Apartment hunting is far from simple. You can go about the process one of two ways: through a broker — who acts as a middleman between you and the landlord — or you can work directly with the landlord.
While most people shy away from dealing with a broker in hopes of keeping costs down, working directly with the landlord is not always an option, especially in broker-heavy areas such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Miami.
These broker-controlled cities do offer “no-fee” apartments, but those listings are harder to come by, and not necessarily a better deal.
“If the name of the game in a market is it’s a broker-market, then play the game, but play according to your rules,” says Taylor Glass-Moore, who worked as a real estate broker before co-founding Zumper, a San Francisco-based startup that aims to simplify the house and apartment rental process.
“You set the budget that you’re willing to spend, and you find the type of person that you’re wanting to work with,” he emphasises. “Identify the broker who’s going to do the best job — one who knows the neighbourhoods you’re interested in, and who has a great relationship with the landlords they’re representing.”
To ensure you’re getting a good deal, look out for these common tricks real estate brokers like to employ:
It's fairly common now for brokers to use digital SLR cameras with wide angle lenses, Glass-Moore explains: 'In doing so, studios and one bedrooms will appear a lot larger in the photos because of the angles that are being used and the lens that is being used.'
Don't just rely on the pictures listed online. Ask the broker for a floor plan before touring the place, he advises, as it will give you a much better sense of the overall space.
Similarly, a 'two-bedroom' may end up being a one-bedroom with a large closet, Glass-Moore says.
Gather as much information upfront before wasting your time touring property that ends up being too small. First, ask for the floor plan. Next, call up the broker and ask questions about the space over the phone.
'Use common sense,' he says. 'If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course, there might be a few exceptions -- such as a rent stabilised place -- but in 90% of the cases, if something looks too good to be true, that's going to be a fake listing.'
As you spend more time searching, you'll start to get a general idea of the going rate for homes in the neighbourhoods you're interested in, and will be able to weed out the fishy listings.
On top of the hefty broker fee, expect to put down a security deposit -- anywhere from one to two months worth of rent, Glass-Moore says -- a key deposit, and you may be required to add on renter's insurance.
Additionally, you may have to pay an application fee. 'The application fees can get pretty hefty,' he explains. 'In some states they're regulated -- in California, it's rare to see one more than $US45 -- but in New York City, it's common to see one that's $US75.'
Often, if you're living with roommates, each person has to pay the application fee. 'If you're wanting to apply to multiple locations, that's something to consider, because you'll be charged every time,' Glass-Moore says. 'Make sure that you're only applying to the properties you really want to get.'
Finally, if you don't meet the income requirements and have a guarantor -- a higher-income person who signs the lease with you and guarantees you'll make your payments -- you may have to pay a guarantor application fee.
'Brokers are salespeople, so they inherently are looking to close a deal,' Glass-Moore says. 'If you start to feel artificially pressured by a broker or landlord to move quickly, that's not someone that you should be working with.'
Searching for a rental and closing a deal is complicated, time-consuming, and can be emotionally draining, but don't just settle for a place because you're desperate to finish the process.
Of course, some markets move incredibly quickly -- such as the New York City market -- and making decisions at a fast pace is essential. To keep a level head, but still act quickly, Glass-Moore recommends preparing at much in advance as possible.
Check your credit score -- Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and Credit.com all offer scores for free -- as some landlords won't even rent to people with a score below 600. Also, make sure you have all of the required documents at hand, such as copies of bank statements, proof of employment, and letters of recommendation from previous landlords. It's also smart to fill out a template rental application.
'Especially if you're in a market where apartments lease up very quickly and there's stiff competition, you need to differentiate yourself by being the most prepared,' he says.