Three big general points:
- it's the biggest chunk of money I have to spend. If you rent a place for $700/month for a year, that's $8400! A price difference of $50 is really a price difference of $600! I don't spend that kind of money often!
- it's a difficult decision. Most things these days are not decisions really. Most things you buy, like groceries, are just commodities; I figure out where I can get the best food (one simple decision with only a couple factors, and I've made it already), and then just go there. It's often a question of "can you afford it?" and then "how much do you want?" Like skiing: a lift ticket costs $60/day, take it or leave it, for as many days as you'd like. But apartment hunting has so many variables!
- there are a lot of variables, so a good first step is to divine the most important variables, and figure out how to make a decision in the face of so many of them.
Some variables usually don't change, but when they do, they're whoppers! Like bugs: if you have bugs I will not rent your place. But no places I'm looking at have bugs. These are easy variables to deal with, because they are just gates. It only gets tricky if they don't become gates: I'd like to have my own bathroom, but if sharing a bathroom meant I could have a super sweet place for cheap, would I share one? (this hasn't come up, just hypothetical.)
Some variables don't actually matter, like square feet. A place is as big as it feels, not as big as the number says. Still, it helps calibrate, because maybe one place feels bigger when you look at it, but then feels smaller later.
Some variables matter surprisingly a lot! What if you have a nice view and you can see far away? I don't remember where, but I read a study once where that is a big deal for your outlook on life.
And a lot of variables you probably wouldn't even think about until later. Blocks to a grocery store? (where they sell real food, not a mini mart.) Mine is 3, and it's awesome. If I need something, it's not a deal to go get it. What if that were 6? Well, instead of a 10-minute jaunt, now it's 20, which could mess with the timing of other things that were cooking.
Here are all the variables I have thought of:
How the place feels, guest policy, total price (incl utilities), bike storage, view, counter space, outdoor common areas, laundry on-site (24/7 access?), noise, bugs, whether the manager seems cool, dishwasher, garbage disposal.
It would be nice if I could set up a big equation to tell which apartment I should get. Alas, this doesn't scale; I only have to make this decision once a year at most, and my equation is different from everyone else's.
And what the heck. Throwing equations to the wind and making slightly emotional decisions keeps life interesting, anyway.
Finally, some specifics on my situation: I am liking to stay in my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, because it is a good distance from work, close to friends, relatively close to almost everything, and also full of weird people. I'm interested in group housing or some other idealistic thing, but haven't found many openings. So I think a studio is it. (unless you, dear reader, know an awesome flat or house somewhere...)
Also, pricing seems like a pretty normal distribution. (with pretty low kurtosis.) All things included, it seems a Capitol Hill studio will run you $700-800/month. Now you know.