So you’ve just found out you’re moving to LA. LA can be such a daunting beast—it’s big, there’s lots of traffic and one end of town is completely different to the other. So, what do you have to do if you know you’re making the move and how do you navigate the process.
Five things to do if you’re moving to LA
1. Pick your Location
It’s a toss up whether you pick your location first or pick your schools first. If you have kids then it may be a bit of both.
If you don’t have kids then it’s easy: location, location, location. I’d start with areas in and around work. Think neighbouring communities, the actual community or communities that are easily accessed via one of the major freeways.
We wanted something close to Mr H’s work so it wasn’t a huge commute and then we wanted something that would be close to school.
So we looked at every area in between. We found two houses, within 15 minutes of each other—one closer to the school we hoped to get into and the other closer to Mr H’s work—and we let fate decide which one we’d end up living in. As it turns out we ended up in the house closest to school. We were really lucky as it also turned out a number of the kids friends (whose parents became my friends) also lived in the area.
For you choosing location might have everything to do with choosing schools: especially if you’ve chosen to send your kids to public school (see below).
I’ve outlined the “main” areas to live in LA in this post a year or so ago; it talks through my journey scoping out locations. Its aim is to provide an overview of where to start.
Like I say, it’s best for all concerned if you’re as close to work and school as you can possibly be if you want to avoid spending all your time in your car. Having said that some people make a lifestyle decision to commute. Go figure but they do. Test the traffic patterns, especially in peak hours. The bummer about LA is it’s a sprawling acropolis and it’s hard to get around at the best of times, let alone peak times. During peak hours it took me just under half an hour to get home from school drop off; outside that it’s less than 10 minutes.
Once you’ve chosen your location then you need to find somewhere to live. I’ll be linking this to a post coming up on house-hunting and tips to secure a lease without a credit rating so stay tuned.
2. Choose your Schools
If you have kids then you know this is vital.
Your first choice is whether you’re going to private or public school. There are also in-between schools like religious ones or Charter schools.
Despite popular movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off not everyone goes to public school. In fact, the LA Unified School District lacks money and as a result the quality of schools can be hit and miss.
Some areas offer great houses and great schools (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach and Pasadena South for example) but the high rents could still lock you out.
When we did the sums on Santa Monica for example we decided it was cheaper to pay for private school than pay the higher rent required to live in the zone. (Schools are funded by property taxes and most landlords pass on the property tax expenses in your rent—they’re not paying for your kids to go to school in a good area, they’re just going to make the money off it!).
If you’ve decided to go to public school then you’ve most likely chosen your area based on its reputation for having good schools. You can always check a school’s rating on the Great Schools website. And most house listings show the schools nearby with their rating—it’s that important over here.
Private school is not so easy, they’re often oversubscribed and can be hard to get into. I was surprised that they can be even harder to get into than they can at home. Many of the private schools are College Preparatory schools which in a nutshell means high in academics and may not be the place for your poor gorgeous spunky kid with learning issues.
There is probably one major difference between admission at school here and Australia.
You can only apply the year before the school year you want to enter. So, as soon as the new school year starts admissions teams start holding open days to showcase their schools. Applications are then due by end of the year (please don’t take my word for it—check this—and each school can be different).
At a nominated date in March you are told whether your child has been accepted or waitlisted. You then have around two weeks to accept or reject your offer. All the schools have the same date so you have to choose.
The problem for an expat family lies in the fact that we never know when we’re going to be moving. Imagine we only found out in early May so as my story goes I had to wake up at 4am every day for a week ringing Admissions Directors pitching our family to see if they could let us in outside their traditional admissions cycle. Each time I think back I think how lucky we were.
The other step you’ll have to take is to take an entrance exam. For most LA private schools it’s a test called the ISEE. The Catholic schools have a different test and I believe this is mainly for High School.
So here’s the thing: Americans get tutors for this test and put their kids through the ringer to exceed in it. It’s a competition and he who has the most resources to throw at their kids can generally win (unless their kids aren’t test takers or smart and then they better hope they have heaps of money to bribe the schools in donations). It’s a cynical but true story folks; be very afraid. But, having said that my kids had a day’s notice they had to sit it (story in the linked blog) and they did it. Thank God we were going in under extreme circumstances and didn’t have to compete with the masses!
The piece I linked above also has with a shortlist of private schools in LA. There’s also a link to the differences in schools between Australia and LA that you might find interesting. It still baffles me once and a while.
3. Open bank accounts
It might sound simple but it’s not altogether that straight forward. You will first need a US address and perhaps if you’re an Expat a letter from your employer.
We started with a Citibank account in Australia which made it so much easier to open up accounts in the US. Once Mr H’s pay was deposited into his account we were able to get credit cards with a decent credit limit. Also we’re able to transfer money between our Citibank accounts in Australia and here in the US without fees. Be careful though as I’ve recently heard others say they don’t have this feature on their accounts despite being Gold customers.
You can also open up accounts with your local US banks with a greater ATM network and perhaps even more branches. We haven’t been inconvenienced by our Citibank account at all. Well only the once in getting a mortgage but that’s another story.
4. Sort out your credit
Oh my God. This is the BIG one. Credit is the biggest nightmare for young people and for established families like mine moving to the US. Everything hinges on it: your lease, a mortgage, credit cards, even opening up a bank account. I know, go figure! The system is so fundamentally flawed but you have no choice but to play the game.
It will be virtually impossible to get a credit card as you have no credit history. See my blog post (coming) on tips to getting your credit history up and running quick smart. Get yourself a prepaid credit card or Amex, you’re using your own cash but it helps to establish your credit history. Also try getting a couple of store cards. If you do this buy a couple of small things on it and pay them off straight away. This will build more credit.
Opening up electricity, gas and Cable/Internet accounts may also prove tricky. Well not tricky so much as two things will happen—they’ll charge you a higher price (to them you’re a greater credit risk—yep seriously if you’re poor or struggling you pay more how is that even fair?) and they’ll most likely get you to put down a cash deposit.
5. Get a car
With no credit it’s pretty hard to get a car without paying cash. We managed to get a lease for the duration of our visa through BMW Finance. They were able to say that we were previous owners of BMW and with Mr H’s letter of offer use that to secure the lease. He arrived a couple of months before me and once I arrived it was much easier for me to get the second lease.
Another loyal reader of this Blog said his wife was able to get one car lease under her visa deal. To get around it her and her husband applied for two leases simultaneously through two different manufacturers. That way, when they were running the reports there was no record of the other lease. Quite brilliant. It worked for them so it could work for you too.
Long-term rentals are also possible. But, beware, they are obviously considerably more expensive than a regular lease or possibly even buying the car.
My two cents worth
Take all the extra expenses into account when negotiating your move with your employer. Or, if you’re doing the sums take into account bringing money into the US, the extra deposits you’ll have to pay and virtually living on cash as you establish yourself in the US’s highly flawed (yes I know I’ve said that before) credit system.
It will take you a good six to 12 months. But once you get the hang of it it will get easier. Hopefully for your sake it will be easier then when we made the move.
xx It Started in LA xx