Ready to take on the world and get a place of my own.
I had high hopes of finding somewhere that hit ALL of my criteria for a place to live, including the following:
- Walking distance to my new job in a central, trendy neighbourhood
- Within a five minute walk of groceries, Starbucks, restaurants and a major transit station
- Close enough to everything that I wouldn’t need a car
- Big enough to fit my queen-sized bed, dresser and a desk
Seems reasonable, right?
Here’s the kicker: my budget was $500. Tops.
So I set out to Kijiji with my must-haves in hand. Apartment hunting can seem like the world is your oyster… until you skim past the price on that dream listing a block away from work with the granite countertops.
Hello dreams, prepared for a crushing trip back to reality.
Against all odds - seriously, all of them - I found an apartment that fit all of my criteria, gave me the lifestyle I had been hoping for, and helped me stick to my new grad budget. So I know what I’m talking about when I say it’s possible to find a rental that fits both your lifestyle and your budget.
To get the same results, you’ll need to look at 3 main factors before you sign on the dotted line.
Each one will have a few different factors that will influence your dream-apartment wishlist, so let’s get started!
Step 1. Location, Location, Location
First things first…
Where do you want to live?
That seems like an easy question, and while it can be, there are a lot of factors to take into account. The two main questions you’ll want to look at are...
- How much of a commute are you willing to tolerate to your job?
- Where else do you go on a regular, non-negotiable basis?
I put job first, because as much as I’d love to organize my life around my dog’s favourite dog park, it’s not exactly a pleasant commute to and from the office every day. Sadly for the puppers, I prioritized a shorter daily commute in exchange for longer travel time. And every time it takes me ten minutes to get to work, I’m happy I did.
Don’t Forget Transportation
Outside of your rent, one of your biggest budget line items is going to be transportation - especially if that transportation happens to be a car.
If you’re on a strict budget, “How am I going to get from point A to point B most of the time?” needs to be on your rental-research checklist.
If you can find a place that will let you manage almost all of your transportation on foot or on public transportation, you’ll be able to stretch your budget much further than if you need a car.
Public transportation, plus the occasional Uber (I’m NOT the budget police, you can still totally take Uber) likely won’t run you more than $200 a month. Whereas in some places, that might be the cost of your car insurance alone.
One Key Question: Where Am I Going to Find Food?
Now that you’ve got your location situation figured out, and you know how you’re going to be getting around on a regular basis…
It’s time to scope out the food options in your rental radius.
If you’ve decided a car is in the cards, you can look as far as Costco and big-box stores, but if you’re a dedicated walker, you’ll want to evaluate every rental based on the proximity of your number-one errand:
Sure, there are other necessities you’ll need, like cleaning supplies, pharmacy items and a really good takeout place…
But if you can’t get to and from a grocery store easily - whatever the easily-bar is for you - you’re going to start HATE eating FAST.
And no one wants to hate eating.
What Does Everyone Else Think?
Now, depending on your situation in life, you might have to consider a whole range of other living beings as part of your apartment hunt.
And you might be thinking this is the classic “roommates or no roommates?” question. But since renting can be a good choice for a whole bunch of different family setups, the other-humans question goes so far beyond that. For example...
If you have a partner, are they moving with you? If not, how much do you need to consider travel time to their place as part of your frequently-visited destinations?
If you’ve got a whole family in tow, they’ll have their own needs, requirements and preferences going into this whole process. You’ll want to get those on the table sooner rather than later, and take things like school districts, any other jobs held in the household and family activities into consideration.
Step 2. The Amenities
Remember way back when, in the introduction, where I told you that I found this perfect apartment, in this trendy neighbourhood, that was walkable to everything including work?
Well, I left out a crucial piece of information.
Sure, this apartment had all of my must-haves… but that’s all it had.
It was a true student special - with creaky, cracked, slanted floors, a stove with only two working burners out of four, and not a single wall that wasn’t painted the most depressing shade of olive green you’ve ever seen in your life.
When you’re heading into a rental search, you need to be very clear on what - beyond location - is going to make or break your experience living somewhere.
What’s On Your Must-Have List?
If you’re a hardcore baker, a functional oven might be high up on your list.
Or maybe if you’re a pet owner, a rental that accepts your furry friends would make it onto your must-have list.
However, when adding something as a must-have, make sure you really, truly mean it’s a must-have.
A good way to make sure is to ask yourself the following.
“If I found an apartment that had everything else on my list, but didn’t have this one thing, would I walk away?”
If the answer is YES, the apartment could be perfect but you’d give it up without this one key item, then keep it on your must-have list.
What Are You Willing to Give Up?
Your true must-have list might be short, but it’s perfectly acceptable. And entirely unavoidable to have a nice-to-have list as well.
This might be anything from on-site laundry, to all-inclusive rent, to a nice kitchen, and it’s likely the stuff that, added together, constitutes your dream rental.
That said, maintaining a clear line between a must-have and a nice-to-have is going to be key. Especially when you add in the final non-negotiable item to your list…
Your rental budget.
Related: How To Save Money on Moving Expenses
Step 3. Your Budget
This is the real kicker.
Because while most of your location and amenities dreams could be adjusted when the rubber hits the road…
Your budget is going to be the one guiding light you have in finding a rental that’s realistic for your life.
A key rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30% of your income on your housing situation.
So if you’re renting, that means that your total housing budget should only ever represent 30% of your paycheque.
You can get an even better idea of how housing costs will work with the rest of your budget...
Download the HowToSaveMoney budget tracking spreadsheet. It’ll take you beyond that 30% rule and let you check in on how much you can comfortably afford in real life.
If you’re renting, whatever your total housing budget is needs to cover a few main things:
- rent (obviously),
- any utilities you need to pay for,
- and renter’s insurance.
Make sure to actually take the last two into consideration before you get stars in your eyes over a rental that would eat your whole budget in rent payments alone.
And speaking from experience, being strict with yourself on price during your rental search will pay off every single month that you live there, when you have money to do things like explore your new neighbourhood, and buy things you like to eat at that nearby grocery store.
What About You?
Got some rental tips? Share them in the comments below.