Apr 242011

Ok, you are moving to the Florida Keys and looking for a place to live.  You have pretty much ruled out conventional type houses and home ownership.  So what other options are there?

Well the next logical step, is apartments and condos.

Surprisingly there are quite a few apartment rentals in the Keys.  While there are not a whole lot of actual apartment complexes like you may find in a city, most houses down here have added apartments onto the main buildings.  Apartment rent helps pay the mortgages (there’s that bad word again) and are a great source of relatively inexpensive housing.  An average studio or efficiency, most of which are a main room with separate bath and little else, can start anywhere from $500 a month and up.  The further down the Keys you go, and the closer to Key West you get, the more expensive these apartments become.  A little studio or efficiency is ideal for a minimalist.  You don’t have a lot of crap to move so you don’t need a lot of storage.  Some are furnished, some not, some include utilities or a portion of them, others do not.  The nice thing is they are all over the islands and come available all the time.  Leases will vary and there are the usual deposits, background checks, and maybe a drug screening.  It goes with the territory of being a renter and you can’t blame a landlord for wanting to rent to someone who isn’t going to trash the place or wind up in a shoot out with the police.

In the cities of Marathon and Key West, affordable housing is a major issue.  Many of the service personnel (translation:  poor people who clean up the hotels after the tourists trash them) cannot afford to live in the town where they work.  So they may work a deal for a room to rent at the hotel or resort they work in or be forced into a long expensive commute.  To help, these two cities have a small network of more affordable apartments on their islands.  But to get these, you must go through a thorough background check, drug test, and credit check.  You need references, a good rental history, and most importantly, you are under an income limit.  If you make more than their limit, you don’t qualify.   It’s a tricky business but if you are willing to jump through all the hoops you could land some nice digs for a while.

Condos are a different animal.  As expensive as a house, the advantages of a condo are:  very little upkeep, usually a gated community which means little or no crime, and some amenities like a pool or beach.  Downsides, besides the cost include a lot of rules of conduct, are petty squabbles over things like parking or when to leave out the garbage to pickup, and one of the most insidious forms of authority, the homeowners association.

Homeowners Associations start out with good intentions.  Keep a safe healthy community that allows property values to grow.  In reality, it winds up being run by petty little bureaucrats who get mad with power, inflicting their will on all their presumed subjects.  Go sit in on a HOA meeting some time and listen to the squabbling over the most insanely minute crap.  We are talking professional money stackers here.  Try to avoid any place with home owners association if you can.

Finding these little apartments takes some patience.  Running through the classifieds like Craigslist is a good place to start.  Keys newspapers like the Keynoter and Key West News have ads all the time.  There are an abundance of real estate agents that will have properties for rent.  Some are good but most are more interested in vacation rentals than long term.  Also be prepared to pay a bit more to cover their little slice of the rental pie.

Another good source is word of mouth.  If you are already living in the Keys and want to move to something else, ask around.  Sometimes a little gem comes around that no one else knows about.

If you do find an apartment that seems to fit the bill be ready to jump on it as quick as possible.  Competition for these places is tough and unless you are fast and proactive that nice $600 a month efficiency with parking in walking distance of shopping will be gone before you even see the place.  Try to have some money at the ready to plunk down as good faith deposit to make sure you get it.  And get everything in writing!

A word of caution here.  Because many of these apartments are attached to private homes the landlord may make an offer to lower the rent for some maintenance duties, or in exchange for a day a week to help out around the property.  Don’t do it.  As nice as it sounds to get the lower rent, you will regret it.  What starts as a day a week or a minor chore will escalate quickly as the landlord sees a source of free labor.  About the time you are ready to sit down with a nice slice of key lime pie and enjoy the latest installment of Manatee Fritters, there will be a knock on the door for you to come and perform some chore that the landlord wants done.  Refuse enough times and they will find an excuse to kick you out.  Keep the relationship as a renter/landlord and you will be better off.

Be cautious when it comes to utilities too.  Some may include all, none or some utilities with the rent.  You may have to plop down additional money to open an account with the electric company or pay extra if you decide to run the air conditioner.  (A must for 6 to 8 months out of the year).

Furnished apartments are nice for a minimalist in that you don’t have to go spend money on a bed or chair.  But, and this is especially true if you have pets, you are responsible for the upkeep of that furniture.  I prefer unfurnished, spend a couple hundred on the basics, leave them behind when I move for the next tenant.  I probably will come out ahead as opposed to paying to replace existing furniture.  That couch that the landlord bought at a yard sale for $10 can quickly turn into a $200 replacement if the landlord smells a profit.

As I said at the beginning, there are a lot of these little apartments all over the islands.  All it takes is some due diligence on your part to find them.  They can be a nice inexpensive, low maintenance solution for a minimalist lifestyle in the Keys.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss an alternative that you may have not thought of.  Stay tuned.

The Fritter