Lessons learned from a crazy apartment search in Philly

Spend two months looking for an affordable apartment in Center City and you’ll learn a lot about the often unseemly interaction between humanity and real estate. Hallway carpets coated in dog hair, fire escapes advertised as “Juliet balconies,” people thrusting checks at a landlord before even viewing the apartment that you’re patiently waiting in line to check out.

As you move a stranger’s dirty laundry out of the way to scope out closet space, you realize you’re far tidier than you thought.

Many times over, you learn to deal with the sting of real estate rejection.

When I moved to Philadelphia four years ago, apartment hunting took all of one day. This time around, the search for a one-bedroom for around $1,000 a month almost broke me. Through sweaty hikes to see fifth-floor walk-ups, apologetic calls from Realtors, and far too many application fees, I kept wondering: Is this insanity normal?

“Spring and summer is traditionally the craziest, most competitive time” said Dylan Ostrow, a Realtor for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices (and a friend from high school who stepped in to provide me some context and renter’s therapy). Ostrow told me the city has plenty of one-bedrooms (at least 540 rented between May and July) but, given the hot housing market, some house-hunters are opting for rentals, potentially cutting into the supply.

“We’re in the lowest housing inventory market in seven years,” he said. “I have a lot of buyers right now who have been looking for months and months and can’t find anything. It’s so competitive that some have had to sign a lease instead.”

A January study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found the number of apartments renting for more than $2,000 a month had nearly doubled while the city lost nearly 20 percent of its low-cost rental units.

I wasn’t making it easy on myself looking for a below-market rate around Center City, where average one-bedroom prices are closer to $1,350 a month and rising. Though one-bedroom median rent dropped this month nationally compared to the same time last year, in Philly, it rose 5 percent.

Having the option of choosing where I want to live makes me one of the very fortunate. I realize I could have looked farther out, but I don’t have a car and wanted an easy commute to work, so I mined Craigslist and Zillow for listings within a two-mile radius of the newsroom. I became well-versed in the language of listings.

Small studio with pizazz means it’s postage-stamp size but there’s some sort of molding somewhere, maybe a random nonworking fireplace.

Full three-piece bathroom means you get a toilet, a sink, AND a shower.

Space-saver kitchen is an invitation to reconnect with the mini-fridge you had in college.

I learned that when you’ve finally settled on a place, the person deciding your fate could be a landlord who already has a friend in mind. And she will have this friend in mind well before taking your $50 application fee.

Decisions on whether you are worthy of paying to live in a location sometimes comes down to a single-digit difference between your credit score and another guy’s. Sometimes decisions on who gets the place are made while you’re standing next to each other.

Usually, the victor in the apartment hunt is the person who handed over the check first. I saw an apartment at 21st and Locust I loved and went to a nearby coffee shop to fill out an application. When I returned 20 minutes later, the place had been rented to the woman who saw it after me.

Ultimately, I don’t think I would have gotten the apartment I did without using some tricks of the journalism trade.

The place was literally around the corner from my then-current apartment, going for $1,100 a month, utilities included, on the second floor of an old, well-kept building. It got good sunlight, had hardwood floors, an open kitchen-living room, and not one, but two closets (a rarity). The bedroom had a nonworking fireplace in the corner but in this 500-square-foot apartment, it actually was quite charming.

I arrived at the open house with application, pay stubs, and deposit checks ready to go. Unfortunately, so did three other people.

As we eyed one another silently, the Realtor said the owner would get all three applications and pick the tenant.

I left the open house, pulled up the city’s property records and looked up who owned the building. I found the woman’s name and work email address and sent her a note apologizing for the potential creepiness of the correspondence and figuring I’d come off as either desperate or determined.

The next day, she called. In 30 years of renting, she’d never been approached like that, she said. “You’re clearly a woman who goes after what she wants,” she told me as tears welled in my eyes.

Two weeks ago, I got the keys.