What are the hidden secrets of renting?
July 8, 2012 5:39 PM   Subscribe

We know how to buy, sell, and own a house in the burbs, but what are the secrets to renting and living in an apartment in Boston?

In 2-3 years my family of 4 (my wife, my 2 kids who will be tweens, and I) hope to move from the small town rural life of central New Hampshire to Boston or Cambridge. We've owned 3 houses in small town/suburban areas and have gotten pretty knowledgeable about the home owning process, but we've never lived in a "big city" and haven't rented since we were young, childless, single college student types who just needed a place to drink between exams.
How do you find an apartment? How do you know the apartment will be a fit? What are the traps, pitfalls, and baits-and-switches to avoid? What are the downsides you should just expect to live with?
posted by Quizicalcoatl to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How do you find an apartment?

Well, PadMapper, until they stopped listing Craigslist ads. So in your case, HousingMaps, because they do pull Craigslist ads into a GoogleMaps interface. Craigslist works, but the interface is atrocious, and it's really difficult to find listings in a particular area, as (1) there's no way to search by a range of addresses, and (2) landlords notoriously lie about where they say their places are "near". "Near" can be five miles, and "walking distance" can easily be fifteen or twenty blocks. As in, yes, you can technically walk there, but it's not necessarily the sort of thing you'd want to do on a regular basis.

How do you know the apartment will be a fit?

Mostly the same way that you know a house will be a fit. You visit and see what you like and don't like. You can be a bit less exacting with an apartment than a house, since you can always move in a year or two. But moving is an enormous pain, so if there's something that really bugs you about an apartment, it's likely best to pass. Especially if that thing is something that could easily be fixed if you owned the place. If it isn't fixed when you see it, the landlord isn't gonna fix it. If you do it yourself, at best, you're spending money on someone else's property. At worst, you've violated the terms of your lease and can be subject to charges or eviction depending on what you did and the terms of the lease.

What are the traps, pitfalls, and baits-and-switches to avoid?

You might consider a realtor, maybe, but generally not. Don't use an apartment agent or anything like that. It's not an outright scam, as you do generally get what you pay for, but you're paying way more than you strictly need to. Odds are decent that that same apartment is available for rent by another route.

Read your lease. Absolutely, positively, read it. The whole thing. You are agreeing to stuff, and you need to know what you're agreeing to. More than that, your landlord is agreeing to stuff, and you need to know that too. Can you move out early? If so, are you still responsible for the entire contract rent, or is there just a penalty? Are there any activities you're not allowed to do? What about pets? Sure, the landlord may say they're pet friendly, but are there any hidden fees? Are there hidden fees generally? Like a $200 key-replacement fee? What are your obligations about letting the landlord in to do maintenance? What are the landlord's obligations about notifying you about maintenance? What are the landlord's obligations about keeping the place in good repair? Is insurance required? How much and for whom? Etc.

Also, don't sign any lease that's just a page or two listing the rent and the length of the lease. All of the above issues should be addressed, and if they aren't, your landlord likely isn't thinking about them and doesn't want to deal with them. This is unprofessional, and a bad sign.

What are the downsides you should just expect to live with?

You are almost certainly going to be sharing at least one wall with someone. Possibly four or five. Sound travels. You'll hear what they're doing, they'll hear what you're doing. At best, you'll simply be able to tell that they're watching TV or whatever without it actually being a bother. At worst, they'll crank up the volume at 2AM. Landlords have some incentive to do something about this, but not a whole ton, and unless the neighbor is running the risk of getting a noise violation citation, you'll likely just have to deal with it.

Maintenance is a complete crapshoot. My current landlord is amazingly responsive. If I make a call in the morning, whatever it is is almost always fixed by the time I get home from work. But I'm moving in two weeks, and I've got absolutely no idea what my next landlord will be like on that front, and no real way to tell. There are apartment ratings sites out there, but many of them have only a handful of reviews which are obviously people that had a bad experience. Even the best landlords get busy or have stuff to take care of sometimes, so you can't really form an accurate opinion about a given landlord out of five complaints over seven years, but that's what you'll see a lot of the time.

Odds are decent that you won't have all that convenient a place to park your car. I've got a reserved spot in a car port--that I pay for--but it's still outside, so if it's raining, I get wet before I get to my car. And I'm on a third-floor walkup, so moving boxes and things from the car into the apartment is a pain. Even people on the first floor may find they need to walk a ways to get to their apartment if the lot is on the full side. But I live in what amounts to a suburban development. In a downright urban neighborhood, you may just have catch-as-catch-can street parking, which may mean walking a block or two. This is definitely something to ask about, but don't expect the landlord to be all that flexible here. It's almost entirely beyond his control.

Your living situation is a bit less secure when you rent. The landlord can decide to sell the place at any time. This doesn't happen all that often, but it does happen. Sometimes the new owner just assumes the obligations of the landlord and things go on as normal. Sometimes the new owner is going to be using the building for something else and gives everyone notice that they're out at the end of their leases. Sometimes they try to evict everyone immediately. You have certain rights, especially in a major urban area like Boston, but it's still a pain.
posted by valkyryn at 6:05 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can also find some single family homes for rent. There are some in Somerville, Medford, Waltham, etc.
There are several types of options - Old houses that have been left whatever way the last people left them, shared houses with mostly people under 30 (depending on the neighborhood), nice big luxury apartments.. etc. Living in the city is much different that renting suburban homes or apartment complexes, so you'll have do research and see what type of place you'd like. I actually have never seen families in any of the neighborhoods I've rented in- they usually move to the bordering suburbs, but there are of course there must be some areas.

Also, if you rent an older home - they can be hard to heat during the winter. I would look for a place where you won't have to pay an oil bill.

Yes, traffic and parking can be a nightmare.
posted by KogeLiz at 6:45 PM on July 8, 2012

I would suggest having a conversation about and permission to know that the place you move doesn't have to be the only one. One thing about apartments is that you can move. It might cut down on adjustment stress if everybody know that if it happens to suck and you guys are talking about this stuff, it doesn't have to be permanent.

In the vein of selection criteria, maybe it would be helpful to figure out what high schools the kids should go to, then account for the schools' selection/whatever considerations, which might limit the neighborhoods you look at.
posted by rhizome at 6:52 PM on July 8, 2012

I don't have kids, so I imagine there's things to consider that I wouldn't.

Roughly speaking, here's my selection criteria: Cost, commute, and lifestyle. You'd probably want to throw "schools" in since, again, kids.

Cost is pretty easy and since I usually have an upper limit, that limits my neighborhoods and outlying suburbs, making that the easy part.

Commute. How long is the commute vs. how cheap is the apartment vs. how big is the apartment? I'll live in a shoebox if I have a short commute because I hate sitting in traffic, but my wife objects to places with bathrooms so small you have to shuffle around in them sideways. Also worth considering is cost of parking, gas, and car maintenance versus rent. For example, when I lived in Seattle, we ran the numbers and it made more sense for us to live close to downtown and pay the increased rent and comparatively cheap parking at the building versus the relatively expensive parking spot required for me to commute in plus gas, tolls, car maintenance, etc. On the other hand, when I lived in San Francisco, I got a spot in the company lot for cheap, so I found a slightly bigger place with a bit of a drive and a lifestyle I liked a bit better. Or I could've taken the train in.

Lifestyle. So in a big city, a neighborhood a few blocks away can be a completely different way of life. In Seattle, I was basically a downtown yuppie that ate at nice restaurants and went to the fancy gym and basically got my Patrick Bateman on (minus the murdering). A friend of mine lived in a different neighborhood and lived the classic hipster lifestyle of indie shows and artisan food from food trucks and all that. And we didn't live that far apart, it was walking distance if you like hills, but it could be like two different worlds. On the other hand, in San Francisco, I lived in a sleepy little beach town suburb where I'd basically spend my weekends going to the beach and chilling out, but I was still 15-20 minutes from downtown if I was so inclined, and I could park in my company spot whenever I wanted (and all my friends hated me). Do you want to nest and have nice family days at home? Maybe you want something in the suburbs with more of a commute. Do you want to be the family-on-the-go sort where you're checking out the city every weekend? Maybe you want something smaller, but closer in, or close to transit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:29 PM on July 8, 2012

If you're newish to the city, you'll want to be sure to walk the neighborhood by day and also in the dark (say 9 or 10pm), to get a feel for the area and how safe it feels for you to get around. If you can get some recommendations for places to start, then you could just walk around to get a sense of individual streets (and note any For Rent signs at the same time), but that's too big for a whole city. Worth doing as much as you can though -- it will pay off in your sense of the parts of the city going forward too.
posted by acm at 7:32 PM on July 8, 2012

Well, really before you can think of rentals you need to think about schools for your kids. Boston is a very complicated place to school children, especially adolescent children- so figuring that aspect out is most important before all others- basically you might have to pay more to live in Brookline so your kids can go to Brookline High or you could pay less money for rent and live in Boston but you might have to pay for private school. If you want more background info on the schools and the process to get in dm me. I work for the Boston Public Schools and I have 2 children in them so I know a lot about the process.

I think in terms of renting it make sense to live in a place short term and then look for longer term housing once you get a feel for the area. I also know that in the area I live in in Boston, Jamaica Plain, one of the best ways to find housing is through word of mouth and meeting people. Boston in a lot of ways runs on who you know.
posted by momochan at 8:10 PM on July 8, 2012

In my experience renting in and around Boston, if you want to live in an apartment *building* you generally find the apartment either through a real estate agent or by calling around to the management companies of buildings you're interested in; if you want to live in a single-family house or an apartment in a 2 or 3 family house (which is a very common kind of housing stock in and around Boston) you are more likely to find out about it by word of mouth or through craigslist.

The word-of-mouthiness is another reason to consider being willing to move after a year - you'll know more about what's happening once you've lived in a neighborhood and made some friends.
posted by mskyle at 6:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

One last bit: Is it common for landlords to jack the rent up after the first lease ends to take advantage of the fact that moving is a pain?
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 2:10 PM on July 10, 2012

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