Finding Home, Avoiding Scammers: Craigslist Edition
July 30, 2012 5:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I avoid Craigslist real-estate shysters? Added wrinkle: long-distance.

My would-be roommates and I are getting increasingly desperate about finding housing (in New Hampshire, if that makes any difference) for the fall semester. So, I’ve been looking at Craigslist in the hopes of finding cheaper options. And I’ve seen some promising leads. However, I live in Pennsylvania and they live in North Carolina; it isn’t exactly feasible for us financially to go up and visit.

How, then, can we make securing an apartment remotely happen? Even if we get added to a lease, for example, and are asked to mail a deposit, how can we be sure we’re not just throwing that money away? Any ideas how we can ensure these ads are legitimate?

Any tips you have on finding apartments (or rooms) for rent online are welcome as well. Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have not done long-distance apartment hunting, but I have encountered a ton of scammers on Craigslist. Here's my advice.

First, be very wary of deals that sound too good to be true. $300/month for a 4-bedroom house? Not gonna happen.
Exchange e-mails with the landlord. Phone calls are better.
Beware anyone who's going to be away in [foreign country] on a mission trip.
Get an address, and look it up online. If it's listed for sale somewhere, it's almost definitely a scam. Doubly so if the amazing photos on Craigslist match the ones on Zillow or on a realtor's page.
Do a reverse lookup of the address to find a landline, and either call that number to speak to the owner, or ask the Craigslist poster to call you from their landline. Yes, they can spoof a number but if you're asking for this, a scammer will likely flake out because you're not the easy target. They can spend their time better elsewhere.
Be wary of anything out-of-the-ordinary. Landlord doesn't want a lease? Red flag. They don't ask you for references? Red flag. Sending first month rent before you sign the lease? Red flag. Wiring money? REDDEST FLAG.
If at all possible, get the key in person -- AND MAKE SURE IT WORKS. Have the landlord enter the apartment with you. It's going to be a pain to get from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, but it's going to be a bigger pain to lose your security deposit to a scammer.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:31 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you know anyone who lives where you're moving to? I just did the long-distance apartment search a few months ago, and my saving grace was having a friend willing to visit a place or two for me once I had narrowed down the candidates. She was able to confirm for me that the place was real and the roommates were sane, and I think that having her visit also made the potential landlords feel better about renting to someone they've never met, since having nice, polite, respectful friends showed that I was probably a decent person. So if you can get someone to do a final walk through for you before signing a lease or writing a check, that's what I'd recommend. Then buy the friend a nice dinner when you get to town, as a thank you.
posted by decathecting at 6:39 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you know anybody who might already be in the town where you're looking? Even just a fairly casual acquaintance might be willing to drive by a place you're considering to do a sanity check. Is the described property present and does it have a "for rent" sign. That sort of thing.

If you've got a better friend in town, maybe they'd be willing to do a walk through of a couple places just before you get to the sending money point.
posted by duien at 6:40 AM on July 30, 2012

While it's attractive to do this all over the interwebs, I think that you're asking for trouble.

One way I might do it is renting a place in an apartment complex with a management company. You can look it up in and see reviews, as well as visiting the website of the complex to see floorplans and pictures. (I did this for "corporate housing" when I moved to Nashville.)

Call a local real estate agent to see if they can assist. They can vet you all as tenants, and they can line up properties to see when you arrive.

One thing that's going to be hard is that once the school year starts, everything will already be snapped up. This is not something you want to drag your feet on.

I suppose living on campus is out of the question? That certainly eliminates a lot of that angst.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:46 AM on July 30, 2012

Okay, maybe it's not feasible for you to visit every one one at a time. Could you guys put together a weekend or few days of appointments back-to-back and then send one of your number up to do sort of a barnstorming tour/sanity check? Maybe everyone can chip in to help cover that person's travel costs for the Don't Live In A Hovel Tour.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:49 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, the only sure way to screen-out the scammers (or the merely roach-motel landlords) is to have boots on the ground and take a look.

My daughter was in the same situation back in the spring, having to secure a summer room in Oklahoma City from Muncie, IN. We had a couple of people we knew in OKC, who could do a cursory scouting of places, but the only way to know for sure was to travel to OKC and take a look. It turned out that the one promising Craigslist listing was a beautiful gem.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:15 AM on July 30, 2012

Boots on the ground. That's what an agent is for. Assuming you are in/near a college town there will be agents available. Call a realtor in the town and ask. You may pay a fee, but that's the price of assurance.
posted by Gungho at 7:53 AM on July 30, 2012

I've done this exactly once and somewhat regretted it. The apartment was part of a large property and was as advertised, so not a scam, but there are things that you see and notice in person that you won't with a list of amenities and dimensions. This was a college town so many properties listed online for people who would be moving and couldn't view in person -- however, the price was much higher than what I would have found on my own and the lifestyle not ideal.

So, if you have any student-oriented housing options, that's the safest bet, followed by management companies with reviews -- but ideally, get a broker/agent/apartment finder/friend, instead, who can take pictures.
posted by sm1tten at 8:32 AM on July 30, 2012

I used Craigslist to rent a room across the country, sight unseen, and got lucky. I did have friends and friends-of-friends who were familiar with the area to give me the lowdown on different neighborhoods and found that very helpful in narrowing my search. However, I echo the advice above to have someone actually look at properties for you -- whether it's someone you know or a hired gun.

Alternately, you could do what a friend did successfully and rent rooms for very short term (a month or so), so that you can do the looking yourself. Put your stuff in storage. This is more complicated and more expensive however, and probably not doable if you can't afford to just fly up and check out some places.
posted by Neneh at 10:37 AM on July 30, 2012

contact the county assessor office in that city and verify the owners correct name. Almost always, the owners name is public record and often they will give you the owners address as well.
posted by couchdive at 11:22 AM on July 30, 2012

I hope you'll pardon the self-link, but I wrote a blog entry a few years back about Craigslist apartment scams. Look especially for number 5 -- "the list" -- the scammers just can't seem to get away from it.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:15 PM on July 30, 2012

When I first moved out to gradschool (and was similarly unable to visit), I was ecstatic to have found such a wonderful, interesting, sophisticated landlord, who clearly cared deeply about the place, had done wonderful, interesting renovations, and was, I thought, likely to become a good friend, to boot. Boy! was I wrong! Everything he'd described was... not! (The "library" was an unheated, enclosed porch with no books. The "guest room" was a hallway with no doors, though it did have a twin bed sitting there. The bathroom was down in the basement, and required crossing the unheated room to get to it. On the other hand, I did enjoy the sauna, which was real and a treat.)

I believe in my case the person was a little more crazy than outright deceitful, but there was surely some of the latter, too. I stayed the year, but spent a lot of time really angry at the guy.
posted by spbmp at 3:30 PM on July 30, 2012

I got scammed once, and I'm smarter than that. What I do now is look at the google street view of the property, and compare it to the photos in the posting. Sometimes the craigslist scammers will re-use the pictures. So first I look at google street view and notice if the view outside the window matches what I see on google. Then, use google image search and upload that same picture. If it appears in 20 hits across the country, that's a red flag.
posted by philly_cheesesteak at 11:01 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

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