Sharing My Experience of Looking for Rooms in 11+ Cities on 3 Continents
Whether you’re moving out of your parents’ house to live independently for the first time or it’s the 15th time you’re about to live with roommates, looking for a room is neither an easy nor a pleasant experience, especially when you’re doing so at a time when everyone else is looking for rooms.
In this article, I’ll lay out what to look for, where to look for, the questions to ask about the place, and some tips and tricks to find cheap rooms easily and get furniture for free.
Let’s start with what you should first think about.
Set up Your Budget
The first thing you should think about is the amount of money you’re able and willing to pay for your rent.
This will have an impact on the rest of the criteria, from the location to the situation and quality of the place.
Renting a room with other people in the apartment will be the cheapest.
Renting a house by yourself will be the most expensive. In between, you’ll find studios and small apartments.
While you should feel comfortable where you are, spending more than half of your salary/monthly allowance on rent is not recommended, even if you got a rooftop and a jacuzzi.
But if you don’t want to downgrade your lifestyle, you can always increase your income (that will be for another article.)
The location is the second big question you should resolve. I, personally, hate taking public transportation and commuting, so I try to live close to the places I often go to.
Up to now, it was school.
However, it may also be work, the school of your children, the gym, the supermarket, a train/tram/metro station, a park, a library, a special café, bars and nightclubs, a mall, or the city center.
It depends on your priorities.
Traditionally, the center of a city will be more expensive than the outskirts, but it may be worth sometimes to pay a bit more to live in the center and not having to pay/wait for transportation.
Generally, there are a couple of criteria to be wary of when choosing the location. There are:
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 and was one of the reasons why I didn’t enjoy living in South-America.
Quietness of the neighborhood: similarly, 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, and had therefore resorted to buying my groceries during the weekend.
Yet, when I’d run out of food, I’d have to go eat at a snack close-by, which I hated.
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 criteria of your neighborhood, it also increases noise. Find a balance.
Presence of public transportation facilities: I hate driving cars and I hate even more finding a place to park, which is why I don’t have a car, and if one day I need one, I’ll take a car-sharing subscription.
While public transportation is in my mind a lesser evil than cars to move around, electric bikes or scooters remain the number 1 solution.
However, it is sometimes simply more convenient to take the train, subway, bus, or tram.
You don’t want to walk 15 minutes to do that.
Presence of a nature area: we need to be connected to nature, going to a park or a forest is fantastic to resource yourself and calm your mind.
Likewise, you don’t want to commute for one hour to reach the closest park.
Presence of a gym/yoga studio: quite important to me who goes 4 times per week to the gym.
Neighbors: neighborhoods with non-recommendable people will likely see drug dealings, frequent police interventions, overcrowded ap=partments, crooked landlords, unsanitary and more problems I haven’t thought about.
While the rent will be cheap, the price you’ll pay won’t be financial, but may very well be mental.
Type of Unit and Rental Situation
You don’t have a lot of choices: 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?
These questions are not easy to answer, and after having lived in 19 different places (about to do my 20th), I’ll help you out a bit.
Studios are made for one person, a maximum of two people (a couple).
They’re not big, but you get to live how you want because you’re alone in there, hence entirely free: bring who you want when you want, smoke, get a pet, host couchsurfers or paint the entire living room in pink and yellow.
However, freedom comes at a certain price: possible 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.
As such, some people can’t imagine living with other people besides their family or romantic partner, and a studio will therefore be the best available option for them.
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.
I’m getting off-topic.
Big apartments with three or four bedrooms are seeing a decrease in demand because of the lower number of families and the lower number of kids in families.
Next up, there is living with roommates.
Living with roommates can go from living with one other person to living with 6 or 7 other people.
I’ve also seen houses where 25 people were living there, about 8 per room (Melbourne, backpackers house).
As a rule, I personally set the limit to 4 people in the apartment, including myself.
More people means that the whole thing becomes a mess, and I’m past the point in my life where I tolerate my house to be messy.
When I moved to Sydney, Australia, I got into an apartment where we were 8 living in a unit of…4. 4 guys, 4 girls, that all started having sex with each other.
I can’t tell you the brothel this place had become.
Luckily, I was 19 at the time, so I didn’t really mind.
Today, I’d never do this again, even though it was one of the best experiences I have ever had.
Residences: If you are a student, you could also check out residences. At first, residences were organized so that you’d meet people and have social opportunities while getting a room for yourself.
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 humble opinion, no. There is this idea that you shouldn’t live, work, sleep and relax at the same place because it’ll drive you nuts.
While I have never tried it out myself, I would not recommend it.
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 worse you can get.
A bunch of anti-social people living and eating in their room, running to the shower and the kitchen so that they won’t have to cross you in the hall and say hi.
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.
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 facilities to have one, by all means, buy one.
If you buy one that also dries, you’ll never have to manually dry your clothes ever again. Freedom!
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.
When it comes to your room, you should make sure you have a double bed (or at least a bed that can fit two people), heating, 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 own experience, and there is nothing scientific about it.
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 enough, it’s the fact that people are drastically different than they appear to be and can fake that far longer than you’d imagine.
The age will be what you want to screen first. Living with 18-year-old boys won’t be like living with 28-year-old girls.
Furthermore, some signs in the apartment itself will tell you whether you are in presence of party people, quiet people, social people, intellectuals, etc.
Beer and wine bottles: these will allow you to conclude that your roommates are a minimum social. Unless they drink alone.
Then, it’s a sign of alcoholism and I discourage you to take the room.
Cigarettes and ashtrays: I believe that smokers are generally social, or at least not non-social on average. Make sure though, that they smoke in their rooms, or outside.
Video game stations and TV: it’s not about playing video games, it’s about the fact that activity exists in the living room which means that it is more likely that people spend time over there.
Speakers: totally my own observation as well, but speakers are an invitation to spend some time together.
Books and bookshelves: self-explanatory
Plants: people that have plants are more likely to be intellectuals.
Yet people that buy plants are usually in the period of their lives where they want to feel good and relax at home, and that does not include parties with their entire frat house.
Musical instruments: while it is a sign of people in a post-party stage of their lives, beware which type of instrument there is, and ask if they are often played.
My sister is a professional musician since always and I can tell you it’s noisy.
Board games: people that play board games is an excellent indication that they are social people and a minimum 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?
Rules: I’ll tell you a story.
I was at some point looking for a place to spend the summer in Brussels and naturally get in touch with a girl that wanted to sublet her room for the summer.
As we were making the arrangements for the visit, she sent me “by the way, if you can avoid eating meat during your stay, that’d be great”.
Puzzled, I asked why, then said it wasn’t possible because I was doing a keto/paleo diet (whole foods, low carbs).
As it turned out, the main tenant did not want her roommates to eat meat.
Knowing that I wouldn’t take the room, I still went to visit to investigate…
I was welcomed to the last floor of a five stories building. As I entered the place, the three girls that were sleeping there invited me to eat breakfast with them – it was 1 PM.
There were flies in the kitchen.
The main tenant subsequently explained her no-meat rule and said this (I’ll never forget it):
“I have some very strong convictions, so, no dead animals in the house”.
I proceeded to explain that I could not eat sugar, 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, wondering 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: friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, one-night-stands, couchsurfers, noise, cleaning, sub-renting.
The less rule, the better.
Tips and Tricks
In this section, I give you a couple of tricks to ease your search for a place to live.
Never pay for a room without visiting it: “why would I do that”, might you think.
Well, if you’re moving into a new city/country and want to have a room by the time you arrive, you may be interested in digitally signing the contract and pay for the rent and deposit.
While I do not encourage you to do that, there may be some cases where you will not have the choice.
Unfortunately, the Internet is full of conmen that will ask you to pay to book your room in advance while…there is, in fact, no room, hence the idea not to pay if you can’t visit…unless you need to break the rule, which I have, frequently, with rooms that I found – out of all places – on Facebook.
The thing with Facebook is that it is possible to say if the account advertising the room is fake or not with a bit of judgment.
Having verified who I was talking to, I would usually Skype to visit the place and make sure the person was real.
Then I’d take the Facebook of the roommates and talk to them…and only then was I feeling comfortable and didn’t mind paying part of the rent to “secure” the place.
This helps you avoid the hostel before moving.
Look when no one else is looking: looking for a place when everyone is looking is a stressful situation where 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 while being rather counter-intuitive. June remains the best period, as everyone is leaving for the summer, and new people have not arrived yet.
Look where no one else is looking: Facebook is where everyone is looking for rooms, and where you have everyone, you also have anyone.
Many landlords have grown tired of lazy and difficult tenants that only predominantly look for rooms on Facebook.
My advice is to look for rooms on local websites, in the local language, including websites where you have to pay.
Most often than not, it is worth it to pay 5-20€ to find rooms advertised behind paywalls.
Indeed, you’ll compete with far fewer people, and the rooms are usually cheaper and better located.
Landlords putting up their rooms behind paywalls are landlords tired of the low tenant quality they find on Facebook (or free websites), or they want to find someone that speak their local language.
Get furniture for free: If you plan on staying long, renting a place empty will be cheaper.
Today, buying furniture has become borderline free. Ikea is an obvious choice if you want new furniture.
However, if you don’t mind buying second-hand furniture, you can get them for free.
During the period people move out of their apartments (June-September and December-February), it’s not rare to see them advertising free items on Facebook or “as long as you take it out yourself”.
These are people that rented their place empty and must now empty it of all furniture as they’re moving out.
Couches, washing machines, big tables, beds…are for yours to take away. All you need is two friends and a van.
The Bottom Line
Finding a place is not easy. You must find something affordable where you can feel at home, and investing efforts into it is worth it.
When I moved to Brussels, I wanted to live in the center of the city and as a result, did not sleep for a year because of the noise at my place.
I hope this list, backed-up by 6+ years of experience looking for rooms over three continents and 6 countries, will help you when you’ll have to make your own choice.