Think of searching for apartment like dumping thousands of apartment complexes into a funnel to narrow the selection to just one apartment. You'll only lease one apartment. However, there are thousands available. Location is the first critical decision when selecting an apartment. When you select the location, you will probably exclude about 90 to 95% of apartments in the metropolitan area. If you change your mind regarding location, you'll have to repeat the entire search process.
Consider the location of work, family, friends and leisure when selecting a location for your apartment. You also may need to think about shopping, schools and other factors. Are their apartments near your employer which are convenient and in an acceptable area? How much time will you spend commuting back and forth to work versus commuting for family, friends and leisure? When you consider both rent and commuting costs, which is the least expensive option.
Review mass transit options if you will not be driving to work. Where are the transit stops in the area. Can you reach destinations you will visit regularly within a reasonable amount of time?
If you have questions about the area, try to spend half a day to a day visiting restaurants, shops, coffee shops, and residents in the area. When you visit a restaurant or coffee bar, what type of people do you see there? Visit with other patrons in a coffee bar. Visit with the waitress at the restaurant. Visit area stores and ask the clerks about the immediate area. Consider spending several hours walking through the area. The perspective gained through from walking through an area is often very different than the perspective gained from driving through an area. However, you can only cover a much distance by walking. Consider also driving in the areas where you don't have time to walk.
Consider getting a plain apartment in an attractive area instead of a nice apartment in a less attractive area. Think carefully about the trade-off between time, the quality of the apartment and money with regard to your commute. Would you rather have a plain apartment and only had a 10 minute commute? Or would you rather have a luxurious apartment and have to commute one-hour each way to work? If the apartments near your work cost an extra $50-$100 per month, is it worth it to reduce your commute by 30 minutes to an hour?
Consider researching crime activity in the area. Most police departments will provide information on criminal activity at a specific property or within an area. You can visit the local police substation to get their feedback.
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