Housing is cheaper and easier to find in Los Angeles than it is in New York, San Francisco or Boston, but finding a place there is still no picnic. Los Angeles is the biggest megalopolis in the U.S. It’s a city that has cities within cities. It might seem like a nightmare to find an apartment in LA if you’ve never lived in a big city, but some expert guidance can make the process far less stressful.
Determine How Much You Want to Spend on Rent
- Before you start looking for an apartment, you need to make an important decision: How much are you willing and able to pay in monthly rent? A good way to find your upper limit for housing costs is to divide your monthly net (after tax) income by 3. If this figure seems unusually low, you have three options: make more money, consider living in a less expensive area like mid-Wilshire or the Valley, or save money on rent by finding a roommate.If you decide to get a roommate to lower your housing costs, you can search for one yourself, or you can use a roommate agency (see Resources). Either way, you must carefully choose your roommate, or you will rue the day you opted to hook up with a roomie. Obviously, not all strangers make good roommates, but not all friends make good roommates either. There are some people whose company you might well enjoy during the day, but who would drive you crazy if you lived with them. To exclude unsuitable persons from your life, ask all potential roommates the following questions to assess their compatibility:
Have you ever had a roommate before? What, if anything, bothered you about your past roommates?
Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend or other friend who will be staying here frequently? Are you promiscuous? (Do not be afraid to ask this one. You probably don’t want strange people sleeping over a lot, and if you explain that this is the reason you’re asking, it will establish what you consider unacceptable ahead of time.)
Do you smoke? Drink? Do drugs?
Do you stay out late on weekdays?
Do you have any credit problems?
Do you have any pets?
What is your occupation?
What do you like to watch on television? What music do you listen to?
Whatever you ask, in the end, you should feel very comfortable with your future roommate. If you do not, you are taking a big risk living with this person.
Try to arrange it so that your roommate co-signs the lease. If your name is the only one on the lease, you shoulder the entire burden of responsibility for the apartment from a financial standpoint. If your roommate loses his job (and, by extension, a steady cash flow), you’ll be stuck paying his share of the rent. Then you’ll be both angry and poor.
Pick a Neighborhood or City
The Los Angeles area is a huge, sprawling, super-spread-out megalopolis, filled with movie stars and lowlifes. Many people who claim to live in LA actually live in another city entirely. The many independent cities that constitute the LA area make it very difficult for someone who is unfamiliar with the area to search for an apartment there. What you need, of course, is a map, and there are several available.
Most residents of LA have a Thomas Guide in their cars. The Thomas Guide is the definitive guide to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with extremely detailed maps of everything in the county. It’s a very worthwhile purchase (see Resources).
Of course, the maps won’t tell you what the areas and cities are like. There are over 100 definable neighborhoods in the LA area, and even more if you include Orange County.
In Los Angeles and West Hollywood, folk wisdom holds that west of Fairfax, a major street that runs north/south, is good, while east of Fairfax is bad. This is generally a good rule, subject to the following exceptions: north of Beverly Boulevard you can go much farther east before it becomes foul; in Hollywood itself, there is no strict eastern boundary on the “nice” area; and “bad” doesn’t necessarily mean “dangerous”–areas east of Fairfax are mostly just less pleasant. Just drive to the location and use this simple test: If you are afraid to get out of your car, it’s probably a dangerous neighborhood. LA is very helpful in that it doesn’t hide its foulness; if you’re in a bad neighborhood, you can tell. But many college students and recent graduates live in Westwood; West Hollywood is considered to be the hip/trendy/gay area; Santa Monica is a pricey and touristy but beautiful and fun area; and Brentwood is rather expensive, but has nice restaurants and is centrally located
And then there’s the San Fernando Valley. Universally referred to as simply “the Valley,” of “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” fame, a lot of people who work in LA live there with good reason. It’s very pretty, there are lots of good restaurants, it’s very safe and the rents are cheaper, so you get more for your housing dollar. The other side of the coin is that the Valley is hot, smoggy and boring. It’s really like one big suburb. Cities located in the Valley include Burbank, Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Reseda, Tarzana, Van Nuys, Northridge, Granada Hills, Thousand Oaks and Woodland Hills.
When you’re reading about or visiting neighborhoods, keep the following factors in mind:
Is the rent affordable? Are the stores, shops, gyms and bars in the area affordable?
How close is the public transportation you will use for the short time before you realize that it is impossible to live in LA without a car?
What are the nearby schools like?
Who lives in that neighborhood? Yuppies? Students?
Where will you park your car? If the apartment you’re looking at doesn’t include parking, how easy is it to park on the street?
You can technically live in LA without a car, but nothing is ever within walking distance of anything else. And unless you’re living in the storage closet of your workplace, be prepared to commute. Commuting is often the worst thing about living in Los Angeles, so try to place yourself somewhere that will allow you a livable commute to your work. Most people commute using the famous LA freeways, which are probably not as bad as you’ve heard, but aren’t much fun, either. The freeways that run roughly north-south are odd-numbered, and those that run roughly east-west are even-numbered. The 10 freeway runs from Santa Monica through the west side to downtown and east LA. The commute along the 10 from the west side to downtown, or vice versa, is usually from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic. The 405, which runs along the coast a few miles inland from the Valley down to San Diego, can be pretty nightmarish during rush hour and on weekend afternoons (especially near Century City and Santa Monica). The 101 runs from downtown through Hollywood and the Valley, and it is terrible during rush hour and early evening, but not too bad the rest of the time. When you’re considering a place to live, it’s best to go on Mapquest and get driving directions from the apartment to your place of work. The driving directions will give you an estimated time, so if it looks like a nasty commute, you might want to reconsider.
Once you have a basic idea of the neighborhoods you want to live in, decide whether or not you want to use a real estate broker. A broker is a person who does most or all of the apartment hunting for you. Brokers charge fees for finding you an apartment, and that fee varies: In LA, it is usually equivalent to half a month’s rent, but it can be lower, and it’s worth shopping around.
Using a broker has several advantages. Brokers will do your leg work by finding apartments and making appointments to fit your schedule. A broker will probably be invaluable to an individual who is unable to take time off from work, or to someone who lives out of town. Brokers also tend to have a wide selection of apartments to choose from, and they have access to apartments that are not available to the general public. If you decide to use a broker, there are several ways to find one. Many brokers advertise in the newspapers or in online classified ads; you can also find brokers in the Yellow Pages. Finally, many companies have associated brokers they use for relocating employees. If you work at a big company, ask your human resources rep if there is a broker your company uses.
If you have some time to spend looking around yourself, it probably isn’t necessary to get a broker. And if cheapness is also a factor, do the work yourself and don’t waste your money