How I Moved to South Beach
Budget-Minded Tips from A New Resident
Let me preface these comments by pointing out that I’m extremely frugal. Cheaper than Jack Benny! So if you’re planning to move here, rent a dee-luxe apartment in the sky and sip $12 martinis at Mansion every night, this probably isn’t for you! I was drawn here, not by the allure of velvet ropes, the possibility of a J-Lo sighting, or the bling bling, so much as by the warm turquoise seas, tropical foliage, car-free lifestyle, and cheap Cuban food. The steamy sexuality of the place was admittedly a strong draw as well, but these days, I am less concerned with the competitive aspects of seduction, and am more content to sit back and let all the pretty people be my ant farm. It’s a lot less stress, and I get to hang on to my Toyota Tercel and my ratty jeans. For those of you, who, like me, want to follow your bliss without forfeiting your life savings, listen up! I’ve picked up a lot of useful knowledge in my escape to paradise, and I’m happy to pass it on!
Why South Beach?
For me, South Beach is the perfect synthesis of cities I’ve lived in before: it has the diverse, walkable, neighborhood feel of a Manhattan borough, the sunshine and palm trees of LA, and the exotic, party atmosphere of New Orleans. I experienced a connection with the place when I came down for my first visit in 1996, and have day-dreamed of moving here since then. I would meander down this way at least once a year on vacations, and my fascination with its tropical, international, sensual villagey vibe never waned. This year, one of my resolutions was to stop postponing my joy, and to take the plunge. Post-Katrina life in my hometown of New Orleans had me in a funk. I’d endured one too many blinking red lights, potholes and TV news stories about out-of-control crime and FEMA woes. There was a level of tension present in everything from the supermarket check-out lines to the traffic flow, so much so that it would make a road-enraged Miamian blush. My Brangelina-inspired altruism running low, I knew it was time to pack up the truck and move to SoBe (take my shoes off; sat a spell…) And here I am! I actually pulled it off! This was my strategy. Feel free to copy it or amend it as you see fit!
Finding your niche neighborhood
The first step in changing this mythic dream into reality was to find the apartment locale. South Beach, though a relatively compact area, has a surprisingly diverse array of neighborhoods.
From my many past visits, I’d gleaned that life here flows a little easier at a stone’s throw from the hormone-driven craziness of Washington, Collins and Ocean. Their equally buzzing Westside cousin, Alton Road, main drag for the locals, was also something I wanted to be a little insulated from. I also knew that close to Lincoln Road, parking becomes more difficult to find and, despite the appeal of the lilting samba melodies wafting out from its sophisticated sidewalk cafes, the density is at its densest. South of Fifth, or So-Fi, has more condos and yuppies, and was therefore a little rich for my blood. Consequently, I decided that the best spot for me would be in the neighborhood between Alton Road and Washington, close to Flamingo Park. The streets there tend to be quieter, the foliage a bit more abundant, and the energy, a bit more mellow—but it‘s still a quick walk to the happening spots. In this area, there are many older deco buildings, with a little new construction mixed in. They tend to fall into three classes:
Condo rentals generally require application fees and a review process by the condo board—lots of red tape. If you’re a pet lover, as I am, you’ll also discover that many places will charge hefty deposits and even non-refundable fees for your furry companions. Additionally, property management companies are notorious for these petty (no pun intended) fees and deposits, some of which you may never see again! Along with the South Beach standard of first, last and security for move-in, these places will tack on anything else that sounds good: application fees, agent fees, cleaning fees, etc. They want to make a profit, above and beyond the rent they’re collecting for the landlord, and this is how they do it. My frugal, though perhaps somewhat risky strategy was to cut out the middle man, and find a property managed either directly by the owner, or by an on-site manager who dealt directly with him/her.
My first move was to visit my target neighborhood a few months before my intended moving date in the early summer, summer being the time when the vacancy rate is at its highest, and the best deals can be found. I walked up and down Lenox, Michigan, Meridian, Jefferson, and Euclid. I found the area closest to 5th had the highest amount of shady-looking characters, but shady here is a far cry from shady in my hometown of New Orleans, and I opted not to cross it off my list. I zeroed in on one property in the 700 block of Michigan. The two-story, 12 unit building oozed South Beach; it was ripe with character and nautical deco style . The owner happened to be there that day, preparing a couple of units to rent. I wandered in and he showed me around. He told me that he had two units available, for $950 and $1000. I regretfully explained that my move was still a ways away, and I took his name and number so I could check back with him when I was ready to get a place.
Above: South Beach news stands.
Avoiding the hustle
Over the next few months, I followed Craigslist religiously to study the rental trends. Prices appeared to be heading upwards from the previous low of $900-950 (for a one bedroom) earlier in the year, to the $1000-$1100 mark. The cost of rental housing was being dictated not so much by the vacancy rate as by rising property taxes and insurance rates, a byproduct of the 2004-2005 hurricane season. I was hoping prices would fall after Easter. They didn’t. I also noticed that there and in the online Miaminewtimes.com listings (courtesy of backpage.com), certain professionally-managed listings with artificially low prices stayed in from week to week—obviously a bait and switch tactic. They would advertise something like, “Jr. one bedroom with balcony, French doors at 15xx Pennsylvania Avenue, $850”—and it would appear in issue after issue. On Craigslist, one place with the same pics kept popping in week after week advertising parking, a pool, and really low rent. I didn’t go for that, either. I learned early on that when dealing with Craigslist, look for phone numbers in the ads—otherwise they are very likely bait planted by spammers who harvest the email addresses of people who reply!
About a month and a half before my moving date of June 1, I began contacting some of the local property management companies, sending emails to Regatta and Columbia Asset Management, the latter recommended by an online acquaintance in South Beach. Regatta didn’t respond to my query, and neither did Columbia. I followed up with Columbia by phone a few days later, and after much ado, was able to get a hold of an agent. He mentioned a one-bedroom apartment that would be coming up on May 15 in a building near Lincoln Road for $950. When I asked what part of the building the unit was located in, he became vague, replying that May 15 is just a rough date in which various units tend to become available there. When I inquired about move-in costs, he was equally nebulous. “Do you mean cable and stuff?” he countered. I explained that I wanted to know if the move-in costs included first, last and security, first, last and half-security, or just first and last. He said it would cost first and two months of security—in other words, they didn’t want me to be able to apply any of the security toward the last month’s rent. Knowing that some South Beach management companies have a tendency to avoid refunding security deposits, this wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. There would be another fee to check my credit, and an additional, undisclosed refundable deposit for my cats. This, he explained, was a favor, because I had mentioned the name of my online acquaintance when I first contacted them—because they normally don’t accept pets at all, he said. This struck me as odd, because I know from experience that things can get disharmonious really fast when some of the tenants are allowed to have pets and some aren’t. So, as a courtesy for my efforts at namedropping, he would allow me to pay two months of security and an additional pet deposit? This was like a favor that wasn’t a favor. Perhaps the scenario he was describing was a standard property management policy in South Beach, but I decided to look elsewhere.
My goal in having a June 1 move date and finding the property before May 1 was to avoid the dreaded phenomenon of “overlapping rent.” My penny-pinching instincts convinced me that paying rent on my old apartment and even a partial overlapping month on the new apartment would throw my tightwad budget into a tailspin!
Not finding any fruitful results through Craigslist or the NewTimes, I opted to go with plan A: check back with the landlord I’d previously spoken with to see if he had any upcoming rentals in that building on Michigan. I rang him up on the number I’d so dutifully scrawled into my little notebook months before. Naturally, he didn’t remember me. South Beach has the attention span you’d expect in a Greyhound bus station. Not that that‘s necessarily a bad thing… I refreshed his memory and asked if he had anything coming up. “I do have one upcoming vacancy,” he replied, “but it won’t be ready until June 1. That may be too late for you, huh?” I smiled, contemplating my serendipitous Celestine Prophecy moment. “That’s perfect!” I said.
Not wanting to rent his unit sight unseen, he asked how we would arrange things. I offered to drive down at the beginning of May, see the apartment, and leave a deposit. He agreed. All the way down, I worried about what kind of requirements a South Beach landlord might have to rent his apartments. Proof of income? Two years of tax returns? A local pay stub? Credit and criminal background checks? I flooded the miamibeach411.com forums with my obsessive concerns. The site administrators very patiently explained that qualifying wasn’t the major concern. I should be more worried about getting my deposit back.
I arrived in South Beach the following day and met with the landlord. My worries had indeed been unfounded. He asked for half the security to hold the apartment, and had me fill out a form in which I listed a handful of references and employment information, none of which he checked. He also agreed to let me have my cats with no additional deposit. It was a done deal. $500 later, my mission accomplished, I headed back to New Orleans, ready to begin a seamless transition into my new life on the Beach at the end of the month.
At the end of the month I arrived in my trusty Tercel. My belongings arrived a few days later via ReloCube. I gave my new landlord a cashier’s check for the first and last month’s rent, and began the process of settling in.
Costs you might not have added in
First, last and security: As mentioned above, whereas most landlords in other locales require the first month’s rent and one month’s security for move-in, in South Beach world, the norm is first, last and security—basically your monthly rent times three. It’s more to come up with at first, but the good part is that, as a general rule, landlords are less fussy about issues like proof of income and the state of your credit. And, as Gus, head owl at miamibeach411.com recommends, don’t be afraid to bargain. Don’t want to pay the pet deposit? Application fee too high? Just say no! Also, try to whittle your security deposit down to half a month. It’s a concession landlords are often willing to make.
U-Haul mileage madness: My first surprise was renting a U-Haul on South Beach to fetch my things from the ReloCube terminal in Hialeah (although Relo-Cube companies offer location dropping, they don’t generally like to leave their containers on public property and Miami Beach has a lot of requirements about storing them on the streets). The in-city U-Haul rental, like most other cities, ranges from $19.95 to $39.95 per day, depending on the size of the truck. However, unlike most other cities, the mileage rate at the Miami Beach location was considerably higher. Whereas I’d paid 69 cents per mile in New Orleans, here it was $1.19 per mile! And, unlike New Orleans, where you were asked if you wanted to purchase the optional ($14) SAFE-MOVE insurance, here they just stuck it on automatically. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem, because I was going to get it, anyway. But it is a factor to consider, nonetheless.
The dreaded gas company deposit: While my good credit enabled me to set up an account with Florida Power & Light without any deposits, I wasn’t so lucky with TECO, the Gas Company. They wanted a hefty $60 before they would activate service in my name! I asked if they would waive the fee based on my good credit, and they replied that they didn’t have the ability to check past credit! Additionally, there is a $2 fee for using a credit card to pay the deposit, even though you have no other option if you’re setting up an account over the phone. So, $62 later, I can say they’ve definitely given me gas.
Bargaining with Ma Bell: Also, the telephone company (ATT, doing business as BellSouth) will try to charge you a $41 connection charge, even though there isn’t really any connecting to do. However, this age of cellphones gives you a little leverage! If you start to reconsider, they will waive it.
The all-important parking decal: Parking is at a premium on South Beach, so the city leaders came up with the handy parking decal as the solution. Unless you find a building with parking, or are willing to commute from the decal free zone on the streets between 5th and 6th (an area, which in addition to free parking, also provides a plethora of aggressive panhandlers and scrutinizing police patrollers), you’re going to have to get yourself one of these babies. The good news: unlike most other places, in transient South Florida, you don’t have to register your vehicle in the state or get a local drivers license before you can get your decal. The bad news: the renewal dates are fixed at a certain time of the year, the next one being April 30, 2008. So you still have to pay the same yearly $50 fee even if you arrive after April 30. Your fee can cover anywhere from 7 to 12 months, depending on when you arrive. It’s rather confusing. And if you want a visitor’s pass, expect to pay an additional $6-$10 for a coupon book of visitor’s passes, good for two-week segments. Insider tip: don’t get caught in the bureaucratic ping-pong game. At the time of this writing, City Hall, located at 1100 Washington Ave., is being renovated, and the parking/traffic office has been temporarily relocated. When I asked at the nearby police department where I could go to purchase my decal, they told me to go to the Clerk of Courts office at 225 Washington Ave. This, regrettably, wasn’t the correct advice, I soon learned. 225 Washington is where you go to pay traffic tickets and to resolve other civil matters. I was informed upon my arrival there that the current location of the parking decal office is actually in the Palm Court Building at 309 23rd St, suite 200. Needless to say, by the time I arrived, I was really sweaty! Hopefully, this little tid-bit will prevent you from getting sent on a grand tour of the island. Bring your drivers license, vehicle registration and proof of residency (copy of the lease or a utility bill) with you, in addition to the cash.
Where’s the Wi-Fi? Ah, back in the day in New Orleans, finding a free unsecured Wi-Fi signal was as easy as finding a radio station, but here people are a lot more conscious—and stingy—about their internet signals. Hotels here often require security codes to access their internet services, as do coffeehouses like Starbucks. For me, accustomed to the Nawlins ways of cyberlife, the idea of having to actually purchase a Wi-Fi modem and service was a little disheartening. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a neighbor who doesn’t realize or care that his unsecured signal is floating around the hood, ready to be latched unto by whatever laptop user happens to be in range, you may still be able to avoid having to purchase the modem by subscribing to a local pay service, Wireless Oceans, recently named by Miami SunPost as the “best internet provider.” Coverage is somewhat limited. Their pricing and download speeds vary, available in segments ranging from one hour to multi-month subscriptions. Consult their website for details.
Hindsight is 20/20
It’s now been a month since I made South Beach my home. Despite concerns from friends back home that it was expensive, superficial, and impersonal (including one priest who cautioned me: “Don’t move there, Doug! It’s trendy!”), I’ve found that it’s whatever you want it to be. It’s as shallow or deep as you are. The thrill of being near the ocean never wears off (though the all-pervasive sand in everything can become a little annoying!). As Pancho, a frequent contributor to this site, mentions on his website, www.lordphase.com, “estar cerca de la playa es un premio al espiritu (to be by the beach is a reward to the spirit).” People here, while a little more cautious than they might be in, say, Austin, have the same basic needs for friendship and affection as people do everywhere else. If you’re open to meeting new friends from different cultures and learning new languages, this will be a wonderful experience for you. Naturally, life’s complications will stay with you no matter where you go, but they’re a lot easier to deal with among the palm trees and the turquoise water!
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