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April 28, 2008

Brandon Stewart '08

Before last weekend, I could say that I’d been to Philadelphia twice.  I went once during high school as part of the IOOF United Nations Pilgrimage.  My second trip came this spring after I had been offered a job at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).  This non-profit, non-partisan group works to protect the increasingly beleaguered civil liberties of students and faculty on our nation’s campuses and I had agreed to come out to Philadelphia to see their offices and meet more of their staff.  I remember spending some of my free time wandering around the area outside of their offices, trying to scope out the real estate market.

This novelty browsing suddenly became more urgent a few weeks later, when after some hard decisions and serious praying, I decided to accept the position as Program Associate for FIRE’s new Campus Freedom Network.  I knew I needed to buckle down and do some real scouring.

I knew I wanted to find something within walking distance of work and something in the safer part of town.  Small town kids used to leaving their doors unlocked take some adjusting to life in a bigger city, so I wanted to live somewhere I would feel comfortable.  Not being from the area, I availed myself of the internet.

I checked out the gamut of apartment rental web sites like Move.com, Apartments.com and Craigslist.com.  I even resorted to the occasional “Philadelphia apartments” Google search.  With the help of pictures, online maps, etc, I began to get a sense of what I was looking for in an apartment.  I eventually stumbled on to user-driven web sites like ApartmentRatings.com and PhillyBlog.com.  These last two web sites were especially helpful at cutting through the glamorous pictures and real estate copy and getting to the nitty gritty details.  The first web site solicits ratings and reviews from current and past tenants for apartments throughout the country.  Prospective renters can learn about all the different opinions about a particular place before moving.  The latter is a general interest web site where residents of Philadelphia post comments about things of interest in the city. 

Obviously, there are some reasons to pause before treating any online review like the Gospel.  There is an ever-present threat that any particularly glowing review is from the management company or that a particularly nasty review is from a terrible renter.  That said, was typically plenty in the middle to give me a good sense of where the best bets were.

The most helpful resource I found was a company called the Philly Apartment Company.  This group provides the services of a traditional realtor without the cost.  I was able to register for free at their web site, indicate my apartment preferences and an agent provided an online listing of apartment properties fitting my criteria.  I took the list and narrowed it down to a handful of appointments (all of which were scheduled by this group).

The girlfriend of one of my pledge brothers goes to the University of Pennsylvania and invited several of us to check out their annual Spring Fling weekend two weeks ago.  So I flew out to Philadelphia with a handful of pledge brothers that weekend to hang out and do some serious apartment shopping.  The weekend was a big success in all respects, but none more so than apartment shopping.  Although I encountered one apartment with a surplus of mouse traps – No thanks!  I’m looking for a one bedroom so that I don’t have to share my apartment – I also found two apartments in my price range that were perfect.  Following the advice of parents, friends and anyone else in earshot, I tried to ask the right questions and look for the right things.

I eventually made my decision and am glad to have finally found a place.  It’s a nerve wracking process, which has only just begun now that I’ve found a place.  I’ve now got to move and actually go to work!