Jordan and I have been looking for a rental home for three months now. I started my search a couple of months early for this very reason; I understood Tallahassee was not an easy market for renters, and I knew we'd need plenty of time between now and our August 1 lease-end date to find a new place to call home.
What I didn't count on was just how frustrating the search would be.
Don't get me wrong: Jordan and I are no strangers to the rental market. We've been renting in Tallahassee -- a college town -- for four years now, and our budget way back in 2008 was tiny. We were living on my measly little salary, and our money didn't go very far. We saw our fair share of ugly, ill-cared for apartments and townhomes, so I thought we were adequately prepared for our 2012 search, especially since our budget today is much larger, and we're four years older, wiser.
Our larger budget hasn't translated to more quality rentals, and I'm not sure if that's because of where we live (college towns = college-aged renters) or because of where we're looking. I've seen the inside of 10+ rentals, done more drive-bys than I care to count, and we've only seen one rental property we've even come close to signing a lease on. Each tour is a learning experience, but that doesn't make the journey any less infuriating, especially since it feels as if we're no closer to finding a rental than when we began. I know, too, we're living in a buyer's market, which can make it difficult to determine if it's really wise to sign a lease right now, or if we should stick it out in our current place for a year or two more, lazy landlord and all.
All that to say: We're learning some things. And perhaps the lessons we're learning will be helpful for some of you, especially in this age chock full of inspiration, but lacking in common, practical sense.
1. Know your budget and stick to it. Our own budget covers a pretty wide range, but now that we've looked around and checked out the market, we know what we'd most likely have to spend in order to rent a place that fits our criteria. Basically, the more we've been looking, the more our budget has morphed from a range of dollars into a practical, stick-to-it number. We're trying to be realistic, too, knowing that the smaller our budget, the more likely we're going to be renting a dump. That's just how it is in this town, and that's good to know so our expectations don't get out of control.
2. Create a must-have list. What are your non-negotiables? What are the things you are looking for in a new place, and what are the things you figure you can do without? Our must-have list looks like this:
- Hardwood floors
- W/D hook-ups
- Updated kitchen
- Walkable neighborhood
- Central heat and air
We've seen a lot of places, and we know now what we're willing to compromise a little on (it's okay if not all of the floors are hardwood, and we don't need a brand new kitchen with stainless steel appliances, just something large enough to cook in together). Our list might look extensive, but it helps us keep things in perspective and prevents us from wasting too much time on home tours and Craigslist searches.
3. Be a savvy renter. I respond to Craigslist ads through my work email address to show potential landlords I'm a professional, not a student. I go to house showings with Jordan or with my mother or a friend, never alone. (This was a lesson learned the hard way a few weeks ago, when I took a house tour where I was less than comfortable being alone with the property's current tenant.) I also make Jordan call properties since I tend to sound like a young child over the phone. I always ask the same questions (Am I allowed to paint? Are small, older, well-behaved dogs allowed? Who is responsible for maintenance and how quickly are problems handled? What are the average utilities? Is the neighborhood safe?), and I try to get them answered in person. I also do my own research so I can see if the landlord or property manager's answers match up to what I'm able to find online. (In Tallahassee, you can search average utility costs by address.) I also never act like I'm in a rush or pressured to find a rental, which in our case happens to be true. Our current landlord is flexible, and we're not in a hurry. If a property managers tries to get us to sign something that day, I'm turned off. I never like being pressured into things, and a rental house is no exception.
4. Trust your gut. There's only one house we've been ready to sign a lease on; we took a tour that day, and after sleeping on it, we were ready to sign a lease. I had already drawn floor plans and pictured our furniture in all the right places. Then, as you know, we discovered the home didn't have a dishwasher. Up until that point, we hadn't ever toured a place that didn't have one, so that was a new challenge, and it was one we didn't think we could really overcome. Now we've seen several homes without dishwashers, and if the "perfect" house came up without one, I might be willing to compromise. However, that hasn't happened yet. I haven't walked into a front door and thought, "Yes. This is it. This is what I'm looking for." And I'm confident that's going to happen. It's happened in our two previous rentals (despite the fact that neither were in very much good shape when we first found and toured them), and at 26, I know that generally, I can trust my instincts. Which leads me to my final point...
5. Don't rush. If you begin your search early enough, it's okay to wait and to take your time. I know I'm never going to find the perfect rental. (That's the nature of renting, I'm afraid.) But that doesn't mean I need to rush into something or jump the gun on the first thing I see remotely fitting my checklist. I can weigh my options and make my pro-con lists because that's how my husband and I make decisions, and it's what works best for us. I'm all for spontaneous picnics and road trips to Thomasville, but spontaneously signing a lease just isn't for me. The fact is, we're not in a hurry, and there are parts of us that would be completely content staying in our townhome for a while longer. That's a luxury some people don't have, so we're willing to use it to our advantage. No more frenzied searches, no more obsessively checking Craigslist. If we have to wait a little while for a house we love, that's okay. We're content right where we are, and there are projects I could easily complete where we're currently renting.
"The grass is greener where you water it," and if that's true, our own little home could use a little watering over the next few weeks. The rest? Well, the rest will work itself out in time, as most things, I'm learning, generally do.