How dumb is it to try to rent an apartment sight unseen?
August 17, 2014 9:52 PM   Subscribe

I need to find a place to live in the Fremont/Wallingford neighborhoods of Seattle for a move in mid-September -- like, really soon -- but I live a few states away and I might not be able to visit before the move!

I'm looking for any of the following:
  1. Advice suggesting not to do this.
  2. Advice suggesting that this can be done. (Tips?)
  3. Advice suggesting alternatives to this "plan".
Thank you!
posted by mf_ss to Travel & Transportation around Seattle, WA (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It CAN be done, but if I were you I would find a place on AirBnB to stay in for a month while looking at apartments.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:53 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you need more time, and don't have a lot of stuff, you can stay in an Apodment for a bit. They're microapartments. They have 3 month leases, are furnished, all utilities including internet are included in the rent, and the rooms are only equipped with a microwave and refrigerator. They have a group kitchen on every floor.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:57 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did it once.

Florida to Portland, OR. Saw a few pictures and signed a 6-month lease. Figured I could manage with anything for 6 months.

Ended up staying in that studio for 6 years.
posted by paulcole at 10:01 PM on August 17, 2014

I've done this for 3 month sublet I found via craigslist. I talked to the subletter over Skype and got a video "tour" and everything turned out fine once I showed up in person for the keys. I would say that a video tour is a must in this situation. If you're planning on signing a longer term lease, I would go with the other posters' advice of crashing in an airbnb or similar type place and looking for an apartment in person.
posted by horizons at 10:03 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've done this a few times. I wouldn't sign a 1 year lease sight unseen, unless there was a clause that allowed an easy out should things suck.

Every time I have done it, it was a short term (weeks to months) thing while I found something more permanent. Worked out OK well, except for having to move twice.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:07 PM on August 17, 2014

I've rented without seeing the place first and it's worked out okay. You just have to be smart about it. Check out the landlord and make sure they're on the up and up. Make sure the apartment is an actual address and for rent. Stuff like that.

Good luck!
posted by patheral at 10:19 PM on August 17, 2014

I would bet a beer that if you change your profile to a location near where you are planning on living that someone here on Metafilter [via Nearby users] will be happy help if you contact them.
posted by vapidave at 10:53 PM on August 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Make sure the address is actually a residential property and not in the middle of a river or an abandoned warehouse (Google Maps, esp. streetview where available will help you).

If pictures are posted, do a Google Image Search on them to make sure a scammer isn't pulling pictures from a legit listing somewhere else.

Seconding a video tour via Skype/Facetime/Hangouts if possible. Make sure the video includes the exterior of the building so you can verify the street name and address number match up with the listing. But keep in mind that older and/or less tech-savvy landlords may not know or be willing to learn how to do this for you, so if you otherwise get a good feeling from phone conversations with the landlord, don't let this be your dealbreaker.
posted by trivia genius at 11:36 PM on August 17, 2014

I moved halfway across the country into a room in a house I only saw advertised on Craigslist. I emailed and spoke with the owner a few times and did my research to see what was a reasonable price for the area. What sealed it for me, though, was knowing the owner lived in the same house: I figured he wouldn't want to live somewhere horrible. YMMV, that was back in my mid-20s, etc., but something to consider.
posted by amicus at 11:42 PM on August 17, 2014

I live in that area. I'd offer to go check out a place or two for you, except I'm leaving town tomorrow and won't be back for two weeks. But I'm quite familiar with the neighborhood and could probably answer questions about that if you have any (e.g. which are the high-traffic streets, where are the cool coffee shops, etc.)

Are you studying at UW? A lot of people in the area are, including myself, and so housing can get a bit scarce in September when the new crop of students rolls in. The rental market is also very hot these days--our rent just went up substantially and it's still less than a lot of people are paying in this neighborhood--so that may factor into your plans as well. (Most people seem to blame this on Amazon's increasing presence in South Lake Union.)

If you want a good place at a good price you may have to plan on moving into someplace short-term so that you can wait out the high-demand season and spend more time finding something that suits you.
posted by fermion at 1:39 AM on August 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

While I haven't done this, if I wasn't able to get the place I live in now it was a definite possibility and I had started applying to a couple places sight unseen. My advice would be to do a lot of research. I moved here to go to graduate school so talking to my future classmates (some who went to undergrad here) and my sister (who went here) I was able to get an idea of what were better areas for me, and what I should stay away from. That was especially important around here because one of the nicer looking apartments around here where lots of students live (because the rent is much cheaper) has terrible management.

As mentioned above a shorter lease is a possibility. Around here, those are a bit harder to get because of the large number of students needing year leases there isn't the same incentive so there's a decent premium to have less than a year's lease. So you know, only you know what not being locked in for a year is worth to you.
posted by Aranquis at 5:48 AM on August 18, 2014

I've done it. I had a trusted friend in the area who met the landladies and looked the place over and snapped some pictures for me. It worked out fine.
posted by BrashTech at 7:06 AM on August 18, 2014

I would not do this. 1) Nearly did it once, later after getting to know the city I realized the location was a dive and upon seeing it in person it was horrible, the oven was broken, floors were filthy etc. 2) In university I sent friends to check an apartment for me and they ok'd it and it was a hideous basement apartment, I can't believe they ok'd it and put my deposit down.

The only time I'd be ok with this is if the rent was above market rate and the pictures looked pristine. And if I didn't put a deposit down but could back out if I wanted to!

[edit] this was back in university when budget was a huge concern. It take a lot of work to find a good place at a good price.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:08 AM on August 18, 2014

In my city, the rental market is so tight people are doing this regularly. My apartment went to someone from out of town like yourself, sight unseen. If you have to sign up for a lease instead of month-to-month, then I would recommend asking for a short lease (3 months?). If the landlord wants a longer lease, say you will be open to signing an X-month lease after those 3 months are up.
posted by lizbunny at 7:09 AM on August 18, 2014

I've done it. I would do it again only if it were a short-term rental, or had a lease that was easy to get out of.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:44 AM on August 18, 2014

I would do it. If it's a new city you will probably find a neighborhood you like better no matter where you move first.
posted by sunslice at 7:48 AM on August 18, 2014

Done it a few times, and once to Seattle, actually. What worked for me was finding a positively-reviewed apartment complex where they posted floor plans, a list of amenities, and plenty of photos. They also had a 6-month lease available. It worked out great! I think you just accept that this won't be your "forever" home, and look for something that's good enough for 6 months to a year. The fact that you already know which neighborhood you want to move to makes the search a lot easier.
posted by MsMartian at 8:22 AM on August 18, 2014

I would NOT do this.

It's better to find out something terrible about an apartment during a walk-through tour rather than when you've already signed the lease and been handed the keys.

I've walked through apartments that looked fantastic online and yet when I did the tour, things were falling apart or it was in a bad location or what have you.

That, said, sometimes even a walk-through tour isn't enough. I walked through an apartment that was for rent and loved it. The complex gave me a different apartment with the same floor plan, and I did not find out until it was time to sign the lease -- in a building that backed up against a major highway with no noise wall. (This was the only building in the complex that backed up against the highway.) Not only was the highway noise terrible at night, but not even very dark curtains in the bedroom could fully black out the flashing lights from the ever-present overnight police speed trap on said highway in just that location. That, and the inefficient heat pump that drove my electric bills through the roof (I pay less to heat my 2,300 square foot house).
posted by tckma at 9:14 AM on August 18, 2014

I would be very wary about doing this. I wouldn't do it unless you at least had someone trusted to look for you. There are lots of things you simply won't be able to assess from a realtor's photos. If I did this I would probably get the shortest lease possible to protect myself from the flat being a bust.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 9:39 AM on August 18, 2014

I would not move in to an apartment sight unseen.

Here is what my husband and I did in a similar situation (though for a different city):
1. Find an AirBNB in the same neighborhood and book it for two weeks.
2. Pack our apartment up into a POD-like container and have it shipped to a storage facility in New City.
3. Drive out with two weeks' worth of clothing in suitcases and our computers.
4. Apartment-hunt like crazy as soon as we had the keys for the AirBNB place. We already had a list of places from Craigslist to check out.

We ended up finding our apartment within two days, and we were able to end our AirBNB stay a week early. We were very lucky with the two-day turnaround, but I think for Seattle two weeks is reasonable.
posted by saramour at 9:49 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've done this, too. It worked out very well. Some tips:
* Have your contact person send photos of every room.
* Check out the exterior and neighborhood with Google Street View.
* Do a thorough web search of your contact person/landlord. If there are any kind of red flags, or even if it doesn't quite feel right, don't go ahead.
* Get a short-ish term lease (6 mo) that can be renewed.

Having someone you know check out the place would of course be perfect, but it can work without that.
posted by tecg at 10:58 AM on August 18, 2014

The rental market in Seattle is also really hot right now, so it might be rented out from under you, or the landlord may only want to deal with local people. I got my current place by basically making sure that I got the earliest appointment available on the earliest day, and I have my checkbook in hand to lay down the deposit. And this is in a brand new building with some 40 units available.

If I have waited a couple of days, they probably would have been all rented out already.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:23 AM on August 18, 2014

I have done this twice for cross-country moves when I didn't have the money to fly out for a pre-move visit to check out apartments. Both time I signed a year lease, and both times it worked out great! No guarantees that would always be the case, but those are my anecdotes. :) The best way to do it is definitely via Skype interview of the apartment -- if they won't let you do this, you know they are sketchy! Friend in the area is always great if you can swing it, but I've never wanted to ask that of people since it seems like a big imposition (I hate apartment hunting for myself a LOT, much less for someone else).
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2014

If your renting a high end apartment from a large company you can Google or yelp then and find our everything and more with some lies and hyperbole.

But if your on a tight budget you really need to see the appartment. Quality varies significantly and unknown issues can popup. And if Freemont has a bedbug registry CHECK IT. Chicago has one and it is useful.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:21 PM on August 18, 2014

I live in Pioneer Square (Seattle) - not that far from your target area - and have free time. I'm happy to go look - at least at the outside - if you like or even the inside if you want to set it up. Let me know.
posted by susandennis at 6:02 PM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks much to the folks who offered help, here and privately. :-) Very kind.

I went ahead and signed a lease based only on pictures. I convinced myself this was the right approach given what I had to work with. If it turns out to be a terrible place, I'll just break the lease. But it probably won't be terrible. (And if it is, well, it was a calculated risk.)
posted by mf_ss at 5:49 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

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