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The Sight-Unseen Apartment Search: 6 Tips for Nervous Remote Renters


The Sight-Unseen Apartment Search: 6 Tips for Nervous Remote Renters
The Sight-Unseen Apartment Search: 6 Tips for Nervous Remote Renters

Your boss calls you into her office and offers you an exciting promotion. The catch? You’ll have to move to an office in a different state—and they need you to start in two weeks. Or maybe the choice to move is yours alone, but without an employer-sponsored relocation package, you don’t have the extra cash to go on an apartment-hunting trip. Is it possible to make a choice you’ll be happy with while avoiding being overcharged or scammed?

While a remote rental search is tough, Dwellsy CEO and cofounder Jonas Bordo says finding a good place when you can’t be there in person doesn’t have to be a total shot in the dark.

“There are a lot of tools and resources you can use to identify and sort through promising rentals from afar,” 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). “And knowing which red flags to watch out for can save you from major rental regret.”

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. (Yes, he has conducted several remote rental searches of his own.) His new book, Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask, 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.

Here, Bordo shares six pro tips to help you find an apartment that will feel like home sweet home—even if you aren’t able to tour it before signing the lease.

Make a list of apartment features you’re looking for. Fire up your notes app and type out your must-haves, your dealbreakers, and things you’re willing to compromise on. Having your priorities sorted out beforehand will make it easier to say yes or no to potential listings: “This checks all my boxes—I’ll send an inquiry email right now!”

“It’s especially important to think through what you can and can’t live without during a remote rental search,” comments Bordo. “When you tour properties in person you can say, ‘Oh, I see that this apartment doesn’t have a washer/dryer hookup—I’ll keep looking.’ But if you’re conducting a remote search, you might be stuck trekking to the laundromat.”

Do your research. You may think it goes without saying, but do your research before renting in another state. Consider joining Facebook groups or following local social media pages specific to the area you are looking at. Go the extra mile to learn about the basic amenities, typical asking rents, points of interest, and hangouts in the neighborhood. It will be helpful to know your resources and surroundings while transitioning to your new home.

“Moreover, you can also learn about the property you intend to rent, such as the history of the apartment building,” says Bordo. “If you do not involve a management company, the internet can also help you dig up some history of the potential landlords in the neighborhood so that you can get an idea of what to expect.”

Know how to guard against scams. Unfortunately, remote searchers are very susceptible to fraudster strategies because they can’t see the place in person before signing a lease. Here are a few critical points to keep in mind:

  • Keep the search clean from the beginning by only using trusted sites like Dwellsy, which actively works to be a fraud-free space by verifying each listing. Stay far, far away from the most fraud-riddled sites like Craigslist.

  • Scammers love to hide behind text messages and stolen images. Don’t let them. Ask the landlord to do a live (not recorded!) video tour of the unit to prove that the apartment is real, matches the listing, and that they have access to it.

  • Be wary and walk away at the first sign of anything weird. Price seems way too low? Walk away. Landlord wants money up-front before signing the lease? Walk away. Landlord wants a big “showing deposit”? Walk away. Landlord won’t talk on video? Walk away.

  • Never send your initial payment or deposit via a one-way payment tool like Zelle or Venmo. Unlike check or credit card payments, these apps don’t allow transactions to be reversed if you’ve been scammed.

Find a friend... If you have friends or family in your new area, use them! They can tour places when you can’t, they can drive through the neighborhood and tell you what they think, they can look the property manager in the eye and ask the in-person questions that are on your mind, and they can turn on the shower and find out if the water pressure is awesome or pathetic.

“If you are a relocating employee, engage your employer's HR department to get some guidance before renting a property,” advises Bordo. “They may even be able to connect you with employees living in popular neighborhoods or with property managers.”

…Or consider going pro. Professional property managers aren’t necessarily better (or worse) than independent landlords once you’ve moved into a place, but they are usually more organized through the leasing process—and they should have no qualms about answering your questions and giving you a video tour of the unit.

“It is usually much easier to evaluate the safety of property managers,” says Bordo. “They should all have a website (emails that aren’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 that you’re going through a safe process.”

Determine whether you can get a short-term lease. Leases don’t have to last 12 months or longer. If it isn’t offered up front, ask your potential landlord if they would consider a month-to-month, three-month, or six-month lease, for example. These options allow you to test the rental property and the neighborhood, and if things don't work out, you can always relocate.

“If you aren’t moving with many belongings, you might also want to check out pre-furnished ‘corporate’ apartments, or Airbnbs,” says Bordo. “Many of these offer short-term leases and remove the pressure of having to immediately find furniture, cookware, etc. You’ll also have some breathing room to conduct a thorough in-person search for a longer-term option.”

“With current technology and the rise of remote work, it’s more and more common—and much easier—to do a remote rental search,” concludes Bordo. “Just remember the two Cs: communication and caution. Don’t hesitate to ask landlords, property managers, or acquaintances in the area any questions you have…and if your spidey senses start to tingle, listen to them!”

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About Jonas Bordo:

Jonas Bordo is the coauthor, along with Hannah Hildebolt, of the book 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. He is the CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, the free residential rental marketplace that makes it easy to find hard-to-find rentals. Prior to cofounding Dwellsy, Jonas was a senior executive at several leading real estate firms including Essex Property Trust and BentallGreenOak, and was with the Boston Consulting Group after graduating with his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

About the Book:

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) is available from major online booksellers.

About Dwellsy:

Dwellsy is the renter’s marketplace: a comprehensive residential home rentals marketplace based on the radical concept that true, organic search in a free ecosystem creates more value than the pay-to-play model embraced by all of the current rental listing services. Dwellsy has more than 14 million residential rental listings—more than any legacy classifieds site—as well as the most diverse set of listings, including single family rentals, condos, and apartments. Dwellsy’s entirely different approach to residential rental listings focuses on presenting houses and apartments based on features renters need and want, not based on how much landlords pay to show their listings. Dwellsy investors include Frontier Ventures, Ulu Ventures, Blackhorn Ventures, Heroic Ventures, and the University of Chicago. For more information, please visit our newsroom or find your next home at Dwellsy.com.

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