Everyone has a story to tell about their first apartment. Mine was charming, cheap, and in a great location. The problem? It didn’t have heat.
It was January 2003. I was 22 and had just started graduate school in Little Rock, AK, and the apartment’s rent was only $475, which was even cheap for Little Rock at the time. My husband and I wanted to be in the historic and artsy Hillcrest neighborhood, where could walk to coffee shops, and felt lucky to snag such a find. The apartment was spacious, with a large open living room, and had tons of windows that let in natural light.
Plus, in Little Rock, winters were fairly mild … so even if the temperatures did drop below freezing, as they did on occasion, we figured we’d do just fine. Right?
What I learned living without heat
For starters, to say that the apartment didn’t have heat is not entirely accurate. Technically, it did have a single, ancient gas space heater in the living room. However, this didn’t even heat the room it was in, let alone the whole apartment. The heater also didn’t have a grate, so switching it on ignited a big open flame. It was akin to having an open fire pit inside our home, one that smelled worryingly of a gas leak.
Since it was the first time my husband and I had lived without central heat, we were frankly afraid of that old gas heater. It seemed so unsafe, we decided we’d rather suffer without heat than turn it on and risk being asphyxiated by gas or burnt to death in our sleep.
To stay warm in the drafty apartment, we bundled up in coats, sweaters, and gloves while we watched TV or studied—or spent extra time hanging out at coffee shops or anywhere else that was heated. We took extra blankets from our parents, and my in-laws gave us an electric blanket for Christmas that first year. Our parents thought we were crazy for living this way and urged us to move, but we didn’t want to spend the extra money to rent a more modernized place.
Some days, it was so cold inside, we could see our breath. We drank lots of hot cups of tea and used the oven to cook as much as we could so we could hang out in the warm kitchen. I looked forward to taking a hot shower every morning to warm up.
After two years in that apartment, I came to dread the winter months. Nonetheless, this experience of living without some of the comforts I was used to taught me some important lessons.
Examine the space carefully
Looking back, I now realize that my husband and I were so excited about moving into our first apartment and finding something affordable that this clouded our judgment. We should have asked more questions, turned on light switches and taps—and, of course, tested out the heat and air conditioning to see how it worked. We should have noted any needed repairs and discussed them with the landlord before signing the lease.
Know your rights as a renter
I remember talking to our landlord about the heater that we considered unsafe, but only after we moved in. He wasn’t sympathetic, saying that we had signed the lease knowing that the apartment had only a space heater. He assured us it was safe and worked well, and that it was our choice not to use it.
We didn’t really push the issue with him, probably because we were young and inexperienced with dealing with landlords, and didn’t know that we could.
Quality really does matter
The age-old saying “You get what you pay for” definitely rings true for our first apartment experience. Because we didn’t have central heat and air and never used the heater, our utility bills were very cheap—plus, the rent was only $475. Not spending so much on living expenses meant we had more money for going out to eat or doing other fun stuff, which was more attractive to us at the time.
Living there made me better realize the value of quality. I still love old spaces that are full of character, but they aren’t always practical investments for renting or buying, especially if they aren’t kept in good repair. For our first apartment, we could have afforded to spend a bit more for somewhere nicer, and maybe we should have.
Know when it’s time to move on
After about two years of living without heat, we decided it was time to move. We didn’t want to spend another winter living in the cold, and by that time, I had finished grad school and was working as a copy editor and writing teacher, so we could afford to spend a little more on rent.
We chose to rent another apartment a few blocks away, and the first thing we looked at was the heat and air conditioning systems. This place actually didn’t have central heat and air, either, and also had a gas space heater. But, the heater was more modern, had a grate, didn’t smell as if it had a gas leak and did a decent job heating the space. We were sure to test it before we agreed to rent the place. We also read our lease very carefully and discussed how repairs would be handled with our landlord before signing.
Fifteen years later, we purchased our first home—and that’s when our hard-won experiences in that cold apartment really paid off. How? I realized I’d have to be more assertive dealing with building contractors, real estate agents, and others. I also hadn’t thought much about home systems, like heat and air, so I learned that details matter.
My husband and I might win the prize for the dumpiest (or coldest) first apartment, but, I honestly wouldn’t go back and change anything. When I think back to that place, I harbor mostly fond memories of our first home—no heat and all.
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