Cafe Witness

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

5 Things I Learned While Apartment Hunting in Pittsburgh

This week, I spent huge chunks of time tracking down a new apartment. Our lease is up at the end of July, and since Ann wants to get a dog, we're moving to a building that allows dogs. (That means we had to find one first -- and in Pittsburgh, that's no easy task.)

In doing so, I learned a lot about Pittsburgh, realtors, and myself. To wit:

5 Things I Learned While Apartment Hunting in Pittsburgh

1. Dogs Are Pariahs

As most of my Twitter friends heard this past week, owning a dog in Pittsburgh makes you the least desirable of all apartment renters, judged by prospective landlords to be slightly less savory than thieves, grave robbers and amateur yodelers. It seems the average landlord in Pittsburgh would rather rent an apartment to a convicted criminal or a scab-heavy leper than to someone who owns a dog. We don't even have a dog yet, but we did learn that the quickest way to cut a conversation with a realtor short is to ask, "So, what's your pet policy?"

Oddly enough, cats are far less problematic. Evidently, shedding and clawing is far preferable to shedding and barking.

2. Landlords Often Forget That EVERYTHING Is a People Business

Most of the landlords and realtors we encountered were decidedly chilly in their demeanor -- some even downright dismissive. (And these are the ones who allowed dogs.) Only 2 or 3 treated us like people, rather than names on a call sheet, and took the time to connect with us on a more-than-functional basis. Unsurprisingly, those are the ones whose apartments we seriously considered renting.

Note to landlords: If I'm about to pay you over $1500 and commit to living under your roof for at least the next year, you could treat me like a person from the time we first meet. (This includes phone contact.) You could make me feel like you care about my needs and well-being. You could stop making excuses for the less-than-perfect conditions of your properties. You could give me the impression that you'll be concerned if our power, water or heat go out in the middle of the winter. In short, you could put some effort into being a person, rather than a business owner or an employee.

3. I'm All Growns Up

Several places we looked at were in buildings obviously intended for grad students -- aka, not overly spacious or in the best shape, but centrally located and affordable.

As a single guy, I would have jumped at the chance to live in one or two of these places -- especially considering their proximity to the social locations I already frequent. After all, I wouldn't have viewed them as long-term living solutions, but more as temporary places to sleep between jobs, social events and other such gallivanting. (When you're single, your apartment is where you go when you're not doing something interesting.)

But as a 31 year-old man in a committed relationship, my (our) needs are different. For one thing, we have more stuff than I would if I were single (see below). For another, we tend to stay home more often. That makes space, and the *use* of space, more important to us than it was to Single Justin. We like to entertain guests, so we need a space that's suited to the needs of social adults, not beer pong-playing students. And since it's cheaper to cook dinner for two every night, rather than always eating on the run, we need a kitchen that we can *live* in, rather than a tiny one where I can microwave something for solo feeding.

4. Stuff vs. Things

When you're looking at an empty apartment, trying to imagine where all your possessions would go, you can usually approximate the big items. You know where your furniture (beds, dressers, couches) would go. You also know where your stuff *might* go -- all the vague items you know are in every room but can never quite articulate, like lamps, storage containers, filing cabinets, smaller chairs and computer equipment.

But what about all that crap? All the boxes, bins and seasonal items that you only think about when you can't find something you actually *want* -- like a toolbox or a photo album that you swear is in "this closet somewhere."

Ann and I have aggregated a LOT of crap over the years, so we had to look beyond the obvious space and consider the phantom space -- the closets and basements that don't seem important in your daily life until you realize you have zero space and must resort to storing your shoes on the dining room table...

Suffice it to say that we picked a place that allows us to expand, instead of something that's "just big enough" for who we are today.

5. Location, Location, Location... Kind Of

As a freelancer, I don't have to worry about the home-to-work driving distance -- but Ann does. As long as she's working in the Oakland / Shadyside area, we thought we should look for something nearby -- Friendship, Shadyside, Bloomfield, etc. -- so she doesn't waste time and money driving long distances twice a day.

We also identified the things we do and places we go on a regular basis -- grocery shopping, bookstores, banks, coffee shops that stay open 'til midnight -- and tried to look for apartments that would be near as many of those locations as possible. It didn't make sense to save money in one capacity -- like proximity to Ann's job -- if we'd only be driving further to everything else.

In the end, we found a place in an area of town -- Greenfield -- that we never would have thought to look in the first place. Not just because we hadn't realized it was closer to Ann's work than we thought, but because it's in an area that feels more like an actual neighborhood than the places I traditionally seek out. Instead of being surrounded by grad students and commuters, we'll be living among people who own their homes, who have families, and who take pride in their houses and yards. For someone who hasn't had a yard in nearly ten years, this will be a change of pace -- and, since ours is paved, it saves me from having to mow it.

I may be all growns up, but I'm still not ready for yard work...

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

3 Tips to Keeping Your Freelance Calendar Flexible (and Your Head on Straight)

In the comments on my earlier post "5 Tips for Freelancers," reader Stephanie Booth mentioned that she was having trouble setting aside work dates for clients who then cancel on her without having fronted any payment in advance -- leaving her with an empty calendar and too few actual paychecks.

Unfortunate as this type of occurrence is, there's nothing technically wrong with it. If a contract hasn't been signed, and up-front payments haven't been guaranteed, a client is perfectly within her rights to cancel any proposed or pending work. Of course, that doesn't make life any easier for freelancers like Stephanie, who could have allocated those saved dates to other work (or other, paying clients).

In that vein, here are three tips for managing those clients who seem to take up all of your time... without actually paying for it.

Don't Write in Pen What Should Be Written in Pencil

Often, a client will ask if you're free to meet or work on a specific day (or days), which may give you the impression that you have a guaranteed gig. But if your client is simply gauging your availability for possible future projects, or if "something comes up" that derails their intent, that guaranteed gig will often turn out to be nothing more than a suggestion -- and one that doesn't pay.

SOLUTION: Don't commit to any dates that aren't explicitly confirmed by the client. If you use scheduling software like iCal, etc., mark down any dates the client has inquired about with question marks, so you'll know you *may* have a conflict on that day. Then, if another client makes a similar, concrete request for the same day, you can decide if it's worth negotiating a different work date with this definite client or if the earlier possibility of work is more important than the promise of an actual gig. (Hint: It almost never is.)

Confirm All Dates at Least X Days Prior

As a freelancer, it can be difficult to know what you'll be doing tomorrow, much less a week or a month from now. That's why concrete additions to our calendars are so important -- they provide the structure that we base the rest of our surreal work lives around. The earlier you can turn a question mark on the calendar into an exclamation point, the easier it gets to navigate your own life.

SOLUTION: If you have to juggle multiple clients on multiple days, confirm all proposed meetings and work dates X days in advance. (For me, X might be one week; for the less flexible, X might be a month. It all depends on how much stability you need to feel confident in your own workflow.) If a client cannot confirm a proposed date by your cutoff point, politely inform them that you'll do your best to keep it free, but you cannot guarantee that your time won't be requested elsewhere.

As an added bonus, you'll likely find that the clients who can commit earliest to their proposed work dates are often the clients who pay on time, too. (THOSE are the clients you'll want to be most flexible in accommodating, for obvious reasons.)

Insist on Partial Payment Upon Reservation of a Date

If you find yourself assailed by clients who book up your calendar and then cancel all their appointments, your best recourse is to bill your clients as soon as a date is confirmed. Even a nominal fee will remind your clients that your time is worth money, and they shouldn't take either for granted.

SUGGESTION: This type of semi-drastic measure is best covered in a contract between you and your client well in advance of the start of work. If you're unsure whether you'll need to take such a step, include this verbiage in your standard work agreement, but denote that such fees are optional and may be invoked by you only if necessary. (This is a politely-worded warning that abusing your time will eventually lead to expenses.) Also, be sure that both you and your client are in agreement on your definition of terms like "confirmed," so you don't start billing them in a seemingly arbitrary (and indefensible) fashion.

This tip may not be necessary -- or pleasant -- for everyone, but it definitely separates the "talkers" from the "doers." And, in the end, all the talking in the world doesn't get a freelancer paid -- doing does.

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