One of our first challenges in Fairbanks was finding an apartment to call home. While apartment hunting in any new city is difficult, the extreme winter temperatures in Alaska add an extra layer of complexity to the process. Before moving to Fairbanks, we spent some time browsing through apartments on Craigslist and encountered some unfamiliar terms used to describe living spaces. After talking with some locals, we soon learned about all of the different ways that homes are built to deal with the frigid winter temperatures.
The first and most pressing option that we needed to consider was water availability. Because average daily temperatures in the winter months are between -20 and 0 °F, maintaining water systems can be energy-intensive and costly. In general, there are three options for water in a Fairbanks home: be connected to the city water supply, have a well and septic system, or be a “dry” home without any running water.
To have a home that is connected to the city water supply, the location is key. The city water supply only extends so far from the water treatment plant. While the area of Fairbanks that is connected to the city water is fairly large, the University of Alaska is near the edge. In some areas, homes on one side of the highway may be connected to the city water supply, while homes on the opposite side may not. Homes that cannot be connected may have a well and septic system. Living in a home with a well and septic system would be similar to living in a home connected to city water, but the well must be tested periodically to ensure that the water is safe to drink.
Dry homes are not uncommon in Fairbanks. They are particularly popular among graduate students at the university due to their price and their prevalence near campus. Others choose to live in dry cabins for the unique experience of living without water. Dry cabins usually have a detached latrine and no shower. Dry cabin residents take showers at work or school and bundle up in the winter to walk from their home to the bathroom. Water tanks of different sizes can be purchased and used for cooking and washing dishes. There’s even a company – Water Wagon – that supplies water to remote homes.
While we were intrigued by the idea of living without running water and know many people in Fairbanks who live in dry cabins, we ultimately decided that being connected to city water was best. Getting used to the frigid weather in the winter will be enough of a challenge without having to adjust to walking outside to a latrine.
The next quality to consider when looking for apartments was parking. In the winter, the temperature is so cold that it can prevent cars from starting. As a result, installing an engine block heater is essential in Fairbanks. In general, an engine block heater is plugged into an electrical outlet and can periodically or continuously warm the engine. The University of Alaska campus and many other places in Fairbanks have electrical outlets for each parking space that are used in the winter. In a home, having a designated parking space with an electrical outlet is essential. Even better than a simple outlet is one that comes with a timer; a timer allows you to periodically warm your engine up rather than paying the electricity bill to heat it continuously. Additionally, a timer can heat your car remotely a few hours prior to leaving so that you’re guaranteed to have no troubles.
At first when we looked at apartments, we were determined to have access to a garage in addition to an electrical outlet. As we looked at different apartments, though, we realized that many people in Fairbanks park their cars outside all year long. The only criticism we heard about parking outside is that your bumper often accumulates several inches of ice during the winter and it is sometimes necessary to chip or thaw it off.
Snow removal and mail service were two other questions we had while looking at apartments. We have been told that Fairbanks does not get snow frequently. However, when it does snow, Fairbanks gets a lot of it, and it doesn’t melt away until late spring. On roads maintained by the city, snow removal is taken care of. On roads in more isolated areas, however, residents are sometimes responsible for snow removal. Similarly, there are only certain areas of Fairbanks that have typical, daily mail service. In more remote areas, mailboxes may be located on the main highway and require residents to stop on their way in and out of the neighborhood. In the most remote areas, mail is not delivered at all, and residents must instead set up a PO box. While mail was not the most important factor for us to consider, we did make sure to ask about it to get a sense of the isolation of each apartment.
The last inquiries we had were more typical for anyone who is apartment hunting: bills, utilities, and services. In our experience, most landlords in Fairbanks pay the bills for water and heat, while residents are responsible for electricity. This is likely because maintaining adequate heat in all parts of a building is essential for preventing things from freezing. We also found it important to ask about internet service providers because not all areas in Fairbanks are able to be connected. There are only two internet service providers in Fairbanks, and some areas can only be serviced by one company. In the most remote areas, it is not possible to have internet at home. Although we were once again intrigued by the idea of living without internet, we ultimately decided that being connected would be important for entertainment and creative outlets in the winter.
Keeping all of the previously described questions in mind, we searched for apartments during the first three days after we arrived. We looked at dozens of apartments in different areas of town. At first, we were a bit discouraged by what we saw – it seemed like most of the apartments we looked at were too big, too small, or too inconveniently located. Then, on the third day of our search, we found an apartment that we loved. We had to wait a few extra days to move in while repairs were being done (huge thanks to Regine for letting us stay with her for an extra week), but we eventually moved in about a week after finding it.
Our apartment is in a four-plex located about two miles from UAF’s campus. It has two bedrooms, one bathroom, a storage unit, lots of windows, and a designated outdoor parking spot with an electrical outlet. Our landlord is great, and she has two dogs that we see and play with frequently. There is a bike path next to our building that leads to the banks of the Chena River. We’re close to the university and several of the city’s restaurants and bars. We’re in an area that has city water, city plowing, and mail service. While the apartment hunt was frustrating and stressful at times, we are happy that we had the patience to wait for the perfect living space. After learning about all of the different options to consider when choosing housing in Fairbanks, we’re interested to see how our choice plays out during the long, cold winter. We’ll be sure to update!
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.