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Post-Grad Help: How to Find An (Affordable!) Apartment

Welcome to life after college, Post-Grad. It’s time to tackle problems bigger than waking up for class or cramming for finals. But don’t be scared – you’re not alone! This year, you join an estimated 976,000 women expected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a college or university, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Like those other post-collegiettes, you get to make important decisions, such as choosing a job you enjoy or finding the perfect place to live. It’s a task that many graduates are often unprepared for, says Blair Brandt, CEO of The Next Step Realty, a network that helps graduates find their first homes. From not knowing the layout of a city to having unrealistic price expectations, the search for a new place will hit you with curveballs. HC is here to give you tips on how to find an affordable place to live after graduation – something a textbook can’t teach.

How can I make the process easy and affordable?

1. Use the Internet and word of mouth.
Fire up your laptop and visit sites such as Trulia, Zillow, Craigslist (beware of scams!) and StreetEasy. These pages offer property reviews by locals, crime reports for an area, price trends and more. Carrie Morris, a graduate of the Art Institute of Boston, says she uses Padmapper, another helpful site that filters apartments by price and number of rooms.

Before you search online, however, try to connect with old friends or family members who are familiar with the area. “For bigger cities, such as Tampa or Atlanta, you will need to determine the particular area you are interested in to narrow your search and avoid being overwhelmed,” says Katie Rizzo, a 2011 University of Florida graduate. Rizzo asked friends for lists of safe neighborhoods and apartment complexes to help her make the transition from small college town to urban city.

2. Know your budget.
Post-grad life isn’t like a game of Monopoly – you don’t have money to throw around. As a general rule, set aside one-third of your monthly salary for rent. Let’s crunch numbers: if you make $35,000 per year, you should aim to spend between $950 and $1,000 each month on rent. Brandt says in places such as New York City, landlords require your salary be at least 40 times your monthly rent. In most cases, though, your parents can add their names to the lease to back you financially.

If you’re concerned about budgeting, don’t panic. Free programs such as Learnvest (which lets you create and track a customizable monthly budget) and Splitwise (which calculates how to divide expenses among roommates) can help. And remember, current collegiettes: it’s never too early to start planning. Look at price ranges of properties in your location of choice during fall of your senior year. If you have a job or receive an allowance from your parents, create a fund for your future apartment. Deposit money monthly into a savings account and watch the numbers add up.

3. Consider using a realtor.
One of the biggest mistakes Brandt sees is when graduates attempt to hunt for a new place without help. Realtors guide you through the lease signing process, explaining everything from the paperwork you need (tax forms, bank statements, recent pay stubs, employment verification letters, driver’s licenses and more) to how to close a deal. Basically, they represent your rights as a tenant. Find your perfect realtor through Craigslist postings, referrals from friends or co-workers and local print ads. “If you find the right realtor, they’re actually really excited to help you,” Brandt says.

Brandt recommends signing up with a realtor 90 days before a move so you can discuss your price range and criteria for your new apartment. Without real estate training, you can’t be expected to understand every detail of a lease. This can lead to confusion and legal problems. “It can be something as simple as not checking the right box that says your water will be paid for,” Brandt says. “There are 100 little details that a broker can go through in 20 minutes.”

The downside of hiring realtors? A fee of one month’s rent or one-half month’s rent is usually attached to their services. You may be able to get around it, though: Brandt’s company, for example, matches clients and brokers for free in many of the big cities it covers. It also offers discounts for brokers in cities where its services are not complimentary. Finally, ask your parents for guidance. Believe it or not, they once were young adults starting out in the world, and they likely remember how hard it was to find their first place.

4. Consider living at home.
Life isn’t like the movies. Unless, that is, you are like Alexis Bledel’s character in “Post Grad,” who returns home after college, jobless and unable to afford her own place. Moving back home may not be ideal, but you’ll save money by not having to pay rent. Pocketing some extra cash will give you more options when you finally do begin your search.

5. Find roommates.
Sharing a place with someone else is the easiest way to split costs and use living space efficiently. Follow the lead of University of Florida graduate Victoria Woods and have a meeting with your roommates before you begin searching. Discuss budgets and write out a list of features you want your ideal apartment to have so that everyone will be happy with the final decision.

If you need to find random roommates fast, use online tools like Easy Roommate and Roommates.com. You can post listings, view profiles of potential roommates and even have professional services match you with people. Ask friends or co-workers for references of others who may be looking for a roommate, too.

6. Be open-minded: compromise and downsize.
Many factors determine an apartment’s price tag, so don’t forget the bigger picture. For example, if one apartment costs more but includes heat and hot water, it may actually be a better deal than a less expensive apartment that doesn’t include utilities in the rent. Also, instead of looking exclusively at one category of apartment sizes, consider less expensive converted options (such as a one-bedroom with a dividing wall that creates two separate rooms). If you’re feeling really handy and are allowed to change your space’s interior (caution: talk to your landlord first!), try this cool DIY renovation with tools from IKEA.

7. Negotiate with landlords.
If you decide against hiring a broker, you can try and negotiate a lease on your own (although Brandt advises against it). Politely talk to your landlord to see if you can reach agreements that will lower your monthly rent, extend your lease beyond a year or allow you to pay rent upfront several months in advance. Offer to handle routine maintenance on your own, such as cutting the lawn or fixing appliances. However, don’t negotiate too hard, or you risk damaging your relationship with your landlord and having the deal fall through if you don’t act fast. “[The apartment search] is extremely competitive, and many times you have to be willing to put money down on a good place the day it goes up for rent,” says Kelly Boudreau, a University of Florida recent sgraduate.

8. Ask the right questions.
You should know what your hard-earned paychecks are going toward. Are there maintenance people on call? Is the apartment furnished? Will you have your own washer and dryer? Have your landlord show you copies of previous utility bills, especially if utilities are not included. Check the policy on getting your security deposit returned. Search online and reach out to your landlord or realtor to get answers to these important questions. For more help, see this list of things to ask before signing a lease.

What factors should I consider in my search?

1. Safety.
Security is the last thing you want to worry about when you’re in a new place, far from parents, friends and familiarity. Make a checklist of your ideal pad’s safety features. Do all doors and windows have locks? How about an intercom system or doorman for the building? Is it near a well-lit street? Visit at different times to see what you’re really getting yourself into. That two-bedroom with convenient highway access may be great when you’re running late to work in the morning, but lots of nighttime activity in the area could make you feel totally unsafe.

2. Commute.
Fighting rush-hour traffic or squeezing into a subway for a long ride is nobody’s idea of a good time, but sometimes those inconveniences are necessary for your first job. If possible, find a place to live that won’t leave you stressing daily on your way to and from work.

3. Social Life.
Before the big move, research the area’s social scene. Don’t forget to check how far you will live from drugstores, grocery stores, frozen yogurt shops, gyms and more (especially if you won’t have easy access to transportation). Boudreau says she and her roommate are looking for apartments in neighborhoods that offer lots to do in their spare time. “We are willing to commute to work anywhere around 30 minutes because it’s worth it to us to be in the younger, more ‘happening’ area of South Tampa.”

We can’t promise the search for your own affordable place will be easy. The process may take a while and even cause discouragement. But follow HC’s tips and tricks and you’ll be one step closer to settling into an apartment or home that you can call your own. Take a deep breath and let the hunt begin, Post-Grad. We know you can do it!

Ali is a junior studying journalism, education and leadership at the University of Florida. Internships in broadcast journalism and public relations convinced her to follow her original dream: a career in magazines. This summer, she will intern with SELF Magazine in New York City. Ali is an active member of Kappa Delta Sorority and maintains a lifestyle and entertainment blog (www.idealist-ali.blogspot.com). She loves photography, city lights, Steve Madden shoes, Modern Family and Florence, Italy (where she studied abroad in the summer of 2011).
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