You might want to start, as you do with most of life's quandaries, with your friends. “An often overlooked and simple step in the apartment-hunting process is to tap your connections,” says says Leigh Kamping-Carder, a senior editor at Brick Underground and a Brooklyn renter. Ask around, post a Facebook status, or put a note on the cork board in your local coffee shop inquiring about available apartments. The more you talk about moving, the more likely it is that something will just fall in your lap. “Tell everyone you know that you are looking to move,” says Kamping-Carder. You just might be able to side step the chaos of the process entirely.
If that doesn't work, you're going to need the following seven tips to keep you on top of your game. With any luck (but, mostly skill), you'll be moving into your dream place hassle-free.
Make a list — and a map.
Looking for an apartment always starts with deciding on your priorities. “Mental preparation makes everything a lot simpler,” says Jessica Dailey, a senior editor at Curbed who recently moved herself. Write out a list of all of the factors that would create your ideal apartment, and then decide which are absolute musts. It can be easy to forget something that's important to you when you're seeing 10 places in a weekend. And, having a checklist with you will help ensure that you don't accidentally sign up to live behind a curtain across someone's living room when "bedroom door" was most certainly on your list.
Taking pen to paper is also a great way to stay within your desired neighborhood. Draw physical boundaries on a map to distinguish the areas in which you want to live and rank these neighborhoods in order of desirability. Bring this map with you to show to real estate brokers, landlords and anyone else you are working with to find an apartment. Working with the Internet? Just be sure to map your potential pads before going to view them, and you'll be able to skip any unrealistic options outright.
Budgeting properly isn't just having that first month and security deposit squared away so you're ready to move as soon as the right place presents itself. There's so much more to playing this game well. You have to know where you stand financially, and keep your cool when brokers or landlords ask detailed questions about exactly how much you make, or have in your bank account at this very moment.
Joe Wasser, owner of the New York City management company J Wasser & Co, suggests emphasizing your strengths — and having a plan for compensating for your weaknesses — when money talks come up. “If you know you have a deficiency in your application, like a weak credit score, come to a viewing prepared with a way to make up for that problem,” he says. “You can offer to pay a larger security deposit upfront or have a guarantor already lined up. A management company or landlord is going to be much more willing to work with someone who immediately proves themselves to be trustworthy, and being candid and smart about your own financial strengths and weaknesses does just that.”
Rental markets differ from city to city and change from month to month. Do your research well before your desired move-in date to better understand the temperature of the market as well as what the typical procedure is for seeing and securing an apartment where you live. “Starting to think about your move months in advance is really important,” says Jessica of Curbed NY. “Moving is a big undertaking. You never think you have as much stuff as you do and you always think that you have enough time, but end up rushing through the process instead.” She recommends looking at apartment listings every day until you have found the one for you. "Even if you are working with a broker or several, you should always look on your own as well, starting at least a month or more before you need to move." If you find the one, be ready to pounce.
"The most stressful part of apartment hunting is the surplus of misinformation about apartment rentals on the market,” says Lauren Buck, a real estate agent with Citi Habitats in New York City. “Clients come to me very frustrated after hours of searching online and having experienced nothing more than a stream of fake listings, bait-and-switch ads, and being told that apartments will require a fee despite the listing advertising the space as no fee.”
Leigh Kamping-Carder of Brick Underground advises that you “look for sites that offer more verifiable information about an apartment, like the exact street address, videos of the space, renter reviews, and direct phone numbers to the brokers or landlords." If you try to reach out to them by any of the means listed and get no response, that's a flashing neon sign that it's time to move on.
"If a listing seems too good to be true, I would say that it probably is,” says Kamping-Carder. Spare yourself the trek to a misrepresented apartment and take a good look at the listing’s photos, noting the effects of lighting, perspective, and wide-angle lens distortion. “Use what you know to be true,” she adds, such as using the size of a standard door to estimate how wide a wall might be that's shown near the entryway. Agents or landlords have to put extra effort into making undesirable apartments look nice online, which they do with photo trickery and vague information. "'Broker babble' is a red flag," Leigh says. "Instead, look for objective descriptions of apartments, such as ‘three windows’ versus ‘sun-drenched.'"
If you are having trouble finding what you want in your budget and location, take a moment to reassess your options and decide where you can be more accommodating in your criteria. "An example would be someone who wants a two bedroom in a certain area in the price range of a one bedroom," says Lauren Buck, of Citi Habitats. “Changing the location may get the person the space that they want. Or, they may need to come to an understanding that a one bedroom will be enough, because they decided that the locale was nonnegotiable.”
If you are thinking about adding or sacrificing rooms to stay within a budget or neighborhood, make sure that you and any roommates are going to be comfortable with the dynamic created by this change. Discuss how to fairly utilize an extra room or how to interact with and share private spaces to make up for a lack of common areas.
When you rent an apartment, you are entering into a relationship with your management company or landlord, who will be working with you to provide a livable environment for the duration of your lease. As communication is key in all relationships, the onus is on you to vocalize what you want and need from your living situation. “Most renters don’t realize that everything in real estate is negotiable,” says Egypt Sherrod, host of HGTV’s Property Virgins and a real estate agent and landlord. “If you are looking to sign a lease in the winter, you have more flexibility to negotiate than you do in the summer, when landlords are less likely to make concessions.” Think about offering to sign a lease that will last longer than a year in exchange for a break on the rent if you are moving during the off peak months. “It is always worth it to ask for what you want,” Sherrod adds.
Especially in bigger cities, with a large number of renters moving simultaneously, you should be firm in your decision and move forward with the application process as soon as you find an apartment you like. Be flexible throughout your search and realize that the idea of “perfect” that you had in the beginning is likely going to change by the time you sign a lease. There will always be another apartment to see, and you just have to trust your gut when you think you've seen the one. Then, all you have to do is put all your worldly possessions into cardboard boxes and start taste-testing to select your new go-to pizza place.