Imagine this scenario: You’re relocating and have only a few weeks to find an apartment. Fortunately, you locate a luxury complex in your new city online and sign a lease based only on photos and phone conversations with the leasing staff.
However, on the day you move in, you discover the landscaping is an overgrown jungle, your apartment balcony overlooks a used car lot and music blares from the swimming pool outside your door.
The good news is that your online rental search doesn’t have to end this way.
“I’ve closed on many apartments sight unseen,” said Emile L’Eplattenier, a real estate agent in New York City, where tech-industry new hires frequently sign offer letters remotely.
“Millennials expect to have all the information they need at their fingertips online,” L’Eplattenier said.
There’s more to making a good rental choice than just browsing websites and signing a lease, though. Check out the 6 tips below on how to make your online rental search a success:
1. Tap into a variety of sources.
You can peruse online apartment listings like Apartments.com. But don’t forget websites like Zillow and Craigslist. Narrow your search using PeopleWithPets, a national pet-friendly apartment directory. PadMapper plots listings from multiple rental listing sites.
2. Check out realtors and agents.
Sending your tax returns, bank statements, social security number and offer letter to someone you’ve never met requires a “very trusting person who is savvy enough to vet both the agent and the agency they work for,” said L’Eplattenier.
He recommends asking your real estate agent for their license number so you can check its validity with their state’s real estate licensing office or Secretary of State. It’s also a good idea to thoroughly read the agent’s website and inquire whether they’re a member of that city’s real estate professional association.
3. Beware of scammers.
If you see a four-bedroom rental house on Craigslist going for $700 per month and comparable houses rent for $2,000, be skeptical. If it looks too good to be true, it is, said Bob Gordon, a Denver realtor.
Scammers copy and paste the text and photo from legitimate ads and then post an ad with their phone number, he said. When you call, the person tells you they have to suddenly move out of the country or leave town due to family illness. The scammer asks you to send money and promises to mail the keys or meet you at the house. On moving day, no keys arrive, and nobody shows up to unlock the door. As far as getting your money back, “It’s impossible,” Gordon said.
More signs of a scam: The person tells you to wire money or they want a deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve met or signed a lease.
4. Request a video tour.
L’Eplattenier uses Google Hangouts video chatting software to show out-of-town clients not just the apartment but also “a sense of the entire place, the whole block,” he said. If the apartment door opens to a run-down hallway, L’Eplattenier shows the apartment “warts and all.” “It’s very different when you Google Map something than it is when you walk out the door,” L’Eplattenier said.
You can also use Google Cardboard virtual realtor goggles to explore prospective neighborhoods in immersive 3-D using your smartphone.
5. Look up reviews.
Type the name of the apartment community and “review” in a search engine to see what results pop up. You can also find reviews on Yelp or Ripoff Report. RentLingo, an apartment search website, hires former property managers to “mystery shop” apartment communities and submit impartial reviews but also accepts reviews from consumers, according to Dan Laufer, CEO of RentLingo.
While it’s true that a fuming review could be from a tenant who just wants to vent, if several reviews echo the same gripe – like overflowing dumpsters or bug infestation – pay attention. Keep in mind that perceived shortcomings are in the eye of the beholder. One person’s complaint about “kids running around all the time” may signify the atmosphere a family with young children might enjoy, said Laufer.
6. Use online tools to scope out the neighborhood.
Want to make sure your next apartment isn’t located in an industrial wasteland? Check out RentLingo’s Charm Index, a data-mapping tool that rates the “overall charm” of neighborhoods based on things like local businesses, crime, and density of nearby gyms, bike tracks and parks. Neighborhood Scout also offers information about income levels, interests and occupations of residents as well as public school ratings and real estate trends. Curious about crime rates? Pull up a map displaying locations and details of car thefts, break-ins, assaults and other crimes at CrimeReports.