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The New Grad’s Guide to a (Scam-Free) Remote Rental Search

Starting a new job in a new city after graduation? Congrats! But now you need a place to live, and an apartment-hunting trip isn’t in the cards. Jonas Bordo of Dwellsy explains how to navigate your rental search from afar—without making a mistake or (worse) getting scammed.


               Los Altos, CA (April 2024)—You’ve cleared one of the biggest hurdles new graduates face: finding a job. (Congratulations!) The only hang-up? You’ll be relocating to a new city, and due to time constraints, budget limitations, or both, you won’t be able to take an apartment-hunting trip before the big move. What’s the best way to remotely explore your options and—ideally—secure a place to live before loading your belongings into your car and hitting the road?

             “Looking for a new rental is a daunting task in and of itself—and the challenges multiply when you can’t be there in person,” acknowledges Jonas Bordo, cofounder and CEO of Dwellsy, and 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). “That said, there are strategies you can use to zero in on promising options while avoiding common pitfalls.”

            In many respects, Bordo says, a remote rental search isn’t that different from one conducted in person. For instance, you still need to know what your budget is, decide what features and amenities you’re looking for, pull together your documentation (like ID, social security number, and proof of income), and be ready to apply when you find a place you like. 

            “With a remote search, though, it’s especially important to make sure you don’t overlook important aspects of a prospective rental, be it location, quality, or ‘house rules,’” says Bordo. “And it’s imperative that you do everything you can to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.”

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 rent-related. His book is 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.

            Here, Bordo shares ten tips to help you find a rental before you move to your new city.


First, do your research. Learn as much as you can about your new city, from as many perspectives as possible. Travel guides, personal blogs, official news articles, YouTube videos, and social media are all good ways to familiarize yourself with the city’s various neighborhoods, amenities, points of interest, and transportation options, as well as its cost of living.


“Use this information to determine which neighborhoods you might like, and note their location relative to your workplace so you aren’t surprised by an hour-long commute,” advises Bordo.  


Utilize only safe rental listing platforms. Here’s the most important rule: Stay away from anonymous sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and unbranded rental listing sites, which are heavily utilized by scammers. Especially since you won’t be there to check out listings in person, it’s just not worth taking the risk that you’ll be targeted by a fraudster on an unsafe site. NOTE to EDITOR: See attached tipsheet for more information on avoiding rental scams.


“Well-known sites that charge landlords to list properties aren’t always as dangerous as unbranded sites, but since they do charge, the variety of listings can be limited,” Bordo explains. “To give yourself maximum protection against scams, use only sites like Dwellsy that incorporate safeguards against rental fraud. At Dwellsy, we verify each listing and require landlords to go through a multi-step authentication process. However, we don’t charge landlords to list properties, so we have a pool of over 14 million diverse listings—some of which you won’t find on pay-to-play sites.”


Seek out local help. If you have friends or family who live in your soon-to-be city (even a long-lost cousin!), ask their advice. They might be willing to drive through neighborhoods with promising listings and share their impressions of the area, or even attend a tour on your behalf.


“Also, check with your new employer’s HR department,” says Bordo. “They can often give you guidance about renting in your new city, and may even connect you with another employee who’s living in a popular neighborhood or apartment complex. If your college has an alumni network, they may be able to do the same thing.”


Make sure you understand the overall cost of living. When you’re scrolling through listings, think about the expenses you’ll have in addition to rent, like utilities, transportation, and food.


“Your new city might be significantly more (or less) expensive than your current home,” reminds Bordo. “You don’t want to move to a new apartment thinking it’s within your budget, only to find you can’t afford Wi-Fi, gas, or vehicle property tax! If you have a personal contact in your new city, ask them about the cost of living. Prospective landlords should also be able to give you a ballpark estimate on what you’ll need to budget for utilities and other living expenses.”


Get (really) clear on what you’re looking for in a rental… When touring rentals in person, you might unexpectedly find one that feels like home. In a remote search, not so much! Set yourself up for success by being honest and specific about what you’re looking for. Make a detailed list of must-haves (e.g., rent below a certain price point or pet-friendliness) and any dealbreakers you might have (e.g., no on-site parking). Make a separate list of nice-to-have items.


“This exercise will help you narrow down available listings and will also ensure that you don’t forget to cover an important topic when speaking with a potential landlord,” says Bordo.  


…And insist on a live virtual tour. Scammers are adept at pretending to be landlords. You don’t want to send a deposit to someone only to find that they faked the listing and never had an apartment to rent out in the first place! To make sure you’re dealing with a bona fide landlord, ask them to do a live video tour of the rental via FaceTime, Google Duo, etc.


“Legitimate landlords have access to the properties they rent out, and it’s reasonable to ask them to prove it,” notes Bordo. “If a supposed landlord won’t talk to you on video, don’t waste time wondering whether you’re being scammed—just walk away.”


Consider working with a “professional” landlord… Professional property managers aren’t better or worse than independent landlords once you’ve moved in, but they are usually more organized through the leasing process—and chances are, you won’t be the first remote-search renter they’ve worked with. Plus, if you’re considering a place with an on-site property management office, it’s easy for them to do helpful things like give you a video tour of the unit. 


“Additionally, it’s usually much easier to evaluate the safety of these landlords,” notes Bordo.  “They should all have a website and a professional email address (i.e., it isn’t Gmail or another anonymous platform email service), and almost all will be using professional software to manage the leasing process. These are all signs that the listing is legitimate.” 


…And living in an apartment community. While many renters crave uniqueness, individuality isn’t always a good thing when it comes to rental properties. There are plenty of undesirable features a landlord can gloss over during what seems like a thorough video tour, ranging from barely-there water pressure to persistent street noise to signs of mold or infestation.


“I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider ‘mom-and-pop’ landlords—but bigger, professionally managed communities are generally a safer bet, quality-wise,” says Bordo. “Most complexes tend to be well-maintained and well-run, and if not, you’ll likely find reviews telling you so.


“Plus, whether a 50-story tower or a rambling 300-apartment garden-style community, these places almost always have some availability,” he adds. “When you can’t conduct your rental search in person, the best option is sometimes the one that’s easy to lease.”


Read your lease. (Yes, every word.) It should clearly cover the cost of rent and other fees, how to pay, and when your obligation begins and ends. It should also include other clauses, like how many people can live in your place, whether you can have a pet, what the landlord’s right of entry is, what maintenance you’re responsible for, and any community rules or banned activities.


“Your prospective landlord will (hopefully) disclose everything required by law during your correspondence or video tour, but don’t expect them to get into the nitty-gritty of what living in (and paying for) your apartment will be like,” says Bordo. “Reading the lease in full is one of the best tools you have to identify any dealbreakers before making a binding commitment.”


Finally, consider a short-term rental. Depending on your city and budget, a short-term rental (ranging from a few days to a few months) is a fantastic transitional option. This type of rental is often furnished and usually includes utilities in the up-front cost. Living in a short-term rental gives you space to get familiar with your new city, conduct a more thorough on-the-ground rental search, and even scour Facebook Marketplace for home furnishings you might be missing.


“Platforms like Airbnb, Vrbo, and make searching for a short-term rental easy and relatively safe,” Bordo says. “You might also find that large complexes offer month-by-month leases on furnished ‘corporate apartments.’ The big catch with all of these options is that they tend to be more expensive per night than a typical 12+ month lease, so double-check that you’re not allowing convenience to override financial discretion.”


            “The pressure of conducting a remote rental search can be daunting,” Bordo concludes. “If you start to feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that at the end of the day, regardless of the lease’s length, it’s temporary. If you aren’t satisfied with your apartment, or if you decide after a few months that you’d rather live in a different neighborhood, you’ll soon have that option. The most important things to pay attention to—and not compromise on—are finances and safety.”


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