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The House Hunt

[whitespace] How to Look

Looking for a place to live is a lot like looking for a place to work. You may be the grooviest, quietest, most responsible prospect ever to pound the pavement, but the employer--or, in this case, the landlord--doesn't know that. The best way to endear yourself to prospective landlords is by not wasting their time. First, boil down the possibilities; second, do as much of the paperwork as possible beforehand.

A look in the daily newspaper's classifieds can lead to a payoff, but remember that houses and apartments that get listed there are a mixed bag. Some have proven hard to foist off on someone; other rentals are in there because the owner either doesn't want to hassle with an agent or wants to save some money. Remember that, like great jobs, the best places to live don't get advertised.

Another route is to call a rental or property-management agency (they're listed under "Real Estate Rental Service" in the Yellow Pages). Most agencies maintain a recorded hotline of properties for rent. Typically, you'll be told an address, a description and how much the rent is. Go by, take a look and remember not to disturb the tenants. (If you do disturb them, say you're someone else.)

Which brings us to our best source, namely friends and family. When they ask you how you are, don't tell them you're fine. You're not fine--you've got a shopping cart and a short-dog of Night Train breathing down your neck. Tell them you're looking for a place to live. Keep telling them long after they're sick of hearing it, because they just might have a friend or neighbor who's looking for a cool tenant--which is you.

This method not only is the cheapest, it's also the most reliable--there's less competition (sometimes none!), and a personal recommendation counts for more than the snazziest "renter's résumé." That said, you'll still want one.

The Paper Shuffle

All rental agencies and most private landlords require a credit report. There are two kinds, the rental credit report and the personal credit report. It's possible to pick up the first on the same day it's requested; the second takes two working days to process and is mailed directly to the applicant. The difference is that the rental credit report is designed to be read by a landlord (meaning it's nearly indecipherable to the layperson) while the personal credit report is in plain English and includes a form to be filled out in case there is an error on the report. Either can be gotten for $8 each at:

Credit Bureau of Santa Cruz County
4140 Jade St., Capitola (near 41st Avenue)
831/476-7733

Reports can also be obtained through Experian Consumer Assistance at 831/476-8923 or 800/682-7654. They'll mail you the report and bill your credit card.

To avoid looking like a moron while trying to remember who your landlord before last was, get a generic rental application from the library or a stationery store. Even if a rental agency wants you to fill out one of their forms, you'll have the information on hand.

Also, make yourself a renter's résumé--check the Rent Tech site (a San Francisco rental service) for an excellent template.

While you're at it, write résumés for your pets. Sure, they're sweet, cuddly and wouldn't dream of staining the carpet--but a prospective landlord doesn't know that. Have your present landlord write a note saying that Fluffy was quiet and didn't damage the property.

If you smoke, quit (wink wink).

Don't discuss your hobbies. Almost all hobbies make noise, are messy or attract unusual people, which are just what landlords don't like. If pressed, say you love your job too much to have any hobbies.

Last, but most important, be prepared to hand over your life savings in move-in costs. First month's rent and a deposit for a two-bedroom house can be $3,000 to $5,000 or more, and even higher if the bloodsucking weasel--er, landlord wants the last month's rent as well.

Pack 'Em Up

At last, you know where you're going. But how do you get all your stuff there?

First, go by the post office and pick up one of their handy moving kits. Not only does it contain forms for getting mail forwarded (up to 60 days for first-class mail), there's also a checklist covering everything from how far in advance to call the moving company (or reserve a truck), to how to pack, to how to decide what to get rid of before moving.

Have a yard sale, and price stuff to move. Put unwanted furniture out on the lawn with signs saying "free" and "gratis"; it actually works sometimes. Whenever friends drop by, hold stuff up and say, "Weren't you looking for one of these?"

Call the Public Works Department (831/429-3666) to get water and garbage service and Pacific Gas and Electric (800/743-5000) to get utilities connected.

Call the phone company and get a new phone number.

Haul all your detritus to the dump, recycling center, homeless shelter or whoever else wants it and/or will take it.

To get a residential parking permit in Santa Cruz, go by the Parking Office downtown at 124 Locust St. They'll want to see a driver's license, the registration of the car(s) in question and proof of residency.

Next, find some cardboard boxes--lots of them, like 60 to 80 boxes for the contents of a two-bedroom house. Sometimes-reliable sources are grocery stores, liquor stores and any company that uses large amounts of paper. Call them up and ask them when and where they get rid of their cardboard.

An absolutely reliable way to be certain of having the right number of the right size boxes is to buy them. A "standard small" box (1.5 cubic feet), also called a "book/record" box, holds as much of something heavy, such as books, as an average adult can carry in one trip. A "standard medium" box (three cubic feet) is about the largest box adults can carry and still be able to see where they're going. Boxes cost about $1.50-$2.50 apiece; more for larger or fancier ones. Look under "Packaging Materials," "Packaging Service" and "Boxes--Corrugated & Fiber" in the Yellow Pages.

Don't forget to label the boxes, saying what's in them and what room they're supposed to go in. Use a fat black marking pen.

Move 'Em Out

Hopefully, if you plan to move your household yourself, you've been extra nice to all your friends who have pickup trucks and/or biceps the size of pumpkins. The other two methods, in increasing order of expense and decreasing order of effort, are:

  • Rent a truck. Fill up truck. Empty truck. Take truck back. It's a lot cheaper to drop a truck off in the same place you rented it (the only people truck-rental clerks hate more than customers are the clerks at other locations of the same company, because they're always trying to steal their trucks). If they tell you to have the truck back by 7pm and you know you won't make the deadline, tell them so (to avoid being charged for a second day). If they don't have a night-drop for keys, tell them they're out of luck; they'll figure out a way for you to drop the key off after hours.

  • Hire movers. The big-name outfits have prices to match; the main difference between them and the little guys is that big names are easier to find if they drop your Chippendale tallboy. However, there are quite a few small potatoes who'll do a cross-town move without breaking anything for as little as a few hundred bucks. Either way, it's considered good form to tip the guys who do the actual lifting and carrying.

You're In, Baby

Congratulations, you're in your new home! Now it's your turn to be a little pissant. Note every crack, smudge, tatter, drip, funny smell and anything that is broken, missing, malfunctioning or otherwise doesn't match what your lease says. If the place hasn't been painted, write it down. If the walls are full of nails and picture hooks, write that down, even if you would have put them up anyway. If there are soot marks behind the kitchen stove, write it down. Remember that when it comes time for you to move again, your landlord can and will use any excuse to withhold portions of your deposit.

And remember: as long as you pay the rent on time and don't damage the property, what you do there is none of the landlord's business. Enjoy!
--Broos Campbell

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Web extra to the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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