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Apartment Searches: Lose the Rose-Colored Glasses First
If you're getting ready to rent, don't do what this editor did once ... a long, long time ago.
Don't walk into the unit -- particularly if it's not the same unit you're getting ("It's pretty similar," you'll be assured, but don't listen) -- nod, and let that affordable rent lure you into blurting out, "I'll take it!" (That exclamation is often fueled by that familiar lust for freedom that new twentysomething college graduates experience. The fear of another year under Mom's and Dad's roof is a powerful motivator, and suddenly, a box under the nearest bridge seems to offer an attractive ambiance when you tilt your head to just the right angle.)
I've learned a few things since then. For instance, if the leasing agent mentions that they're considering replacing the carpet in your home-to-be, that means they don't have any plans to do so -- certainly not before you move in, and after you're there, well, it's simply too much trouble to make the effort then. It's too late at that point; they'd have to move your furniture.
This isn't to say that property management companies universally are deceiving their tenants. Not true. Today's multifamily housing market is more competitive than ever, and complexes left and right are extending themselves in an attempt to provide the best services within their means. But that's due partly to the latest generation of consumers. We're educated, we're inquisitive, and many of us are online. In short, we're dangerous. If Complex A can't give us what we want, we'll cross the street to Complex B, or wait for the dust to settle on Complex C, which is still under construction. (Of course, leases already are being signed on Complex C, even though the units aren't finished.) That's the reality of today's apartment market.
Before you sign anything, walk in armed with a list of questions. Fire away, and don't be afraid to press for answers -- particularly if you're not getting straight answers. And if your prospective complex passes with flying colors, and you decide to become a resident there, hang onto your list. It will serve as a handy resource if your landlord or management company fails to live up to the claims initially made -- whether those be related to maintenance issues or various services.
You may want to consider doing a little investigative journalism, as well. Beyond straight Q&A with a leasing agent or landlord, take a look around the property in question, taking notes of what you observe. And talk to tenants; they're perhaps the best resource of all, and nine times out of 10, they're only too happy to talk. In addition, you may want to review your state's sanitary code, which should then serve as a basis for comparison when you're checking out the conditions in an apartment.
Here's a list of questions, divided by category, that serves as a good starting point when you begin your apartment search:
Rent and fees:
Facilities and services:
Rental unit conditions:
Source: The University of Massachusetts Commuter Services and Housing Resource Center
Throughout all of my apartment searches, the best lesson I learned came from a leasing agent who told me upon my first visit to his complex that "If you told me you were ready to sign a contract today, I'd advise you not to. Look around. Come back at night, and see who your neighbors are going to be. A complex at night is very different from a complex during the day." I've come to realize that's sound advice. Don't sign right away. Don't be scared into thinking that apartment won't be available tomorrow. Mull it over, do your homework, and get the answers you need before signing on the dotted line.
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