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!
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.
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…
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.”)
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.
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.