Monday, February 15, 2016

Lessons learned in my apartment hunting

Guys, the day has finally come. After much thinking and debating (and worrying, obviously), I've finally decided to pull the trigger and share my apartment hunting and renovating story with you. It's not because I feel ready to do it - I probably never will. Anyone who ever renovated and decorated an apartment would tell you this: it's never really done. It never feels finished and it most certainly never feels "perfect". It takes a long time - unless you're a top-earning blogger who gets most of her furniture and appliances for free - which I'm not. It's been more than a year since I crossed the threshold of what would become chez moi for the first time, and I can still see at least 50 things that need to be taken care of or completed. And that's fine with me. Like everything truly meaningful in life, it's work in progress.

That doesn't mean that I'm not nervous about sharing the whole process with you: after all, putting your work out there for the world to see can be pretty nerve-wracking (#keepingitreal). But as I was reflecting upon the past year, I realized that I'd learned so many valuable lessons in the process, and it would be a shame not to pass them on. If this post could help only one person in her/his search for the right place to live, it would be well worth it.

Before I dive smack into the list of lessons learned, I would love to clarify my situation, since I don't want to mislead you in any way. First of all, I didn't get a mortgage - I paid for my apartment cash. I did it with a major help from my parents for which I'll never be really able to thank them enough. This doesn't mean that I'm debt-free. It means that I'm repaying my parents instead of a bank. It also means that I don't have the crazy interest rate that goes with a mortgage to deal with: here in Slovakia, having a mortgage usually means that you repay your home over the course of 25-30 years, and incidentally, you pay twice the real value of your abode. Not having to do this is a huge privilege I'm well aware of, and I'll be forever grateful to my parents for their help and support.

The second specific thing is that when it came to buying my first apartment, I absolutely wanted to buy it all by myself - no boyfriend / fiancĂ© involved. I wanted my name to be the only one on the buying end of the contract. This pertains closely to the lessons I learned from my failed engagement a few years ago. At the time, blinded by love and trust, I let myself become financially dependent on my fiancĂ©, and when things came to an end, they ended badly mostly for me. I was the one who had to move out of the apartment we shared, and I was the one who had to rebuild her life and career completely from scratch. I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. When it comes to my current apartment, there's only one name - mine - on the title deed, and it will forever remain so. No matter what happens next in my life (good or bad), I'll always have this security blanket to fall back onto. And that, to me, is truly priceless.

With these two specifics explained, let's dive right into the thick of my apartment hunting. These are the most important lessons I learned along the way:

one: Do your homework and be prepared. Apartment hunting is not something that can be improvised. You can't really "wing it". It's a huge commitment, both when it comes to time and money, and it deserves to be taken seriously. Once I set my mind on buying my own place (back in 2014), I moved it right on top of my list of priorities. I spent hours scouring the listings available, learning to understand the real estate lingo, calling the real estate agents and scheduling visits, looking at more listings, comparing locations and so on and so forth. I wasn't blogging at the time, so I dedicated my entire afternoons and evenings to researching my local market and to learning what buying and owning a place entailed. This helped me tremendously, because thanks to all the information gathered and stored in my brain, when visiting a potential listing, I was able to look at a place and gauge its price, its potential and whether it could be the right fit for me in mere minutes. I could never stress the importance of preliminary research enough. It may take time and effort, but it will save you so much disappointment and wasted time in the long run! Believe me, you absolutely want to know what you're getting into.

two: Make a list. Coming from the compulsive list maker that I am, this one is not going to surprise you. But in order to find the right place for you, you have to have your priorities straight before you start looking for it. Of course, you also have to be ready to be flexible, but knowing your non-negotiables should be your number one priority. While apartment hunting, I had three non-negotiables:

   1. The neighborhood: My future apartment had to be close both to my parents' apartment and the city center with all the shops and amenities. I didn't have a car at the time, so having everything necessary at walking distance was the most important thing to me. And while I do have a car now, the fact that whatever errand I need to run (post office, butcher's or the grocery store where I know all the salespeople by name) is within five-minute walking radius is one of the hugest perks of living where I do.
   2. Three separate pieces: bedroom, living room AND kitchen. Having a separate kitchen was also huge on my list. I've never been a fan of open plans: merging kitchen and the living space simply doesn't work for me. I wanted to have a big kitchen for all my cooking and baking experiments and that could also house the dining table.
   3. Balcony. This may seem completely random, but having a balcony really was a non-negotiable for me, for a whole slew of reasons.

These were my top three priorities. Of course, there was a whole list of other things I wanted to have in my "dream" apartment, but that weren't the deal-breakers. Some of them I knew I could make happen during the renovation; and some of them I knew I could forgo completely (mostly because I wanted, but didn't really need them). Having my priorities straight prevented me from wasting my time visiting places that didn't match my three cardinal requirements from the get-go. To be completely honest with you, at the beginning of my search, I did actually visit a couple apartments that were in different neighborhoods than my dream one, or that didn't have a balcony, or that had an open plan kitchen. But these visits only reinforced my conviction that my non-negotiables were exactly that: things I would not compromise on. And it absolutely paid off in the long run.

My balcony is nowhere near this pretty right now (we're still in the dead of winter after all), but just wait for summer! 

three: Get help and advice from someone you can trust. This can be your parents, a trusted friend or a family member, or a real estate agent you can rely on. Personally, I didn't work with a realtor - I honestly didn't see the point. I did all the legwork myself: I scoured the listings, called the proprietors and agencies, asked my own questions and formed my own opinions. I spent a lot of time talking with my family and friends about their experiences with apartment hunting and living. And since in the past 10 years I was living in 9 different places, I also had a slew of my own experiences I could refer to.

I wouldn't necessarily advise you to do the same thing: if you feel like the realtor could help you and be useful to you, by all means, go for it. I'm well aware that not everyone can dedicate as much time and effort to searching for the right place as I did: people have demanding jobs and families to take care of, and what I did is not realistic for everyone (and not everyone is the crazy compulsive researcher and note-taker that I am :) If you manage to find a dedicated real estate agent willing to listen to you and to take your needs and wants in consideration, than you hit the jackpot. Do what feels right and doable for you, and if you do want to work with a realtor, don't settle on the first one that crosses your path. Always get a second opinion.

four: Visit as many apartments as you can, but don't judge the book by its cover. Seeing as many apartments as humanly possible played a tremendous part in finding my own perfect place. With a huge help from my dad, I was able to pinpoint a list of things to pay attention to and the questions to ask. In the end, I was able to forget the facade completely, and focus on the bones - that's what I like to call the things that truly matter in an apartment. I'm going to talk about this topic more in depth in my next post, so stay tuned.

five: Good things take time... You have to be patient. If you need to deal with your living situation in a hurry, I would advise you to rent a temporary place for a few months, and focus all your attention on looking for the right place to buy. Purchasing a home is an enormous commitment. It's not something you can change your mind about in 6 months. You have to figure out what you want and need first, before signing the contract or taking that scary huge loan - and that's where the lessons no. 1 and 2 listed above come in handy.

People are usually surprised to learn that it took me almost a year to find and buy my apartment. But that's because I knew exactly what I was looking for, and I was willing to wait for it. Of course, I had experienced many moments of doubt, thinking that I was being too difficult and too picky. There were times when I thought I would never ever find a place that fulfilled all my requirements. And as it goes, I was actually going to chicken out, and put an offer on a different apartment (one that met two of my non-negotiables, but didn't have a balcony). But right when I was about to call the proprietor to set up that last meeting, I stumbled upon the listing for my current place, and the rest is history. And that's where my last important lesson in apartment hunting comes in...  

six: ...but you have to be able to act fast. Listen to you gut. You know how they say that you'll know the right place for you the moment you see it? Well, I never really believed that, but in the end, it worked 1000% for me. I knew this was the right place the moment I entered the door. But it wasn't thanks to some mysterious illumination that came out of nowhere. It was the result of all the things listed above: doing my research, seeing as many options as possible, having my priorities straight and knowing what I wanted from my place and from my neighborhood. Once I had all this figured out, it was just a matter of acting fast.

See, when it comes to real estate, my neighborhood is probably the most competitive one in the entire city. Apartments like mine sell in two or three days. None of them is listed for more than a week. You see it one day and the next - POOF, it is gone. You don't get to take a few days to think it through. If you do, the apartment will most likely be sold before you make your mind. This is where all that thorough research and all the learning comes in handy. It did for me: by the end of the first visit, I was closing the deal. Three days later we were signing the contract. I was wiring the money to the proprietor the next day, and mere three week after the first visit, I was holding the keys to my first own place. It may have been fast, but it was also one of the best decisions of my life.

Whew, this was one word-heavy post. I could probably go on and on about this topic, but I'm going to let you breathe a little bit before revealing the BEFORE pictures on Wednesday. Beware: it's going to be really ugly! Can't wait :)

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