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How Cheap is Cheap? A Guide for Apartment Renters

If you have ever moved to a city like Baltimore or Sacramento, you will know that what is considered “cheap” is always relative to the local market. Renters who have made cities like these their home are typically the most skeptical and discriminating when it comes to searching for a new place - and rightly so. “Cheap” may not only be “not-so-cheap,” but the price of rent can often come with hidden costs, poor quality apartment features, and lackluster building amenities. On the other hand, the building might be located in an isolated part of town where it is difficult to commute to and from work and run errands. Regardless of what you are used to expect, it might seem cheap to live in a city that does not rank among the top ten nationally for highest rent prices. However, it is always a good idea to learn your local market for renting a place as well as other factors, such as how you will commute and whether public transportation will save you time and money.

One of the ways in which you might begin to explore the city you want to choose to make you new place is to do a broad comparison of the overall place and space. Many people typically consider which coast suits their lifestyle best - and often their pocketbook - using big cities as guides for their decision-making. However, there are a number of “satellite” cities that have cropped up in the past several years on both coasts, as business and commercial development has continued to grow and to reach out beyond the large urban centers. These cities have provided new opportunities for people to establish their roots more easily and at relatively lower cost relative to one of the metropolises of either coast. On the west coast, a good example is the Sacramento Valley area in northern California, a locale which includes Sacramento itself as well as the neighboring cities of Arden-Arcade and Roseville. This satellite area is a good 85 miles northeast from the San Francisco Bay Area, but it is quickly growing into its own major business and commercial center in and of its own right. A comparable area example on the East Coast are the cities of Baltimore and Towson, which are only about 40 miles away, but at least an hour-and-a-half commute to and from, Washington, D.C. by car given the typical traffic conditions and layout of the freeways in the area. There are other differences to consider in terms of cost, as well as the time-cost ratio, for West and East Coast cities like these, and what might be called “cheap” may or may not be worth the particular lifestyle you intend to pursue. This article compares the availability of “cheap” apartments in the immediate Sacramento and Baltimore areas and strives to provide you with an idea of what living in each place would be like as you pursue your most affordable living options. For simplicity’s sake, we will focus on similarities and differences between 1-bedroom/1-bathroom apartments in each area to provide a blueprint for what you can expect.

The Sacramento Area: What to Find For Cheap One Bedrooms

Sacramento is the fourth largest metropolitan area in California and in 2002, the city itself was named “America’s Most Diverse City” by Time Magazine. The city of Sacramento and its neighbors, Arden-Arcade and Roseville, have experienced urban revitalization and development due to the growth Silicon Valley and the influx of workers who sought to become homeowners but who were priced out of the Bay Area since the early 1980s. Commercial and retail developments grew out of this incoming market and in recent years, the Sacramento Metropolitan Area has been developed into an urban center in and of its own right, with many people living in the area for the purpose of working locally. Here, you can expect to find “cheap” apartments relative to the San Francisco Bay Area, which currently ranks as the most expensive area to live in in the United States. The appeal of Sacramento for both potential renters and homeowners is that it provides an alternative market and Arden-Arcade, Roseville, and other neighboring towns of the City of Sacramento will predictably have the lowest cost apartments, with a few exceptions.

A cheap one-bedroom apartment in the Sacramento area will be just below $1000 per month, with the most basic of apartment features and amenities provided. The areas of Sacramento where you typically can find such a price are Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights, Foothill Farms, Arden-Arcade, Point West, South Natomas, and Roseville. These areas are less developed than the city of Sacramento itself and are also farthest away from the most commercially busy districts. Typically, the apartment buildings where you can find one bedrooms at or around $1000 a month are of modest appearance, with low- and mid-rises being the most common style.

Of the areas mentioned above, Arden Arcade, Foothill Farms, and Roseville have the cheapest one-bedroom apartment listings, with the high end of their price range still falling below $1000 per month for a unit. South Natomas and Citrus Heights, on the other end, have many buildings whose range for a one-bedroom extends above $1000 per month. Despite the fact that it is farther out from the Sacramento City center, the apartments in Citrus Heights tend to have more apartment features and square footage, which likely explains the slightly higher end of the range for the one-bedroom apartments. However, across the buildings in all of these areas, the amenities are consistent and comparable, with on-site laundry facilities, pet friendly apartments, and a building swimming pool being some of the most commonly available.

You will have to make some sacrifices in order to find a cheap apartment in Sacramento proper, as the location will require commuting to and from the city itself, not to mention an even farther drive to San Francisco Bay Area if that is where you will be working. You will not find luxury apartments, features, or amenities for the $1000 price range (give or take $250-300), and not many of the units are remodels. However, do expect to find solid, basic, clean living in these buildings, with a decent amount of space and an average size of approximately 710-800 square feet. It is worth taking into account how you plan to commute as well as how much it will cost you. In the San Francisco Bay Area and much of northern California more generally, it is very common for people to commute by personal vehicle, especially since they drive long distances from work to home, and gas does get expensive. Rancho Cordova, Roseville, and Citrus Heights are serviced by Sacramento Regional Transit (SACRT), but not as extensively as the downtown and central City areas. However, all of them have at least one bus route that provides service. In addition, Roseville, which is near I-80, is close to the blue line light rail, but none of the other outlying areas are.

Baltimore and Towson: What to Find for Cheap One Bedrooms

Sacramento has gained national attention for being a model of diversity, but Baltimore, on the other hand, has acquired a reputation for being dangerous and run-down thanks to numerous TV shows such as The Wire. One of the predominant concerns of people who will seek cheap apartments in a city with the stigmatized publicity Baltimore has gained over the years will undoubtedly worry about personal safety and neighborhood conditions, so there is no doubt that if you are considering Baltimore as one of your future cities of residence, it will be essential to strike a balance between what you feel is safe and acceptable on the one hand and what you can afford or are willing to pay for monthly rent.

However, Baltimore is not just a city where rich and poor co-exist in different neighborhoods. Baltimore and its suburban neighbor, Towson, have long housed college students in safe areas with controlled access buildings at an entirely affordable cost. Furthermore, many young and established professionals live in Baltimore and work in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., usually taking the MARC commuter train back and forth. Whether you are considering making Baltimore or D.C. your place of work, finding the right balance between your living space and your commute will be a reasonable and affordable undertaking.

The neighborhoods that you will want to look at for cheaper one bedroom/one bath units, which are also in the just below $1000 per month range, will be in those that are walkable distance or a short bus ride from the college campuses in either city - Johns Hopkins University (main campus) and Towson University, respectively. In Baltimore, these neighborhoods include Charles Village, Mount Vernon, Waverly, Hampden, Woodberry, and Remington, as well as Tuscany/Canterbury, which is slightly more urban and developed and with more high-rise buildings than the other districts. Not surprisingly, rent in the Tuscany/Canterbury area will be priced slightly higher than the average listing. In all of these Baltimore neighborhoods, you can not only walk to and from the college campus, as there are also a number of cafes, shops, restaurants, and stores that make it easy for you to commute on foot. The bus system in the city of Baltimore is limited and it is generally best to find a neighborhood where you are comfortable settling into your daily routine and budgeting in cab fare for extra-special trips such as a night on the Harbor.

Both Baltimore and Towson average around the same as Sacramento in their one-bedroom/one-bath apartment offerings, so you can therefore find an affordable unit by also taking into consideration that there will be controlled access to the building and/or on-site security and basic amenities such as on-site laundry facilities. Generally, in East Coast cities, it is more common to find 24-hour security staff in apartment buildings than it is on in West Coast cities.

Another major difference between East and West Coast cities is that moderately and affordably priced high-rise buildings are more common out East than they are in the West. East Coast cities typically have more population density and therefore need to have a greater number of affordable living spaces for the common folks. Compared to Sacramento, Baltimore has many more high-rise buildings and, as a result, residential density. High rises are not generally designed for luxury and nice views, as they often mean more noise, waiting for laundry and workout facilities during peak hours, and often dorm-like hallways and fluorescent lighting in the common spaces of the buildings.

Baltimore is characteristic of the East Coast style of apartments and apartment buildings, but it does have a range of high, mid, and low-rise buildings to choose from within the city with no particular difference in cost between the different types. What you want to avoid if you are looking for affordable prices are the high-rises in the center of the city, near the river and harbor areas. These are luxury buildings for which the price of rent is often double compared to a modest facility outside of the Harbor and commercial center.

East and West Coast Cities in Perspective

The cost of living either East or West Coast evens out, but this will depend much on your preferred lifestyle, especially when it comes to a factor like transportation and commuting. Do you plan to commute using your personal, gas-fueled vehicle on the West Coast? Driving in California, for example, is more convenient outside of the immediate San Francisco area because access in and around the Bay Area is freeway-driven, no pun intended. Driving in California is also part of the local culture and a mark of upward social mobility - much more so than it is on the East Coast.

There are plenty of ways to live cheap on the East Coast, so finding a neighborhood with everything you need access to and can walk to is not difficult. However, you may not necessarily want to stay cloistered in the 5-street district you call home for most of your time. Even if buses arrive regularly during extended hours, it is easy to rely on more costly convenience measures such as taking cabs. Therefore, it is common to find that you are doing it regularly enough to stretch or break your monthly budget. On the other hand, public transportation is much more extensive, but there are ranges of convenience and they do come at a cost. As a result, you will not necessarily save money, but it depends on how often you commute, to where, and using what means. You can live further out from Baltimore at a cheaper apartment cost and have a greater range of public transportation options than you might between Sacramento and its metropolitan area neighbors, but it will not necessarily save you money depending on how you get back and forth and more often.

Whether you choose to live out East or out West, there are ways to find a cheap place that is also safe, and not necessarily in a big metropolitan center. We chose to highlight Sacramento and Baltimore as satellite areas that are quickly becoming urban centers in their own right because there are plenty of affordable options in either city these days, with Baltimore having a slightly higher apartment rental average of the two. These are definitely the types of cities you want to consider if you wish to live it up around convenience and multiple amenities, but you do not make the kind of salary that allows you to live in a place like Manhattan or North Beach.