Money

9 tips for renting without going broke

Finding an apartment on a budget is difficult, but a few strategies will make it a lot easier.
Finding an apartment on a budget is difficult, but a few strategies will make it a lot easier.

Personal finance experts suggest you keep your rent under 30 percent of your income. But for many young professionals in cities these days, that's a big ask.

Millions of Americans are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent as prices remain sky-high. In Boston, for example, a one-bedroom costs an average of $2,930 a month. In San Francisco, it's $3,360. Even some software engineers at Facebook claim they can't afford rent.

As a 26-year-old professional living in New York, where the average one-bedroom apartment goes for $3,680 a month, I get it.

In fact, I lived at home for four years after college to save money while I figured out what I wanted to do with my career, and I saved about $47,000 in the process.

Me in front of my fifth floor walk-up apartment on move in day.
Me in front of my fifth floor walk-up apartment on move in day.

When it came time to move into my own place, it was incredibly difficult to find rent that wasn't going to break my budget. After two months of searching, I eventually found an affordable apartment. Sure, it was a fifth-floor walk-up with a shared bathroom and no oven, but it worked.

From having gone through the process of finding an apartment on a budget, here are my top tips:

1. Know your deal breakers 

You're probably not going to have your own one-bedroom apartment. But being on a budget doesn't mean you have to compromise your quality of life.

Take a minute and brainstorm what you would like and what you couldn't stand.

Here's my recommended list of things to consider:

  • Your commute time
  • Whether the apartment is smoking or non-smoking
  • How you feel about pets
  • Distance to the nearest subway or bus stop
  • If you want a quiet or lively place to live
  • If you need a stove, oven, dishwasher, elevator or on-site laundry
  • What you're looking for in a roommate
  • How you feel about overnight guests

Additionally, think about whether or not you can afford to use a real estate broker.

If you're on a tight budget, chances are you won't be able to. Brokers in major cities generally charge 10 to 15 percent of the annual rental fee. For a $1,200 apartment, that's between $1,440 and $2,160. If you can't afford a broker, use keywords such as "no broker" or "no fee" when looking at listings.

2. Download real estate apps

To stay up to date on the listings, download apps like Craigslist, StreetEasy, Trulia and Zillow. Checking them daily is a convenient way to cast a wide net, since you'll find unique listings on each. If the app offers certain benefits to people who create an account, such as the ability to save your searches or keep track of your favorite listings, take advantage of them. Your search will be a lot easier.

In addition, enable notifications. You'll be pinged every time a new listing that matches your criteria is added. When thousands of other people are searching for places, responding even minutes earlier than others can make a huge difference.

3. Save yourself time and stop looking for a studio

Finding an affordable studio apartment in a city like New York is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

On the off chance that you do find one, it almost always has some sort of major catch: It will be the size of a closet or it won't have its own bathroom. If you have roommates to share an apartment with, you really open up your options.

bean_7631.jpg
Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

If you don't have friends or siblings to move in with, fear not. There are a lot of young professionals out there who are looking for roommates too. It will feel a lot like online dating, but when you find the right match, you're more likely to find real (estate) happiness.

4. Join Facebook housing groups

There are dozens of Facebook groups out there where people post apartment listings. A friend invited me to join a New York City group, and I'm so glad she did. It makes searching for an apartment more personal, since you can check out the lister's social media profile and put a face to the name.

Look up your city name along with "apartments" "listings" or "housing" and you're sure to find a bunch of groups. Request to join them.

5. Post a roommate ad 

The more you broadcast your search, the more responses you'll get. So post what you're looking for on your Facebook profile and tell your friends. If you don't want to share your exact price point, you can always give a range or use terms like "on a budget."

Join roommate matching sites like Spareroom.com or Roomster.com and consider posting a roommate-seeking ad on Craigslist.

The Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Getty Images
The Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

In these posts, include your budget, ideal neighborhoods, a bit about yourself and what you're looking for in a roommate.

To stay safe while doing this, don't respond to anyone who asks for money or personal information — those are red flags.

Ask for multiple social media account links from the person to verify that he or she is real. You could also arrange a video call before meeting up.

6. Draft a post you can use to reply to apartment listings 

Responding to dozens of listings can be exhausting. To avoid apartment-hunting burn-out, draft a general email response that you can copy and paste, with minor tweaks, to each listing that interests you.

The response should include a bit about yourself, your ideal move in date, what you're looking for and any questions you have about that listing.

7. Stay safe

Never send money, your social security number or any other personal information to strangers, no matter what they say. Seriously, there's a huge market out there of people trying to scam you.

Don't sign any documents or turn over any cash until you do some of your own investigative research. Search the person's name and company with the word "fraud," "scam" and "lawsuit" to see if anything comes up.

"The more you broadcast your search, the more responses you'll get."

When going to view an apartment, always meet in a public place and tell a friend where you're headed. If you have any doubts, do more digging or just hold off. There will be more listings tomorrow.

And if you're considering moving into a room in someone else's apartment, make sure to actually meet the person or people you'd be living with first. You'll be able to ask key questions about their lifestyle and habits.

8. Look into new areas 

Finding an affordable apartment in the posh parts of any city, like the West Village in Manhattan or upscale Brooklyn Heights, is extremely difficult, even if you're planning to share the space. Many young professionals in New York are moving to the less gentrified areas of Queens, the Bronx and nearby New Jersey for this reason.

If you look at less trendy but still vibrant neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, Sunset Park, Kensington and Inwood, you'll find more listings at competitive prices. The commute might not even be that much worse, and the local food might be far better.

Find out where young professionals in your area are moving and do some research. Look into where the laundromats, parks and grocery stores are, what the the crime rate is and where the nearest subways or bus stops are. Visit. You might just find a good fit.

9. Don't make impulse buys

Looking for an affordable apartment is very stressful. Remember to take your time and relax. After you see an apartment, walk around the neighborhood. Do you like it? Could you see yourself living there?

If the answer is "Yes," follow up as soon as you can, as apartments go quickly. If the answer is "Maybe," think about it more. Don't allow yourself to get swept up by the panic.

Here's to finding a good place on a budget.

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