Especially if you live in a big city, navigating the apartment rental market is tricky. Where you end up living is largely based on luck — being in the right place at the right time with the right agent — but there are things you can do to prepare and protect yourself. Real estate agent Jesse Shafer of the Shafer-McHale team at Compass tells us how to spot a good listing, find a good landlord, and negotiate a fair contract.
If you’re more than two months away from your planned move-in date, it’s likely too early to start looking at an apartment because most of the listings you’re seeing will be gone by the time you’re ready to move. You can probably hold off on your search until a few weeks before your move-out date. “I’ve seen people start looking for a home days before it was time for them to move and they were still able to find something great,” says
Shafer. In the meantime, start doing your homework. You’ll be expected to provide financial documentation — tax forms, pay stubs, or a note from your employer that verifies your income — that demonstrates your financial stability. Basically, prospective landlords want to know that you’ll be able to pay the rent on time. Having these documents will also help you determine how much rent you can actually afford to pay — you should only be spending about 30% of your income on rent. Remember that you will also need to have enough saved to cover first month’s rent, a security deposit, and moving fees.
It can be difficult to determine what’s worth seeing when you’re slogging through hundreds of online listings, but you can tell a lot from the photos. If the window treatments are down, for example, Shafer says there’s probably a bad view. Close-up artist shots are usually a sign of a tiny apartment. Computer renderings or highly polished photos are also a red flag: “If the photos for a $2,500 apartment look like they were torn from the pages of Architectural Digest, the listing is probably fake” or at least misleading, says Shafer. Before you meet with the listing agent, verify everything described: Ask about concessions, fees, and amenities. There’s typically no consequences for not being totally truthful, so even well meaning agents can be tempted to fudge the details to get prospective renters in the door. “The general rule of thumb is if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” says Shafer. It’s a good idea to keep all of your correspondence over text or email so you have proof if they try to go back on their word.