This weekend I drove down to San Diego to start looking for a place to live, and I thought about how every city I’ve ever moved to has its own renting culture. Los Angeles apartments usually don’t come with a refrigerator; Boston you sometimes have to pay an extra moth of rent to the realtor; South Beach you can move into a place the day you start looking; and Long Beach you better not have a Pit Bull. Each city has its own way of navigating the renting process, so when we drove down to San Diego, I expected there to be a learning curve. I also didn’t expect to find a place on the first day. I remember when I moved to Long Beach my wife and I were looking for a month, and we were driving up and down the streets, trying to locate “For Rent” signs in front yards, and it felt like we would never find a place. I understood the struggle of finding the right place, and I expected to have to haggle with landlords. I expected to be forced to choose between our budget and what we wanted. And I expected to have enough tension and controversy to write an interesting blog post. But after looking at four places, Heron and I found a place we loved. We told the landlord how much we wanted to live there, sent over the credit check, paid the deposit, and we now have a rental. King of killed my blog idea. It was incredibly easy, this time, to find a place to live, and we’re actually thrilled with the results. So this started me thinking about all the times that I’ve moved across the country, and I thought about what it’s been like to look for a home, for a place to belong. I thought about all that I’ve learned by just looking for places to live. Here are five lessons I’ve learned over the years.
5. Watch Out for Desperation
When we were looking for places to live over the weekend, we came across a home close to North Park, San Diego. It was a single family home, but another tenant was living in the basement. The front yard had mulch instead of grass. There would have been plenty of room for my dog, but as soon as I knocked on the door and met the people living there, I was instantly suspicious. In turned out the current tenants were looking for someone to take over their lease. They had their three dogs locked in cages, and the dogs looked like they were trying to be on their best behavior, but if someone had opened their cages, then I would have regretted stepping foot in that home. The current tenants told us that they were moving out because they wanted to live closer to the beach. They had just moved from Kansas city. Four months were left on the lease. Now I couldn’t figure out why they would be in such a rush to get out of their apartment if they had four months left on their lease, and I could understand this idea if they were buying a home instead of renting — perhaps they landed a great deal — but breaking a lease or trying to sublet an apartment to live near the water, which is only ten minutes, sounded suspicious. I could smell the desperation to find a way out of a situation, and I didn’t want to be stuck in someone else’s trap. When I’m looking at places to live, I realize I’m being sold on a product, on a life, on a home, and like Odysseus on his way back to his wife, there are many detours and islands along the journey that are illusory when trying to find the place you belong, but you have to learn to separate false homes, false journeys, from the authentic ones.
4. Neighborhoods are Brands
The photo above is a shot that I took of a man playing a guitar in Montmartre, Paris. I think it’s one of the best neighborhoods in Paris, because I know Macel Ayme, Picasso, Van Gogh, and many other famous artists lived in Montmartre; they created in Montmartre; they loved in Montmartre. It’s a neighborhood synonymous with art and a joie de vivre — a perfect epoch of inspiration and creativity. I still associate those elements with that part of Paris, and honestly, I don’t even know if that’s true. What I’ve learned by moving to different cities and various parts of towns is that every neighborhood is a brand. We recognize those parts of towns for the demographics they appeal to, and, unfortunately, we judge people based on the parts of town they live in. Now that I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, I’ve come to understand the stereotypes that are placed on each neighborhood. When I meet people in L.A., I usually am asked where I live, because it’s a way to make small talk, but it’s also a way to learn so much about a person. It’s kind of embarrassing to tell someone else where you live in Los Angeles, because it feels personal, as if you’re trading with them your banking information or cultural tastes. So when I move, I’m aware that the place I live will potentially reveal something about who I am to a stranger. But it never reveals anything true and authentic. It’s just something to be aware of. Just like the brand name clothes you wear or the friends you associate with, your neighborhood will speak for you, too.
3. Don’t Settle
It’s really easy to want to quit when you’re looking for a home or a place to live. I’ve spent hours looking on Craigslist or Zillow or on whatever new site is out there for rentals, and I’ve quit looking because I couldn’t find a place that felt like home in our budget or near the area of the town that we wanted to live. But I’ve always just kept on searching, and I almost always find the place that feels right. It’s so important to understand, for me, that if I settle for something that I don’t trust or want or need because I’m tired and about to quit, then I deserve a shitty home. No matter how much you want to throw in the towel, keep looking. Believe that the place you belong is somewhere out there on the web or just down another streets, because I’ve always found the places that were perfect when I was just about to give up. That goes for writing, too.
Everyone knows The Rolling Stones song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and almost every human being understands this message. No matter how hard we want something, it just might not be in the cards. But usually if you’re patient and hard-working and creative, well, you find what you need. That’s what I’ve learned is so important to keep in mind when looking for a home. Sometimes you’ll find the perfect house with a beautiful kitchen but with terrible neighbors. Sometimes you might find ugly walls and a small apartment, but you then find that you’re a part of an amazing community. Perhaps you find a place without air conditioning, but there is tremendous ventilation. The place you’re looking for will never be perfect, and if you cling too hard onto what you want, well, you’ll definitely miss what you need. I’ve never been completely satisfied with the place I’ve lived, but I’ve always been happy and safe. That’s not to say I don’t have a dream of owning the perfect home one day. For God’s sake, that’s part of the American Dream. But I don’t really know what the home I want to raise my family looks like. I don’t have a vision of the future in my mind, but I’m building the next place from the memory of every other place I’ve ever lived.
1. You Know Home When You See It
This weekend, when I walked into our new place for the first time, I met the landlord, and I shook his hand. I talked to him for 30 seconds, and then I looked around the apartment. I knew right then and there this was my home for the next couple years. I saw my wife and me cooking breakfast; I saw my dog running through the doggy door and into the backyard; I saw myself in the office working on my book; I saw a home. It’s amazing how you know where you belong, sometimes, the moment you see it. I’ve learned to trust that more and more. I’ve learned never to turn away from the place or even the direction that you feel most at home. This move is still going to be tough in a sense. I’m going to leave behind a city and friends and a community in Los Angeles that I’ve come to love. But in my life, home is a feeling that has always been moving, and I’m chasing it South now. I can’t ignore it.