By Rusty Gates
While swilling chardonnay at a party recently, I fell into conversation with a droll gentleman who had lived in Charlottesville for many years. A friend of my sister, he knew that my girlfriend and I had moved to the area within the past two years.
“Where are you living?” he asked.
“In a little cottage on a beautiful, historic farm in Gordonsville,” I replied, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.
He stalled for a beat—comic timing—then said, “Oh, you’re country-curious.”
He smirked, and I chuckled, even though I felt daggers of desperation in my chest.
In Charlottesville, I learned, you either live out (in the boonies) or you live in (downtown or Belmont, for instance). Living in was starting to feel like joining an exclusive club. For months my partner and I had tried to find a place in town. We wanted to walk to City Market, see movies and live music on the Downtown Mall, and read heady books in fragrant coffee shops. We also wanted our trash and recycling picked up, and to do laundry at home.
We still want those things, plus a place with a second bedroom, or a third, for when my partner’s kids visit. But we’ll have to wait.
In the meantime, we spend weekends driving nine miles to the recycling center and dump, and six miles to the laundromat, which also happens to be a dump. We both work in town, and the daily 50-mile commute is wearing on us. It’s not all bad, of course. Deer scatter or stare curiously as we nose our car up the gravel drive and through the woods to reach our cottage. During the morning trip, the sun lights up the fields, where cattle and sheep graze. Mountains loom in the distance, so beautiful yet so far away—like Charlottesville. We read heady books in our bedroom, which is nestled in the trees and has a charming view of our busy birdfeeder. The woodpeckers! The cardinals! The damn squirrel who devours the sunflower seeds we buy at Tractor Supply!
Like the squirrel, we refuse to be denied. We are still looking for a place in town, trying to stay upbeat. It will happen. We’ll find a landlord who will ignore our mediocre credit scores and trust us to pay the rent on time, because we have full-time jobs and adequate income and impeccable personal references. When you live out, you find landlords like this, not to mention, cheaper rent. The honor system trumps FICO scores. And lessors understand that not everyone reaches their 50s with an unblemished financial history.
Of course, the story is different in town, where the apartment hunters are like schools of piranhas, gobbling up the available rentals. Some of these nasty little fish are students who have parents with money. And the landlords and property management companies cater to them. Oh, I could go on. And I will. Here are the lowlights of our apartment search.
• Great listing on Craigslist for a place in Belmont. Arrange viewing via anonymous email. Show up on time. Wait an hour. Realize the listing was a fake. Go to the nearest bar.
• View apartment in building with about 100 units, about a mile from the mall. Roomy apartment, but the “gym” consists of an infomercial elliptical trainer and a weight bench and dumbbells from the Salvation Army store. Agent hands us a form and says to fill it out, send it in, and she’ll be in touch. The form says we’ll have to submit a significant amount of information—including copies of our divorce agreements. We decide against it. On principle.
• Schedule appointment to see warehouse-y apartment near Circa—our favorite antiques/secondhand store! The deposit is reasonable, the place just right. Take time off from work to meet the rental agent, show up on time. Check voicemail while sitting in parking lot. It’s the rental agent, who called to say the place was already rented.
• Turtle Creek apartment complex. A little further from downtown than we want, but as we see during the tour with the owners, they’ve done a great job renovating the condo. Speaking with the owners, we realize that we have a very good mutual friend! Kismet! We laugh and share stories about the mutual friend. They seem to want us as tenants. But when they ask about our credit scores, we tell them the truth. They wish us luck, show us the door, and fail to respond to repeated text messages. Two days later, we see the apartment relisted—with a minimum credit score of 700 as a requirement.
• We respond to an ad for a “lovingly renovated” three-bedroom on West Cherry. It’s about $200 above our limit, considering that those couple hundred bucks were listed in the fine print as monthly utility fees. Still, we view the apartment. It’s a one bedroom with two converted spaces—a walk-in closet and a small living room—the landlord calls bedrooms.
• Landlord says, “I can show the apartment between noon and 3pm, Monday to Thursday.” But we have jobs. Could we see the place after work one day? “Sorry, no.”
• Listed rent is $1,800. Whoa. But we’ll look, because we’re curious. One place, in Belmont, is fantastically restored by an architect. For the same price, a cramped house just off of Ridge Street has cat-pissed carpets, a broken washer/dryer unit, and a 15-year-old interior paint job. The former place we might consider getting second jobs to afford. The latter? What has the landlord been smoking?
• Landlord says, “We have a lot of interest in this unit.” It’s the right size and the right neighborhood. It’s available six months from now. “The only way you’ll get this place is if you make a deposit, sight-unseen.” Um, no?
And so the search continues. For now, we have the lovely drive, deer, birds, mountain views, grazing livestock, and one relentless squirrel. We’re starting to like the little guy. He perseveres.
* Rusty Gates is a fake name. The experience the writer describes here is real.