Moving to three different cities in three years means I’ve experienced three challenging (some more than others) quests for the perfect apartment. And while it might have helped to be the kind of traveler who goes with everything set up and ready for arrival, I prefer to figure things out along the way. When I first moved to Paris (a tough city for finding a decent apartment on a budget) I went with a single bag and an overly-optimistic 4-night booking at a youth hostel. Daunting as it was, had I not done this, I would’ve never found the best apartment gig I could have asked for… And, if I were to do it all over again, here are a few things I would have liked to know before arriving in each place:

Start at a Youth Hostel. If you’re young and moving by yourself, definitely consider staying at a youth hostel for the first couple of weeks (I recommend: AIJ). There are tons of study-abroad students who also make youth hostels their starting base, and it’s worth asking around to see who else is looking for a place to live. Sometimes looking for an apartment with someone else or in a small group makes things easier (I would know, as this is what worked for me).

Don’t disregard online classifieds. The ones that are especially helpful for house-hunting in Paris are: le bon coin, craigslist, and fusac. There are also the popular sites pap.fr and appartager.fr (if you’re looking for a room in a shared flat), but these are used widely in France and listings get snapped up almost as soon as they are put online.

Go old-school and check the notice boards. It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that The American Church in Paris is a great place to look for ads of available apartments (and jobs!), as is the stairwell of English bookshop Shakespeare & Co.

Find a Foyer: If looking for a place of your own seems too daunting, then consider renting a room in a foyer. These are like dorms but for young workers/recent grads/interns. There’s an age limit and amenities are shared with others, but it’s a great way to meet people if you don’t know another soul in the city. Check out: ARFJ, CLJT, and Tolbiac.

Have a ‘dossier’ ready. This is the French term for annoying folder full of paperwork that is required by any and every landlord in Paris. At the bare minimum it should include: a copy of your passport/ID and visa (if you need one), your last three payslips (if you’re working) or the acceptance letter from your university/school if you’re a student, a signed letter from a guarantor (along with their last three payslips or bank statements).

Areas to avoid: Unless you’re a blue-blooded aristocrat or Beyonce, you might want to avoid looking in the 1st, 7th and 8th arrondissements. Yes, these areas are tres chic, but they’re also touristy and not exactly affordable, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a 10m2 studio for less than 750€ a month (and your bathroom might very well be shared and down the hall).  Instead, look in the 3rd, 10th and 11th arrondissements. Not only are these some of my favourite parts of Paris (and my hood) but also prices are more reasonable and young people are everywhere.

Where to start? The Craigslist-of-London, Gumtree has a wealth of classified ads for housing. Just be wary of scams, usually disguised as offers that seem too-good-to-be-true.  If you know any students in London, ask them for a log-in to the University of London Housing website. Not all properties are student-exclusive and (while I was enrolled as a student at the time) this was where I ended up finding my perfect London pad. Other sites to consider are: Zoopla, Black Katz, and Spare Room. Read my entire post dedicated to moving to London, if you’re curious for more.

Beware of agencies. When we first started looking, my sister and I agreed to try out a few agencies. While the added perks of free fancy water and being driven to the viewings are great, many agents are, at best, pushy and maniac drivers. One agent zealously tried to get us to make an offer for a place that was way over our agreed budget, as “we simply couldn’t pass up the chance to live in the same area as Emma Watson”.

Go with your gut. Don’t say yes to the first place you see just because you are desperate and it seems right. You often have to be quick to decide, as many viewings are open to large groups of people at a time, but if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

Don’t forget council tax. If you’re a full-time student, lucky you. You don’t have to pay this burdensome housing tax. If you’re not, be sure to ask if it comes included in the rent. This isn’t openly disclosed and, while it’s not usually included, some apartments seemed too pricey until I found out council tax was included.

Protected by Occupation. One of the cheapest ways to find a room in London is to sign up as a “live-in guardian”. Essentially it’s living in foreclosed buildings which have been repurposed as accommodation, and while there aren’t many locations in central London, living a little further out might be worth the savings. Check out Camelot for listings.

Take a walk. One of the best ways to find available apartments in Madrid is by taking to the streets. Wander through a neighbourhood you’d like to live in and look up. You’re bound to find plenty of se alquila signs with phone numbers where you can inquire about the rent.

Sites to search. There aren’t as many listings sites for Madrid as there are in Paris or London, but a few of the best ones are Idealista (where I found mine), EnAlquiler and Fotocasa.

Beware of “bajos”. If a nice-looking apartment appears in your sought-after neighbourhood for a price within your budget, it may very well be a bajo or ground-floor apartment. While there’s essentially nothing wrong with these, life in Madrid is lived on the streets and you might want to take that into account before diving into a place that shares walls with a bar.

Getting an “aval”.  If you’re renting through an agency, it’s most likely you’ll be asked for an aval. This is where a bank holds your deposit on the house (anywhere between 1-6 months’ rent) and does so in exchange for a monthly fee (usually around 10€). While this system keeps your deposit safe until the end, it comes at a price.

[Photo credit:
covers of Apartamento issues 3, 4 & 2 – one of my fave interiors magazines –
via founder, Omar Sosa]