Whether it's your first or 10th time renting, here are five things to think about when looking for a new place to call home:
NEEDS VS WANTS
Before anything else, you need to decide what your priorities are and what you can afford, said Brian Carberry, senior managing editor of Rent.com, an apartment search website owned by Redfin.
If you're not sure how to figure that out, Zumper’s Rent Affordability Calculator allows you to estimate how much you can pay per month according to your location, monthly income, and monthly expenses.
Then you can consider things like location and amenities.
Apartment search websites such as Apartments.com, Rent.com, Zillow, Apartment Guide, and Zumper can help curate your search. And if you need help affording somewhere to rent, check out the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s Rental Assistance Finder as well as this list of local public housing agencies.
Another option is to use a broker to help with your search. Some, known as no-fee brokers, charge the leasing management company rather than charging you.
The broker "was there to be a liaison and to say things like ‘Oh this isn’t right, maybe you guys should consider this,’” said Erika Tascon, who used a no-fee broker to find a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles.
Ask friends for recommendations, and if you've never worked with a broker before, make sure to ask questions beforehand and look for reviews on websites such as Yelp. In large cities such as New York, websites like StreetEasy allow tenants to limit their search by “no-fee” apartments.
UNDERSTAND THE MARKET
As with any major life decision, it's always good to do your research. Rents can vary greatly between cities or states and it’s best to understand the market to know what you can expect at different price ranges, Carberry said.
If you're not in a rush, you might want to wait until after September.
“If you have the ability to look in the winter months, those are great times because not a lot of people are looking to move, you may be more likely to find some deals,” Carberry said.
Renters might also have more leverage to negotiate then, according to Apartment List. But with rental demand high, this year might not see as steep a winter slowdown as before the pandemic.
A downside of moving during the winter months might include having fewer options and, if you live in places where it snows, potentially bad weather for your move.
— Drive around neighborhoods
While a lot of landlords list their apartments or houses on online websites, including Facebook and Craigslist, some are more analog.
Tascon drove around different neighborhoods and found “for rent” signs outside of several units.
“That’s really helpful," she said. "There were a lot of listings that I found that were not listed online, it was just like a sign outside."
TAKE YOUR TIME (BUT NOT TOO MUCH)
It's important to learn as much as you can and make an informed decision. But in a competitive market, you can't always take as much time as you'd like to consider options. The key is to do as much research as possible ahead of time so you're ready to apply when you see something you like. If you know that your lease will be ending, try starting your research a few months ahead of time. This can include looking for reviews of property management companies or the neighborhoods.
“You need to be prepared to spend a lot of time and energy on this,” said Tascon, who spent over a month looking for her current apartment.
—Get to know your landlord/leasing office
Britni Eseller, who recently found an apartment in San Diego, suggests asking prospective landlords for a license number, name of the property management company and details about the unit.
You can search reviews of prospective landlords or property management companies on websites such as Yelp, ApartmentRatings.com and RentMyLandlord.com. You can also try contacting them with questions.
VISIT IN PERSON
A crucial aspect of getting to know your potential home is to visit in person, Carberry said. You can check things like what's around the neighborhood, what traffic is like on the main road and whether the appliances work.
“You can look and go through with a fine tooth comb of the unit itself,” Carberry said. “Look at things like the paint and the appliances, those are certain things that you might not see from a virtual tour because you can get in and look close.”
While in-person visits are always preferred, if you are moving to another state and you cannot afford to visit first, ask a friend or a co-worker to check out the place for you.
— Bring a friend
When it comes to visiting an apartment, the more eyes the better, Tascon said. If the landlord or agent is giving you details or you are asking questions, your friend or family member can help look around.
— Be ready to apply when you visit
Apartments in cities with competitive markets such as San Francisco, New York and Austin often have multiple applicants.
Esseler found an apartment in just two weeks. Because there were so many people touring the unit she wanted, she knew she had to move fast.
She had several documents already printed and ended up running to print more right after the tour so she could submit her application a few hours later.
“Timing is really a big thing. There were many people before and after me and having the documents already prepared, I was able to submit my application quickly,” said Eseller, who also wrote the date and time on the envelope when she dropped her application at the leasing office since the process was on a first-come-first-served basis.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Knowing your state’s tenant rights is crucial said Lucia Leal, a housing counselor at Causa Justa, a San Francisco-based tenant rights advocacy organization.
“Most tenants think that because a landlord owns the house, they can do whatever they want, and that’s not OK,” Leal said.
A good place to start reading about your rights is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Tenant Rights website.
Being informed about your rights and reading your lease carefully before signing it will help you avoid conflicts or confusion. If you have specific questions and need to talk to someone, community organizations around you might be available to help, said Nick Graetz, a postdoctoral research associate at The Eviction Lab.
“Local groups offer accessible guides and legal documentation for assistance,” he said.
Tenants can search housing counseling agencies around the country on HUD's website.
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