Hacks to find your perfect new apartment?
February 23, 2021 4:20 PM   Subscribe

So I'm well acquainted with the apartment hunt process, but as I plan to move into a new place with a long-term friend, every place seems a few red flags away from perfect. What are your tricks for finding the perfect apartment for you?

One place might be nice but have coin-laundry in building and no central air; another place is great except for being a garden unit; a third place is lovely until you realize it's right by the train tracks. And of course, all these problems can be solved by either finding a place that's too expensive or too far away from anything.

Snowflake details: we're searching in Chicago; we've been using Craigslist and Padmapper; I would prefer not to use Facebook but I understand if that's the best place to look.
posted by LSK to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't mind me asking, what's wrong with the garden unit? The coin-laundry and train tracks apartments has obvious flaws, but a garden unit seems nice enough to me.

That aside, what I personally do when apartment-hunting is create an Excel/Google Sheets spreadsheet with my top wants, then add a checkmark/mark to indicate which apartments has said want, and which doesn't. I then tally up and add notes of nuanced pros and cons of each apartment, as well as costs (both upfront and "hidden") to help me weigh my decision.

Also, apartments.com, Yelp, and Google Reviews help provide reviews from residents. I put those reviews and my spreadsheet together to form one big picture, then make the best decision from there.
posted by dubious_dude at 4:49 PM on February 23, 2021

Response by poster: If you don't mind me asking, what's wrong with the garden unit?

Garden units here tend to flood easily and that's not something a prospective renter (e.g. me) can check on their own. There's other reasons I'm not a fan, but that's the big one.
posted by LSK at 4:53 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Are you guys in agreement on the basics?
First- what are your must haves?
And your would-be-good-to-haves?
What would be bonus points?
I am also a big fan of walking the neighborhoods to find either Now Leasing signs or the property companies that are managing buildings that look nice and well-kept. They might have other properties for lease/rental.

My example list:

Must have parking
Must be within 20 miles of work
Must have lots of light
Must have laundry on site
Must have good updated electric system

Wood floors would be better then carpet
Dishwasher would be good
First floor level but No bedroom windows next to parking area
Gas stove

Bonus points Awarded for:
Good separation of bedrooms
Bathroom wall heater ( I love those!)
Bathroom windows
posted by calgirl at 5:03 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

You get used to living by train tracks surprisingly fast.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:11 PM on February 23, 2021 [13 favorites]

I've rented apartments for most of the past two decades and if there's anything I've learned, it is that the "perfect" apartment is always about 30-50% more than I'm willing and able to pay for. So I rank the features I want, and the ones I want to avoid, figure out what my dealbreakers are, and measure each apartment by those criteria. (And then if in evaluating a given apartment, I discover a new dealbreaker or consideration, I add it to my evaluation for other apartments as well.)

Given that you're doing this with a roommate, you'll want to build and maintain this list together. If you find an apartment with no "dealbreakers," even if it has some cons, that's a good candidate - then it comes down to the weight of the various pros and cons and what you each want to prioritize and what you each can deal with. But if you're letting every con be a dealbreaker, your apartment search is going to be a lot harder.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 5:12 PM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Agreed with calgirl you need to come up with a list of what is most important to you. I've lived in Chicago my whole adult life in a bunch of apartments and now a house, and I gradually edited my list of absolute requirements.

Many of mine are location-based: I must be 45 minutes or less from the Loop, I don't want to live north of Grand, I don't ever want to set foot on the Red Line, and I want a half mile or less walk to the train. So that's going to limit my choices, but limiting your options is good because it gets you closer to finding a place.

What I did with my location requirements was pull up google maps and find the CTA stations on the Orange, Green, Pink, and west branch of the Blue Lines that would get me to the Loop in less than 30 minutes. Made a list of those. Then looked up the neighborhoods those stations were in and eliminated the ones that weren't going to be good fits. When I searched Craigslist for apartments (it's been years since I've looked for an apartment, I don't know if Craigslist is still the place) I was able to target my searches to specific neighborhoods. From there I could eliminate more neighborhoods just from being priced out. And then finally I had a small and specific radius of area in specific neighborhoods in which to search for places.

Armed with that, I kept up the Craigslist search and went on walks around the specific places I was looking in keeping an eye out for se renta signs. My favorite apartments to live in have all been small and privately owned.

And then if you find a place that seems to be a great fit but for one thing, ask that small private owner what they can do about it. My landlord at my last apartment installed ceiling fans and caved on the no dogs rule because I was there with my regular paystubs and excellent credit score in hand saying "I want." It never ever hurts to ask.
posted by phunniemee at 5:21 PM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I mean...renting in Chicago is just...trash? There aren't a lot of good apartments, at any price really, because condos and shitty developer conversions have taken over. The real "hack," as you allude to in your post, is to have at least 1900 bucks a month to spend or move to Jefferson Park.

If that's not you, and if you're asking this question I'm guessing it's not, then you just have to really frame your decisions in terms of what you can live with day to day and that requires being super honest about your needs vs wants. (No shade! I am REALLY bad at this and hate all of my apartments so much.)

From poking around in your history (sorry!) it seems like you really have a low threshold for noise. So maybe the central air is a must-have, because of the noise factor, while the free laundry is actually NOT. Maybe you need to prioritize new construction or top floors or two flats in order to minimize your neighbor noise exposure even moreso than central air.

Once in a blue moon people do have luck with walking around and looking at For Rent signs, as calgirl notes. It can't hurt to join your Nextdoor--sometimes smalltime landlords post their rental units there where everyone uses real names and they feel more secure.

And I would also suggest giving extra preference to small-time owners and buildings with live-in landlords, as they can be more flexible about rent and amenities. They also tend not to have coin laundry because the owners don't want to put up with that shit.

But alas, there's no secret website where we're all finding a top-floor 2-bedroom with central AC and free laundry the precise right distance from the train for 1100 a month. That apartment only exists in scam ads on apartments dot com.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 5:23 PM on February 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

is to have at least 1900 bucks a month to spend or move to Jefferson Park.
jesus christ i swear my headstone will have "the southside exists" carved into it
posted by phunniemee at 5:25 PM on February 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

(The poster's previous questions reference Lakeview--I was going off of that)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 5:25 PM on February 23, 2021

But yes, apologies for the assumption; if you are not attached to staying nearish your current location then your price factor and tradeoffs can look quite different!
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 5:54 PM on February 23, 2021

But alas, there's no secret website where we're all finding a top-floor 2-bedroom with central AC and free laundry the precise right distance from the train for 1100 a month

Zillion helps me find the gems. There are lots in Chicago and you can search by neighborhood, and make custom searches and boundaries on a map. It's the best apartment search tool in Chicago in my opinion. Lots of others are trash for sure, but this one has been consistently great for me.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:16 PM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

The advantages of Facebook is that you can sometimes coordinate a lease takeover, sometimes at a discounted rate if the current tenant is trying to recoup a few weeks or months of rent they would otherwise lose by not occupying the apartment. This can be more common in higher-turnover areas, such as a part of town with many graduate students. You might also be able to find apartments that are owned by private landlords (which can have its own perks, such as getting below-market-rate rents, increased flexibility, or not needing to deal with a broker fee- although that might not apply in Chicago).

While this may not be possible in the pandemic, seeing an apartment in person can be really helpful. I had previously almost ruled out the apartment I am currently living in, based on its specs, because it was north-facing and I thought it wouldn't get enough sunlight. Once I visited and saw how big the windows actually were, realized that it's actually northeast facing, and saw that the other perks of the apartment made sense, it was an easy decision.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:39 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Related to the upthread points about ranking your preferences: one thing that I've found helpful is accepting that the market is efficient enough that you're probably not going to get a steal just because you looked harder / better than everybody else. So, make a list of the features that you're looking for that most other people don't really care about, and similarly the features that others are willing to pay for, but don't really do anything for you. If you find a place in your price range with a lot of checks in the first column, and not too many in the second, then congrats!
posted by rishabguha at 6:47 PM on February 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

A nice view is nice, but if you're like me, you'll start taking it for granted after a couple months. So don't pay a premium for a nice view unless you've got a steady stream of visitors you need to impress.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:51 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

this is probably more practical an answer than what you wanted, and you're probably familiar with this, but.. in case not.. craigslist search operators are your friend... for example, lets say you wanted to search in for sale for an apple computer of some sort.. you might try:

imac|macbook|"mac mini"|"mac pro"|"apple computer"|mac|hackintosh

ok, so that should get you all of the macs, because you're using the "pipe" ( | ) as the or operator

but then maybe you see that a bunch of listings in your area for macs are from one vendor who's advertising their weekly payment plan.. you want to buy from a single previous owner, not a dealer, so you'll change the query to

imac|macbook|"mac mini"|"mac pro"|"apple computer"|mac|hackintosh -week

because you have noticed that "week" is almost always in their ads (but would have very little reason to be in others)

So.. you can see how this might help for rentals.. hopefully? I wish I knew chicago neighborhoods better so i could have used that for the examples, but .. make searches that really narrow things down, toggle bt map and list view so you can see where things are, save the searches.

i was going to tell you about the great way craigslist generates a handy RSS feed for every search, but, tragically, they removed that feature ( https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24840310 ) because the future is dumb. I don't know, even if you don't ultimately find your rental on craigslist, I think it sure can be efficient in terms of searching for a very specific thing. hope this helps
posted by elgee at 11:34 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I found a place to rent recently on Zillow.com -- useful search features and a map based display. Looks like tons of places in Chicago, depending on your price point.
posted by travertina at 9:44 AM on February 24, 2021

Zillion? What a typo. I meant Zillow. Sheesh.
posted by tiny frying pan at 2:02 PM on February 25, 2021

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