Finding a place to decent rent in most cities can be difficult, especially if you have a home-owner's tastes. I've been in Asheville ten years and in that time I've lived in almost that many places, many of them houseshare or housesit situations. I've also been renting long before I moved here. I sharpened my rental-seeking skills trying to find a place in Miami after Hurricane Andrew and I've been improving them ever since.
I have basically four ways that I go about finding a place, depending on how soon I need it:
(UPDATE, 2014: Craigslist has become the principal source of rental ads, but scammers abound; see here.)
I'll elaborate on each of these approaches below.
The reason I've put these approaches in this order is that while the quickest way to find a place is through the paper, the nicest places are through word of mouth. These places never make it into the paper.
As far as what you should expect to spend goes, be realistic. Nobody rents for cheaper than the market value. Mortgages and property taxes usually don't leave room for that. You will get what you pay for, period. For my standards, I wouldn't expect to find a decent two-bedroom in Asheville (unless possibly by word of mouth) under $650– if you're lucky. If you are as picky as I am and have a well paying job, then it's not even worth looking for under $700. Your time is worth more than the two to three weeks it would probably take you to find a place cheaper than that.
So here's what you do:
The reason this works is that rental companies are of course always aware of what will be available before they advertise it. They often take time to do repairs or renovations.
Here is a list of the main rental companies that I would recommend calling as of the date of this article. You'll find numbers for these and others in the phone book, and there will doubtless be more companies by the time you read this. Some of these companies have listings online, but keep in mind that they may not update their online listings as quickly as their ads.
JD Jackson, Phoenix, Land-Lord (http://www.landlordinc.com/), Clay, Leslie (http://www.leslieandassoc.com/), Property Management, Triple-A, Bayshore, IPM (http://www.ipm-corp.com) and Landmark.
I've heard there's a pretty active listing at Craigslist. As of April of 04, ashevillerent.com wasn't very used. On that note, beware of the more polished "rental guides." These usually only carry big and/or ugly apartment complexes and high-end "corporate" homes.
Unless you're shopping on the high end, don't count on leaving your number and having the rental companies call you when something you might want becomes available. This is a seller's market. You just have to checking in with them. Keep in mind that most renters give notice on the first of the month.
There are tons of places for rent. Most of the affordable ones are crap. Unless you know what you want and stick to it, you'll run yourself ragged learning the hard way.
I have one criteria that conveniently narrows down the list considerably: hardwood floors. In my experience, 80% of the time places with wood floors are decent places while places with carpet are dumps. The exception is if the place had carpet originally; i.e., if it was built from the later 60's on.
Location is usually stated in the ad (for a partial list of areas see below). If not, you can take a guess based on the prefix (e.g., 252- is Montford, 277- is West Asheville), but this assumes that you're calling the same location or nearby, and sometimes you're calling the owner who lives elsewhere. But if a rental doesn't even list the part of town it's in, I would skip it. What kind of place do you think someone is renting who doesn't consider that the renter might care where they live? And on that note, if an ad don't list the price I almost never call. That strikes me as someone I don't want to be dealing with.
If an ad says "clean" or "all appliances," beware! That's like listing yourself in a personal ad saying you have all your teeth! Usually this is how someone local describes a bare concrete box. On that note, I wouldn't say it if it wasn't my experience, but if it's a local person renting the place, it's usually of much lesser quality than something being rented by a non-local. The fact is that you're shopping in a town that until recently has been in an economic depression since the 20's. Of course that's changing, but unfortunately the only standards that's raising thus far are the prices.
The sooner you know what you want, the quicker it will come to you. Use the attached checklist (Word file) to figure this out first. You should at least know how far from downtown you want to live.
Have a good map of Asheville in front of you when you call. You want a map that covers outlying areas like Sandy Mush (past Leicester), the east end of Reems Creek and Barnardsville. Many gas stations carry the recently updated Asheville and Buncombe County atlas booklet for $10. Buy it! The $4 or so UniversalMAP and the free one from AAA are also OK. The NC Gazeteer, unless it's been updated in the past five years, is not accurate as to street names. Nor is it detailed enough anyway. You can also buy a map CD-ROM or use one of the free online mapping sites like Mapquest.
Ask about the most essential things first. If you really really want a bathtub and the place doesn't have one, politely hang up. Don't try to shorten your search by conveniently overlooking a glaring defect.
If you know where you want to live, e.g., within walking distance to town or to the university, ask about that first. However, be careful how you say this. Don't say "where is it?" or they will take five minutes giving you directions. If you don't believe me, try it. Ask, "what is the address?" or even, "what is the exact address?" Don't say, "where exactly is it?" You'll get the same speech, and when calling ads from the Iwanna on a Tuesday morning, half of which are rented by that afternoon, you don't have five minutes to spare.
Location is very important. Rentals are very, very often either on or very near major roads. In fact, it's hard not to be close to an interstate in Asheville. If you want a quiet place to live, ask for the address first, look it up then and there, and don't bother with any house within a quarter or even sometimes half a mile of the freeway. I've made this mistake over and over again.
I stick to apartments in homes, and I try to avoid homes less than thirty years old. Contrary to popular belief, the older the house the nicer it will be. New and newly remodeled places will have the cheapest and most toxic materials ever made.
Be thorough. You may have to push yourself, but ask about the distance to the three closest neighbors, whether any of these are trailers, whether the yard is level for twenty feet on all sides of the house (many newer housesites are literally carved out of hillsides, which means one side of your house faces a wall of grass), what the walls are made of (one place I traveled half an hour to see had unpainted chipboard!), etc. (see attached checklist — Word file).
Above all, don't invest a lot of emotional hope into every phone call. Be prepared to make 150 phone calls, talk to 40 people, and see over a dozen places. That's what it took to find my last rental (May 2004; we stayed there a year and a half).
If you're able to hold out for the 'right' place, then remember that it only takes ONE thing wrong to make a place unacceptable. It takes a lot of energy to go around looking at places. There are plenty of places every week and more next week. Be patient. Believe in God's plan, the universe, or whatever you want to call it.
Of course, no place is going to perfect. My last rental had a train line behind it. I was planning to check how often trains comes through, but in the rush, I let this piece slide. It turned out that the train passes at least twice a day. Luckily it wasn't a big deal (it was about 200 yards away) and was actually kinda cool. An incessantly barking dog next door, on the other hand, would have been horrible.
If you're in this for the long haul, keep a list of the places you've called about (alphabetized by street name), especially if they're taken. You can also save the ads. The reason for this is that often an ad will run for several weeks long past it's been already rented. You'll save yourself the trouble of chasing it again. You could keep a list of phone numbers for places that have been taken, but sometimes people with several places to rent list the same number in different ads.
One last thing about calling: sound good. Landlords screen their calls because they get dozens of them. Let the woman in your party call. If you're a couple, pretend your married. If you have a baby, let them know. If you have children, maybe you shouldn't, even though it's against the law for them not to rent to you for this reason. If someone does discriminate against you for this reason (or your race, religion, etc– but not age or marital status, unfortunately), they can get in huge trouble and owe you all sorts of damages. Call the Asheville-Buncombe Fair Housing Commission at 828-252-4713 for more information.
When I left messages about rentals, I used to go ahead and say something like, "if you get my machine, please tell me the exact address, the square footage, and if there's space to garden." On one hand, this saves you time playing phone-tag. On the other hand, it scares away all landlords but the few who appreciate your pickinesss. So unless you are shopping on the high end, I would probably leave professional-sounding but simpler messages.
Granted, this is an incomplete and possibly out of date list.
Montford was once the hippest neighborhood, still is the closest to downtown, and is now the most expensive. You can find more affordable places on the East side of Broadway and on across Merrimon, but they're generally not as big or nice and Merrimon is not a pleasant street to drive on.
A few years ago, after Montford got too expensive, West Asheville became the hip place. Some of it is nice and it's still up and coming. But some a lot of it is junk cars, dogs perpetually chained to trees, etc. I would certainly avoid Enka-Candler for the same reason. I would also avoid Canton and Skyland since there's a paper mill and and a coal plant in each, respectively. Like Skyland, Fletcher & Arden aren't trashy; they're more of a soul-less, subdivision, bedroom "community" wasteland.
Leicester is a mix of "ru-burbs" and trailer parks. Some roads are nicer than others. Either way, you usually have to drive down strip-mall Patton Avenue (19-23 South) to get there.
Oakley is similar to Leicester but closer in. Taking the expressway past the MegaMall district to get to town (with a speed trap on the way home) is not a big deal, but living among people who's idea of landscaping is grass and completely amputated ("topped") trees might be.
Kenilworth isa lovely, woodsy, quiet, well-established, family-oriented neighborhood. Possibly rather stuffy, lighting can be shady, and probably expensive.
Weaverville is country, 10 to 20 minutes out, but being developed at warp speed. Seems every day another cell phone tower goes up there.
South Asheville means you'll be stuck in Biltmore Avenue in hair-pulling traffic every day with "suits" (corporate tools, etc).
EastAsheville has some lovely areas like Haw Creek (more pricey), Oteen, and the Warren Wilson part of Swannanoa. The rest of Swannanoa is mostly poor factory-town.
Look for street lights, barking dogs, construction, highway noise, trains. Bring a compass and note what parts of the house are sunny. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen so I like it to face south. It's wise if you can to ask the last tenant why they decided to leave. Or talk to the neighbors.
There's a lot of alluring signs from people looking for housemates. Beware!
I've lived in shared living situations for more than a decade. I spent two years visiting and living in intentional communities (including nearby Earthaven). What I learned is that communal living really only works for people with the same cultural background. Even your closest friends can be very difficult to live with. Extended families around the world do share tight spaces, but these are people who are incredibly alike. Most intentional communities, like the housesharing situation you would be contemplating, are what they call in Yiddish, ongeputshket. They're thrown together without the kind of slow process that any deep and close relationship really takes to evolve.
Try to avoid sharing space with someone just because you can't afford not to.
Renting has always been so frustrating to me because I believe it's a crime of capitalism when those who have can charge those who don't for that simple reason. I've always believed that having a rent-free place to live is our birthright. But this is the world we live in. In fact, I've come to a more "spiritual" place in recent years. I now believe it is our task to accept the world we're born into: to see beyond circumstance, including all the "unfairness" in the world, and find love and goodness in it.
As you play the game of "finding your place in the world," remember that most landlords are good people who have no idea how unethical renting is. In our culture, making a living by providing people a place to live can be an honorable profession. Sure, landlords live in houses ten times nicer than yours, but they're probably not making as big a profit margin as you might think. They're getting the squeeze from higher up just like you are. If you manage someday to buy a place, you'll just be at a different place on the same ladder.
This is a form to use when call people and go see places. Here is the latest version that I use (Word file), designed around my priorities. It has space for two entries per page. You may want to rearrange it, putting the most important questions first. But remember, despite the logical appeal of this approach, don't get caught up in the mechanics of being thorough. You can easily overlook your basic feeling: do I like this place? Am I excited about this place? If you are, it need not be perfect. If you're not, you may be settling for something you'll never truly be happy about.
Here are some notes on certain items:
Remember, nobody makes it on their own. Reach out to others; make friends. It's the strength of my community and my own trust in the universe that gets me everything I need.