How to find housing in Madison from a distance?
February 9, 2011 9:50 PM   Subscribe

[Badger-filter] We have specific questions about renting in Madison, WI from across the country.

We are moving to Madison, WI in late July/early August of this year and have some questions about renting. We come from the bay area where a limitless bounty of housing of every description is always available on craigslist. This seems to not be the case in Madison and we're finding it a challenge. Specifically, we would like to know:

1. It seems like a lot of places advertised now are available 8/15/11. If we don't rent a place NOW, are we screwed?

2. If we need to be in Madison a few weeks before 8/15, what are our housing options?

3. We have a dog and she needs to run around with other dogs regularly if we want her to not drive us crazy. We've seen city info on off-leash dog parks, but can you tell us anything about 'informal' dog parks there? Do people get ticketed for having off-leash dogs at undesignated parks in the early morning hours?

4. Is there somewhere on the internet we should be looking other than craigslist?

5. Is it idiotic to consider renting a place sight-unseen, or should we try to fly out there in April and look in person?

If it helps, we are looking for a 2-bedroom house or duplex or flat (NOT a big apartment complex) that allows pets, has some space for gardening, and is reasonable biking distance from UW. We are in our late 20s with excellent credit and rental history, and are not interested in sharing a wall with undergrads. Budget is <$1200.

Related question: When the closest IKEA is 3 hours away, where does one buy cheap furniture? (seriously, we are only good at living in California).
posted by juliapangolin to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can speak to the furniture bit...

If I recall correctly, perhaps some current Madisonians can correct me if I'm wrong....every 5/15 and 8/15 is trash amnesty day in Madison. Due to all the university students switching apartments/dorms/houses, Madison just has a garbage free for all. College kids throw out tons of perfectly good stuff, simply because its not worth it for them to lug that Target bookshelf across the country to go back home for the summer. (or whatever). So you can get loads of stuff if you make a day of it.
posted by ian1977 at 10:28 PM on February 9, 2011

Previously, found searching for my comment about leases all beginning on 8/15, which is indeed common.
posted by carmicha at 10:35 PM on February 9, 2011

Yeah, trash amnesty day is pretty great, though I can't think of the dates off-hand. There is also St. Vincent de Paul (aka St. Vinny's) thrift stores at several locations with a good furniture selection. Most of our furniture comes from there or Craigslist. If you want matching furniture...I don't really know.

In my experience, if the lease isn't up 8/15 it's up 7/1, and yeah, you need to rent soon. The entire rental system of Madison is based around UW students, and it can be competitive for post-college 20-somethings to not live around noisy undergrads.

I can't speak much to the dog parks, since I don't yet have a dog, but when looking for a new apartment last June-ish, dog-friendly-for-the-future was a criterion, and I found there seems to be a shortage of dog friendly properties the later you wait.

My SO and I have rental experience with Madison Property Management, Apex, and Gallina Property Management as far as local companies go. They seem to have more in the way of apartments than flats and duplexes, but it's a place to start. Apex has a poor reputation for a reason, and without getting into it too much...I would be very hesitant to rent from them again.

Now, as for flying out: yes, do it. Particularly in the area you're looking to rent in, the line between loud drunken street party and quiet family neighborhood is very thin, and even based on general neighborhood descriptions it varies from block to block. It's much easier to gauge in person, though, and some combination neighborhoods are beautiful (I'm thinking in particular of the area around the Henry Vilas Zoo).
posted by syanna at 11:05 PM on February 9, 2011

every 5/15 and 8/15 is trash amnesty day in Madison

Bedbugs have been a problem in Madison, so I'd pass on anything with fabric you might find on Hippie Christmas.

I rented then when I was a student in the 90s. I'd expect much hasn't changed since then in that the majority of students still live off campus, most of the apartments marketed to students are really crappy, and most landlords will try to fill their units before students leave for the summer. I would only rent sight-unseen from a large management company, which is going to skew towards apartment complexes. I'd bet that you're not going to find photos online of anything smaller.

For neighborhoods, I'd check out Villas and the area between Lake Monona and Willy St. (that's Williamson Street). Both tend to have a mix of families and grad students. Some info here. If you can't get a yard, look for community gardens around Willy St. or further east.

If you're working or studying at UW, ask them about housing before 8/15. They have a number of short-term suites, dorms for grad students, student housing for families, and a lot of empty dorm rooms in the summer. Failing that, there will be students looking to fill summer sublets at the end of the spring. They'll want the whole summer, but you still might be able to swing something that's way cheaper than a hotel.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:15 PM on February 9, 2011

It seems like a lot of places advertised now are available 8/15/11. If we don't rent a place NOW, are we screwed?

No. Some places go quickly, but there is still plenty of choice well into April and May, at least. Most of my grad school classmates didn't decide to come to UW until April/May before starting that following fall semester. I haven't heard about anyone having trouble finding suitable housing. I've used JSM Properties without much complaint.

2. If we need to be in Madison a few weeks before 8/15, what are our housing options?

Maybe you could sublet from someone like me who is in a 12 month lease (Aug 15 - Aug 14), but isn't in Madison for the summer? I was too distracted to figure out the sublet situation, but maybe others are more enterprising. Craigslist is probably the source for this.
posted by mullacc at 2:01 AM on February 10, 2011

Madison renter here.

1. If a place ls listed as "available 8/15," you could still ask if it might be open earlier. The family who rented our place before us wanted to move out earlier, so we got the place in June and were their subletters until 8/15. There are definitely places that open up throughout the year.

4. I used a lot of resources but Craigslist is best, and that's where we ended up finding our place. If you're moving here just for a year, try sabbaticalhomes. Campus Area Housing Listing Service is also useful -- we got several good leads there, and they have a very good search system. If one of you is going to be a UW student, I would certainly recommend Eagle Heights or University Houses, where we used to live -- cheap, quiet, convenient to UW, and the university is your landlord so maintenance is prompt and effective.

5. I guess I would make the trip out. What you want to avoid is a place that's usually rented to undergrads -- it'll be cruddy and your neighbors will irritate you. An honest landlord will tell you by e-mail "this isn't the place you want, it's not suitable for grownups" (we certainly heard a lot of that) but I'm not sure all landlords are honest. Even if you don't see your place, it's at least worth seeing neighborhoods so you have a sense of where you want to live. For the price range and atmosphere you guys want, I tend to think you'd be looking on the east side (maybe Marquette neighborhood?) The west side, which I know better, is closer to campus but more expensive and there are more undergrads around. I would certainly avoid State Street and Miffland -- Vilas has some studenty blocks but a lot of stuff you'd like -- Dudgeon-Monroe and Regent neighborhoods would also both be good.

I'm happy to talk more by MeMail or regular mail if you have more questions about specific areas. Oh yeah, and I too would say no to taking abandoned street furniture into your house. I think a lot of people buy furniture at Steinhafel's.

Welcome to Madison -- it's great!
posted by escabeche at 5:24 AM on February 10, 2011

15 August is the conventional end-of-lease date, hence all the futons on the curb. There's a lot of empty housing in the summer months, so something temporary is a possibiility

If dog parks are important to you, you should plot them out on a Google map to reference when considering places. The two closest to campus are Quann, a reclaimed landfill behind the Aliant Energy Center colliseum, which is pretty big and nice except when muddy, and a "pocket park" at the end of Broom Street near John Nolan drive. Quann fairly close to the south and "near-west, and there is a small neighborhood nearby (walkable), which is adorable but not very student-y and so has few rentals. The other one is like something you'd seen in Manhattan, but walkable from a lot of the rental stock around Mifflin and West Washington.

There's a stupendous off-leash park in Verona, about 15 miles drive south, where you can get in close to a three-mile walk/run off-leash. There are numerous other legal off-leash parks, including a couple of tiny new ones in the affordable far-east neighborhoods. They do check tags, especially in the summer, so you might consider ordering yours on-line ahead of time.
There aren't many un-official off-leash areas that I know of because there are so many official ones, but there are rumors of one near the Eagle Heights on-campus housing complex.

If you want to say more about what you want in a neighborhood (or even what part of campus your department is in), some of the locals might have further suggestions.

It's -9F here this morning, by the way. Welcome to Madison!
posted by Mngo at 5:53 AM on February 10, 2011

I used this site when I was apartment-hunting last year, though craigslist is where I saw the place I ended up renting. And I agree with the folks above who say you don't need to be in a terrible rush to sign a lease right now; I signed the lease for my (awesome, quiet, close-to-a-grocery-store, cats allowed) apartment in April, and it seemed like there were still plenty of other places in the area being advertised later than that.

All of my cheap furniture came from garage sales, St. Vincent de Paul, and friends' castoffs.
posted by Vibrissa at 6:15 AM on February 10, 2011

When I moved to Madison in 2005 I found a temporary summer housing situation and then apartment searched when I arrived in June. While it was a bit stressful, I was able to find a great apartment, and I viewed a lot of so-so apartments as well. There were plenty of apartments available - it just took effort to weed through the crappy ones. I ended up renting near Monroe and Regent Streets, which was an odd combination of students and long-term homeowners. I loved it, though. Plus I rented out my parking spot for big $$ on football days :-).

I had a lot more problems when I needed to move out before August 15th, and needed a summer subleaser. Nobody wanted to move in for just 3 months because the lease was already signed (back in February) for the upcoming school year. I had to discount heavily to get a subleaser.
posted by Maarika at 6:42 AM on February 10, 2011

I'd strongly suggest that you come out for a visit. That's what my husband and I did last year and it turned out that every single apartment we arranged to see using Craigslist or the apartment complex website was either awful, in the middle of nowhere, or a pricy high-rise downtown. (I mean, unless you want a pricy high-rise downtown, in which case feel free to rent sight-unseen. The ones we visited all matched up pretty accurately with the ads, and several allowed pets.) We ended up finding our current place by driving around a neighborhood we liked and calling the numbers on "for rent" signs. At least on the East Side, people don't seem to bother putting up Craigslist ads--they just post a sign on the house/building. Also, because of how small Madison is, the neighborhoods go from undergrad to hippie to cornfield pretty quickly. I'm only half-joking. Unless you enjoy being surrounded by drunk 20-year-olds every weekend, it would behoove you to get a feel for a block before you decide to live there.

Your budget may make getting all of the features you want a bit of a challenge. In my (admittedly limited but fairly recent) experience, there are cheap crappy undergrad apartments, cheap depressing grad student apartments, and then there's a pretty big jump in price. If you want to buy, there are very reasonable prices on nice houses in great neighborhoods. But if you just want to rent a nice apartment in a non-student-ghetto neighborhood within biking distance of campus/downtown, with a garden, that allows dogs... my guess is that $1200 would be the absolute minimum price you'll find. Other Madison residents can correct me if my experience is uncommon, but 2-bedroom apartments with the types of features you want seem to run more in the $1300-1800 range. You may have more flexibility if you check out Madison Metro routes, consider living further from campus, and take the bus to campus (the buses have bike racks if you still want to bike around campus).
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:00 AM on February 10, 2011

I lived in Madison for seven years and had a *great* landlord. (Warning: site is annoying and musical - but don't let that color your opinion of the company.) Start with them. Really nice people with good properties and a fantastic record of promptly fixing even my most minor service requests.

MeMail me if you want some more info.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:49 AM on February 10, 2011

The date questions have all been answered, so I'll address the question that stuck out to me.

5. Is it idiotic to consider renting a place sight-unseen, or should we try to fly out there in April and look in person?

I would not recommend doing it sight-unseen; bite the bullet and go out there for a few days. In Madison, it's hard to go wrong - downtown, near-west, southwest, Fitchburg, and Middleton are all great places. I lived in all of them and like them all, and nothing is Madison is very far away from anywhere else.

But there are a few gotchas, such as the heavy concentration of undergraduate students around the university, and some teeny-tiny pockets (particularly in Fitchburg) where you might not like the neighborhood aesthetic or the neighbors. And since Madison is a small city, a perfectly good location can be a quarter-mile from an area that you aren't as interested in, so it will be very tough to know if the great deal you found online is lucky, or actually cheap because it's not in the greatest area. If my downtown place had been 3 blocks west or 3 blocks east I would not have liked the area. So go out there and see the places yourself. The good news is there's a limited supply of housing (as you noticed), so you're less likely to be paralyzed by overwhelming options. And have fun when you go check out apartments! Madison is a great city, so enjoy exploring it and seeing all of the things you'll get to do when you move there.

Other thoughts:

While the majority of places are available on students' move-in/out schedules, there's always availability at other times of year. I had 4 different places when I lived there and I never had a lease that was on the undergrads' timeline. You'll find a place.

Also, I think your budget is fine for Madison. I had a duplex out west that fit your requirements (maybe not a big enough yard) for $900. In my experience, the big jump from undergrad housing to regular housing is from $700 to $900 per month, so unless you're looking at luxury apartments you should do fine. Not that everyone can get their dream rental for $900, but the decent ones start at $900-$1,000 and go up from there. Meg Murry is right that nice new 2-bedroom apartments generally start in the $1,200-$1,300 range and go up from there, but you can manage that by making compromises - duplexes, not extremely new, and if you're really budget-conscious you could even look at a place without a garage. No garage can make a big price difference because not having a garage in Wisconsin really, really sucks for car-centric people in the winter, so think hard about that tradeoff before you take the dive.
posted by Tehhund at 8:24 AM on February 10, 2011

nthing the suggestion to come check out places in person (or perhaps you have friends in Madison who could do a little legwork for you?).

"Reasonable biking distance from UW" gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of location, but as others have said you can find HUGE differences in quality even on the same block.
posted by Fin Azvandi at 10:26 AM on February 10, 2011

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