Apartment Hunting? Use This “Road Map” to Help You Find a Great Rental
If you’ve searched for an apartment recently, you’ve probably noticed that the market is competitive—or, depending on where you live, downright cutthroat. It’s not your imagination. In addition to inflation and the aftereffects of a bonkers pandemic rental market, the U.S. is experiencing a nationwide housing shortage. Since 2015, the amount of affordable apartments (defined as having a monthly rent of $1,000 or less) has declined by 4.7 million.
Despite near-record deliveries of new apartment buildings, says Dwellsy cofounder and CEO Jonas Bordo, it might take a while for supply to catch up with demand—which means that renters need all the information they can get about supercharging their search.
“If renting an apartment is the destination, it makes sense to start your journey with detailed directions so you don’t veer off course, hit a dead end, or take the ‘slow way,’” says Bordo, coauthor, along with Hannah Hildebolt, of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95).
“Where you search for rentals, how you evaluate them, and how you go about applying for them can all be determining factors in whether you end up renting a place you love…or regret,” he adds. “That’s especially true in today’s volatile and often competitive rental market.”
With several decades’ experience as a renter, landlord, property manager, and current CEO of the largest U.S. rental marketplace, Bordo is a trusted authority on all things rental-related. His upcoming book, Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask (available for purchase on August 1), is exactly what the title says: a comprehensive guide to help people “win” at renting. It covers the entire process, from preparing for the rental search to getting your security deposit back after your lease is up—so keep your copy handy as you navigate the wild, weird world of renting.
Here, Bordo shares eight tips that will help you zero in on a rental that will truly feel like home—whether you’re a first-time renter or a seasoned pro:
First, get your paperwork in order. Before you even start searching for available apartments, Bordo recommends rounding up the documents you’ll need. This allows you to identify any gaps and ensures that you’ll be ready to move immediately if the perfect place pops up. While every application is different, most require:
Pay stubs or bank statements
Driver’s license, state ID, passport, or green card
Social Security number
If you have a car: vehicle registration and insurance
If you have a pet: pet registration (if you have it)
Renters insurance (if you have it)
“I also recommend checking your credit score, cleaning up your social media if necessary, and identifying a few people (like bosses or former landlords) who can write strong reference letters for you,” says Bordo.
Know where to search. Stay away from anonymous sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and unbranded rental listing sites unless you want to get scammed. Well-known sites that charge landlords to list properties are safer bets, but because they do charge, the variety of listings can be limited.
“At Dwellsy, we take a different approach,” says Bordo. “We don’t charge landlords to list properties, so we have a pool of over 14 million diverse listings—most of which you won’t find on pay-to-play sites. At the same time, Dwellsy actively works to be a fraud-free space by verifying each listing. Before posting a property, landlords must go through a multi-step authentication process.”
Be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Here’s the most important rule of searching for an apartment: You must be first. First to inquire. First to apply. First to sign a lease and pay the deposit after the application is approved.
“Most landlords process inquiries and applications in the order they’re received,” says Bordo. “If you’re second in line to see a place, your odds of getting it aren’t as high as they would be if you were first. If you’re fifth in line, your odds are 5 percent or less. And here’s the thing: In a really hot market, the difference between first and fifth place can be just a few minutes.”
Submit a winning inquiry. Once you’ve identified a few rentals you’re interested in, it’s time to reach out to landlords. In addition to being speedy, Bordo recommends using professional language and avoiding chatspeak (e.g., “u” for “you”) in messages. When making an initial inquiry about an apartment, call and email the landlord, and ask to set up a meeting. Then, keep an eye on your phone and respond to all calls and messages promptly.
“Of course you have questions about the apartment, but unless something glaring was missing from the listing, now is not the time to ask most of them,” he says. “For now, your goal is simply to get a tour on your calendar, as soon as possible.”
Book the first available showing. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Bordo urges you to take the first available tour appointment. Yes, even if you have to miss lunch, duck out of work for an hour, or cut your weekly soccer game short.
“I once lost an apartment to two women with a briefcase full of cash who paid six months’ rent up front, right as I was showing up for a tour,” he recalls. “If I’d been there an hour earlier, I would have locked in the place instead.”
Tour like a pro. If at all possible, visit apartments in person before signing a lease. Don’t rely on online photos and descriptions, which can be very misleading or downright fake. In addition to “obvious” considerations like location, amenities, and size, look for signs that a property is functional, clean, safe, and well maintained. Even something “small” like a leaky faucet might indicate a lax attitude toward maintenance, for instance.
“Come to the walk-through with a list of questions to ask,” says Bordo. “These should range from ‘How much are utilities?’ to ‘How do I report a maintenance problem?’ to ‘Are there any specific restrictions I should know about?’ to ‘What’s the parking situation?’ Just try to avoid asking questions that have been answered in the listing—it’s a pet peeve for many landlords.” NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheet for a checklist renters can use when touring a rental.
Submit a strong application. A vacant property means no income, so most landlords take the first applicant who fits their needs. Ergo, bring the necessary documents and information to your tour so you can apply on the spot. (Remember Bordo losing that apartment to the women with a briefcase of cash?)
“If you have extenuating circumstances—ranging from less-than-stellar credit to a large pet—you can think about providing ‘extra’ documentation like a cover letter,” says Bordo. “It’s a good opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the rental and explain how you plan to be a good renter. After submitting your application, keep in touch with your potential landlord and promptly send any additional information they ask for. When you apply, ask the landlord when they expect to reach a decision so you’ll know when to reach back out to them without appearing pushy.” NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheet for information landlords commonly ask for on applications.
Read your lease. (Yes, every word.) A lease is an enforceable legal document once the landlord and renter sign it—so be sure you understand and are okay with everything in it before gracing it with your signature. Most leases cover how much your rent is, how long your lease lasts, what the landlord’s and renter’s responsibilities are, and other rules and regulations that apply to the property.
“Note any other clauses that might affect you, like how many people can live in your place, whether you can have a pet, what the landlord’s right of entry is, and if there are any community rules or banned activities,” Bordo advises. “You want to identify any dealbreakers before signing the document. And if there’s anything you want to negotiate, be sure to do that before signing, too.” NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheet for advice on how to negotiate a lease.
“That’s it—once you sign the lease, you’ll be ready to pay your deposit and first month’s rent, get your keys, and move into your new place,” says Bordo. “The better prepared you are—and the more insider information you have before beginning your apartment search—the more likely you’ll be to find a rental that fits your budget and personal preferences.
“One last tip,” he concludes. “Throughout this process, remember that landlords and property managers are people, too. You’d be surprised by how often communicating with courtesy and politeness gives you an edge over other prospective renters. Landlords have a strong incentive to find renters who will treat them and their property with respect.”
If you run into a question or would like more support during your apartment search, check out Dwellsy’s blog. You’ll find dozens of posts on topics ranging from filling out a rental application to avoiding scams to negotiating a lease.