No space will be perfect unless you build it from scratch. So, if an apartment is 99% perfect, think about how you can take that imperfect 1% and make it work. Example 1: how can you minimize that horrid, pink bathroom tile to make it livable? Get a larger shower curtain, hang the tension rod higher off the ground and more of the tile will be covered! Example 2: Hate those gilded brass kitchen knobs? That’s an easy fix with a trip to Home Depot for a value pack of brushed silver handles.
Once you’ve found your place with the right bare bones, it’s on to the fun part – decorating! But we’ll save that for another time.