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An unofficial guide to Baltimore apartment hunting

From Craigslist to basements, our Baltimore Living columnist has apartment-hunting tips.

If we take a cue from movies and TV, being a young professional comes with a large, trendy city apartment complete with exposed brick and furnishings that look straight from a Pier 1 catalog — all of which is within our struggling 20-something budget, of course.

Anyone who has actually looked for an apartment (or anyone with a reasonable sense of reality) knows that this is a complete lie.

In the real world, apartment hunting is a mix of stress, iffy Craigslist ads, disappointment and compromise. That dream apartment does not exist — and if it does, you probably can't afford it.

I've done the Baltimore apartment search twice in the little over a year I've been here. By no means does this make me an expert. But I do feel that I've gained a little insight since I came in blind to this new city with a short window of time to find a place to live.

So for all you 20-somethings looking for your hip loft in Charm City, here are some tips, from my experience, to bring you back to reality:

Seek out advice: Baltimore is not a big transplant city like, say, Washington or New York. This means there are tons of experienced city dwellers who are more than willing to share their insider knowledge. For example, my sophomore year roommate Eilleen Lane, a lifelong Ten Hills resident, gave me this gem via text message:

“One thing to really consider when looking at apartments is parking (if you're gonna have a car). … A lot of apartments don't give you parking and you have to find street parking and it is ass.”

She was 100 percent right.

Learn the neighborhoods, but don't obsess over them: Apartment hunting in Baltimore is complicated by the fact that there are over 200 neighborhoods to choose from. It's easy to get bogged down by all of those names and get lost in all the Mounts, Points and Hills. And each neighborhood comes with a stereotype (Hampden: hipster; Federal Hill: post-college fratty; Canton: post-post-college fratty). While these generalizations may have some truth to them, they're just that — generalizations. If you keep an open mind, you could be in for a pleasant surprise.

Don't trust Craigslist blindly: This should be a given for a website with a slightly creepy vibe and an interface that looks straight out of the late 1990s. It's still one of the best sources for apartment listings, but posters aren't always exactly honest. If an apartment is listed as “Charles Village two-bedroom,” check the map to make sure it's not all the way down on North Avenue. And no pictures? Red flag.

Your mom can be your best asset, but with a price: I know we're trying to be all independent and adult-y here, but what's better than some mom advice when you're moving to a big, scary new city? Plus, she has the life experience to notice practical details that you never would. The downside: She will spend the entire time worrying about your safety and trying to persuade you to settle down in the Baltimore County suburbs.

Avoid basement apartments at all costs: No matter how nice the space or great the location, the lack of sunlight will get to you. Feeling like it's nighttime all day long is a real endorphin killer. Plus, basements are a haven for pests and rodents. I battled the wiliest mouse for months — he evaded regular traps, glue traps and sonic repellents. In the end, I moved out of the apartment. The mouse won. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is: There's a reason that three-bedroom apartment in the heart of Fells Point is only $1,300 a month. (In my case, it was because it was just a giant room with three jail-cell-like partitions off in the corner.)

In short, apartment hunting is a pain. It's not going to be like what you see on your guilty pleasure HGTV shows (“House Hunters,” anyone?). But if you expect frustration, prepare to compromise and say a small prayer to the Craigslist gods, chances are you will survive.

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Ellen Fishel's column appears regularly in b. / @ellenfishel