Living Frugally in Los Angeles (or Anywhere Else)
Living frugally in Los Angeles
Frugal: "economical in use or spending"
Even though Los Angeles is not the most expensive place in the United States to live it certainly isn't cheap. With rent/mortgage, transportation, food and utility bills the expenses can be daunting. But I've learned a lot since moving here twelve years ago and I want to share what I've learned.
To do that I'll list the typical expenses here from highest to lowest with possible solutions for each.
With luck you'll find yourself here for quite a time and learn to love this place as much as I do.
How Some Rental Sites Work
One of the most popular rental sites in Los Angeles, which will remain unnamed here, charges the renter for apartment or room searches.
Typically the renter is given the option of searching the database for $60, $70, or $360. Each search is limited to sixty days after which you have to pay again. The $360 deal pays for setting up appointments, a hired car (for one day), and application assistance.
This may sound reasonable, but the property owner or manager pays this site nothing and they even get free credit reports on potential renters. The property manager/owner typically charges the prospective renter for a credit report that costs them nothing to obtain.
Whose side is this site really on?
A Roof Over Your Head
Housing: This, by far, is the biggest expense to living in Los Angeles. Rent on the west-side of town is the most expensive with rental rates dropping the farther East you go. With the median home price of almost half a million dollars and rents well over a thousand this is the one expense that can be the hardest to manage.
But there are some things you can do with a bit of planning to control those costs or help reduce them as time goes by. Your biggest advantage is time.
Buying a home: The latest buzz is that due to the sub-prime mortgage crises one out of every eight homes in California is in foreclosure. Banks and mortgage companies are naturally interested in getting these foreclosures off their books. The problem, of course, is that there are all manner of sites out there that want to charge you money to view foreclosure properties.
Renting: California is considered a "renter friendly" state. This may be hard to believe when you start looking at deposits and rental agreements, but many municipalities, Los Angeles included, have rent control laws.
If you lived in Los Angeles in 2006 your rent could not go up more than 3% over the previous year's amount. In 2007 rent was allowed to go up 4% from the previous year due to the housing demand. In 2008 rent was allowed to go up by 5%. Of course other conditions apply. If the landlord pays water, gas, and electric those costs are also allowed to rise. Taking in a roommate (and letting your landlord know about it) might affect your rent by 10%.
This means that if you are moving here and plan to stay you may well be paying more in rent the first year than seems realistic. However, if you plan for that year by budgeting for the higher rent in a year or two you'll be paying well below market value for similar apartments in your chosen area.
For example, I live in a two bedroom one bath apartment for less than I could rent a one bedroom one bath for in the very same area. This wasn't the case when I moved here. In fact a 1/1 is higher in rent than the 2/1 I now live in. Rent control is my friend.
Cautionary Geography Lesson: Los Angeles is amoeba-like in that it is in* and around other cities. Los Angeles has its renter laws and other cities have their own. The following cities are not in Los Angeles though they are surrounded by or adjacent to Los Angeles.
- West Hollywood
- Santa Monica
- Culver City
- Marina del Rey
- Ladera Heights
Venice and Hollywood are part of Los Angeles. Confusing isn't it? This Los Angeles map will help you figure out where L.A. actually is.
*In?!?!? Hollywood is not a town nor is it a city. It is a suburb of Los Angeles.
Rental Web Sites: There are quite a few out there and almost every one of them wants to charge you to use them. The following websites are free and list rental properties and homes for sale.
- Los Angeles Roommates...This site requires you to register and is limited to ninety days of use, but is free to use. Some of the great things about this particular site is that you can select which areas you want by name, the size of the place, whether it allows pets, and how much (of course) you want to pay.
- Craigslist...This site does not require you to register or pay for services. Unlike AllOverLA this site lists rentals, houses, and roommate situations, house swaps, and sublets. As with any free site scammers are more likely to post there. Do exercise caution when dealing with people you don't know.
Now that I've told you how to find apartments without paying for web-based help in your search I do want to relate something I heard from an apartment owner.
I suggested that he use the two sites above to save himself the listing fees. His response?
He felt that he'd get better, more stable tenants if they had to pay a service to find his apartment building. In fact a week after talking to him I searched for his complex on the two sites above and couldn't find it.
Of course I hadn't thought of this, but from the landlord's point of view renting in Los Angeles is risky business. Why not spend some money listing your property on pay sites if it improves your odds of getting a stable tenant?
My take? Definitely save your money
Likely you have your own car, but you are going to have to register the car when you get here. You have ten days to do that before you are in violation of state law. No kidding! You can quite literally get a ticket if your car is unregistered here after ten days. It's unlikely, but true.
Part of that registration means a smog inspection of your vehicle. This is not required if your car was built before 1976, but anything built after 1975 and you must get the vehicle smog checked.
There are a lot of registered smog stations, but most of them do testing only; no repairs.
Vehicle registration goes by the value of the car not its curb weight. So generally the older the car the lower the registration fee. To register your vehicle make an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). I've used this system and it definitely better than walking in and taking your chances.
Also, if you have any questions DO ask the DMV person. They may not think to enlighten you about some requirement or intricate little point of law. This could cost you.
If you can't get the vehicle smogged before registration but must drive it make an appointment at the above link and ask for a temporary permit when you get there. A temporary permit is free and good for one month. It can also be extended. There's no guarantee that you'll get one, but everyone I've spoken with about this had no problem getting a temporary permit.
You'll also want to get your driver's license while there. Of all the states in the United States California driving laws seem to be the most logical. A quick study of the driver's handbook and you should be able to pass relatively easily. They will also test your vision so if you wear glasses be sure to take them or have your contacts in.
Be sure to register to vote while you are there too.
You can also use bus services around L.A. which are reliable, inexpensive (compared to a car), and clean. MetroLink Los Angeles has some of the cleanest rail cars around and travel to nearly every corner of Los Angeles. Rates are reasonable and there is ready parking around most stations though I would not recommend parking at Union Station.
You should visit the terminal though for the stunning architecture and ready familiarity you'll feel there. It has been featured in countless movies and is beautifully maintained.
Other excellent mass transportation systems can be found in Culver City (adjoining Marina del Rey) and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus. Santa Monica's bus line has won numerous awards for being both clean and environmentally friendly. Both systems share stops with Los Angeles Metro.
You've Gotta Eat and Sleep!!!
My myself and I: If it's just you and you alone saving money on food and supplies is more a function of your disposable income than anything else. In fact it might just be cheaper to go to restaurants.
Chain Grocery and Drug stores typically want you to apply for a shopper discount card and these do save you money. There are also coupons and you'll see these for the major chains on a weekly basis. But the shopper card also keeps track of what you spend and on what for marketing research purposes and the coupons might save you money, but some items in the store that aren't on sale will likely cost you more.
So what to do? Please read on.
Mi Familia: If there is more than one of you saving money on food etc. is a little easier to do, but might involve buying larger quantities of things. A six month supply of toilet paper or paper towels, a gallon of mayonnaise, and so on. Many of these types of purchases involve clubs which also carry office supplies, computers, clothing, and furniture.
Joining a club. Clubs also require a membership card and these are not free (with one exception), but the savings can offset that membership fee in a big hurry. The following are clubs and fees in Los Angeles. Each link below has membership areas and/or store locator's.
- Sam's Club...Business $100 annual, Individual $40 annual.
- CostCo........Business $100 annual, Individual $50 annual.
- Smart & Final...Free membership. You do save money with a membership too.
Non-Membership Stores: There are a few and they are good ones.
Trader Joe's...No membership required, straight markup on food, and most of it is organic. A good wine selection too, milk, free-range organic eggs, and fresh vegetables. Trader Joe's has come a long way from it's dry goods days.
Farmer's Market...There are farmer's markets in Venice, Santa Monica, Culver City, and so on. If you aren't sure ask a neighbor. These are great placed to buy FRESH LOCAL produce at reduced prices.
Notice that I did not list WalMart. Two reasons. They are not clubs and so don't require a membership. Also, Californians are resistant to these mega-stores so they are more widely scattered than the clubs.
Here's where you might look though. Walmart Store Locator.
Furniture: Unless you get a furnished place (unlikely here) you'll need furniture. The two least expensive (not cheap) places I've found for furniture are Ikea and Craigslist furniture and garage sales. Oh and it never hurts to hunt through Craigslist Free. If you have a Yahoo account you might also consider LAReUseIt formerly known as FreeCycle. You have to subscribe to this via your Yahoo account, but it's well worth it. No spam and everything mentioned is FREE. Simply go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LAReUseIt/ and subscribe. You'll instantly start getting email listings of wanted items, offered items, and item status...including furniture.
One of the cheapest things you can do is figure out how to avoid grid-lock and parking lot like freeways. We definitely have them here. Two come to mind. One is a the 5 and the other is the four-o-five (405). As you can tell from the last number these are both North/South flowing freeways.
Certainly other freeways here have their moments, but these two are notorious. Around here we affectionately call the 405 "the parking lot." Well...somewhat affectionately.
My advice? Use Internet map services that allow you to avoid freeways.
- Google maps...Type in the address in the bx at the top. Using the zip code instead of the city and state works best. Select to here or from here click that, fill in the address and click "Go". When the map comes up look at the left hand side of the screen near the top of the turn-by-turn directions. Look for a check-box marked "avoid freeways." Clicking that will reroute the turn-by-turn and map to avoid freeways.
- MapQuest...Type in the address in the upper left box and click search. You won't see an option for destination till you do this. At the top of the screen click on "directions to" and type in the destination. Once again you can avoid typing in the city and state if you know the zip code. To the right of the turn-by-turn directions you'll see some option boxes. One of them says "avoid highways", "tolls", etc. Check mark one of these and click "Update Directions."
Thought L.A. is still lacking in this area, some parts of town still do not have adequate transportation, it is getting better. Metro rail covers vast areas and the cars run every twenty minutes, are clean and comfortable, and rarely experience delays. Fare is $1,50 per line. Metro bus also runs every twenty minutes and the buses are clean, comfortable and reliable.
Santa Monica and Culver City have their own transit services, but accept transfers from L.A. Metro. Check out travel on these lines at the links below.
Los Angeles Metro
Culver City Bus
Haul it Yourself
If you decide to haul your furniture with you via UHaul, Penske, or one of the other truck rental places be darned sure you know where the return center is and return it by the time specified. Be sure to clean the vehicle and put gas in it. These three things, turning it in late, dirty, or low on gas will cost more than it's worth.
Saving on Electricity
Generally electricity costs here
aren't that bad. If you have central heat and air this is likely the
most expensive use of power and as you already know making small
setting changes in the thermostat make a big difference. Living near
the ocean or up in the hills helps manage the temperatures.
I would like to recommend another move that few think about. Compact fluorescent lights (CFL). You will get used to the quality of light they produce and quite a few now have a warmer light. They consume about one fifth the power of a regular bulb and last five years or longer. They will even work reasonably well in a brownout.
To save money on CFLs consider purchasing them in bulk from stores like CostCo or Ikea (Ikea sells them quite cheaply) or better yet attend a festival (there are many all year long in L.A.) and look for Southern California Edison or Department of Water and Power kiosks. The kiosks often give away CFLs at these events to encourage prudent power usage.
Finally: I hope all this information helps. I wish I had known it when I got here.
LADWP Programs to save you money
- LADWP: Rebate Program
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Rebate Programs
Saving on Food & Rent
Pass this on
If you have friends or family that would want or need this information please pass it on. It's the only article here that uses both the words "Frugally" and "Los Angeles" together.
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