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Deciding Where to Live

By Matthew Demmer
Quick Tips

  1. Determine what you want - Having a clear sense of what you can pay, what neighborhoods you want to see, and how much space you need will save you both time and money. Let these criteria guide your search, and make sure that any broker you get is on board.
  2. Neighborhood criteria – The Donald always says, “Location! Location! Location!” And he’s right. Figure out what you’re looking for: restaurants, parks, nightlife, other recent grads, etc. Then find the neighborhood that fits.
  3. Space – You can usually get two out of the big three: location, space, and cost. But as a recent grad, how much space do you really need? A smaller apartment might be the difference between Hipland and the boondocks.
  4. Cost – Some people say you shouldn’t spend more than a third of your monthly salary on an apartment, but that doesn’t fly everywhere (e.g., New York City). In the most expensive cities, half is a more realistic rule of thumb, but clearly it’s not ideal. Keep in mind that trendy neighborhoods are the most expensive, so if you’re willing to branch out, you can find some good deals.
  5. Resources – Browsing the archives of city-specific magazines and reading travel guides are a great way to figure out what city to move to and which neighborhood to live in. Some examples of popular local mags are Time Out and San Francisco Magazine. Travel guides include Rough Guides, Fodors, and Frommers.

Once you’ve made the momentous decision to move out of your childhood bedroom, it’s time to find a place to set up camp. There are no more Hogwarts-esque “sorting hats” like parents or college housing offices to ensure that you have a room to call your own, so the responsibility rests squarely on your shoulders to figure out what you value in a living space, how much you are willing to spend, and where exactly you want to live. To do so, it is necessary to balance the three main criteria for judging an apartment: neighborhood/location, cost, and space.

Going in blind will suck up an entire week’s worth of apartment hunting as you look at a slew of initial apartments that are all too expensive, too small, or too far from where you want to be. Why even venture to that one bedroom for $500/month more than you can afford or that cheap studio that’s impossibly located a half an hour away from the nearest form of transportation? Apartment hunting is a tough gig, so tip the balance in your favor by starting out on the right foot.


Obviously, the first thing to figure out is how much you can actually afford. Leaving college means balancing paychecks with expenses for the first time, which can be difficult without experience. Things like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and take-out can really add up, so make sure to account for all of those expenses in your monthly budget. Most experts suggest that a person’s rent should make up no more than a third of his or her monthly income. Now, if you’re making $50,000 a year before taxes that comes to at most $900 a month — not a lot for a city like New York where some parking spots cost $900 a month, but not necessarily impossible. One key to figuring out cost is to determine whether you want (or can afford) to live alone, or if you are going to have roommates. Living with roommates cuts down the cost of renting an apartment by a lot, but it can also compromise sleep and sanity. Check out our article on Roommate Living for more information and/or use our roommate finder. Just remember: be conservative with your budget so you’re not running back to mom and dad for handouts a few months after moving in.


The cost of an apartment or house will vary greatly depending on the neighborhood. Moving in next to Jennifer Aniston (oh my god like oh my god do you think we’ll be besties?) will likely drive up the cost of the rent by a substantial margin. The key is to figure out what and whom you want to be surrounded by. Different neighborhoods have different identities, so it’s important to tailor your search accordingly—do some research by checking out travel guides, local newspapers/magazines, and online resources. However, the best thing you can do is pick out a few potential neighborhoods and go hang out there. Spend a Saturday walking around, and then go back at night to see if it feels safe. Go with your instincts and see what feels right.

One word of warning: It’s easy to get suckered into thinking that the coolness of a neighborhood trumps the practical concerns associated with living there, but in most cases it doesn’t. The place you like to shop, party, or hang out does not necessarily have to be the place you live, particularly if it costs an arm and a leg. Here are some more pressing concerns to consider first.

  • Proximity to work. Will an hour commute to and from work make you want to impale yourself on a rusty spike? If you drive, what will the morning traffic be like? Would you rather wake up half an hour later every weekday or be closer to your friends on the weekends?
  • Proximity to transportation. Can you get everywhere you need to go without a car? Note that if there’s an express bus, train, or highway to shoot you to work in the morning, it might be easier to live in a different area or town than it would be to live geographically closer but three trains and a 10 minute walk away.
  • Cost. Basically, can you afford it? (See above).
  • Safety. Getting jacked up frequently is probably going to cost you more in the long run that a little bit of extra rent each month.
  • Convenience. Grocery stores, banks, and pharmacies should be easily accessible, or else you might get aggravated and/or hungry.
  • Other. How much to you value being close to friends, restaurants, bars, parks, and anything else that will make your life more convenient and enjoyable?


How much space does one man or woman need? If my various experiences of living in closet-sized studios with six-foot ceilings are any indication, not much. It’s all about where your values lie. If you really like spending time at home—cooking, reading, whatever—then space is going to be pretty important and hip “neighborhoodness” might not be. But if you enjoy watching people over television and eating out over taking in, then a closet in “hot” neighborhood is probably just fine. Just don’t think that 400 square feet is enough room for a home recording studio and Fido the two-hundred pound German Shepard.

When looking at an apartment, think about how much natural light it gets and how important that is to you. If you end up renting a putting up fake walls, will an added room block out most of the light? Next, assess the floor plan, which is generally much more important than the square footage number quoted on the listing. Do you have to walk through another bedroom to get to the bathroom? Are the hallways awkwardly narrow? Use this Arrange A Room tool to see what that future bedroom, living room, or bedroom / living room / dining room is going to look like after you’ve put in all your stuff. Finally, think about your unique roommate needs and lifestyle. If you live with a social group of friends and you plan to spend most of your free time in the apartment together, then maybe it’s worth sacrificing large bedrooms for a bigger living room and kitchen. If you have worked out a rental scheme in which you and your roommates will pay different amounts, make sure you look for places where the rooms match their respective price tags.

Perks and Special Needs

If you require wheelchair-accessibility or you own a pet, you’d better make sure that any building you look at can accommodate these needs. Beyond the essentials, you need determine how to much you value the various “bells and whistles” of the building.

  • Laundry. A laundry room (or better yet a washer and dryer in the apartment) should be the first point of investigation. However, bear in mind that laundry rooms cost money, and look around the neighborhood before ruling out a laundry-free building—there may be a Laundromat next door that will wash, iron, and fold your clothes for little more than it would take to use the machines.
  • Kitchen. A refrigerator, stovetop, and oven are basic, but a dishwasher can be a godsend to a busy and lazy grad. That said, if you never cook at home (let alone eat outside the office), maybe it’s irrelevant. Determine your cooking needs and aspirations, then proceed accordingly. You can also roll with paper dishes and plastic silverware to make things easier, but just don’t expect Al Gore to show up at your dinner parties.
  • Gym. Having a gym in your building is pretty fresh, but again, assess your actual schedule and habits. Does your job provide gym membership somewhere better? Would you prefer to work out at home or closer to work? Have you even worked out since ‘99? Maybe it’s not so fresh after all…
  • Doorman. A doorman apartment is not only safer, but also more convenient when it comes to dealing with packages, guests, and other building-related issues. However, if packages are your main concern, remember that you may also be able to get packages shipped to your office.
  • Patio, balcony, or roof access. If you like “grilling and chilling” as much as Bobby Flay, a little deck space can be very agreeable. But make sure you adjust the value of this luxury for the effects of global warming. Next thing you know, you’ll be flipping burgers in July with gloves on—and I’m not talking about oven mitts!
  • Parking. Do you need it and are there cheaper alternatives?

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