I found an apartment, but it sure wasn’t easy, says newly arriving Salt Lake Tribune reporter

Tight rental markets in the Midwest are a breeze compared to Utah’s capital.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Innovation Lab reporter Shelley K. Mesch found an apartment in Salt Lake City but only after the "most nerve-wracking" search ever.

It was on my fourth day in Salt Lake City that I realized just how bad the housing market is.

Sitting on a friend and co-worker’s futon, chewing my fingernails and scrolling through apartment listings for hours on end, I began to fear I wouldn’t find a home before I actually moved to Utah.

My job as a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab started in May, but because of the pandemic — and the logistics of moving halfway across the country — I began working remotely from my home in Wisconsin.

I had never been to Utah, so my visit the first week of June was meant to help me get acquainted with the area and to secure an apartment. I didn’t think it could be that hard. People had been saying Madison had a tight market, too, but I never had trouble finding a place to live.

Naively, I thought I might land a lease that would begin in mid-July. That thought went out the window once I actually started viewings.

Some of the listings I looked at were already leased, even though they had been posted just days earlier. Almost all of them were posted as “available now,” a distinction I had never really seen in apartment searches in the Midwest. It essentially meant “start paying your lease and move in now — or we’ll find someone else.”

Because almost every listing had this note, I knew my plan to sign a lease that would kick in a month later was out of the question. That became a major stressor.

Suddenly, my budget needed to grow a few hundred dollars over the summer, since I’d be renting two apartments for a time simultaneously.

Each listing also had an expensive tally of fees I wasn’t used to seeing. Many security deposits were only partially refundable, if refundable at all. Aren’t utilities like trash and sewage usually built into the rent? And if there are enough parking spots for each unit to have a car, why is it an extra $25 a month?

[Read more: Feeling overwhelmed by rental application fees? The Salt Lake Tribune wants to hear from you.]

All of this meant I had to spend extra time scouring through listings because the actual cost of an apartment could be significantly more than the sticker price on websites like Rentler.com.

Now, I’m hardly new to apartment searches. I’ve lived in four apartments in two cities over the past seven years. I had some pretty basic criteria as well: I wanted a one-bedroom unit with air conditioning and an on-site washer and dryer. I also wanted to live in Salt Lake City, since I would prefer a shorter commute to The Tribune’s Gateway office.

The week of apartment searching proved taxing as I flitted in and out of the office to make showing times around my work hours. The countdown was on. My flight would leave that weekend whether I had new keys in hand or not.

In all, I viewed six apartments that week, four of them on one day. Each had its own pluses and minuses, ranging from beautifully wood-paneled walls to musty smells in garden-level units. Unintentionally, I saved the best for last.

Walking into the apartment, I could tell it was “the one,” as they say. It was more spacious than the other contenders had been, but, best of all, it was bright and sunny.

The second floor of a house — halfway between downtown and the University of Utah — that had been converted to apartments, this unit also offered some much-desired character, with a roof that sloped slightly into the rooms. With new carpeting and painted walls, it felt fresh without seeming sterile like some of the refurbished units I had visited.

The two window air-conditioning units would reduce the intense heat I’d been feeling and reading about. My two-mile commute west to downtown would be a breeze. The kitchen space actually had enough room to put up a table — a luxury I’m eager to embrace after five years eating from my desk or coffee table.

Even better, it was well within my price range.

I spent about 15 minutes looking around the apartment to ensure there weren’t any problems, but aside from a jammed window that the manager assured me would be fixed, I was happy.

It was the first day the apartment was available for showings, but I could also tell — based on the others I visited — that this would be snatched up quickly. I asked the manager to send me the application right away. I filled it out within a few minutes.

While I had no reason to worry about being approved, I still felt jittery each of the 24 hours it took to run my background check. It was now Friday, and my flight left the next afternoon.

Thankfully, all went well. I was accepted, and I brought in my paperwork and picked up the keys Saturday. It was easily the quickest apartment search I had ever gone through — and the most nerve-wracking.

I know I’m lucky because I can afford to double up rent payments for a couple of months. For Utahns living on low wages with rents this high, the process of moving apartments would be an even bigger burden.

For now, while I’m tying up loose ends in Wisconsin and packing up boxes, my apartment sits empty. But in just a few weeks, after a 1,400-mile drive, I’ll be at my new place, my new home.