You made it to LA. Now it’s time to find your first Los Angeles apartment.
Maybe all your possessions in the world are still jammed into the backseat of your car, and you still don’t have a job, and your cash is diminishing quickly.
But you made it.
Now… how do you find an affordable apartment in Los Angeles?
Well — now lies before you the simple task of finding establishing headquarters to fight broke and create a career.
In other words: you need a place to live.
Where Do You Belong?
In case you didn’t notice, Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling city. Each neighborhood has it’s own feel, taste, and merits. Derek Sivers explains it so well in his post about Los Angeles:
“So if you go just understanding it’s a bunch of adjacent towns, each quite different in character, and don’t go expecting a city, then it won’t be so frustrating. When someone says they hate LA, you have to ask, “Which neighborhood?” Because Santa Monica is not like Silverlake is not like Van Nuys is not like Hollywood, but they’re all inside that circle called LA. It’s completely de-centralized. (And “downtown” is just another neighborhood. It’s not the center of things, like most cities. Most people have no need to go there.)”
The Bold Italic has this amazing and hilarious breakdown of Los Angeles neighborhoods by Jessica Gao you should read before forking over your first downpayment. It’s generalized and of course, there are huge exceptions, but the post definitely captures the feel of various neighborhoods. Take Hollywood, for example:
“And let’s just get this out of the way: The major movie studios are not in Hollywood proper (Paramount Studios sits on the border, so fine, that makes one). But what Hollywood does have are tourists, crackheads, and expensive clubs frequented by B- and C-list celebrities and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd who line up for said clubs.”)
The idea of picking the right neighborhood can be absolutely daunting when you first arrive in Los Angeles. Like, if you pick the wrong neighborhood, you’re going to be surrounded by people you hate, you’ll have the worst experience ever, and you’re going to be stuck there forever.
This never happens to anyone.
Yes, it’s a bit intimidating, but take a breath. I mean, jeez, you just moved to a new city to start a new journey. You’re tough. You can handle this. After all, let’s say you did make the wrong decision and hate where you’re living:
- Your neighbor plays the electric accordian at 2 a.m. every night
- The neighborhood pimps get busted in the alley outside your window every second Thursday
- You have to drive 15 minutes to find a decent cup of coffee #firstworldproblems
You know what happens then?
You move again.
Los Angeles is the never ceasing ebb and flow of transplants. New vacancies sprout like weeds, and the longer you’re in town, the more people you know. The more people you know, the higher chance you’ll hear about that “fantastic, cheap rental that literally just came on the market and it’s not listed yet but I know the guy why don’t I give you his number?”
The process of finding your new home is a big step. But it’s far from permanent. So take a deep breath.
Everything’s going to be okay.
The Wrong Approach To Find Your Apartment
This is an email I got from “Sarah,” who was looking for advice when moving out to Los Angeles:
“I know your dad from singing/eating at his restaurant in Delmar. I just got moved to California on Monday… I’m temporarily staying in an apartment in Glendale until I find a job either in Huntington Beach or in Los Angeles…
“I don’t exactly know how to describe the feel that I’m looking for, but I’m hoping to find somewhere that’s artsy, but also consists of young professionals in their mid-late 20s. It would be a plus if there were a few families w/children around too. It would also be a plus if I could get to the beach easily. I’m hoping for a place that has access to nature b/c I’m a big nature girl, maybe someplace that has a big park to hike in. I’m also looking for a safe place that I could get for under $1,000. I’m willing to have a bachelor or a studio apartment. I also don’t wanna get stuck in a pocket of people that are too snotty or not friendly at all. Is there a place that fits these things or a place that has most of these things I’m looking for?”
So… she’s looking for safe place with a lot of yuppies, a lot of families, neither of whom are snooty or unfriendly, where beaches and parks are easily accessible, for under $1,000 a month.
This is the wrong way to find your new home.
It’s nice to think about all the trappings you’d “like to have:”
- By the beach
- Close to nature
- Friendly neighbors who preferably have a dog I can play with and also know how to cook Chinese food the way my father does
I would love to have these things.
But in the grand scheme of things, those are not factors in play when it comes to finding your first apartment in Los Angeles.
The 3 Factors That Matter For Your First Apartment
Let’s break into these:
If you are new to Los Angeles and strapped for cash, do yourself a favor and get a roommate. If you think, “ugh, I can’t live with a roommate! I need my own space!” seriously, get the fuck over it. When you’ve just moved to LA, the benefits of a roommate (whom you get along with — you don’t need to be BFF’s or anything, but you should be able to exchange pleasantries without too much aggravation) are ridiculously awesome:
- You cut rent in half
- Other costs of living: Internet, electricity, gas, etc — all cut in half
- It’s safer
- Save time when you need someone home because the plumber or AT&T guy is stopping by
- You double your network by association
- You double your rate of exposure to Los Angeles, by association
If you find a roommate(s) you like and think you can live amicably with — that sort of makes your decision for you, doesn’t it? It no longer matters if the apartment doesn’t have all the trappings you initially said you wanted (central AC, close to the freeways, a walk-in closet, etc) — you’re going to take the place with good roommates.
Where You Work
If you have any inkling of an idea about where you’re going to work in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor: find an apartment close by. Even if you know the general area: west side, east side, downtown, the valley… you’re saving an immeasurable amount of time, money, and stress by living in the general vicinity.
I can’t stress this enough. If you can, (and for a lot of people, I know, you can’t) Live. Close. To. Work.
I lived and worked on the West Side. It was wonderful. I loved it – I could bike to work three times a week. Because of traffic, sometimes my bike commute was faster than driving, and even at the worst of times, the commute was only 25 minutes. I managed to squeeze in a workout, enjoyed the SoCal sun, saved time, and prevented wear and tear on my car, all because home + work were so close.
girlfriend wife didn’t have it so good. Her place of work (which she loved) was in Orange County. It was a 40-mile commute one-way, and could take anywhere from 45-90 minutes. In one week, she traveled 400 miles and spent 10 hours in her car.
- That’s 400 miles of wear and tear she puts on her vehicle
- 400 miles worth of gas money
- 400 miles of the headache and stress of Los Angeles traffic every morning and night
- Most importantly, that’s 10 hours a week she could spend writing, reading, going to the gym, or just resting
But she loved her company and did fulfilling work, so she made it work. It didn’t make it easy, though.
You should, to the best of your ability, make your first work commute a short one.
For all the gyration of planning, of trying to pick the perfect area and all the amenities we think we need, of having our checklist of must-haves, luck plays a large role in determining your first apartment. There’s a time constraint. You’re new to the area. To some extent, you’re gonna have to get lucky:
- You overhear someone at the coffee shop whine about not being able to find the right tenant
- A friend of a friend heard their cousin in the entertainment business is looking for a roommate
- The assistant at your internship is moving to NY and needs someone to take over their lease
When this happens, the list goes out the window. You hope you have a decent roommate, and the place is close to your work. And you take the apartment.
The thing about chance is you have to give it the opportunity to work for you. This means not just relying on different great online tools to find an apartment (we’ll get to that below) but also:
- Getting out there and hitting the pavement. In, like real-life, not just flicking through images on Flicker or exploring the neighborhood via Google Maps.
- Putting in the shoe leather is also when you’ll stumble on gems that never made it to the Internets (hard to believe, but true).
- Telling people you’re looking for an apartment, and seeing if they have leads. No, this doesn’t make a good conversation starter. Hopefully you’re able to connect with the person at a deeper level first. But the offhand referral can lead to awesome results.
How to Look for an Apartment
Here are the tools that’ll help you find your first apartment. First, though, you have to make sure you’re moving forward with:
The Right Mindset
Strike a balance between comfort and cost. Yes, this place is going to be your home, and I believe with every iota of my being that a huge part of happiness is making your home a refuge. It should be your sanctuary, your place to decompress, and a barrier between you and anything negative in your life. If you’re not comfortable in your own home, happiness is difficult to achieve.
With that said, besides your car, your home is your biggest fixed cost. Which is a bitch of a thing.
So finding the right balance between comfort and cost comes down to goals, which change year to year (and even month to month). When I first got to Los Angeles, I did not care how big or how nice my apartment was. It didn’t need to have character or hardwood floors or a dishwasher. I had three criteria: close to work, cheap, and relatively safe. (Pimps regularly conducted business outside my window, and there was a shooting once, but two out of three wasn’t bad.)
I nearly always worked on the west side, so my commute was never awful. I had two roommates, which cut my cost of living dramatically. (I was often between paying gigs, unsure of when I’d find steady employment, which made low rent a huge help.)
After two years of that, Amy and I decided to move in together. The goals had shifted a bit — I wanted a bit more comfort, and I was willing to pay for it. Understand where you are on the spectrum of comfort versus cost. Tactically, it helps when you:
- Know your price range. This includes a security deposit of one month’s rent (sometimes two: first month, last month, and security deposit).
- Can wait. Either you’re able to crash with friends, family, a motel, or Airbnb. Essentially, anything that isn’t sleeping in your car, parked in a Wal-Mart or next to the homeless in Venice Beach.
Apartment Search Tools
Here are the four best apartment search tools:
West Side Rentals
People either swear by WSR or swear at it. It charges a $60 fee to use their service. If you can “borrow” someone’s account for a month, give it a try. Or, try it for a month and if you’re out $60, then so be it. The potential reward (e.g., finding a place you love) dramatically outweighs any cost.
The obvious choice – but did you know you can also create RSS feeds with your search criteria, so your reader of choice is automatically populated via a filtered search? I suggest doing general searches as well (so you don’t miss any diamonds in the rough) but CL RSS’ing can be a huge time saver if you’re having trouble sifting through all the crap that’s out there on CL.
I’ve found this engine to be a bit broader and not updated as frequently. However, it’s still useful to get a general feel for demand and prices in your area.
The Rental Girl
Fewer listings here, but they’re curated by a group of real estate women, by area.
Finally, if you’re going to be a renter from now into the unforeseeable future, you should really know your Renter’s Rights.
For all the sophisticated online tools available to help you in your apartment search, the best methods remain: walking around neighborhoods yourself and referrals.