How I Found an Apartment As a Freelancer

Megan Hennessey

By Megan Hennessey

Jun 19, 2023

For seven months last year, I had a plan. After back-to-back rentals with roommates, I was ready for a place of my own. I could already see it: a small 1-bedroom with lots of sunlight, a porch where I could read in the mornings, tucked away on a quiet side street. I would spend my days watering plants and working at my desk and my nights cooking and crafting. An apartment happily ever after. 

When I tried finding an apartment, I discovered I wasn’t in a quirky property-centric romcom, but a gritty noir thriller. I heard an invisible clock ticking when I scrolled through online listings. The spaces I was able to tour had windowless kitchens, peeling window frames, and shoebox bedrooms that faced busy streets. Real estate brokers would gently suggest that if I was really interested in a place, I could offer to pay more; instead of $1750, $1900.

Unconventional Income

I had an added complication: I was self-employed. Instead of a W-2 or letter of employment, I had a bundle of paystubs from several clients to prove to landlords that I was making three times the rent. The extra time it took to explain my situation — I’m a freelance writer, I can show paystubs from my clients to prove income — added friction to the process.

Some landlords understood my situation immediately. But others paused, wary of the word freelancer. They assumed that my income wasn’t stable and that I was a risky bet. The question hung silently in the air: Will you be able to afford rent if your business slows down? When I mentioned I had a guarantor, brokers and landlords alike relaxed. I was no longer a risk. By having a guarantor, I offered them the assurance that my rent would get paid no matter what. But I left those interactions feeling uneasy.

The hardest part was I knew that my income did fluctuate throughout the year, sometimes from quarter to quarter and sometimes from month to month. To weather it, I would need the equivalent of a few months of rent in savings. I had lived in Boston for six years by that point. I was always joining existing leases, taking the open spot in an apartment; I only needed first and last and an application fee to move into the spaces. But getting an apartment on my own meant I had to grapple with the dreaded first, last, security, and broker fees that are typical when apartment hunting for the first time. Could I drain my savings and checking to sign for an apartment knowing I needed that cushion

As I tallied up the costs, I thought of more ways to make money. I continued freelance writing, I fact-checked for a trivia company, and I worked at a wine shop a few nights per week. Even though I had a healthy amount of money hitting my bank account every week — enough to save 40% of every paycheck and still cover my costs — the fear of a slow month or quarter and a looming $2k rent payment followed me. Underneath the stress, a question nagged at me: Is this really worth it?

Another Setback

When I found a 1-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood with a large kitchen and separate living room on a quiet side street, I pushed down my doubts. Yes, it was $1950, more than I had ever paid for an apartment, but wasn’t it what I had been looking for for months?

I gathered all of my financial paperwork and sent it to the broker. In a message, he said, “If you have some type of liquid 401k or IRA that has a decent amount in it, you might want to share that.” He wanted to send the landlord as much information as possible about my financial situation, to show that I could cover the apartment even if my income faltered. Would he have asked someone with a full-time job to do the same?

The next day, he brought me the bad news: The landlord had gone with someone else. The broker was upbeat, ready to rally me further in the process. I thanked him but I wanted to throw my phone at the wall. All of the doubts, frustrations, and resentments that had been building throughout the entire process rushed forth. And I still needed to leave my current apartment.

Moving On

I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my time and my money. The pandemic had kept me in my city for the past three years. I wanted to see a new part of the world and explore. I wanted to live in a place where I had space, indoor and outdoor. I wanted to be able to control my own thermostat.

This story has an ending fit for an indie film: I didn’t get the 1-bedroom I had imagined for myself. In fact, in the process of looking at 1-bedrooms, my priorities shifted. I found a 4-bedroom house looking for a roommate a week after I was rejected from that 1-bedroom apartment. My rent would be a cool $920 per month, over $1,000 less than the 1-bedrooms. With the money I was saving in rent, I could pack my bags for a two-week trip and head to Europe.

I signed the paperwork to join that lease in April, letting me avoid the crush of September 1 movers. And I have many of the things that I want, while also having the financial flexibility to save

Looking Back

If you find yourself in a similar position while apartment hunting, here are some tips I can offer:

  • Gauge your comfort. Check in with yourself throughout the process. How do you feel about balancing the large financial responsibility with the instability of freelance work? Some freelancers don’t mind the risk, others (like me) find the risk hard to take.
  • Build up your savings. In addition to needing a hefty amount of money to cover first, last, and security, you’ll need several months of savings to help you weather the slower months in your freelance business when you’re struggling to find new clients.
  • Nail your pitch. Practice explaining your freelance career. In my experience, I found that being proactive and addressing concerns upfront helped. Include details that will strengthen your case. Do you have any anchor or long-term clients? How have you dealt with slower periods in your business before?
  • Have your paystubs from all your jobs from the past two pay periods ready. It can be a hassle to gather all of the important payment information while also trying to fill out an application quickly. Instead, make sure you have all of your payment information ready, either digitally or in print, to hand to the broker or landlord.
  • Give yourself permission to change your priorities as your life changes. If you find that searching for an apartment as a freelancer drains you, consider looking for alternatives, whether that means staying at your current apartment a bit longer or looking for a place with roommates. Your mental health and work-life balance are more important.

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