How I Found the Cheapest Place to Live in Austin



Hi guys! I’ve spent three months at Austin and wanted to share the interesting road to finding a steady home. In retrospective, I lived in 4 different locations and spent less than $200 in rent. There are a lot of things I would have never thought possible just a couple months earlier, which makes me all the more excited about what other misconceptions about the world I might have. Let’s dive into the story:

I jumped on a plane to Austin on January 9th.

Since I’d heard a lot about how awesome Austin is, I expected to find a big, booming city with skyscrapers and the such. Austin was different. Even though the city was three times smaller than Guatemala City (my hometown), you could feel the development and progress of this city. The first thing that caught my eye was the amount of buildings under construction. I’d estimate that for every two buildings, there is one that is currently being erected. The capital of live music. “Keep Austin weird”. I’m ready.

For every two buildings, there's one under construction

I didn’t have too much of a plan when I arrived. I had met a guy on Hashtag Nomads who had offered me to stay in his couch for free. I had accepted that offer because I wanted to kick-start my trip into Austin, and getting immersed in the culture and local knowledge as soon as possible was one of the priorities. So off I went and said yes to Randall, the stranger I had met on the Internet. Oh, and before you tell me that I’m crazy, Randall had sent me a video of his adventures while he BIKED FROM GERMANY TO INDIA, which convinced me that he was not, in fact, an axe murderer. I confirm with him a couple of days before my flight, and off we go . What could possibly go wrong?

As soon as I landed, I gave him a call:

Max: Hey man, how’s it going? Max here! I told you on Hashtag Nomads that I would come and crash at your place, so here I am! Where do we meet?

Randall: Hey Max! Maaan, I completely forgot about you, I’m sorry. I’m actually in Florida right now for a bachelor party. But hey, just talk to my friend Albert, he’s currently in town and might be able to help you out! I’ll come back on Sunday [it was a Friday], and I can host you as soon as I arrive.

Wonderful. It’s starting to get dark around here, so I resort to call Albert right away:

Max: Hey Albert, this is Max. Your friend Randall gave me your phone number because…well, he’s in Florida, and I was supposed to stay with him. What should I do?

Albert: Hey Max, um…I guess you’ll have to rent an Airbnb. Austin’s a safe place. If you want, we can grab dinner today! I can drop you off afterwards wherever you end up staying at. You up? And good luck!

Max: Sure, sure. I’m down. Let’s do this.

It is official now. It’s 6pm and I don’t have a place to sleep. So I grab my phone, download Airbnb (a life saver), find the cheapest listing available and message Julia, the host. She gets back to me within 5 minutes, reassuring me that the house door uses a passcode lock, which enables her to just send the code and I’m in. Long story short, I book the place for the two nights, while Randall comes back. I now have a place to stay. I love technology.

And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

Randall

The Airbnb I stayed at was fantastic. It was a DIY solution; I didn’t get to meet the host until the next day. The front door, like I said, could be opened with a passcode, and the house was equipped with 6 rooms, each with their own passcode. Julia gave each guest the code for the front door, and the one to their own rooms. My bed was clean, towels were readily available, and most importantly, the WiFi password was on a piece of paper stuck to the fridge.

My Airbnb
room

I spent the next two days exploring around, going to coffee shops nearby and working. One of the benefits of working remotely, of course, is that you don’t even skip a beat at work while being half-stranded in an Airbnb somewhere in Austin.

Sunday arrives, and soon I get a call from Randall.

Hey Max! It’s Randall. I arrived already. Here’s the address, come by whenever you can!

Alright! I pack my things, open Google Maps on my phone and put on my earphones and start walking towards what would become home #2. I’m still wondering why I didn’t take the bus, really, instead of walking for more than an hour to get to the place. I don’t regret it though, since I had a hefty list of podcasts I wanted to go through.

Anyways. I get to the place, confirm that I am indeed at the right complex and knock on the door.

Max? Hey man, how are you doing? I’m so sorry that I didn’t tell you about the bachelor party. It was literally a last minute thing. Come on in!

His apartment was small-ish. A small, really uncomfortable futon (my bed), a table with a DJ set, kitchen, bathroom and the master bedroom. And no WiFi. Crap. Alright, we’ll get by. I ended up working out of a coffee shop, and cooking eggs in the microwave inside a glass.

It was a really fun experience. He showed me around, drove me places when I needed to, and was really eager to give the NomadPad a try. He wanted to establish a network of houses throughout the world that would enable you to travel from place to place without having to wonder about leasing fees or other rental headaches. We kept talking about it, and in fact one of the reasons he agreed to host me was that he wanted me to be a member of the first house. I was totally in. He also shared more of his adventures through Asia and how he became a DJ, later to be chased by the Thai mafia. I’ll leave that story for another post.

The original plan was for me to stay at Randall’s all of January. The NomadPad was scheduled to start in February, and I was ready to move in as soon as we figured it all out. However, we soon discovered a flaw in our plans: SXSW.

Now let me backtrack a bit and tell you about SXSW. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a set of film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences that take place each year in mid-March in Austin. The best way to describe it is this: Imagine the whole city being crowded as if it were a concert. That’s how many people attend the event. Finding a place to stay is incredibly difficult during that week, and prices shoot up from $70/night up to $1000/night in some cases. It’s such a huge deal that some native Austinites leave for a vacation, which is paid for by the money they receive from renting their homes.

It turned out that Randall hadn’t booked a house for the NomadPad yet, and with SXSW just around the corner, it would be difficult to find a good long term deal.

Instead, Randall decided to change plans and open up the NomadPad in April, which left me in a rather awkward situation. I didn’t know if I could stay at his place during the three months or if I had to find a place after January was over. Just as I was beginning to ask myself about this, Randall told me he had a business trip to Dallas in a couple days, and that, although he knew it was kinda difficult to find a place on such short notice, he half-expected me to have something figured out by the time he came back, about four days later. So there was my answer. Not even ‘til the end of January.

The search for Home #3 had begun. More like a week had passed by.

Jen and Tori

Two days before Randall came back, I started to become increasingly worried about finding a place within my budget. I had never used Craigslist or anything else; it was my first time looking for a house with time pressure. I figured I’d just find a short-term deal so that I could buy myself some time until I found a good place. After finding a good candidate shows up during my Airbnb searches, I talk to the host to arrange a deal outside of Airbnb (to avoid Airbnb fees), and she agrees with the condition that she wants to meet me first. It turned out I would be living with two girls…

I took the trip all the way to West Campus (where most of the students at UT live), and meet with Kelly, the Airbnb host, who shows me around the house. She later explains that she doesn’t normally rent to men, but because she needs the money, and has seen that I’m not a serial killer, she agrees to rent me the room on a weekly basis. I moved in the next day.

West Campus house

When I got in, I got to meet the girls that would become my roommates at Home #3. The first one introduced herself as Jen. About 5'10", long blonde hair. The second one was Tori, about 5'8" and short, brown hair. They told me they were both nurses at the local hospital. I thought to myself: “I am safe now. Whatever happens, they are nurses and can take care of me. I may now rest in peace”. Overall they were very friendly and happy people. I love living with happy people.

I knew that I wasn’t going to stay there for long, since the place was slightly over budget for me, so the search had to continue. So far, I had only searched for places in Airbnb and Craigslist, but they were rapidly becoming repetitive. I decided to try something else, something radically different and new: Couchsurfing.

You may or may not have heard of Couchsurfing. For the uninitiated, CS is a site just like Airbnb, but based around the idea of “paying it forward”. In other words, it is free. People offer their couches or extra beds for travelers and backpackers alike, in exchange for nothing more than a smile and a thank you. It uses a review system to keep the rotten tomatoes out of the loop, and encourages people to host strangers so that they can later crash at others’ places for free. Plus, you get to hear some great stories from the people you get to know this way.

The first problem I had with Couchsurfing was that I didn’t have any reviews. People without reviews are much less appealing to potential hosts because of the lack of reference. To address this issue, I contacted Jim, a very influential host (50+ reviews) and asked him if he wanted to meet up for coffee. I wanted to get the latest and greatest tips for navigating this madness, and what a better way to do that than picking the brain of a successful Surfer.

Jim agreed to meet up at a local coffee shop. It was a 40-minute bike ride away, but I figured it would be worth the effort. And boy, Jim was a fantastic resource. He showed me the do’s and don'ts of this city. He advised on what neighborhoods were cheaper, and how to move around town. He even vouched for me on Couchsurfing by leaving a kind review.

One of the most exciting things I got from him was the system he uses to complete his projects, both work and personal related. He advised me to use it while looking for a house. I had too many different sources and options, so having a system to become more efficient was definitely helpful to keep track of responses, prices, etc. It was game-changing. I found a place no more than a week after I introduced his system into my routine.

But before that, I decided to try out Couchsurfing. I was burning too much cash staying there, so I decide to find a new place on that same day. I start emailing a lot of Couchsurfing hosts. It was Superbowl Sunday that day.

Tyson

I have no idea how this was even possible; a compassionate soul named Tyson agreed to host me that same day. I packed my things and walked all the way to his place, which consisted of a bedroom with a small living room and kitchen. Tyson had managed to fit a very comfy bed in the living room. All in all, he seemed like an experienced host. Sure enough, he later showed me a map of the world he had on the wall, where all of his previous guests had marked their hometowns and left a message. More than a dozen countries from all over the world were circled. I added Guatemala to the list!

When I arrived, Tyson was in the middle of baking a delicious home made bread. He told me he was a student at UT, and loved cooking. He had planned to go with some friends, so he invited me over. Mixing and mingling with the locals, check!

We arrived at his friend’s place and instantly hit it off. We had a wonderful time, ate some delicious food, and exchanged some stories. All of them were students at UT, and I particularly remember Tyson telling some stories of when he played Quidditch (yeah, the Harry Potter game) with a broom between his legs. Lots of fun.

Tyson was a nice guy. In the spirit of Couchsurfing, he wasn’t charging me for the stay. He was quiet at first, but slowly revealed himself as time went on. I wanted to be considerate with him, so I put myself an ultimatum: I would find a place within 4 days. I searched, called and booked like a maniac for the next two days (but in an orderly fashion, using Jim’s system), visited 2 places the next, and finally found a good option. I told Tyson I had found a place, and that I would move out the next day.

My worries, however, were not over. As soon as I tell him that, my soon-to-be roommate tells me that I have to wait one more day because of all the legalities involved. This in turn prompts me to ask Tyson if I can stay one more night, to which he replies that he has already confirmed with a couple that will be staying with him. Shoot.

Final Destination: Settlement

At this point, almost a month had passed, and I was pretty versed in the ways of the city. I ended up booking the Airbnb I had used the first day, and moved in to my current location the day afterwards.

The way I found it was through a Facebook group called UT Austin Sublet Finder. I found it because of Tyson, and it’s where most of the students or transfer students find roommates or elsewhere to live. I contacted one guy that wanted to sublease his apartment, met with him, did all the legalities and had to pay the lease in full because I was unable to find a US co-signer. All in all, it cost me $200 less per month than the rest of the options I had found, and I booked until the end of July, saving around $1200 in rent.

I’m currently living with two roommates, both students at UT, I have a private room and bathroom, kitchen, washer/drier, plus the complex has a study area, a pool, basketball and volleyball courts, a playing room and more. I bought a bike from Tyson (he had a spare one) for $40, fixed it for free at the Orange Bike Project in UT (h/t to Tyson as well) and used it combined with the UT shuttle to get around town easily. My transportation costs: $0.

Study Room

The fumbling around town for the first month gave me a quick overview of the city, allowed me to get local knowledge just about anything I needed, all while spending less than $200 in rent. This is, by far, the most effective (and fun!) way to get your head around a city. It was for me.

Let me know if you enjoyed it! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Talk to me on twitter.

(all names were changed for privacy)

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