How can I make apartment hunting less awful?
July 5, 2018 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for tips on making the apartment hunting process as painless and non-adversarial as possible. Can you help me?

So, I'm looking for a new apartment. My budget is pretty small, about $1000/month for a one-bedroom. (Roommates absolutely not an option, please don't even suggest it.) There do seem to be apartments available in my price range and in the area where I'm looking, albeit not many. However, I'm having a hard time figuring out which ones are likely to be actually worth making an appointment to visit. Going up to the area where I'm planning to move to involves at least an hour and a half of driving (often more, depending on traffic) in each direction, so I'd like to avoid making the trip for apartments that have obvious dealbreakers.

However, I'm having a hard time actually getting that information and I get the impression that landlords are actively hiding that stuff a lot of the time. I'll see a listing for an apartment in my price range, but it doesn't give an exact location (so I don't know if it's a part of town I'd be willing to live in), or it doesn't say whether there is onsite laundry (I don't have time to go to a laundromat multiple times per week), or it doesn't have any photos, or something like that. Information that I need to know in order to know whether I should even consider the apartment is just not available. It feels adversarial on the part of the landlords, although maybe it's just incompetence. Either way, it's frustrating! I'm using Craigslist here; are there other resources that are likely to be better in this regard? It's been a while since I've had to do this.

Is this just a function of the fact that we're in a housing crisis at the low end of the market, so landlords feel like they don't have to give a shit? Is there somewhere other than Craigslist where I should be looking? Is there some kind of trick to figuring out whether an apartment is worth considering without having to spend three hours in the car to go see it, only to discover that it's right next to the highway or the nearest laundry machine is three miles away or whatever?

Also, tangentially, how do I deal with the "we need references from your last three landlords" and "credit check before applying" stuff? I've been living at my parents' house for the last three years, the year before that I was renting informally from a friend in New Orleans, and my two apartments previous to that I don't even know the names of the owners anymore, plus one of them was just unbelievably shady and ended up dodging the sheriff's deputies when I tried to have him served in small claims court for charging me $1000 for "stealing" an air conditioner that was actually right there in the window of the apartment the whole time. My credit is also pretty crap due to some unpaid medical bills from three or four years ago, although I now am in a much stronger situation financially and intend to be a very conscientious tenant. Do I just have to pass over listings that have that stuff in them, or should I try to talk my way in anyway assuming it's an apartment that I want?

So, Hivemind, what's your strategy? How do you approach apartment hunting to make it as painless as possible, especially when you don't already live in the area that you're trying to move to? How do I apartment hunt like a pro? This is all in Massachusetts, but not the Boston area.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is what I did in a similar situation, albeit 10 years ago, and moving to the Boston area from abroad (talk about a long drive to visit apartments). It was as painless as I felt was possible, given my situation:

1. I engaged a realtor specializing in the neighborhood I wanted - someone I felt comfortable with, who understood my needs and lifestyle. I gave him a firm budget, and he skated just under it and found the perfect spot for me. I did one full day of actual visits with him driving me around from place to place. The place I chose had all of the things I wanted (1 bedroom, top floor, wood flooring, bathtub, heat included, some outdoor space - in this case a porch), was clean, attractive, large enough to hold my furniture, and exactly what I'd stated was my absolute limit I could spend. It was worth it - I stayed for 7 years. Spread out over 7 years, that half month's rent realtor fee was absolutely worth it.

2. My parents co-signed on the lease for me. My big-girl-ego took a little hit, but it was worth it to not go through the stress of "well no I've never had a credit card, and I'm guessing you won't accept landlord references in a foreign language". It being a college town (unsure where in MA you're going, but this may also be the case there), this wasn't seen as unusual.

I hope this helps!
posted by pammeke at 9:23 AM on July 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

This might not be common where you live but the way I found my last two apts--both fantastic places--was by going to the neighborhood where I wanted to live and walking up and down every street. Sometimes small landlords just put a sign on the front door because they don't want to deal with Internet flakes.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:24 AM on July 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

I've done a fair bit of apartment hunting in the last couple of years (for myself, others). Here are a couple of suggestions:

- have a list of specific questions to ask the landlord by phone or email, like is there on-site laundry? (For me, one question was often: how many actual rooms? No, a living room and kitchen combined is not two rooms, that is one room. Other questions might be about entrances, etc.)

- Maybe look for other references? Employers, personal references, etc. And you can have a credit report ready, but also append an explanation of your score. You could also have a co-signer on a lease.

- Craigslist is terrible - so little information, so many scams - and so many landlords who are 'legit' (they actually have an apartment to rent) but incompetent. In Canada, is often much better, as it requires more effort from the landlords (pictures, details, etc.); I don't know if your area might have something similar

- Getting a real estate agent to help look in their listings may not cost you anything: I found our current rental house (a great place) through a real estate agent who contacted me. She was paid by the landlord, not by me, so it didn't cost me anything. I did sign a contract that I would pay a fee if I found an apartment without her and the landlord wasn't willing to pay the finders' fee - but that never came to pass. As noted above, she took our rather stringent requirements (a place big enough for 4 adults, within only a certain area of the city), and the first place she lined up turned out to be the one.
posted by jb at 9:28 AM on July 5, 2018

I have found that apartment-hunting is hardest when I'm under pressure. Is it an option to find a temporary sublet or similar, to buy you time and make in-person visits easier? I find that facebook (usually there are various local groups) is a much better resource than craigslist for temporary stuff, at least in the big cities I've lived in. I've done the initial temporary sublet for a big move before and despite the pain of moving twice (I suggest not taking too much to the sublet if possible) it was 100% worth it.

The best thing you can do to be competitive for the best places is to be ready and willing to act quickly - I'd get together a little packet with a printout of your basic credit info (this can literally be credit karma), proof of income (several pay stubs or tax documents), one or two personal references (even if landlord references are a no-go - though your friend in NOLA would still be helpful), and a check.
posted by mosst at 9:29 AM on July 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I would ideally prefer to live somewhere rural rather than urban, somewhere off in the woods. I know that's unlikely (although I've seen it happen before) but as I don't want to live near the center of a city (Lowell would be my closest city) and don't have a specific area in mind (anywhere within about half an hour's drive of North Andover would be fine, including parts of NH) would hiring an agent still make any sense? Driving around and physically looking for buildings that have For Rent signs in the yard sounds futile.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:32 AM on July 5, 2018

Nowadays I have a few friends now who work as realtors (when I was apartment-hunting as I mentioned above, I didn't) and a few of them specialize in "southern NH and northern MA" which sounds like your region. It could save you a ton of time - my friends who still rely on Craigslist sometimes find deals, but it does seem to be a lot more hunting/viewing than I have patience for (and than it sounds like you have the ability to do).

Alternatively, something else I didn't have 10 years ago, have you tried Zillow for rentals? I did a search there for rentals in the area of North Andover, from $900-$1100 rent, 1 bedroom, and got these listings which have quite a bit of detail regarding location & amenities. Most of this is through realtors, but as jb says above, they are likely paid by the landlord and be free to you. I've never found a place through Zillow, but know people who have.
posted by pammeke at 9:44 AM on July 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you see a well-put-together listing from a management company, check their website to see if they've got any other rentals available. There are a lot of small real estate management companies that only manage a few properties, often on behalf of individual owners.

And if it's an apartment you're interested in, always try to apply. mosst's suggestion above to put together a packet with your info is a good one. It's not more work than you'd otherwise have to do for an app, and making things easy for potential landlords can't hurt.
posted by asperity at 10:10 AM on July 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Maybe listings through Salem State?
posted by Dashy at 10:12 AM on July 5, 2018

I'll see a listing for an apartment in my price range, but it doesn't give an exact location (so I don't know if it's a part of town I'd be willing to live in)

Just FYI, the reason the ads don't give an exact location is to keep random brokers away (especially if the landlord has a broker). Not that that makes it any less of a pain for you.

Craigslist has become largely useless for apartment-hunting; it's flooded with scams. You may need to get in touch with an actual broker.

Your credit is what it is. Unfortunately, it's one of the more reasonable things for landlords to look at (they may well be less insistent on landlord references). There are three main ways people cope with this: (a) find a more creditworthy co-signer; (b) provide evidence of substantial savings now; or (c) offer to pay several months' rent in advance.

Good luck!
posted by praemunire at 10:12 AM on July 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I used to be a landlord. If you email, provide information, answer questions. I used to waste a ton of time with people who would email from my posting, but then be unable to answer more than 1 question(if that), or make an appt.
Have references and bank info ready, maybe a limited credit report.
posted by theora55 at 10:56 AM on July 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Where I live (Seattle), a lot of the more affordable, not managed by big company rentals are not really online in places like Craiglist, but rather either people post a sign in the yard/window or they're posted in the neighborhood social media groups.

I'd strongly suggest telling everyone you know to be on the look out for such physical or digital postings.

Also, if you're REALLY looking, maybe ask friends in the neighborhoods that you're interested in to post in their neighborhood social media groups that a great trustworthy friend is looking for a PRICE, ROOMS, TIME PERIOD.

Otherwise, PadMapper is a decent tool too.
posted by k8t at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2018

If you can get an address or at least the nearest cross street, you can use Google Street view to sort of poke around the area before driving up there.
posted by MountainDaisy at 12:38 PM on July 5, 2018

Nthing Zillow or Trulia instead of Craigslist, and check as well.

Is there any way you can afford to go up for two days and visit a bunch of listings all in one go? I moved to my current place from across the country and found an apt by looking at 24 listings in a day in a half on a quick trip out (and yes: 23 of the listings sucked, because reasonably-priced apartments suuuuck these days). It's like panning for gold, but do a bunch in one go and something should turn up.
posted by TwoStride at 3:59 PM on July 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing Zillow. My current place, which I love, never even made it to craigslist. I contacted the property manager the day it went on Zillow and signed a lease a few days later. Actually, when I was looking, Zillow was great because small landlords hate Craigslist as much as renters do. It's just full of noise and scams and it's hard for good stuff to break through.

As for finding out where it is - well, they have to tell you the address for you to come see it, right? So you can just decide then. Look it up on google maps, and if the location doesn't look like what you want, just cancel.

I'd also say: have your list of questions ready and ask them when you're setting up an appointment. If it's over email and they don't answer, then don't continue. If you're talking on the phone and they are evasive, just tell them these are the most important things to you. The last thing you want anyway is a landlord who tries to bullshit/scam you.

Re: credit scores. My credit used to really, really suck. Almost certainly worse than yours based on what you've written here. I have never been turned down for a rental based on my score. This is across 5 states, including MA. Once I told a landlord my credit sucked before he ran it and he said as long as I don't have a bankruptcy, it's fine (and I know people with bankruptcies who have gotten rentals, anyway).
posted by lunasol at 9:52 PM on July 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

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