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Moving: Finding an Apartment (Part 1)

It’s exciting to move on from college or your parents’ house and get your first apartment, but it can also be a bit of a headache. Last month, my boyfriend and I went through the painful (but necessary) process, and came out alive and with a signed lease to show for it. I’m a careful planner and a micromanager, so you can benefit in your own apartment search by just stealing my system. It’s alright, I don’t mind!

Prelude: Before you start digging deep into apartment listings, work your network first. Tell everyone you know that you’re looking for an apartment, and where. This is especially true if you’re going to be in the market for a roommate, as well! They say the best deals never even get listed, so see what you can find through the grapevine, first. But be sure to practice due diligence and evaluate any apartment you find through a friend thoroughly, using some of the steps below. You should research an apartment you hear about from a friend or family member just as much as you would research an apartment you found in an ad!

You’ll need:

This is a many step process, but it’s not terribly difficult. Staying organized is very important, which is why these instructions are extremely detailed. Feel free to do things your own way if you like, of course. You ready?

Setting Up Google Earth

First, plot important points in Google Earth. The big one that comes to mind is the place you’ll be working, if you have that lined up already. Just type the street address into the “Fly to” search bar and hit enter. Under the search bar, there will be a listing for the address you just searched, with a checkbox next to it. Right click (command click? on a Mac) and select Add>Placemark. This will put a little thumbtack into the spot for you. Give it a name, like “Work,” and then in the “Style, Color” tab, select a color for the “icon.” It’s important that you select a color and not just leave it as default yellow, because you want this tacks to stand out as different when you look at the map.

Also, make sure you have the transportation icons turned on in Google Earth. This is very important if proximity to the subway, metro, or bus stops will be important to you. You can turn this on by looking in the Layers window for “Places of Interest,” and making sure that under that, “Transportation” is checked.

Last, make a new folder in your “Places” window. Right-click “My Places,” choose Add>Folder. Name it Apartment Search or whatever you want, to keep the new points you’ll make separate from other stuff you might have in Google Earth.

Search Listings

Now it’s time to go to town on the classifieds! Try to use a variety of sources, if you can. Craigslist is a good place to look, but keep an eye out for scammers on Craigslist. Apartments.com and Rent.com may be useful in your area. It’s hard to know until you look – some sites are much more useful in some areas than others. We found that for northern Virginia, Craigslist had nearly 1800 listings per day! So we had more than enough to sink our teeth into with just that one site, although we looked on others as well. You may even find that traditional print newspaper classifieds are the best for the area you’re searching in.

This is the part where you’ll have to start making some decisions. If you’re moving to a new area that you’re not totally familiar with, take a good look at Google Earth and write down the names of townships to focus on. You’ll also have to decide, based on your projected one-year budget, how many bedrooms you want (and can afford). You may find from glancing at the listings that you really need a roommate. And you may find that different suburbs or townships have vastly different rent prices. Whenever you come across a promising listing, right-click on the link and select “open in new tab.” It’s much nicer to open a bunch in tabs and look at them all at once, instead of looking at one, plotting it, and then going back and looking at another…

Once you have more tabs open than you think you can handle, start reading the listings. Some will jump out at you as WRONG as soon as you look at them. Don’t forget to rule some out as possible scams (if it’s a definite scam, report it to the website)! When you’ve whittled your tabs down to some real candidates, it’s time to start plotting. You might want to do this in sets – in other words, find five candidates, plot them, find five more…

hard tack by psyberartist on Flickr

Plot the Apartments

Go back into Google Earth and search for the address of an apartment you’re interested in. Mark it as a Placemark. When marking it as a placemark, name it with the name of the listing from the ad. Then copy and paste the web address of the listing into the “description” field. If you put this first in the description, the link will be clickable in the “Places” window, which is really convenient! Then paste in as much info as you can from the ad in the description box. Click “OK” and move onto the next one!

Using Google Earth has a lot of advantages, but the biggest one is that you can really visualize where each apartment is located. And, since you plotted important points like “work,” you can see the distance of the apartments from those points. And if you have “Transportation” turned on, you can see if the apartment is near a bus stop, subway station, or metro station. Awesome!

Find Apartment Reviews

Once you’ve exhausted yourself finding possible places and plotting them, it’s time to start ruling out some more places. The idea is to do this when you have a list of apartments longer than what you could possibly manage to look at.

Use websites like ApartmentRatings.com and ApartmentReviews.net to look up reviews of the apartments in question. You’ll quickly start to find out why the rent is so cheap in some places: for us, the answer was roaches! GROSS! We ruled roach-infested places out right away. You’ll also find other details that may interest you, or may be deal-breakers. But do keep in mind that these reviews are not always 100% accurate. A glowing review might be secretly written by a property manager, and a terrible review might be written by someone with a vendetta. Look for patterns in the reviews.

If an certain apartment doesn’t interest you after you’ve plotted it, you can do one of two things: delete the placemark, or change it to a different color. I prefer changing the color, in case I run across another listing for the same apartment, or a different apartment in the same complex. That way, I can see that the placemark is red (bad!) and I can put a note in the description about why I think that place is a no-go. For added organization, I put these in a subfolder of my “Apartment Search” folder: “Do Not Call.” (As in, “do not call and schedule an appointment.”)

Start Calling/Emailing

Once I’ve made some placemarks red, I like to start making some green as well! The ones that are in good areas, have good reviews, or the price just seems right. Another tool you can use to evaluate an apartment is Walk Score, which can tell you how much stuff is located within walking distance of an address. A high Walk Score might also warrant a green push-pin on my map! And you can use Rentometer to determine if the listed rent is high, low, or average. Once I have a green push-pin, I move it into the subfolder “Do Call.”

What about the plain yellow push-pins? Well, those are your maybes. They’re not so bad that you’ve ruled them out, but they don’t jump out at you and scream “I’m awesome!” either. Leave them be for now, and come back to them if you don’t line up enough other places to look at from your “Do Call” list.

Now, the part most people dread: setting up a time to see the place. If you don’t already live in the area you’re moving to, this can be a real pain. Zack and I had to drive from Rochester to Virginia, stay at a hotel for two nights, and spend three days looking at apartments down there. It was grueling, but it worked – we found a great place at the right price. You’ll need to bite this bullet as well – taking an apartment sight-unseen is completely not recommended. Find the time to get to where you’re going, and spend a few days looking.

Most listings will include a phone number. Always call if you have the option. I know, email is so much nicer to deal with (and you get a written record!), but you’ll simply have better luck with phone calls. For some Craiglist listings, email may be your only option. This could be the sign of a scam, but some legitimate listings are email-only. In your email, give your phone number and urge them to call you to set up an appointment. You can also ask for more pictures or more information by email, as well.

What’s Next?

When we come back to my (somewhat insane) apartment search process, I’ll take you through touring apartments, making a decision, and finally signing the lease! Continue to Part 2

This article is a part of a series of posts on moving out on your own.

12 responses to “Moving: Finding an Apartment (Part 1)”

  1. Stefan | StudySuccessful.com

    Glad I found a room where I can live.
    In the Netherlands there are normal houses, which let several rooms. I am going to be in a room with 3 more people in the house. Finding a room here depends on the city, in Amsterdam it is impossible, and in Utrecht also, but where I am going to study (Groningen), finding a room isn’t that hard.

  2. Regina

    This is well timed, as I’ll be looking for a new apartment next January/February, so I’ll keep all these posts in mind. I can even start the e-thumb tacking now.

    Lucky for me this time around I’ll be splitting the rent and other bills so I can look around in the medium/high rent range at nicer apartments, instead of being a game of “how low can you go”.

  3. Tracie

    Don’t forget to search ApartmentGuide.com for great rentals. And right now ApartmentGuide.com is sponsoring a sweepstakes that you might be interested in. Win free rent for a year (15K)!!! All you have to do is follow @aptguide and tweet this message:

    Enter for chance to win $15,000 (free rent for year): follow @aptguide and tweet this msg. http://tr.im/freerent #freerent

    Chances of winning are still pretty good…

  4. Grace Boyle

    Great post! I recently had to find a new place to live (long story, short notice and unexpected) so this was a great post for me to read. I also wanted to add a website that I recently learned of that I think will be of value to anyone.

    It’s called: http://www.padmapper.com/ and it shows you the listings on Craigslist but by location. It’s pretty visual and shows a map of your current city that you’re looking in. It helps if you know the city and also if you don’t because you can see the downtown area and where the outskirts of the city is (versus on clicking Google Map in the Craigslist inquiry). Really useful, check it out!

  5. Friday Linky Love | Small Hands, Big Ideas

    [...] Poorer Than You: Moving: Finding An Apartment (Check out the whole series on Stephanie’s [...]

  6. Valerie - Private Apartments

    It is best to use Google Earth and read apartment reviews when looking for apartments. I also use Google Earth to see how far my apartment is from my place of work.
    Thanks for sharing your tips and ideas in finding an apartment. You tips are very helpful.

  7. Matt@Romantic apartment sofia

    Finding a desired apartment is really a very tough and tedious job. Google earth helps you in getting a good location.

  8. Valerie

    Great post! I really like the tip you gave about networking with the people you know first. Sometimes it’s so obvious that people just forget to do it! When that doesn’t work, I like this site I recently found. It’s called Rent Jungle and it’s free to use. It’s an apartment search engine that brings together the listings from the major apartment sites and puts them on one convenient results page. It also has some cool features like a tool that lets you see if you’re paying too much rent and another that you can check out market trends in your area. Here’s the link if anyone wants to check it out!

    http://www.rentjungle.com

  9. Sonny

    Google earth works awesome especially if its updated a lot. I noticed I used Google street view recently to see apartments but some pages were not updated. I recently used http://www.cambridgemassapartments.com to find Cambridge apartments in the Boston area, they had a Google Map that helped.

  10. eemusings

    The thing that hacks me off is that SO. MANY. LISTINGS. don’t even bother with an address, let alone pictures. I mean, seriously? Way to make it hard for potential tenants!

  11. Ray

    I guess you are right checking apartment reviews and ratings is a very good way to find out about the apartment pros and cons so that people can decide and choose wisely before moving in.