A Guide to Renting an Apartment in Massachusetts

Ooh, dear. This is not a short topic. But for me, renting an apartment in Salem was bad enough. Renting it for the first time and in another country while having a job at the same time was even more difficult. Throw in a husband with bad credit and three cats, then you’re either going to have to give up a few of those things or stay in perpetual “saving up to buy a house” mode, the latter of which I thought was only reserved for multiple dog owners who idolise the Duggar family.

The process of renting in the first place over here is ridiculous. Even in London, things are typically done by the week. So if landlords are greedy enough to expect you to fork over first, last AND security, at least it’s only 3 weeks’ worth. Here? It’s 3 MONTHS’ worth. And don’t forget the application fee for real estate agents, the rental fee for real estate agents, pet rent, pet security deposit, cleaning fees and anything else they feel like charging for. No bed of roses in the UK (plenty of cheap bastard horror stories of letting agencies from my landlord and tenant friends), but here, the idea of saving up to rent (not buy) seems utterly ridiculous.

If you’ve not saved up beforehand, there’s truly no point in looking until you’ve a) figured out your maximum price range for monthly rent and b) already saved up at least 3-4 times your maximum price range for monthly rent. You might find the place of your dreams during the slower winter renting season, but there are plenty of monied vultures who are perfectly willing and able to eBay-snipe that perfect apartment from you before you have a chance to fill out an application.

Average rent in Salem is $1,200 per month. This does NOT include utilities, which are likely to be as follows:

  • Gas: $300 in winter; $50 in the summer; add on an extra $100 per month if you are lucky enough to be blessed with an in-unit washing machine (a student scummy flat standard in the UK)
  • Electric: $60 in the winter; $120+ in the summer if you have an air conditioner. If you don’t have an air conditioner, you’ll most likely melt into a puddle, but this being Salem, no-one will notice. You’ll fit right in.

As Massachusetts has a high rent, if this existed here, it would probably cost at least $50,000 per month, plus sexual favours and your grandparents' souls.

If you want to be downtown, you’re more likely to be paying $1600+ for a tiny one-bedroom overlooking a filthy alleyway, but with modern plumbing and windows that actually seal in heat. If you’d rather stay near the “water” (a manufactured wharf area that looks more like reclaimed, Port Solent-type yuppie hobby train scenery), pay around $1300. Stay near the university and your prices go lower. Stay in The Point – the “dodgy” neighbourhood (i.e. less white people) and the rent averages drop even lower.

Most realtors will try to show you places all over town. You might say “downtown” and expect to be off the Commons, but in reality, you’ll be told that the apartment you specifically called about wasn’t available, but you can see a hopeless bunch of low-ceilinged, drafy, smelly buildings with outdated windows and porches that are most likely unsafe to stand on, breathe on or look at.

A few things to look out for:

  • Check that every room has a door. Might sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how many apartments have not one door in the whole place. Even the bathroom.
  • Make sure the “second bedroom” is actually big enough to be a bedroom, is not solely accessible through the master bedroom (rendering it useless), and, again, has a door.
  • Check for windows. Any windows. And the placement of said windows. Several flats here tend to have an entire wall of windows in a living room with a view of the building three feet away. If you’re unfortunate enough to sign a lease for a place that gets zero sunlight, it’s likely that your electric bills will be large from leaving the lights on constantly, and you will constantly be late for work by oversleeping. But you can console yourself by pretending that you are starring in 127 Hours whenever the faintest sliver of sunlight comes your way.
  • Ensure that the apartment has a living room, instead of a Funhouse-type hallway that revolves around a giant pillar, against which you could probably wedge in a child’s futon and pass it off as hip Liliputian lounge furniture.
  • Cat poo on the floor of the bathroom means it’s a comforting and homey-enough place that an animal will feel at home. This is why a real estate agent would simply leave it there to be discovered/stepped on by prospective tenants instead of cleaning it up.
  • If you find said cat hiding inside a wall behind a kitchen cabinet, this literally adds character to an already family-centric, home-y atmosphere.
  • If you’re not big on cooking rice, pasta, or anything that requires boiling, heating or simmering, an electric hob/stove is a great idea for a decorative piece. Many “renovated” flats come with this as standard, because simply no-one cooks anymore.
  • Bear in mind that if an apartment has a ton of outlets/wall plugs, it means there are virtually no ceiling lights (those modern fangled things) and you will actually have to plug in a plethora of lamps before you will be able to see any of the nasty fine print on your lease.

These were all actual things I encountered in the past few months.

I had to start off small. Staying with a friend to save money was a huge help. I now live in a rather dated-looking flat that includes gas, air-conditioning and boasts a brilliant view of the city. It’s a year-lease, but as a temp I have excellent job security and an unparalleled salary.

Trolling Craigslist for ads is sadly the best resource, even if you are trying to avoid real estate agents, mostly because they are capable of neither spelling nor subtlety, and seem to format each of their listings like an OCD, amateur transvestite’s lonely hearts Myspace page.

The “apts by owner” section is ideal, but for unsupecting, non-credit-building nonces like me as well as scamming, thieving slumlords. The plus side is that these people are typically too lazy to have actual jobs, so the longer that flat stays empty, the less money they have to buy Bud Light, blow-up dolls and disco biscuits, so they’re rather desperate to unload (heh) their festering pit of a property before you have the chance to figure out what was wrong with it before you signed the lease.

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