I rented an apartment in Boston (and lived to tell about it)

When Sean and I found out we were moving to Boston, we knew right away that we wanted to live in a brownstone. We saw ourselves coming home to a place with hardwood floors, a bay window, and a fireplace. We didn’t want the most modern unit on the market — we just drove almost 2,000 miles across the country so we could live somewhere with old-world charm. The landlord painted the original crown molding white? But why? What’s this in the fridge? An ice maker? Ha! The Pilgrims used trays and they liked it.
As it turns out, apartment hunting in Boston is a lot like apartment hunting in Dallas, in that eventually you wind up living in a place with running water and a stove. That’s about where the similarities end. Most of the places that fit our bill were privately owned, which seems to be the trend around these parts. (There are some big, corporate complexes here, too, but they aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are in Texas, as far as we could tell.) That — coupled with the relatively low supply and high demand for apartments in Boston — made for a very, very interesting shopping experience:

  • Want to know what’s available? Craigslist it. Normally when someone says to me “I found my apartment on Craigslist,” what I hear is, “My apartment is three two-by-fours and a tarp and my landlord keeps trying to lure me into his padlocked tool shed.” I’ve always found my apartments with trusty Google. But in Boston, all Google turns up is $3,500/month studios with granite countertops and stainless steel dishwashers. Everyone in the know told us to use Craigslist to find an apartment, and you know what? Every apartment that we looked at we found on Craigslist.
  • Deals are done through brokers. In Dallas (and probably in most other U.S. cities) you can go into one of ten leasing offices within a two-mile radius, look at a model unit, and walk out with a freshly-inked lease within an hour or so. Here, each unit is listed individually with a broker (or two or three), and you have to contact the broker to schedule an appointment to see the place. Some brokers are cool and will show you three or four of their listings that might interest you. Other brokers say “Oh, the landlord wants to meet everyone who’s interested in her building. Here’s her number if you want to schedule time to see the unit.” Regardless of how much (or how little) work the broker does, you have to pay him/her a pretty sizeable fee if you decide to rent one of his/her listings. (We got very lucky and ended up with an AWESOME broker who spent a ton of time explaining the process and acquainting us our new neighborhood and Boston in general. She earned every dime of that fee.)
  • Apartments are seasonal. All leases in Boston seem to begin on September 1, probably because that’s when the students attending the 60+ universities here like to move in. Since we were looking during an off-peak period, there wasn’t a whole lot to choose from in the areas we were interested in. (On the plus side, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition, either. And the rents were lower.) The Boston-based recruiter who helped Sean find his new job was surprised when Sean told him we’d already found a place. He expected us to be homeless until June at least.
  • Lease? What lease? Broken leases are MUCH more common in Boston than they are in Texas. Every single apartment we looked at was available because the current tenants had broken their leases for one reason or another. When we were signing ours, the broker essentially told us when the best months were to break a lease. She didn’t necessarily advise doing it, but I didn’t get the impression that I’d go to renter prison for it the way I would in Texas.
  • No vacancy. Almost none of the apartments we looked at were available for immediate move-in. April 1 was the earliest we could’ve gotten into any of them. All but one was still occupied — either by a living, breathing person, or a living, breathing person’s junk. I don’t think apartments sit vacant here. Landlords pretty much list units as soon as they hear the tenant plans on leaving, and renters scoop them up within a couple of weeks, so it’s just not possible to sign a lease and settle in the next day.
  • The application fee is your soul. The real fun begins after you’ve found an apartment you like. You can’t just hand over a check and get the keys the next day — oh no. Everyone over the age of 18 who’ll be living in the unit has to fill out a separate, detailed application before they’ll even be considered. Sean and I ended up submitting around 20 pages of information about our rental and employment histories, income, etc., and then we had to submit even more documents to verify the income from a job I had four years ago. Once the broker finished reviewing our applications, the landlord got a turn. Then and only then were we assured we had a place to live and were invited to sign our names to paper. (Evidently some landlords like to schedule “interviews” with prospective renters after they’ve reviewed the paperwork. Sean and I got to skip that step.) All told, it took about four days from the time we saw the apartment to finalize the lease. I understand why it’s done this way — landlords don’t want unwashed ne’re-do-wells setting up meth labs in the kitchen and defaulting on rent. But man! The waiting game — not knowing if we were going to get the apartment that we really, really wanted — was absolutely killer.

In the end, it was all worth it. The place we found is absolutely, 100% perfect. It’s in one of Boston’s hippest neighborhoods, steps away from a T stop, larger and more affordable than we expected, and meets all of our aesthetic specifications — with an exposed brick wall thrown in for extra va-va-voom. We even expect Her Majesty the Cat to love it (the bay window has very roomy sills and overlooks a street.)

We won’t be able to move in until April 15 — the sweet, current tenant agreed to leave two weeks before her scheduled May 1 move-out date so we could get in sooner — so we’re doing some creative living in the meantime. But I’m happy to do it if it means getting the ideal apartment in Boston.