In this article, you will learn:
- What to look for in a unit
- Where to look for rooms and studios
- Questions to ask about the place
- Tips and tricks to find cheap rooms easily
- How to get furniture for free.
Let’s start with the most important: your budget.
Table of Contents
- Set up Your Budget
- Type of Unit and Rental Situation
- How to Visit an Apartment
- How to Judge Your Future Roommates
- Social Signs
- Intellectual Signs
- Run Away Signs
- Questions to Ask
- Tips and Tricks
- The Bottom Line
Set up Your Budget
Your budget is the most important criterion when looking for a room.
It will have an impact on everything else, from the location to the situation and quality of the place.
Renting a room with other people in the room will be the cheapest. I don’t recommend it.
Renting a room with other people in the apartment will be the more expensive, but is likely the best value for money.
Renting an apartment by yourself will be the most expensive.
While your place should have a minimum of comfort, spending more than half of your salary/monthly allowance on rent is not recommended.
Even if you got a rooftop and a jacuzzi.
The location is the second question you should solve. Personally, I hate commuting, so I try to live as close as possible to the places I go to.
When I moved to a co-living with a gym inside, I virtually stopped leaving the building altogether. I was working from home, exercising at home, and could order Uber Eat or whatever grocery shopping app that I had.
But not everyone is like me.
You should weigh whether living close to nature is worth doing 2 hours of commute (although commute has almost disappeared now).
In the end, it comes down to your priorities: what do you value most when choosing the place you live in?
Here are some criteria:
Price: the center of a city will be more expensive than the outskirts. I think it’s worth paying more to live in the center and not having to pay/wait for transportation.
Safety of the neighborhood: you don’t want to live in a place where you’re scared to go out/come back at night. That just ruins your whole experience. It was one of the reasons why I didn’t enjoy living in South America.
The quietness of the neighborhood: you don’t want to live in a place where you can’t sleep unless you are yourself throwing parties.
Possibility to park your car: not all streets have free parking facilities.
Presence of supermarkets: when I was living in Namur (Belgium) I was far from the closest supermarket that closed so early that I couldn’t go there during the week because I was working. So frustrating!
On the opposite, when I was living in Sydney, I was living in front of a supermarket whose opening hours were 6 AM-1 AM.
Let me tell you that there is nothing like grocery shopping at 00:30!
Presence of schools for children: self-explanatory. You’ll give your children a lot of freedom if they can go by themselves to school, whether walking, cycling, or by public transport.
Presence of bars, cafés, cinemas, shopping malls: while it maximizes the entertainment options in your neighborhood, it’s also loud. When I was living 100 meters away from the most famous bar in Brussels, I didn’t sleep for a year!
Presence of public transportation facilities: The only thing I hate more than driving cars is looking for a parking spot.
Presence of a nature area: connection with nature is important. Going to a park or a forest is great to resource yourself and calm your mind. It is also less polluted.
Presence of a gym/yoga studio: important to me who goes four days per week to the gym.
Neighbors: neighborhoods with non-recommendable people will likely see drug dealings, frequent police interventions, overcrowded apartments, crooked landlords, sanitary issues, and more problems I haven’t thought about.
While the rent will be cheap, the price you’ll pay will be psychologically high.
Type of Unit and Rental Situation
Are you looking for an apartment or a house? Garden, or no garden? Top floor, or ground floor? Do you want to live alone in a studio, or with roommates? If yes, how many maximum? Are you renting empty, or furnished?
That’s about it.
These questions are not easy to answer.
But after I lived in more than twenty different places, I’ll help you out a bit.
Studios are made for one person, or two people (a couple) maximum.
They’re not big, but you get to live how you want because you’re alone in there, hence, free: bring who you want when you want, smoke, get a pet, host couchsurfers, walk around naked or paint the entire living room in pink and yellow, it doesn’t matter.
However, freedom may have a price: loneliness.
I didn’t like living alone, and the couple of times I did it, I used Couchsurfing extensively to fill my apartment with people, threw dinners, or worked like an enraged person so that I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone anyway when I’d come home.
It probably isn’t you. Nonetheless, take this into consideration.
Studios and “single” apartments are on the rise as more and more people are single, and have therefore no kids.
So, they get a dog or a cat instead. Or plants. Then they wonder why they feel like they have failed at life.
I’m getting off-topic.
Next up is living with roommates, which is much cheaper.
Living with roommates can go from living with one other person to living with six or seven other people.
I’ve also seen houses where twenty-five people were living there, about eight per room (Melbourne, backpackers house).
As a rule, I personally set the limit to four people in the apartment, including myself.
More people means that the whole thing will be a mess, and I’m past the point in my life where I tolerate my house to be messy.
The apartment I moved to in Sydney had eight people living instead of four. Four guys, four girls, that all started having sex with each other.
Luckily, I was 19 at the time, so I didn’t mind.
Today, I’d never do this again, even though it was one of the best experiences I have ever had.
Residences: One of the biggest regrets of my life is to never have lived at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, but well, that’s life.
If you are a student, you should check out residences. At first, residences were organized so that you’d meet people and have social opportunities while getting a room for yourself. Now, it has become harder to socialize as people are drowning in their screens, but it’s still possible.
Some residences are very expensive, some are cheaper. Either way, they represent a good alternative, should you not want to live in a studio, nor with roommates.
Should you live on campus? In my opinion, no. You shouldn’t live, work, sleep and relax at the same place because it’ll drive you nuts.
How to Visit an Apartment
There is a list of things to be wary of when you visit an apartment.
For example, the presence of a living room. Appartments without living rooms are apartments where roommates don’t hang out together, and that’s the worst you can get.
These people are the ones that eat and live in their room and run to the shower and to the kitchen so that they won’t have to cross you in the hall and say hi. You don’t want to live with them.
You basically get the worse of both studios and of living with roommates: you have to share commonplaces, but can’t organize social activities; you’re alone…while living “with” people.
So make sure there is a living room, and that the living room is used by people.
Next up is the washing machine. Doing your laundry in a lavatory is annoying, expensive, time-consuming, and overall not practical at all.
If there is no washing machine but it’s possible to get one, get one.
And get one that does both drying and washing!
Next up are the amenities in the kitchen. Look for an oven, space to store your food, a freezer, and enough space in the fridge.
Make sure there is a dining room or at least a table with a chair where you can share a meal with your roommates or with your friends.
Look for a balcony! While it may be a luxury, there is nothing like chilling on a balcony at night with some music and a can of beer or two.
Finally, make sure that your room has:
- a double bed (or at least a bed that can fit two people)
- that the room is not too loud
- that there is a window that you can open and close properly
- that the curtains make the room dark and if not, that you can install some curtains.
How to Judge Your Future Roommates
The following is based on my experience.
Take it with a pinch of salt.
I don’t want to disappoint, but you can’t get to know your roommates through a 10-min quick chat.
It’s not the fact that 10 min is not enough. It’s the fact that people are fake when they want something (a job, a house, or a roommate).
This is why you should ask some specific questions such as “did you grow up with siblings”, “how old are you” or “do you have a student job?”
Some signs in the apartment will tell you whether you are in presence of party people, quiet people, social people, intellectuals, etc.
Beer and wine bottles: if the person is currently living alone, avoid the place.
Cigarettes and ashtrays: Smokers are more social than non-smokers. Make sure that they smoke in their rooms, or outside.
Video game stations and TV: it’s not about playing video games, but that people spend time together doing stuff in the living room.
Speakers: speakers -> music -> party.
Books and bookshelves: self-explanatory
Plants: people that have plants are usually in the period of their lives where they want to feel good and relax at home.
Musical instruments: make sure they’re not playing 24/7.
My sister is a professional musician. Trust me – it’s noisy.
Board games: people that play board games are a minimum social people and intellectual.
Run Away Signs
Dirt and mess: if people can’t clean their apartment when you come to visit, then it’ll be worse when you’ll be living with them.
Drugs/cigarettes/alcohol/burning smells: low aeration and poor cleaning skills, not good.
Questions to Ask
The neighbors: ask if there have been complaints about the neighbors or from the neighbors.
The internet: it’s important to have an unlimited contract, especially if you share it with others.
Cleaning lady: while it will be more expensive, it may be worth it if you live with people that can’t keep a place clean.
The landlord: Is the landlord a real person, or an agency? Have there been problems in the past with the landlord, like not refunding deposits?
Rules: I’ll tell you a story.
In the summer of 2019, I got in touch with a girl that sought to sublet her room for the summer, which suited me perfectly.
As we were organizing the schedule, she said “by the way, if you can avoid eating meat during your stay here, that’d be great”.
Puzzled, I asked why.
Her roommate, which was the main tenant, did not want anyone to eat meat in the house.
I knew from that moment that I wouldn’t take the room even if you paid me.
However, nothing excites me more than crazy vegans, so I decided to go ahead with the visit.
I was welcomed to the last floor of a five stories building. As I entered the place, the three girls that were living there invited me to eat breakfast with them, at 13h.
There were flies in the kitchen.
After a short visit, the tenant explained her no-meat rule and said something I’ll never forget:
“I have some very strong convictions, so, no dead animals in the house”.
I explained that I could not eat sugar and had to eat meat, so they said they agreed for me to put my meat in the freezer, but not in the fridge, because “it smells”.
I quickly left.
As I was walking down the stairs, I wondered who the hell was going to let their dietary choices be dictated by a crazy vegan.
All of that to say: ask about house rules.
Are friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, one-night-stands, couchsurfers allowed? What about the noise at night? Who cleans? Is it possible to sub-rent?
The fewer rules, the better.
Tips and Tricks
Never pay for a room without visiting it. Book an Airbnb for a month, then go visit rooms once you’re there.
I don’t recommend to book your room before you arrive, but it’s not impossible and I have done it myself.
If you’re looking for a place on Facebook, do a background check on Facebook of the person advertising the place.
When have these people created their accounts?
Do they have friends?
Are their pictures liked by other people?
Are these people real?
Ask for an ID, and make sure it matches the bank account of the person you will wire the money to.
Never pay through Western Union. Once your money is gone, it is gone.
Meet up with the landlord by Skype, and ask who are the roommates so you can also do another background check.
Look when no one else is looking: looking for a place when everyone is looking is a stressful situation. Landlords have the upper hand and don’t hesitate to make tenants compete.
If you can do so, try to look during a period when no one else is looking, which is outside of the months of July-September and December-February.
I found it easier to find rooms in October than in August (counter-intuitive).
June is the best period since everyone is leaving for the summer and the new people have not arrived yet.
Look where no one else is looking: Facebook is where everyone is looking for rooms. Where you have everyone, you also have anyone.
Many landlords grew tired of lazy and difficult tenants from Facebook, so they avoid advertising their place over there.
My advice is to look for rooms on local websites, in the local language, including websites where you have to pay.
In my experience, it is worth it to pay 5-50€ to find rooms advertised behind paywalls.
You’ll compete with fewer people, and the rooms are usually cheaper and better located.
Get furniture for free: If you plan on staying for a long time, renting empty will be cheaper.
Today, buying furniture has become stupid since you can get them for free.
When people move out, they often give free couches, tables, and chairs because they didn’t find anyone to buy them and must get rid of them fast.
All you need is two friends and a van.
When the situation is desperate:
- Put ads in the local newspaper or at the supermarket.
- Talk to locals.
- Run through an agency.
- Book an Airbnb and ask the host if you can rent long-term.
The Bottom Line
Finding a place is not easy but it’s possible.
I hope this list, backed up by 7+ years of experience looking for rooms over three continents and 8 countries, will help you out when you’ll have to make your own choice.
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