Finding my dream apartment (or close enough) in Somerville (or nearby) from a distance
May 3, 2010 10:37 PM   Subscribe

Incoming Tufts grad student looking for lots of advice on long-distance apartment-hunting in Somerville/Cambridge area (or beyond?).

I'm starting grad school at Tufts in September and so am planning on moving to the Boston area in August. I've never had to apartment-hunt from a distance before and have pretty much no idea what I'm getting into:
- I've been looking on Craigslist - it's a little overwhelming. Is that even the best way to get started?
- After years of dorms and group houses, I'm feeling a little burned out on roommates and ready to have a place of my own - even if it's tiny. Is this a realistic expectation? When I've visited campus it seems like the Somerville area is mostly houses - not a lot of apartments. Do I need to be looking in Cambridge (or elsewhere) for any hope of finding a 1-br or a studio?
- What should I be expecting to pay in rent? Money isn't exactly an object, but I also don't want to be duped into paying something totally outrageous.
- What neighborhoods are reasonably safe? What neighborhoods are fun? Where do students/young-ish people live and hang out? My biggest priority is to be convenient to school but I'd also like to live somewhere with stuff to do - bars, restaurants, culture, etc. - not too far away.
- Is there any hope of having somewhere to park my car? My impression of the Boston area is of tiny streets and limited off-street parking options. I don't intend to drive all the time (and would like to be as near the T s possible) but I'd also like to have my car as an option for when I do need it.
- What's the best time to start looking? Am I already behind?
- I'm sure there are a million questions I don't even know I ought to be asking.

Background: I'm 25 and currently live in DC. I am terribly spoiled by my current living situation, a group house in which I have: my own bathroom, a washer and dryer, a parking spot, proximity to work (Cap Hill) and play (H Street Corridor and Eastern Market), and not-terrible rent ($800 + utilities). The only things I don't like about it are the distance from the Metro (about a mile) and my increasing desire for a little more privacy. I certainly don't expect to find a magical awesome place that checks all of my current boxes and then some (and I certainly expect to pay a good deal more living alone) - just trying to give an idea of what I'm comparing potential new digs to.

P.S. I read this question and it was helpful, but still hoping for more Somerville-area-specific advice.
posted by naoko to Home & Garden (19 answers total)
I'll have lots of advice in the morning.

Quick clarifying question: since you're looking at Cambridge/Somerville, I assume you are attending school on the Medford/Somerville campus, and not downtown (med/dental/biomedical sciences/nutrician), or wherever the vet school is?
posted by teragram at 10:49 PM on May 3, 2010

Response by poster: Heh, I forgot about the other campuses (I haven't a science-y bone in my body) - definitely going to the Medford/Somerville one (Fletcher School if it matters (ohmygod please nobody tell me to live in Blakeley - the evangelizing about the awesomely fun and international community that is Blakeley is way adorable and all, but I am a hopeless hermit)).
posted by naoko at 11:03 PM on May 3, 2010

Most of Somerville has relatively simple street parking with a permit system; the permits are cheap (but they are very rigid with policing them, so you'll want to get one basically the instant you move in).

Most people I know have either roommates or a significant other. Studios are pricey and tiny, but possible.

Some people do use apartment brokers here, but my personal opinion of them is pretty negative. Instead I'd see what sort of resources Tufts has for finding housing; I found my first apartment in grad school through the university's housing center.

For craigslist, I'd try restricting the search to studios/1bedrooms in Somerville, or use one of the many craigslist+google maps mashups to restrict geographically. Also if you're big on having washer/dryer or dishwasher, search for those terms; that should narrow your search noticeably.

Davis Square is the fun-thing-to-do neighborhood in the general Tufts area. It's going to be pretty pricey, though; there are several smaller squares around the Davis area which would be close to Tufts but still close to fun things, too.
posted by nat at 11:28 PM on May 3, 2010

Tufts undergrad here, and having just signed a lease on an apartment myself, here's what I can offer:

Most living arrangements right around campus are houses split into apartments by floor (or some large 2floor apts). Because of this, in the surrounding area of campus, you're unlikely to find any 1BRs. Inman square is close, and really cool, and you might have more luck there, although it has only bus, and not T access. On the bright side it does have EPIC Indian food. Resident street parking is possible if your car is registered to your place in Cambridge (this is also true of Somerville).

Don't get too burned out on the idea of having roommates, there are plenty of nice 2BRs within a few minutes walk of Fletcher, and one roommate isn't SO bad.

Craigslist has a wealth of listings, but a fair # of houses are also just done through word-of-mouth, and these are likely to be slightly nicer, as the tenant-vetting-tenant handing-down system that takes place keeps these places somewhat unspoiled. A lot of houses in the vicinity of the Medford/Somerville campus have driveways as well.

$800+utils is gonna get you an amazing room in a kickass 3+BR, a good room in a nice 2BD, or a meh 1BR in the immediate campus radius. Inman square is significantly cheaper, as far as I understand from grad students in my department (Bio) who live there.

I would check with the Tufts OCH website (off campus housing), and that of the Tufts Daily as well. Though they cater mostly to undergrads (and listing season for the Daily is pretty much over), they might have a listing or two that would fit your needs.

MeMail me if you have any more questions.

And yeah, Blakeley is weak sauce.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 11:34 PM on May 3, 2010

Nothing specific about the Boston area, but HotPads is a really nice site for searching for apartments. It aggregates from several sites, and it displays them all on a map.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 11:42 PM on May 3, 2010

Some thoughts:

Most people give notice 1 month before they move out. Therefore, most roomates only find that they need someone on the first of the month that they need to find someone. I.e., if you are looking for September, most places won't really know they are looking till August 1, the day after their roomates have given notice. This is a little different for Sept 1 due to school starting and a lot of apartments flipping, but it's still something to think about.

The implication is that, no, you are not behind in looking, because most places aren't advertising yet. Again, it's a little different for Sept 1, but keep that in mind.

My suggestion, and it will not be fun, is to arrive on Aug 3rd or so, find a temporary place to stay, and look while you are here. I find I need to see someone face to face to know if I have any hope of not wanting to kill them as a roomate. Even then it's dicey but a lot easier than by email. Also, really hard to judge an apartment online. I've seen some amazingly disgusting places that were described as great by their owners, so I'm definitely distrusting of online descriptions. I don't even think the owners were being misleading, I think they just can't tell that a dingy place with no light and crappy wall to wall carpet is disgusting is actually disgusting.

Tufts is surrounded by several neighborhoods. Davis, Teale, Powderhouse, and parts of Medford. Medford is physically the closest to the Tufts campus, and my guess is some of those apartments may be cheaper than the equivalent Somerville apartments. Parking in Medford seems a little bit easier. However, if you live in Medford, driving anywhere in Somerville will suck, because Somerville is all-permit parking now.

Inman square is not really super close to school, but it's SO SO SO SO awesome. I really wish I lived there. So much more going on and so interesting. I find Davis square pretty sterile at this point. Inman is quite fascinating, as is Union. Also not totally convenient to school but doable, particularly with a bike. I think there is probably some good bus action going on too but not sure.

If you register your car in Somerville, you can get a parking pass. And then you are all set.

Definitely plenty of 1 br around, probably not for $800 though. Once in a while. I think $1000 will be starting for that, depending on the neighborhood. If you are looking for a one bedroom, you have a better chance of finding something before you move, because you can find it through the landlord or broker or whatever. Definitely check the terms before you deal with a broker, I think most of them take one month up front, which is a shitload of money.

Good luck!

Remember: Inman is awesome.
posted by sully75 at 5:24 AM on May 4, 2010

The last time I moved cross-country (to NYC) I realized that there was no way I'd be able to actually find a decent place to live remotely, so I ended up subletting a place for a month while I looked for a permanent apartment. It worked out pretty well — I hated my sublet, but love the permanent place I found. A strategy like that might work for you, too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:35 AM on May 4, 2010

If you want to stay in the immediate vicinity of campus: speaking in broad generalizations, you'll find the best value (niceness/square footage/low price) in the Dearborn/Bromfield area. West of Curtis St, apartments are nice but expensive. Apartments on Boston Ave and north of that are cheap and less well-kept. Good call on avoiding Blakeley-- it's right next to a field of dumpsters that attracts large rats at night.

Parking in Boston is unpleasant. If you stay in the areas around campus, there's a decent chance, though, that you'll end up with a driveway (thus avoiding street parking). Honestly, you might find that a car's more trouble than it's worth, what with the public transportation options around Tufts (there's even a shuttle from various points on campus to the Davis Square stop, if you're feeling extra lazy, AND a shuttle to and from the Museum School at the MFA that'll get you into the Fenway area of the city for free.).

Davis Square is fun and definitely has a distinct character. There are several decent bars and restaurants, and then there's RedBones, which is amazing. The Somerville Theater is in a gorgeous old building, and aside from being a decent second-run movie theater that sells beer and locally-made ice cream inside, it's a respected indie music venue. Beyond that, just explore the Red Line. Harvard, Central, and even Porter squares are full of interesting food and nightlife options. I hardly ever crossed the river.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:24 AM on May 4, 2010

I was a tufts undergrad a couple years ago and stuck around the area for quite a while. $800 a month won't get you your own place, sorry, especially around Tufts the prices have been pretty steadily going up. Usually you are looking around $1300-$1400 for a decent 2 BR. 1 BR/studios are somewhat hard to find in the Tufts area, because you are right, they are mostly houses divided up by floors. The Tufts Off Campus housing website will be a big help to narrow it down to places near the campus and possibly find roommates. Craiglist is good, though you will have to sort through a lot, but apartment brokers are generally worthless (in my opinion).

One big note, you are early for looking in August, things usually open up a month or 2 before hand, and unfortunately most rentals are either June 1st or Sept 1st (the majority) because of the school year. So your best bet if you want to come up in August may be to look for a sublet then find a place. However, if you do end up moving Sept 1st, rent your moving truck at least a month in advance and show up as soon as they open to pick it up, because they run out quick and they have a tendency to give away reserved vehicles.

As far as neighborhoods, Medford is often generally nicer than Somerville (especially as you go more towards West Medford), but less "hip". Davis Sq. is nice and has good food, but has been gentrifying so is not really considered "hip" anymore either (but I still love it). Winter Hill (home of Whitey Bulgar's gang) is cheap and sketchy. I lived there for a couple of years, and while I felt safe(ish) walking around late at night by myself, I did see plenty of sketchy things go down. Inman is the new Davis Sq. in terms of being hip. Both Winter Hill and Inman are bus rides from the campus or a bike ride, parking in Inman gives me a headache just to think about it. Cambridge is more expensive and further away from campus. Arlington is nice, much like West Medford nice, but has cool restaurants and a great bike path and is either a bus or T away from campus, similar to Winter Hill and Inman. It has the hip that I appreciated as a grad student, but not the hip appreciated by undergrads. It can be more expensive than Somerville, but is somewhat comparable to near campus. In terms of looking for areas, you have to remember that the closer to campus, the more undergrads, which means more loud parties. The Tufts undergrads are much better than the BU undergrads (where I went to grad school), but it is something to think about.
posted by katers890 at 6:33 AM on May 4, 2010

I'd recommend Somerville, since as a resident you can get a parking pass which will be very valuable, and you can still park in most of Medford, where they don't have strict parking rules. You can find apartments with off-street parking, but expect to pay a premium (though totally worth it in my opinion).

Davis Square is the best neighborhood, as far as I'm concerned. It's very close to Tufts, has a T stop, and many stores, bars, restaurants, and a gym. But you really can't go too wrong in this area. The other squares that have been mentioned are also good, if further away. Most places are reasonably close to a bus stop at least, and as much as you may prefer driving, public transportation is essential for "going out" at night.

I've rolled the CL dice a couple times to live near Davis and Porter squares, and it worked out just fine. 2- and 3- bedroom apartments are plentiful, but it does seem like there's not really many studios or 1 bedrooms available, and when they are, they are quite expensive. But maybe that's okay for you.
posted by where u at dawg at 6:39 AM on May 4, 2010

You will not be able to find a 1 bed or studio for $800, start thinking more along the lines of $1200-$1500 plus utilities if you want someplace nice-ish. (When my fiance and I were looking 6 months ago there was a one-bed right in Davis Square for $1350 including utilities... but he wouldn't rent to couples. ARGH.) Parking is permit only in almost all of Somerville, but the permit is only like $15/year. Apartment buildings/complexes might include parking, but most of Somerville/Medford apartments are in converted houses and don't include parking.

Everything in Somerville is close to a "square" and they all have names, even if it's just an intersection. I live about a 15 minute walk from Tufts in the Ball Square area, which is conveniently also only a 15 minute walk from Davis Square (and the Red Line T). Ball Square has great breakfast places. Teele Square (and the area north of Broadway near Curtis Street) is nice and close to one end of Tufts, too. If I were going to Tufts, I'd look for someplace off Broadway on the Ball Square/Powderhouse Square/Teele Square continuum. Inman square is nice but not convenient to the T, only busses, which are annoying in the winter (IMHO), and it's decidedly not walkable to Tufts.

Winter Hill/Magoun Square is a bit far from Tufts, but I don't have a car and I walk everywhere. I've had luck with Maven Realty in Davis Square, but none whatsoever with Apartment Rental Xperts. A friend of mine is an apartment realtor in the area, he says the landlords don't start posting until 60 days out, so if you're looking for 9/1, start trolling craigslist closer to 7/1. Some of the posts on CL will be by realtors. Also, be warned, everyone in Boston moves on 9/1. Movers will be tough to book, Uhauls even scarcer. Good luck!
posted by hungrybruno at 6:59 AM on May 4, 2010

btw, consider anything in Medford but across 93 from Tufts as off least that would be my suggestion.
posted by sully75 at 7:29 AM on May 4, 2010

ps I think it may be possible to find a decent studio around $1000 if you look really hard. If one pops up, be prepared to have your checkbook out and write a deposit on the spot.
posted by sully75 at 7:37 AM on May 4, 2010

Lots of good advice already, but a few quick comments:

Definitely come out in person to apartment-hunt; both to see the spaces and meet potential roommates. Use the MBTA web site and googlemaps to check out the distance. Start looking in June and rent a U-haul as soon as you put down a security deposit. You might find it hard to find a place in August for reasons outlined above.

All the areas around Tufts, Medford, and West Somerville are pretty safe - mostly just petty crime (but a high rate of car-breakins - coming from DC, I'm sure you know the drill.)

Don't use brokers - it's not worth it or necessary.
posted by canine epigram at 10:45 AM on May 4, 2010

"btw, consider anything in Medford but across 93 from Tufts as off least that would be my suggestion."

I'm not sure why'd you recommend that. I lived on Salem St (which is also Rt 60) east of I93 and it really has improved a lot. It's not a dangerous neighborhood at all and there are some nice restaurants and convenient stores around. The Lantana Cafe in particular is really good. Medford Sq has also picked up quite a bit over the years. But, the lack of direct T (train) access, like Davis Sq has, has kept it from getting super hipified like Davis.

If you have a car, it's a quick drive to Tufts. You can also take the bus (the 101), which would take about 20 minutes.

I really like Teele Sq, which has a number of good restaurants and amenities, and should likely be cheaper than living directly in Davis.

If I recall correctly, most of the on-street parking, even in Medford, is permit only.

As a student, I would consider Arlington to be too far, depending on how deep into Arlington you live. The end of Arlington closest to Rt 16 is generally crappier.
posted by reddot at 11:14 AM on May 4, 2010

No part of Arlington is crappy, I used to live at the end closest to 16, I'd move back there in a heartbeat if I could afford a house there, it's not as swanky as the heights, sure, but it's at least as nice, if not nicer than most of Somerville. Distance is all a matter of opinion, some areas in Medford may be closer than Arlington, but where I lived in Arlington, it was a 5 minute walk to the Alewife T stop, which is 1 stop from Davis, so maybe with the walk from Davis to campus a 15min trip? Biking from Arlington to Tufts would probably only be 10 min unless you got far into Arlington.

I agree that the area of Medford across from 93 is fine, but I lived in Winter hill, so my standards may be lower. I wouldn't cross Rt 28 into the Sullivan Sq. area, but that was me.
posted by katers890 at 6:54 PM on May 4, 2010

Sorry, I should have been more specific. RE: crossing 93, I meant it more that it means you'll have to be driving more than you might want. However, I've never lived over there, so I don't really know. But it would seem like you can't walk across 93 except in a few (probably unpleasant) places.
posted by sully75 at 4:51 AM on May 5, 2010

I didn't say it was crappy, just "ier" than the farther reaches. :) Perhaps I just looked at a exceptionally poor selection of apartments in the past.

Rt60 crosses I93 at a huge rotary where some of the exits are on ramps / off ramps. It's not the best to walk through, but it is possible. I wouldn't want to do it regularly, especially at night.
posted by reddot at 9:44 AM on May 5, 2010

Response by poster: Hi folks,
Just wanted to wrap this up in case anyone ever comes back to this thread. Thank you all for the fab advice; I don't quite know how to pick a best answer but you all were hugely helpful. I have found a terrific place in the Teele Square neighborhood, and living alone is well worth the extra rent so far. I'm loving being in walking distance from Davis Square, and am looking forward to exploring the neighborhood more. Thanks again!
posted by naoko at 8:10 PM on August 15, 2010

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