The Ultimate Guide to Finding an Apartment in the City

The summer I turned 18 was the same summer I moved out of the small town I grew up in, away from my friends and family and all the things I knew like the back of my hand. Transitioning to living on my own was easy when I had university housing to count on and financial aid to cover my expenses. Eventually I transitioned to renting a house with friends off campus until I made the leap to go abroad to continue my degree.

Then I graduated college and everything went to hell.

The government wasn't going to reward me for having good grades and my mom wasn't going to stop talking about the fact that she couldn't move into her new house until I figured out my next move. Most of my friends didn't travel far for college so they had no issue with moving back home, I on the other hand hadn't experienced living with my mom for more than a few weeks in four years. I was itching to get out. So one boring afternoon in a beach town in California I made the decision I was going to relocate to Washington DC, start grad school and live the single girl's dream. It didn't quite work out that well at first.

Finding an apartment in the city is fucking hard, which is why I actually lived in the suburbs outside the city for my first year. Eventually I got a good job that paid me well enough to afford my own place in the city, and even though it was a long painstaking process, I've never been happier. In an effort to make the process a little easier for you, this is what worked well for me.

Before anything, set your budget. 

Having a set budget will save you so much time, not only during your initial search but also once it comes time to speaking to leasing offices. It's important to set a budget for an apartment that you can afford now, don't be crazy like me and sign a lease to a place you hope to be able to afford with that new job you interviewed for. Thankfully everything worked out for me, but I don't recommend the gamble.

Locate neighborhoods you're interested in. 

If you live in a large city, chances are there are specific areas you love and others you never step foot in. Take a look at a map of the city and choose which are not only affordable to you but also a safe and fun place to live. If you're interested in a certain area but don't know it very well, take a day to explore the neighborhood and get a feel for the people and businesses in it.

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Start looking as early as possible. 

A lot of people say to look one to one and a half months before you need a place, but that's just crazy! If you've ever tried to lease an apartment in the city during the summer you know that the rent will be higher and the competition will be even higher. While you don't need to sign a lease, knowing what your options are ahead of time will save you a lot of stress closer to your move in date.

Use all your resources. 

Before moving to Washington DC I would have never though to find housing using Craigslist, but if you live in a big city, you know the housing struggle. Using every resource out there will ensure you not only see every available listing, but also that you get the lowest advertised price. Some of my favorites are Padmapper, and apartment management companies.

Visit each apartment you're interested in. 

Some places seem great, until you visit the location and have to walk over a crowd of people sitting on the entrance steps. Taking the time to visit the apartment, look at the building facilities and get a good look at the vibe of the place will narrow down your options, in a good way! I also recommend visiting the apartment's surrounding area at night, a lot can change about a neighborhood once the streets are empty. Don't so much as fill out an application before you visit, save yourself the 50 dollars and get a look at the area first.

Don't feel pressured to sign. 

Once you do visit the apartment, the leasing agent will do and say everything in their power to get you to apply for the apartment, whether they think you qualify or not. Don't feel pressured to apply, even if there's a line of people outside waiting to see the same unit. If there really are a ton of people interested in the same place they wouldn't be pressuring you to apply right that second.

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Have your paperwork ready. 

If you do find a place you love and are ready to commit that day, be sure to have your documents on hand to save time. I recommend bringing with you a blank check, government ID, pay statements and anything else that might be needed for the application form. Some places I looked into renting required recommendations from past landlords, and yes, I did list my mom.

Read the reviews. 

True story: last summer I was sold on an apartment in the city. It was a large studio, close to the major bus line, walking distance to Target and below my budget. I couldn't believe I had found this place. Then on a whim, okay I was bored at work, I decided to Google search, "xyz apartment reviews." The results shocked me. Not only were the ratings terrible, every person that reviewed it wrote in capitals "STAY AWAY FROM THIS PLACE." Bug infested, poor management, unsavory neighbors, suddenly I realized why it was so cheap. Take a few minutes to Google reviews of your apartment prospects, you'll never know what you may find.

Know your non-negotiables. 

Different people have different needs. When apartment hunting I knew I wanted hard wood floors and large windows, the rest didn't matter all that much. To help you with ranking your favorites make a list of the things you would ideally want your place to have, like an in unit washer/dryer, dishwasher or walk in closet. This type of list will help you choose between the apartments you're considering.

Have you ever experienced apartment hunting in the city? What's your best tip for finding a place without all the extra stress?


  1. I've never had to find an apartment in the city but these are great tips! So glad you didn't get stuck in the bug infested one!


  2. Great article. I'm moving to Chicago for graduate school this fall and I'm trying to figure out my housing situation now. Thanks for sharing!

    1. How did I not notice this comment before!? If you need help finding an apartment I know a girl who recently moved there who might have some recommendations!!