In the days before early retirement and world travel we lived in the best apartment in all of Seattle. We were a block from a weekly farmer’s market, a block from a Safeway grocery store, 8 blocks from a public library, 9 blocks from a Trader Joe’s, and 5 blocks from a large city park with walking trails along a stream in old growth forest.
Home was also a block away from a main commercial street and the main neighborhood bus artery. We had our choice of a number of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, along with easy access to every part of town just one short bus ride away. The owner of the quaint coffee shop just across the street would often give us free coffee and vegan chocolate chip cookies, due to our generous tipping and frequent gifts of home cooking.
The commute into the office was quite nice as well. I could walk downstairs, cross the street, and get on a bus that dropped me off 1 block from the building where I worked. According to the bus schedule, this trip required only 26 minutes, enough time to sit back and relax with a good book. Winnie’s commute was even better. She had to walk only 2 blocks to the University of Washington, where she was taking photography classes
Often I would ride my bicycle to work, to get some exercise and fresh air. It was also a great way to work off the stresses of unrealistic schedules and office politics. Depending on mood and weather, I had a choice of riding 8 miles, partially on city streets, or riding either 21 or 23 miles primarily on dedicated bike trails. Sometimes I would ride to and from work, and other days I might ride one way and then utilize the bike racks on thecity buses in the other direction.
“Wow, that sounds great, no wonder you didn’t need a car. You guys were so lucky! Where we live we could never do what you do.”
Absolutely, we were incredibly lucky. You know, because we have absolutely no choice where we live, kind of like we have no choice where we were born.
Below are all of the details and tools we used to find our great Seattle apartment. Perhaps it will help others become lucky too
Start with Work
In our view, the ideal home is in a neighborhood that provides easy walking access to work, a grocery store, a library, parks, and a major bus artery
A helpful tool for a first order analysis is Walk Score. The tool itself leans too much towards a mainstream big spending consumer, prioritizing easy access to restaurants, coffee shops, shopping, and passive entertainment such as movie theaters, but it provides a Walk Score and Transit Score that tell us how easy it might be to live car free on a scale of 1 to 100. In some areas, it also provides a Bike Score
Using my old office address, we can see how that neighborhood scores:
“This location has a Walk Score of 40 out of 100. This location is a Car-Dependent neighborhood so most errands require a car.”
“This location has good transit which means many nearby public transportation options. There are 14 nearby bus routes. Car sharing is available from RelayRides.”
Clearly living near the office isn’t reasonable, as “Car-Dependent” isn’t a part of the lifestyle we want to design.
Follow Public Transit
Using Google Maps, we can view what public transit options exist for a work commute.
Finding the closest bus stop to the office, Google Maps shows us that there are 7 bus options, along with the websites that provide detailed information on each route.
Following the map of each route individually, we can compare different neighborhoods.
One example is the Sound Transit 542, which connects the Green Lake neighborhood to Redmond and vice versa. Downtown Redmond looks to be a possible option, with a great Walk Score of 94 and a somewhat reasonable Transit Score of 51
A visit to the neighborhood let us get a feel for the place, which was less than positive. A mass collection of franchises, parking lots, strip malls, and large shopping complexes, this concrete jungle lacked the feel of home. Despite a high walk score, this was the middle of suburban SUV driving botoxed soccer mom hell.
Another option on the same bus route is the University District, with an incredible Walk Score of 98, a Transit Score of 69, and a Bike Score of 95!
A similar tour of this neighborhood showed numerous independently owned coffee shops and book stores, a nice blend of old Victorian homes and brick buildings, a Main Street feel to the main thoroughfare, and a lively population of college students and families enjoying themselves on their walk or bike ride through town.
Finding a Home
Deciding that the University District was an area we were interested in living, we began to look for a home. Several potential apartment buildings had for rent signs and phone numbers, so we collected photos of these on our iPhone.
We also perused the neighborhood from the comfort of home using a another great tool, Housing Maps.
Housing Maps provides a visual way to see all housing options offered on CraigsList. In minutes we are able to see everything available for rent or sale in the neighborhood, and see the detailed listings with photos superimposed on top of a map.
Selecting a few properties that looked interesting, we toured them in turn. Meanwhile, we made several visits to the neighborhood at different times of day to make sure we liked the feel during morning, noon, and night. I made the commute to work on the bus one morning just to make sure it was as efficient as it seemed, and we visited on a Saturday and shopped at the weekend farmer’s market. Google Maps was helpful once again, as we used Street View to walk around the neighborhood and
We eventually selected a 900 sq. ft. 1 bedroom apartment with an open floor plan on the top floor of a 1930’s era building, with hardwood floors and great natural lighting for $980 a month. Water, hot water, and garbage were all included, we only had to pay electricity.
The whole shopping experience took about a week, with a few hours spent online and another few hours looking at apartments. It was very little work with a tremendous return. For a little over 2 years, we had the best home in all of Seattle
During your next opportunity to move, perhaps these tools and this example will be helpful. And with a few hours of work, maybe you can be lucky too