Knowing what questions landlords are legally allowed to ask and preparing for them will give you confidence as you head into your rental search. But your success will also depend on some “street smarts,” not just legal know-how. Here are some proven strategies that will make your efforts more efficient and successful:
Set your rental priorities before you start looking—the rent, desired location, and number of bedrooms and whether you want to keep a pet. This will help focus your search. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy running around looking at inappropriate places.
Use your personal contacts. Tell everyone in your social networks, online and off. Don’t be shy—ask friends, coworkers, even local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship. You never know who may come through with the perfect apartment—it might be the receptionist at work, your dental hygienist, or a waitress at your favorite restaurant.
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Check Craigslist and other websites. The advertising-free website is enormously popular in the hundreds of cities it serves, and is a key place to begin your housing search. Craigslist is free to both landlords and tenants. If you have an iPhone, take advantage of the free Craigslist app, Craigsphone.
Work with a real estate broker or property management firm. If you’re moving to a new city, these may be your best options. Be sure to check out fees. In New York City, where many property owners list their rentals exclusively with real estate brokers, you can expect to pay a fee that is tied to the rent (for example, 15% of the first year’s rent) or a flat fee of $1,000 or more for a rental.
Check out university and corporate housing offices. Professors leaving on sabbatical and corporate employees who are temporarily transferred are often anxious to rent their homes for a year or more. University housing services and corporations sometimes maintain databases to help them in their leasing efforts.
Go online. Post your own “Apartment Wanted” notice on a site that permits personal messages, or check out an online rental service such as Rent.Net (www.rent.net) and Craigslist (www.craigslist.org), which list lots of rental units.
Hit the streets. Walk, bike, or drive around the neighborhood you want to live in and look for “Apartment for Rent” signs in windows or notices on local bulletin boards. These rentals can be great finds—especially if they’re not advertised elsewhere, reducing the competition. If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex but there’s no sign posted, stop and talk to the manager or doorman. Get on a waiting list, if possible.
Spread the word on your rental search. Consider posting your own “Apartment Wanted” sign (and maybe even offer a finder’s fee) in a local store, health club, yoga studio, laundromat, or other business; or put a classified ad in a local newspaper or newsletter.
Try not to compromise. If you can at all help it, don’t move into a place that’s a complete disaster, next to a drug house, or run by a landlord who is well known by the housing inspectors and the local legal aid office. Even if you consider it temporary, try not to settle for a questionable place. Keep looking.
Take your time. Unless you’re positive that you’ve found your dream rental (and there are eager would-be tenants lined up behind you), don’t commit yourself on the spot. Take some time, even a few hours, to think about it. Were there any little, nagging misgivings that need to be faced and resolved? For example, what about the manager’s offhand remark about his tenants’ private lives that, viewed in retrospect, may spell trouble ahead? Often a return visit, or candidly sharing your doubts with a wise friend, can bring important issues to the fore. You don’t want to look back later and say, “I should have seen it coming.”