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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  • I had a great apt. when I first moved here and lived in Oakland. A year later he sold the place and I had to move as the new owner wanted to jack up rent. Unfortunately for the next 8 years I went through landlord hell.

    I thought that someday I'd make a site blasting each of these landlords so other people know about the shady businesses. I still have pictures, videos and documentation of the blatant disregards for safety should I ever go forward with it. Heck at one point our stove was red tagged by the gas company and told him it has to be replaced. His answer was "people down the hall needs a dishwasher first, I'll just have someone come in and fix this."

    My worst experiences have been with places maintained by rental companies. I could talk for hours on this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:49 AM  

  • Our cats have caused way more damage than our dog. Granted, we have three cats and one dog and the dog doesn't chew things. But if I were a landlord I'd be more worried about cats than dogs. The cat urine smell never completely goes away, I don't care what those Urine Gone! ads say.

    By Blogger karyrogers, at 9:13 AM  

  • Landlords should pay more attention to the age of pets. My girls are very well-behaved now, but Puppy Janet destroyed the new (cheap) carpeting and (cheap) bathroom tile in my efficiency. I could agree with a landlord who didn't allow puppies, which might also promote the adoption of older dogs.

    Luckily, there is an advantage to having a slumlord: when I skipped out on my lease and the rental company threatened court, I calmly mentioned that the court would be very interested in the fact that the windows were illegally painted shut. We never did go to court.

    By Blogger John Carman, at 9:50 PM  

  • I grew up in Greenfield, and it is the best-kept secret of the eastern suburbs. Affordable, family-oriented, in the center of downtown and Oakland. And if the price of gas gets too high, the bus service is phenomenonal.

    By Blogger Jo Janoski, at 7:12 AM  

  • I've rented more years than most of you have been alive and also have some horror stories. However, I've also been a landlord and that ain't purdy either.

    $1400 a month for rent? I pay that amount for my mortgage on a 105 acre farm with 7 bedroom house, huge barn and 2 machinery sheds. (Nice outhouse too!) Much quieter in Forest County than in Pittsburgh. So quiet that my brother from Upper St. Crust, er Clair, can't sleep up here.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:26 PM  

  • So, did you run across any places for rent that allowed dogs in that were cheap?

    My husband and I are trying to move back to Pittsburgh, and we've got a small dog. We can't afford much for rent, and trying to find a place to live is starting to drive me crazy.


    By Blogger Merebear, at 6:34 PM  

  • Dragonchild: Your best bet is to call individual property owners who post on Craigslist. Unlike agencies, individual landlords usually only have a few properties and they need to get them rented or else they lose money, so they're more willing to negotiate (or sometimes waive "no pet" policies altogether).

    Location-wise, we found Lawrenceville, Greenfield, Bellevue and Bloomfield to be pretty dog-friendly, landlord-wise.

    Good luck!

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 2:31 AM  

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